It was one of those summer nights when the air felt like velvet. The heat of the day had passed but the terrace stones were still warm to the touch. My bare feet had that pleasantly gritty, dusty feeling as I stood up. Placing my glass of red wine on a nearby table I disturbed a gecko who scampered up the wall beside me, his tiny fingers gripping firmly into the crevices as he went in search of his supper, the odd mosquito and perhaps a spider or two. I looked up at the heavens over the Mediterranean, at the shawl of stars that seemed to have been flung across the dark night sky and that were too numerous to count, and gave thanks for my decision to live in Ibiza. I was 24 years old and this was as near paradise as you could find. I couldn’t imagine any other way of life.
Even the dust thrown up from the dirt road as Pep’s cart passed by on his way home to his farm from the bar smelled incredible, like some exotic blend of expensive herbs and spices. He’d seen the candles burning on my terrace as he and his elderly horse weaved their way past and an arm waved a salutation. “Bon a nit,” he cried blearily, his voice echoing down the valley. Almost as though in reply, a tiny Scops owl hooted a response, its call sounding like some weird piece of miniature electronic equipment.
Further up the valley and on the far side, a neighbour’s dog, Buster, decided that he ought to make his voice heard and to tell Pep that he should be home in bed and not out drinking. The echo of his barking bounced around the hills until it sounded as though a series of Busters was running back and forth. This completely freaked the dog out and made him bark even more until he suddenly stopped and silence descended over the valley like a healing blanket. I felt I could almost roll myself up in it and for a few moments I lay back in my chair, eyes closed, bathed in the feeling that every sense was wholly engaged in being alive.
I opened my eyes and looked at the dark outlines of the hills. What would tomorrow contain? A visit to the beach? Maybe. Some work? Possibly. But I was too tired to think about what was going to happen at least eight hours away and poured myself one last glass of wine. Standing up, I looked down the valley in the direction of the sea, at the strip of burnished silver moonlight reflecting off the water. As I continued to gaze at the ripples lapping on the shore, it seemed as though one of the stars had fallen into my neighbours’ house. Jan and Frieda, an elderly Dutch couple, were away in Holland and for a moment I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why a tiny light was moving around inside their home.
Ibiza was the kind of place some years ago where you didn’t think of locking your front door, simply because it never occurred to anyone to steal anything. According to Margarita, a widow who lived up the hill behind me, this remarkable degree of honesty was because traditionally the punishment for theft was banishment forever from the island. Whether this was true or just an apocryphal story I never managed to find out, but I well understood how powerful a threat it was.
Awake now, but still carrying my glass plus a torch, I went down the stairs to the road and headed towards their house. As I approached it, the light seemed to waver and then fall to the floor with an enormous crash. The front door was open and I could hear a strange moaning noise coming from inside. “Que puta,” a voice said irritably and as I shone my torch inside, I saw the figure trying to rise. Two things hindered it. The first was that its feet were inextricably tangled in the legs of a chair and the second was that it had clearly taken on board far too much alcohol judging by the wave of fumes that hit me as entered.
“Buenos noches,” I said politely shining the torch onto my face to let the figure see who it was.
On reflection, this might not have been the best thing to do under the circumstances. “Dios mio,” the figure cried, “es una fantasma, it is a ghost,” and with a terrible cry, it fell backwards once more. This time, it was just too much for the chair and a loud cracking noise indicated that it would need some serious first aid from a carpenter. “No me tocas, Señor fantasma, por favor, don’t touch me,” he moaned nervously.
“Buenos noches,” I repeated, “I am not a fantasma, I am a vecino, a neighbour of the Señores who own this house. Who are you, and what are doing here?”
“Yo?” he asked, somewhat mystified, his voice thickened by alcohol. “Who am I, Señor? No estoy seguro. Ah si,si, yo soy… me llamo Francisco y estoy buscando una copa. I’m called Francisco and I need a drink.” All this time he was lying on the floor gazing owlishly up at me. Now he’d found out I wasn’t a ghost, a happy smile creased his face. “Vd. tiene una copa, Señor, you have a drink,” he continued, peering hopefully at my wineglass.
I suddenly remembered who Francisco was. I’d heard about him from one or two people who’d run across him at various times. He came from a farm some distance away and he used to roam around late at night looking for a free drink. He was completely harmless except for the fact that the light I’d seen inside the house was a candle which, thankfully, had gone out when he fell over.
I disentangled the chair from his feet and helped him up. He wavered and showed every sign of falling over again, so I put his arm around my shoulder, helped him out through the front door which I closed firmly behind me and we set off up the road towards my house. Owing to his condition, we swooped back and forth across the road like an elderly pair of Argentinian tango dancers. “Buenos noches, Señor,” he repeated politely each time we came to a halt for a few moments, “where do we go?”
“We’re going to my house where you can sit down and have a café solo, a black coffee and then you can go home.”
“Ooh, no, no, no, no, Señor, I never drinking coffee. I prefer un buen cognac,” he explained happily.
“Bueno, you can have your cognac but only if you drink it in a black coffee.”
“Ay, Señor, you are very Spanish. Un carajillo will be most pleasant,” he slurred happily. A carajillo was what many people had for breakfast, along with an ensaimada. The drink consisted of a miniature, and very strong, black coffee with a healthy shot of cognac in it and an ensaimada was a round and extremely sweet pastry dusted in icing sugar.
We eventually lurched up my stairs and I deposited my new companion in a chair while I went inside and put the kettle on. By the time I returned to him with his drink, he was fast asleep, his unshaven chin hanging loosely, his head resting delicately on the back of the chair and a loud series of snores erupted from his open mouth. I considered the situation for a moment. One of the things that life in Ibiza taught you was to be philosophical and accepting of unusual situations and having drunk the carajillo myself, I went in, found a spare blanket, covered Francisco up and went to bed myself.
The next morning, I ventured outside to see how my houseguest was getting on, but to my surprise, he’d gone. Sticking out from underneath a stone, however, was a small scrap of grubby paper and written in pencil it simply said, “Lo siento mucho, Señor, I am very sorry.”
For a long time after that I took to leaving a small glass of cognac outside my front door if I was going out for the evening. Although I never actually saw Francisco again, I knew when he’d been around our neighbourhood by the fact that the empty glass was placed neatly inside the front door. From time to time, there’d be another grubby note simply stating, “Gracias Señor.”