It was early morning and already the water was evaporating out of the reservoir and into the clear azure August sky, hanging in a haze, like an English mist over a cool river. Here in Andalucía, the haze would gradually increase and spread outwards, joining forces with the evaporating Mediterranean, filtering the sun as it rose to its fiery crescendo to blast the scorched earth and the terracotta-tiled roof of the finca, turning the small house into an oven by mid-afternoon.
Sandra exhaled and fanned herself with her magazine, its faded pages smudged with sun cream. Her large chest heaved with the effort of breathing and she wondered, not for the first time that day, nor any day, why she had let Roger talk her into moving to southern Spain. The heat was truly unbearable, inhuman. You needed to drink your whole body weight in fluids daily just to stave off the headaches. What was wrong with the Home Counties anyway? What was wrong with a bit of greenery? With lawns and proper trees and hedgerows and fields where things actually grew? Alright, so it rained a bit, but at least it was green, not like this godforsaken place, this dust bowl. Of course, Roger thought it was beautiful - rugged – that’s what he called it. But what did he know about beauty? Had a lifetime of selling stationery supplies taught him that? Sandra glanced over her sunburned shoulder at the house, the finca, she raised her eyebrows and shook her head. Roger had said it was rustic, but this? How could he bring her to this? It was like stepping back in time. Surely rustic was thatched cottages and five bar gates, not an outside toilet with an ill-fitting door? ‘A loo with a view’, Roger called it. But this wasn’t a proper view, this horrendous man-made reservoir and the jagged life-less mountains that encircled it like a snare, trapping Sandra there forever. Well, we’ll see about that, she thought, her mouth twitching into a smile. The moment Roger pops his clogs, I’ll sell up and move back home, back to civilisation. There must be some consolation to his being eleven years older and with Roger’s cholesterol and blood pressure, surely even he can’t last long in this heat? And he will insist upon going out every day in his shorts and sandals and that ridiculous hat of his, down to the water to fish. Sandra’s arm ached so she swapped the magazine into her other hand and continued to fan herself, her thoughts drifting back to Roger and his pointless fishing. He told her there were all sorts of fish down in the reservoir, big things too. He most wanted to catch one of those huge catfish, the German ones, the legendary Wels. He prattled on endlessly about the Wels growing bigger than a man here in the warm Spanish waters with a plentiful food supply and no predators. Sandra sighed. The Wels, that was all Roger spoke about, it seemed to occupy his thoughts every waking moment of every day. She’d endured him droning on about how it was released in the eighties, growing much larger here than any that had ever been caught in Germany. A natural scavenger and expert hunter, there was nothing it wouldn’t make use of and these vast reservoirs of southern Spain had proved to be perfect breeding grounds. Sandra sighed. How could anyone get so worked up about a fish? She thought of her circle of friends back home. They had never once had a conversation about a fish, nor would they. There were far more important and more interesting topics to be discussed in the Home Counties. The new supermarket, for instance, or the changes to the parking arrangements at the precinct. Sandra smiled at the recollection of how Petra had been disgusted to find her favourite parking space outside the hairdressers had been changed to a disabled bay. Undeterred, she had continued to park there anyway, after all, as she had said, it was important for one to make a stand about these things and not to allow oneself to be pushed around by the jumped up little nobodies at the town hall. Sandra wished she had made a stand about Spain, but Roger’s incessant pleadings had got the better of her and besides, as Petra had pointed out, with Roger forever in her debt, she would be able to turn the situation to her advantage.
Roger had bought a boat now, a small white fibreglass thing with mildewed sides and an outboard motor. He said it would take him to the middle of the reservoir, where the big fish are. Sandra exhaled and rolled her eyes, Roger wanted to go out in the boat later, to try it out, take a picnic and make a day of it, he’d said. She couldn’t think of anything worse, anything she’d less like to do than to float out across the still, deep algae riddled turquoise waters, with God knows what swimming about in there, in that infernal heat. But if she didn’t go, Roger would nag and complain that she wasn’t making an effort. Well, at least there would be some wine. Roger could always be relied on for that, and there would be nothing to eat in the house, with it being the housekeeper’s day off. Sandra had insisted on there being a housekeeper and Roger had at last relented and agreed to it. He had argued that it was an unnecessary expense and they had never had a housekeeper in the Home Counties, but, as Sandra reminded him, they weren’t in the Home Counties now and if he wanted it to stay that way, then they had to have a housekeeper. After all, she couldn’t possibly be expected to perform housework in this heat, in fact, any sort of physical exertion was completely out of the question.
The housekeeper had turned out to be something of a disappointment, only prepared to work part time and her cooking skills didn’t seem to extend beyond grilled tuna and patatas a la pobre, a bizarre combination of broken roast potatoes, mixed with fried green peppers and onions, and drowning in oil. Still, it was better than nothing and at least she mopped the floors and got rid of the cockroaches.
