Christmas Day was winter-sunny and bright. Spotless starlings gathered on the telegraph wire in front of the house to whistle their high, ascending calls, like in-drawn breaths. The seasonal light favoured the azure-winged magpies in the valley, lowlighting their air-force-blue feathers to great advantage. We walked eastwards into the neighbouring valley, deeply cut with a tiny stream that feeds desultorily into our river. Within twenty minutes we had left all civilisation behind: not a single person to be seen, nor a house, though a few ruins and one well, deep with water. Several black, skeletal trees told the story of fire, no doubt the terrible one of 2012. How close it had come.
The extraordinary peace of Christmas Day was exchanged for something more lively on Boxing Day as friends arrived from Germany. Our jeep journeys henceforth have included two pre-teens, who relish fording the river and skittering over the stones of the smaller dirt tracks, something the hire car cannot do. One such stone was our undoing: as easily as though it were an axe, it ripped a tyre right open. It seemed best to abandon the jeep for the time being – it was too dark to contemplate tyre changes – while we walked the rest of the way in the gathering gloom, hoping the two fathers in the hire car, now sure to reach home before us, would not be anxious. Lucky that Husband keeps a torch in the car.
That walk home in the near dark might well turn out to be the highlight of the holiday. The air was luxurious: soft, scented with Cistus ladanifer and lavender. One pre-teen managed to stop her foot landing on a moving beast just in time. We shone the torch beam on it: a lustrous black and yellow Fire Salamander, so magical to see. Its rubber-shiny black skin was reminiscent of a brand-new tyre, as though it came out to mock our man-made ills with its god-given gifts.
Presépio de Natal
The bombeiros (firefighters) of Tavira have created a spectacular nativity scene at their station. Occupying the space of two fire engines, it tells the story of the nativity within a colourful, global background. Anachronisms, geographical implausibilities and out-of-scale figures fill the holy scene with both wonder and humour, and in some places, I suspect, are evidence of indulgence towards children whose toys had been redeployed. My particular favourites were an Alpine village on the hill and a tiny robot turning a carcass-laden spit. Love, patience and attention to detail had been poured into this grand work. The day we saw it was Christmas Eve, so the crib in the manger was still empty; we need to go back and see the new-born in place.
Christmas would not be complete without Horse. It was this time last year that the mystery horse turned up in our valley and stayed for the best part of two weeks, occupying pretty much my every waking thought as I puzzled over whose he might be, was he all right, had he been abandoned, did we have enough carrots in, and so on. Now I know his owners, know where he lives, occasionally pass by his place and have been known to take a few carefully chopped up carrots and apples his way. At the end of November, when we were in Germany, we heard from the owner that Horse had escaped again; had we seen him? He returned within a matter of hours. (I like to think Horse came to see if we were around and, finding us away, gave up and went home.) Since then, his opportunities for escape have been firmly cut off by extra-secure fencing. Not that he suffers; this horse lives the life of Riley, making people love him and refusing to do much in return apart from supplying large amounts of s**t. Dear Horse.