We started having trouble with the car somewhere outside of Toledo. I’m not quite sure where, because we were lost. The rental car sat-nav was some kind of prototype model, which seemed to only know routes along the ancient ley-lines. It had certainly never seen a roundabout.
“Recalculating,” said the calm robot voice. “At the next junction turn around.”
I brushed a fine layer of dust off its screen and squinted to see where it meant. Shortly after this the car engine started wheezing. I gave it more gas, but this just produced the acrid smell of burning petrol.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Mar said, somewhat stating the obvious.
I pulled up by the side of a road, overlooking a vast grey quarry, and fumbled trying to find the hazards.
“I’ll go and have a look.”
I’m not quite sure what I was going to have a look at – an expert on cars is something I am not.
The sky was bruised and heavy. In the near distance it had started to rain. From the strength of the wind that whipped across the valley, it wouldn’t be long until the storm was overhead. Actually, it was this same wind that we had travelled two hours (and counting) to observe. Well, not the wind, but the windmills. We were checking on their efficiency as part of a report for Universidad Politecnica de Madrid.
“You’ll be tilting at windmills in La Mancha!” Professor Gericke had laughed three days before, when Mar and I were given the assignment. “’Diligence is the mother of good fortune, and idleness its opposite…’ so you are happy to be getting out of the lab, yes?”
He beamed and nodded enthusiastically. Mar shot me a quizzical side glance.
Later, we confessed to each other that neither of us had ever read that book.
Mar walked around to the steaming engine, which I had only just managed to open.
“Any ideas?” she said in Castillian.
We tended to speak English at work, as the team was fairly multi-national; but Mar said my Spanish needed improving, so at least two or three times a week she spoke to me in her mother tongue. No cheating.
“We should have got a different car,” I said.
In fact, I had tried.
The man at the rental place was in a hurry. He’d checked his watch several times while I falteringly asked if they had a more recent model. It was getting towards siesta time (always sacred) and I suppose someone was coming to take over from him. But we were running late too, so I signed the papers and grabbed the keys.
Now, as I was stood haplessly messing about with the oil filter cap, I regreted my haste. Without warning, Mar spat onto the radiator.
“Well, that’s not going to help!”
Mar burst out laughing, then wiped her lips with her curved thumb.
“It’s a trick my father taught me, to see if the engine is overheated.”
“And is it?”
I watched her saliva as it danced then evaporated on the hot metal.
“I’ve no idea. I just remember him doing this.”
“I think the battery might be flat,” I said.
But really neither of us had a clue.
We hadn’t actually discussed windmills at all on the way down. Mostly, we’d talked about the differences between growing up in Spain and the UK; and the bands we’d liked when we were teenagers. I was surprised to find that Mar had been (and perhaps still was) a huge fan of the ‘90s Indie band Placebo, who, I admitted, I probably hadn’t thought about since my sister had decided that they were no longer cool, and removed their posters from her wall, many years before.
Mostly, if I’m being honest, I’d been trying to work out some way to subtly find out whether Mar had - as Oskar from work told me – really ditched her long-term boyfriend. I’d been skirting around the subject when the car started to play up. I’d decided that the best approach was to ask about her new flat.
“So why’d you decide to move?” I asked, casually biting my nail.
“I just fancied a change. I’d been living near the centre for a while. And I wanted to be nearer my family, on the outskirts.”
We were certainly on the outskirts now. And I was no nearer to finding out about whether she was single or not.
“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” Mar said, with a slight furrowing of her broad dark eyebrows.
In the distance the low growl of a lorry echoed across the quarry.
“Maybe one of the guys down there might be able to help get us going,” I said, with an optimism I wasn’t actually feeling.
I started to gingerly edge my way down the stony white slope. About halfway down I heard scrunching gravel from below, and looked up, from my now icing sugared Dr. Martens, to see the lorry heaving its way up the narrow path towards me. The first heavy raindrop hit my dusty boot like an oversized tear. I felt another against my cheek. I waved at the lorry driver, gesturing for him to lower his window. He looked disgruntled, but rolled down the squeaky dust-caked pane, anyway.
“Our car has broken down.”
I pointed to the steaming heap. Mar waved back at us.
“What’s wrong with it?” the driver said, with a 20-a-day rasp.
