When her house burnt down, Val took it as an omen. She gave up her teaching job, upped sticks, and left London. It was a bold move, one that I couldn’t have made myself. We’d been teaching together for some years. Val was renowned among our teaching colleagues for her hat making. It was through her that I’d got into yoga.
Some years later, I was teaching at a private language school, and was planning a fortnight’s holiday. An image of Val’s face came into my mind, and I got it into my head to go looking for her. I’d had a postcard the previous year with the address of the poste restante in San Vincente, Ibiza. I was overcome with a strong impulse to track her down. I’d experienced something similar when my mother had died. I’d been on a cycling trip and planning to stay overnight when I’d been overwhelmed by a sense of urgency to get back to my flat. It was in the pre-mobile phone days. The fatal call had come the next morning and I’d taken the first train home.
For the first week of my holiday, I’d planned to do jobs around the house, and had booked a return flight to Ibiza for the second. I never went on package holidays, preferring to travel around and find accommodation wherever I went. I was in the middle of painting my kitchen ceiling when I stepped backwards onto the stepladder and ended up in A & E with a cracked wrist. I caught my flight as planned and went with my arm in plaster and a strong dose of painkillers.
Arriving in Ibiza, I shared a taxi into town with a couple of like-minded holiday makers and we booked into a hotel. The street outside was filled with the noise of the party-going throng, but I slept well with the help of the painkillers. The map told me that San Vincente was inland in the mountainous northern region. I needed to spend some time by the sea before starting on my quest. I took a ferry to the nearby island of Formentera.
Having my arm in a sling was an ice breaker and I found myself relating the story over and over in my rudimentary Spanish. But I couldn’t go swimming in the sea because of the plaster, so I spent my time sitting on the hotel balcony looking out to sea or walking along the beach. I tried out different venues to eat and drink. Before long I was back on the ferry to Ibiza. My arm had started hurting again. I had an E1/11 card so when I sought out medical attention at the local hospital, I knew at least I wouldn’t have to fork out an exorbitant sum on hospital bills. The doctor reassured me that there was nothing out of the ordinary and to carry on taking the painkillers.
Reinvigorated, I took a bus to San Vincente where I hoped to somehow run into Val. I booked into a pensione for the night and went straight to the poste restante where I explained I was looking for an English woman who made hats. The woman in the post office remembered there had been an English woman who sold hats, living there with a baby during the winter, but she hadn’t seen her in a while. It was the first I’d heard of a baby.
‘If your friend is selling hats on the island,’ the woman told me. ‘She’ll probably be at the Hippie market held every Thursday on the south side.’
The next day was Thursday. There was no time to lose. There were no buses to the market so the only way I could get there would be to hitchhike. I had thought my hitchhiking days were over, but with my arm in plaster I couldn’t fail to get a lift. I slept soundly that night. In a dream I saw Val and me standing together underneath a clock in the market. The clock was chiming ten o’clock. Since I’d been on the island, I’d tuned into some sort of deeper reality. My mother used to have an uncanny ability to predict when visitors were about to descend on us, unannounced. I wondered if I had inherited the sixth sense.
I set off early after breakfast. It was a while since I’d hitched. The first car wasn’t going far and dropped me at the local garage. There was a woman filling up her tank, so I approached her and asked for a lift. I explained I was going to the Thursday market.
‘Hop in,’ she said. ‘I’m going there myself.’
‘I’m looking for my friend Val,’ I explained.
‘Oh, Val,’ she said, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘I was supposed to be meeting her here today to give her a lift to the market. But I’m late. She must have gone on ahead.’
The woman seemed to be under the impression that I lived on the island. I didn’t disabuse her of this notion. She continued to speak to me in Spanish as if I was a fluent speaker. I had a job keeping up with her and it was a half-hour journey. She dropped me off at the entrance to the market. I found Val standing by a market stall, just as I had envisioned the night before. I looked at my watch. It was exactly ten o’clock.
Naturally, Val was surprised to see me. It had been years since we’d been teaching together, and we’d had virtually no contact since then. She was living alone. The baby, she explained, was the result of an affair with an American guy, who had been forced to leave the island when his visa had run out. And she didn’t know if he was ever coming back.
‘If you stick around until I finish work,’ she said, ’you can come back and stay with me.’
It was a long drive up a dirt track road to her mountaintop home. She lived in a three-hundred-year-old farmhouse, which the original Ibizan inhabitants had abandoned long ago, when farming was no longer a viable option. There were many such farmhouses, now occupied by a community of foreign hippies ‘getting back to nature.’ At least this house wasn’t going to burn down, I thought, with its solid, white-painted, stone walls. And Val seemed happy enough living on her own, making and selling hats, and looking after her baby.
Inside the house, there was an assembly of pots and pans, hanging from the rafters or stacked precariously on top of each other.
‘It’s to keep out the ants,’ Val explained. ‘They get everywhere.’
I noticed a stream of ants crawling incessantly under the door. Val took a bucket from the rafters and asked me to watch the baby while she went out to draw water from the well. Then she bathed the baby.
I stayed with Val until the end of my week’s holiday. It was an idyllic, few days. I understood for the first time what getting back to nature really felt like. We’ got up early every morning to watch the sun creeping above the horizon. We chatted while she looked after the baby. There was no electricity, so we cooked on an open fire. At sundown we ate candlelit feasts of avocados, fish and rice, accompanied by the red wine I’d bought in the market. I helped as much as I could with the chores. Mainly she just liked the company. It helped her reconnect with her previous life.
When I left, we vowed to keep in touch. She rang once on a trip home to visit her parents, but I never saw her or the baby again.
‘What happened to you?’ my fellow teachers said, when I walked back into work with my arm still in plaster.
‘It’s a long story,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you about it some time.’