The Coast of Light by Liam Hodkinson

There's an old man in a bar on the Costa de la Luz that says he can run faster than the sun. He doesn't look well though: his skin is dry and red and hangs from his face in folds. Years ago I watched him drink until he slept. I was making my way down Spain's Atlantic edge. They call it the coast of light; miles of sand and chalk stretching from Tarifa in the south to the mouth of the Guadiana river on the Portuguese border. It was late in the season, but the air was still thick with heat. He was disappearing into a crumpled linen suit that hid his shoulders and sagged at the waist. Everybody called him abuelito: grandpa.

We met in Conil de la Frontera, a hill-top town painted a brilliant but peeling white. I had been walking for hours under a saffron sun, exploring the towers that had tried, and failed, to defend this land from Phoenician, Roman and Napoleonic raiders. The bar was dark and cool, with a draft blowing through the cracks in its walls. It smelled of earth and stone, and of wine that had been left out too long.

The barmen hadn't finished pouring my drink before abuelito cornered me and recounted his entire life in fast-forward. The days and nights spent at sea waiting for muscular, iridescent shoals of tuna; the flour-coated hands of his mother that never lost their dusty sheen; Franco, his civil war and the men the town still mourned. He spoke in broken English and stopped every few seconds to catch his breath. I bought him tall glasses of anis that he drank in single glugs. After a while I made my excuses and stood to leave.

"¡Para!", he said, grabbing my arm.

"Uno más, Uno más.

"I have one more story to tell."

He described a path at the top of town that runs to the water at La Fontanilla. If you leave as the sun is setting and move down quickly towards the sea, he said that you can keep ahead of the shadow of dusk as it falls.

"Mi Hombre", he laughed. "You can outrun the sun."

I had walked across that beach – La Fontanilla – many times. In the evenings a funfair whirred and crackled at its edge, lighting up the promenade with a garish neon. Children carried sticks of sugar floss. Rickety carts travelled across wooden rails. Yards away, a black tide quietly ebbed and flowed.

I asked him where this path was. He shook his empty glass. He had no money, so I paid for another drink.

"Mirar usted mismo", he slurred, pushing a finger into my chest.

"You must look."

They carried him out soon after, the barman and his friends. Perched him delicately on the pavement. I expected to find him there hours later when I left, my senses drowned by a few more Estrellas, but he was gone, lost to the night.

The morning came and abueltio's story was still with me. I spent the day looking for this path, walking through steep backstreets bridged with Moorish arches, and beneath great lines of damp washing hanging lifeless without the wind. I ate later, outside a restaurant filled with dusty trinkets and the mounted head of a boar. A small man served me octopus drenched in oil. He was dressed all in white and stood with an arm resting at the base of his perfectly arched back. I told him the story and asked if he knew it. He laughed.

"Un Borracho", he said. That man is very thirsty.

I never did find that place. I reached the end of the village and kept walking, until narrow pathways turned into wide roads. The soil out there was dry and slipped through my hands like sand through a clock. It supported rows and rows of palms, and thick-set bushes with sharp and gilded leaves. The day was getting late when I decided to turn back. The sun would be setting and I knew I had to run. I wouldn't have another chance. So I started moving down towards the dappled curves of the Atlantic, back to the early evening diners, the bored waiters and their plastic tablecloths.

It will be winter in a few months and I will be home. The sky milky grey like glaucoma. Dark mornings, frosted glass, cracked leaves turning from green to yellow to brown to ash. In Conil the crowds will be gone, the wooden shutters will be closed and only the furniture will remain. But right now the sun's still shining, on the town's terracotta tiles and through its white-washed walls. I can't see it though. I'm running. There's no shadows yet. I'm in the light.

Back to the top