“I’m not really sure. I think it might be the battery.”
He rolled his eyes.
“The foreman might be able to jump-start you from his truck.”
He pointed towards a little prefab row at the far side of the quarry.
Down in the quarry siesta was definitely over, but the workers were still sluggish. It was now throwing it down. And I’d left my raincoat back in Madrid.
I skipped across the yard towards the Portakabin, and rapped on the flimsy plastic door.
“What?” barked a voice from the other side.
I stepped in out of the downpour. A large bear of a man sat behind a desk, which was far too small for him. The whole cabin was too small for him. Something about this reminded me of seeing my school friend’s dad riding on a miniature railway, on a Devon beach holiday, when we were kids.
“Hello?” said as a question, not a greeting.
“My car’s broken down. One of your men said you might be able to help jump-start it.”
I hoped I’d remembered to use the polite form of ‘you’.
Whatever I said must have worked, because a few minutes later we were both standing over the rental car’s knackered engine. The foreman shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a vast unpegged tent in his rain mac. I had rescued my jacket from the car, but in doing so had got soaked to the skin. Mar sat in the passenger’s seat with the door closed.
“How often do you get weather like this?”
He seemed not to hear.
“It’s not the battery. Could be that the engine’s overheated.”
“See!” shouted Mar triumphantly, through the windscreen.
“Or it might be a misfire in one of the cylinders. I can give you a lift to the next town. My brother-in-law owns a garage, but you’ll have to leave your car here.”
I looked at Mar. She gave a double thumbs-up.
We sped along the winding rain-swept motorway in the foreman’s pickup truck - me in the front and Mar reclining across the backseat. I tried to phone Dr. Ortiz, the researcher we were supposed to be meeting at the site, but this too proved to be in vain.
“I wouldn’t bother,” said the foreman. “There’s no reception round here.”
In the distance the windmills stood against the horizon like strange futuristic monoliths.
“How far away are those?” I asked, pointing.
As it turned out, the foreman’s brother-in-law was out on a job, and his junior didn’t know when he’d be back.
“Maybe later this evening.”
He shrugged, and went back to his work.
The foreman - whose name I was told, but instantly forgot - took us to a small roadside café, the kind you only get in Latin countries, to wait for his brother-in-law, who we were assured would come by to pick us up later.
The barman was leaning on a small wooden stool, under the faded awning, smoking a cigarette down to the filter. He grunted at us as we entered.
A bright strip-light hung above the deserted bar. We inspected the display fridge with its small dishes of tapas, most of which looked to be on the turn. A flickering television was chattering to itself high on the wall. I glanced at a discarded copy of Marca to see whether Atleti were still leading the title race.
Suddenly, I felt very far from Madrid.
And even further from London.
“Do you want croquetas or bravas?” Mar asked.
These had been deemed to be the only ‘safe options’.
“I fancy a beer.”
“But you’re driving.”
We both laughed, the prospect of this now seeming unlikely.
We sat and watched the rain dance across the gravel. From time to time a drenched local would burst in and loudly bemoan the weather to the barman - who stared impassively up at the television.
A teenage girl and her sleeping baby were parked next to a wood-stained Goya cigarette machine. She glanced fretfully out of the window, waiting for someone to come and rescue her from the gloom. She checked her phone again.
I’d given up checking mine.
As the barman set down our third round of cañas, I decided I felt bold enough to try asking Mar again.
“So, will your boyfriend be expecting you back tonight?”
“I don’t have one.”
She fixed me with a cool gaze.
“But, I thought…”
“We split up.”
“And there’s no one else new?” I blurted, instantly feeling my ears flushing.
She considered this question for a moment.
“No. I’m happy being on my own right now,” she said, with just the hint of an apologetic smile. “D’you know what I mean?”
I nodded, pretending I did, and sunk the rest of my beer.
The next day we were in Professor Gericke’s office explaining the aborted mission to the windmills. He was sanguine about our failure.
“You can try again next week,” he said, with what, perhaps I imagined, was a knowing glance at me.
Then he asked us how we liked La Mancha.
“It rained a lot,” replied Mar.
“But which one of you was Don Quixote?”
We pointed at each other, neither of us really knowing what we meant by it.