Roger came out of the house and waved to Sandra, signifying that it was time to go. She sighed and heaved herself out of the white wicker chair, which creaked as it released her and she waddled slowly towards Roger, irritated by his irrepressible cheerfulness. How could one be cheerful here, with the air so hot and full of dust that one could barely draw breath?
Sandra wafted the top of her dress, annoyed to find herself perspiring already. She couldn’t even take a cold shower, as the cold water here wasn’t even cold. The sun heated the water tank at the top of the drive and by the time it had passed through the pipes and arrived at the shower, it was, to all intents and purposes, as warm as if it had come straight out of the hot tap.
‘Would you like your hat, dear?’ asked Roger, smiling. Sandra snatched the straw hat from his outstretched hand and planted it firmly on her curly grey hair. ‘I’ve put the lunch in the boat, so everything’s all set. I’ve even chilled the wine.’
Sandra grunted. Well that was something, she thought, following Roger down the rock strewn path, the dust creeping into her shoes and scratching her feet. He trotted down to the water’s edge as nimbly as a mountain goat, to the small jetty where the boat was moored. He held out an arm to help his wife into the boat and as she stepped in, it rocked precariously. She lost her footing and fell heavily onto the slatted wooden bench. Water slopped over the side and pooled in the middle of the floor, around the picnic hamper. Roger untied the boat and climbed in, he pushed away from the shore with a long varnished oar. He let the boat drift out while he poured Sandra a glass of white wine for her nerves. The wine was South African, it was expensive but, as Sandra was forever having to remind Roger, she couldn’t tolerate the Spanish wine, as it gave her heartburn. She gulped the cool liquid and held out her glass for a refill. Roger obliged, pouring another large measure, then he turned his attention to the rowing, his brawny arms and shoulders making light work of the effort, his lean tanned body glistening in the sunshine.
‘Why don’t you just use the engine?’ asked Sandra, ‘it will take us all day at this rate.’
‘It would be shame to spoil the peace on such a beautiful day,’ smiled Roger, ‘and in any case, there’s no hurry, the fish aren’t going anywhere.’
Sandra looked to the shore, shading her eyes with her hand. Their housekeeper, Conchita, was sitting outside her decrepit shack, in the shade of the bougainvillea that covered her small veranda, shelling beans into a large yellow plastic bowl. A mangy looking white terrier dog lay stretched out on the dry earth in front of her. She watched as they floated by but did not raise a hand to wave. Sandra thought the woman ill mannered and ungrateful towards her employers, after all, where else was she going to get a job around here?
Roger continued to row steadily out, away from the shore until Conchita’s house became nothing more than a small white speck in the distance, barely discernible from the pale dusty landscape around it. At last, Roger stopped rowing and drew the dripping oars into the boat. Sweat ran from his forehead, forming rivulets which dripped into his eyes and down onto his cheeks. He removed his cotton hat, mopped his brow with it and placed it back onto his head, creased and grubby. He poured his wife another glass of wine and opened his bait box, carefully attaching some slimy, rancid offal onto a large three-barbed hook. He wiped his bloodied fingers on his shorts. Sandra turned away in disgust. He flicked the rod over his shoulder and watched as the reel whirred and the line fed out some distance before plopping into the murky water.
Sandra sighed. What really was the point of this? She finished her wine and laid the empty glass in her lap. Her head was spinning. The heat here was relentless, hotter even than on the land. With no shade at all, she could feel her skin burning beneath the sun’s rays. She flopped a hand over the side of the boat and let her fingers play across the surface of the tepid water.
Something brushed her hand, something smooth, oily. She glanced down and gasped. The smooth brown skin of the huge fish slid past, its spiny dorsal fin folded back but just breaking the surface of the water. Its size was impossible to guess but it was surely longer, much longer than the boat. Then the fish turned, its black pea-like eye fixing Sandra in its unblinking gaze. Its wide, slot-like mouth opened and closed rhythmically half in and half out of the water and feelers as thick as fingers twitched out of the water and up the sides of the boat.
Roger stood up and plunged an oar into the water towards the fish. The small boat pitched and Sandra slid off the bench and tumbled out of the boat, landing with a splash, the dark waters closing around her. The boat tipped back the other way and rocked violently. Roger sat down and gripped the sides, waiting for the vessel to steady itself. The water bubbled and frothed and seemed to be alive with turbulence, the cloudy green becoming tainted with crimson. Roger watched for a while, waiting until the waters once again became calm, the crimson spreading like a cloud, then fading. He began to row steadily back to shore, towards Conchita. He smiled. The Wels catfish was a truly impressive creature and, as its reputation suggested, it really will eat anything.