It was November 15th and we neighbours had just taken the olives to be pressed. The harvest was less than half than the year before due to the lack of rain, hardly any in 18 months, and inevitable the odd campo fire. In many fincas the olives had all fallen from the trees in thirsty despair, or later were eaten by hungry birds.
The mill was empty and the presses quiet. Last year the queue of cars waiting stretched down to the main road, but now we marched straight in. The man took our humble offering of 1000 kilos and then told us to come back the next day. The traditional slap up in a local bar while waiting for our exciting yield was off. The mill needed more custom in order to justify putting the presses to work.
We went back to Atzeneta and had a few wines with acrid olives – long past their sell-by date. It was decided I would be the one to collect our oil as Felix was working in a masia far away. Simple things give pleasure. I was being given responsibility.
The next morning I awoke to a piercing sky, not a cloud in sight, a scrubbed blue colour stretching across the horizon. At 8.30 some workmen arrived to finish off a garden hut folly of mine – a conversion from the dreaded biomass boiler room (read the finca diaries).
I was lounging around in a towelled floor length tunic thing, a sort of dumpy Arab garment. I exchanged a wave from the window with the workmen and returned to my bed and coffee. I heard a whirr. Hum, I thought, is it a cement mixer? The whirr got louder and suddenly realizing what this might be, I jumped out of bed.
Bloody hell, yes, it was a helicopter.
A helicopter in these parts is big news because it means either illness or fire. The clue is to look underneath at the landing skids and see if a water bag is attached. If so, it is fire.
This helicopter had no water deposit and was flying towards Atzeneta right past the house! I ran for my camera and rushed out on the upstairs terrace, and climbed on a rickety iron chair, trying to balance myself in my tunic affair. The helicopter disappeared in the distance, but I was not overly worried. Experience has taught me that often this is one of many trips.
I ran downstairs and got a tall stepladder. The whirrs returned and this time there was a bag dangling underneath the helicopter. It circled around the mountain and started to descend in the direction of Atzeneta. Then I saw the smoke rising. It seemed to be quite far away, somewhere just off the main road.
Perching myself on top of the stepladder, still in the ridiculous tunic, I clicked away randomly. The workmen eyed me and the smoke briefly, then returned to work. This was re-assuring. If it was serious surely they would know?
All in all two helicopters passed 5 times, taking it in turns. The smoke gradually petered out, leaving just the brilliant sun, an pungent smell and silence punctuated by hammering workmen.
At noon, I went to get the olive yield. We had 80 litres of oil at 17.7% yield per kilo. Very good indeed. I drove straight to Felix’s to divide up the bounty and apportion the bill and to hopefully celebrate the high oil content.
The drive down their track was dire and a twinge of irritation seeped through me. For God’s sake couldn’t they level their drive a bit! After Felix was a stone mason. I feared a burst tire (8 in 2 years so far – time for a 4×4). Merche was at the end of the drive. I started to complain, but then she burst out “I had a fire. Oh Stephanie I had a fire!” She was totally distraught and showed me her burnt land and black trees.
All the neighbours apart from me had been there trying to put it out and stop it spreading across the road while I had been merrily photographing it. Felix had been called backy from his work. In the end though, if it had not been for the flying firemen, the consequences probably would have been much worse than her small parcel of scourged land.
I stood there and tried to look helpful. Felix emerged from the house and put his arms around Merche who sorrily explained that she had put ashes in a metal bucket two days before and left them in the yard. She thought they were cold. They nearly were for they took two days to start a fire. Now she was worried about getting a fine – they can be as much as 10,000€.
Which goes to show.
For if Merche had been in town and the wind had been stronger, they might have lost their home, especially as the affected land was adjacent to the house.
“I made no lunch because of the fire”, she reiterated from time to time. She was clearly in shock and I could see it would best if I went, but another part of me really did not want to. Somehow I felt there was no closure yet. So I sort of hung around.
Luckily there was the oil and the payments to sort and that invariably led to a vino tinto for Merche’s shock. One wine led to another and soon the helping neighbours came back, and a few more bottles were opened and we tasted the oil with homemade bread and salt.
The intense piercing green of it promised much and it did not disappoint. It was slightly peppery, but in a delicious way and the smell of it was heady.
We toasted each other, and exchanged tales, including the time James blew up a skip in the middle of the night with much the same foolishness of ashes as Merche. Each story uncorked another bottle and another plate of oil, and we thanked our lucky stars that it had not been ashes to ashes, neither then, nor now.
Eventually I made my way home and in the morning Merche was told no fine would be given for her unfortunate accident. She was lucky. All good tales have a better ending…