|Thursday, May 13, 2021
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Niall Williams was down in the dumps. Sitting on the edge of a barranco with banana plantations stretching to the horizon not even the sight of a hunting kestrel outlined against the brilliant blue sky nor the sound of lizzards scrabbling in the dry leaves could draw his attention away from his own unhappy thoughts.

Three years of providing 24 hour care for an elderly relative had left Niall and his wife Julie drained and exhausted with no reserves to meet the normal problems and difficulties which daily life presents. Their car had been acting up and would soon need either replacement or very extensive repairs. In either event considerable expense was on the cards. Even worse their builder, called in to fix a minor leak in the roof, had told them that major work was needed and the temporary “fix” would only put off for a short time the considerable cost and upheaval which the repairs would entail. The long period of stress and worry had had a terrible effect on the formerly happy couple. They had become irritable with each other and quite minor things were liable to spark off yet another blazing row. In their darkest hours they had been drawn to wonder whether their marriage could or indeed should be saved.

 Neither of them wanted to walk away and it was for this reason they had decided to return to their favourite holiday spot in the north of Tenerife in the hope that they might recapture the easy and comfortable relationship which they had had for most of their time together. So far it was not really working. Both were so anxious to avoid a quarrel that they felt as if they were walking on eggshells.  The tension between them meant that neither could relax. It was for this reason that Niall had gone off on a walk on his own. Hopefully an hour or two apart would dispell some of that tension.

 The barranco was narrow further up and in the distance it was bridged by a road. Here near to the coast it widened out and countless generations had worn a path down one side and up the other. It was here that Niall was seated on a bench no doubt provided so that weary travellers could rest for a moment. Lost in his own thoughts Niall only gradually became aware of an old man slowly making his way up the slope towards him. The climb was not all that steep but the man was elderly and seemed to be making heavy weather of it. At last he breasted the slope and with a grateful sigh he finally eased himself onto the bench where Niall was sitting. As a regular visitor to Tenerife Niall had picked up a little Spanish and had attended some informal classes in an effort to improve his knowledge of the language. When he judged that the old man had got his breath back he made some remark about the weather and gradually fell into a rather halting conversation with the man. In answer to the man’s questions Niall explained that he came from Scotland, he was on holiday with his wife, and they had come to Tenerife every winter for the past seven or eight years. With a little difficulty the old man got to his feet and since Niall was going in the same direction he fell into step beside him.

 Despite his imperfect Spanish Niall gathered that the man was on his way to meet his wife Maria and he was struck by the way the man’s face seemed to light up when he spoke of her. With some difficulty and with some repetition Niall began to form an impression of just how highly the man regarded his wife. Seemingly she had always managed to put a meal of some sort on the table even when times were hard and food was scarce. When times were better and family occasions came round then she excelled herself with her skills in the kitchen. She had brought up four children who were all now married and doing well for themselves.

 They were walking at an easy pace mainly out of consideration for the old man but also because Niall was in no hurry to have to face up to his problems again. He was also enjoying their rather stilted conversation and what he could understand of the man’s praise for his wife. It was now late afternoon and a bank of cloud was slowly descending from Mount Teide as sometimes happens late in the day in the north of the island. Nevertheless it was still a warm and pleasant walk as the two ambled along.

 The village was not far off now and Niall expected that his new friend would disappear into one of the small traditional houses which lined the village street and he felt a little disappointment that he would not have the privilege of meeting this wonderful Maria. He was very surprised when the old man turned aside at the gates of the small cemetery which lay just outside the village. The man passed through the gates and motioned to Niall to follow him. Without hesitation the man made his way through the graves as if he had passed that way many times. He stopped and placed his hand respectfully on one of the grave markers. “Maria” he said. Niall saw that it was indeed Maria who had died three years earlier. They stood together for a few minutes in respectful silence. Finally  Niall patted the man on the shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and quietly left him alone with his thoughts.

 Niall had thoughts of his own to contend with. He had been very struck by the evident pleasure in the old man’s face as he spoke about his wife. Clearly his memories of their long and happy life together meant everything to him and were still a source of joy to him although his wife could no longer share that life with him. In some important way she was still alive to him in his thoughts just as Niall’s imperfect Spanish had led him to think that she was in fact alive. Niall was in a hurry to get home now. He wanted to tell Julie about his encounter with the old man and what it had meant to him. They themselves had been happy in the past and a good relationship was well worth fighting for. Niall was determined to try. With a bit more effort perhaps they could recapture their former happiness and experience at least a small part of what the old man had enjoyed with his Maria.

By Jim Rankim