Born on a tiny island at Europe’s most southerly tip where the silhouette of a lighthouse stood darkly against two glassy seas, one tide-driven and the other tideless mingling at an indistinguishable confluence that linked Africa to Europe, the sun - as antidote to a dream that troubled Conchita where a witch pointed a glittery finger and turned her into stone - touched a point equidistant between east and west, sunrise and sunset, in a glorious blaze of light.
The mythical story of Eurydice’s double whammy – first to have been bitten by snakes, then, when Orpheus had descended into the underworld and disobediently turned round to look at her, been turned to stone – could like any story her mother taught her, be rewritten.
They lived in a wooden house so small they called it their hut, and Conchita’s father washed up on the island by a storm had made a harbour of her mother but left at the next high tide. On her fourth birthday he made the mistake of bringing a present to her nursery - a jig-saw puzzle with huge wooden pieces suitable for her child’s clumsy fingers, of an spreading olive tree abundant with fruit - only to be escorted out by a carer who said this wasn’t the place for estranged fathers. Conchita’d wondered if estranged was a word for good-looking, but her mother had said sharply before bursting into tears that there was nothing good about her father, he was probably trying to kidnap her. And though the memory of him faded an imprint of his handsome, already gnarled face stayed always in her mind.
To have been born on this island, a mid-point so to speak on a whirlpool that stirred the Atlantic into the Mediterranean in a solar blaze reflecting off ripples of light, was proof to her that some but not all seas, lands, lives and bloodlines dip and re co-mingle in areas mapped as fixed.
And the places that weren’t fixed changed according to light. According to Heraclitus who saw all things in flux presided over by one underlying logos. If you stepped several times into a river at the same spot it would always be the same river but its waters different. When Conchita came to live in La Villa she didn’t abandon that belief altogether but found that some things had to be fixed if fixed was a word for Doing. The plight of the olive industry and Michel would demand that. And the unpredictable, unfixed play of light and shadow so bright and stark on a windy day it could challenge your equilibrium, making an enemy by imbalance of what you needed to find.
The twin peaked mountain of Las Grajas, ornate jackdaw, and Tajo Lagarin, rose like the ears of a Siamese cat, the double sides of a coin or personality, from the plain stretching from one side of La Villa to Zahara. Conchita had come to live in a house beside Michel in La Villa for the olive-picking season. Through eucalyptus trees on the plain glistened a turquoise lake, once a river crossing a valley before it was damned, said to contain the purest waters that flowed from the heights of these sierras.
Though she didn’t know it then mill-owner Alberto lived on the opposite side of the plain at the summit of Zahara in a mill under patchy outcrops of rock where mules had once dragged axles on conical stones over olives. His twin brother Albert, manager of workers constructing the Channel Tunnel, lived at the edge of the Saxon shoreline in southern England. Alberto loved to read his brother’s letters about the Channel’s story fraught with danger and difficulty triumphing in the end. A tale with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The danger with the ‘beginning’ lay a Bay of Biscay away from the island Conchita had hailed from, in the twenty-two mile crossing that brought two fully tided seas in the Dover Straight’s La Manche together at its narrowest and most treacherous. Strong tides churned the waves that mixed with brisk winds and heavy fogs buffeted against Shakespeare Cliffs making sea-farers sick if they weren’t already blind like Gloucester. Once when fog had hung heavy and wind-swept over rollicking waters, the Paracas, ignoring the shipping lanes, had brought down the Texaco Caribbean. Its wreck had brought down the Brandenburg. Then later the Nikki - leaving no survivors.
The difficulty with the ‘middle’ had existed since mid-eighteenth century when Desmaret’s, Mathie’s and Mottray’s ideas for crossing the narrow rabid waters had come to nothing. Supposing Napoleon had invaded with fleets of balloons or rafts powered by windmills or paddle-wheels? Supposing he’d already dug out a secret tunnel? But before an attempt was made on Napoleon’s life Queen Victoria had told Gamond, who’d spent years on the Channel’s bottom, that he’d have the blessings of all the ladies who ever suffered sea-sickness, and twice in 1882 and 1975, a tunnel had been bored, even champagne drunk, but abandoned first because of the Great Anti-Tunneller’s objections and next because of a fuel crisis.
After the danger and the difficulty of the ‘beginning’ and the ‘middle’ Alberto wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ‘conclusion’. The signing of the Treaty of Canterbury in 1986 agreeing to a fixed link between enemies and leading to a plan to construct the channel-to-trick-the-treacherous-waters was, of course, triumphant. Land at last would meet through land, earth not water the medium for unity via a tunnel boring into it, linking one solid thing that was already linked, to another. But for Alberto the triumph –which should soar like Bleriot through the skies - was tinged with regret. Why not build a graceful bridge to span La Manche supported by islands and towers towering like gothic cathedrals visible to all, he wondered before answering his own question. A bridge, like our imaginations or even our feats of engineering, was too filigree frail to combat or ‘overcome’ wrathful storms. Narrow waters too wide. Feat enough to have joined two lands or two people, an effort of the enquiring mind which had in the first place created the dualism it now sought to snuff-out.
Conchita was Alberto’s other fascination. Not in the sense he wanted to ‘have’ her as he’d had the others but as she appeared in the gilt-framed photo taken by Michel that towered as high on his wall as his wish of using her as an ‘icon’. Her dark hair resembling the sinuous curves of the olive branch she leant on, fell in long waves down her back, and her form tumbled like a cascade of water in contrast against the rigid, clawed and clambering olive branch. She smiled, and the crowd-attracting happiness and command in this smile, like the triumph of one who’d knocked over a last skittle - triumphs after all were conclusions to a story Alberto felt he didn’t have - could be used as a trick to convey the power of personal fulfilment rather than the success of his impersonal profit.
If Alberto gloated at her ‘moment’ four workers from the cuadilla in the background watched with leering smiles as she leaned far out with her stick to knock a stubborn olive on to the manta, the net burgeoning with ripe fruits, and while others beat back branches with sticks, grovelled to pick windfalls from circular grassless spaces under trees smoothed over by tremulous rakes, she the perfect role model, reached out the farthest to shake every last olive from the branch.
At first Alberto didn’t notice how she smiled and performed only for Michel who she called Orpheus, father of songs, because he sang for her with honeyed voice, humming like the wind while he worked. Nor did he know that after work Michel crossed over from his house to hers bearing gifts as luscious as his songs and as wild and as full with movement as the brushstrokes he used to abstract paintings he’d painted from photos. Nor that she’d told Michel she never wanted to be a Eurydice who’d been bitten by snakes then turned to stone.
But Alberto saw her as his property, and not liking it when he recognised the photographer’s love for his subject, decided to ‘let Michel go’, take back his house - he’d get the sack for being clumsy with the olives, squashing, missing or letting them skip off down the hill like dancing monkeys. And Conchita’d receive her first snake-strike too.
After dealing his blow Alberto did a strange thing and went to England’s south coast to visit his brother where other workers, unlike his, dug deep into the sea-bed through porous layers of clay, reaching to the chalk underneath, wading deeper than gravel, sand or flint to assault then reinforce the soft but waterproof marl. Alongside Albert Alberto seemed to wash his hands of his own workers and watched these instead following the boring machine secured against the walls of the cavern, saw the cutter heads holding the auger against the chalk face whirling on wheels, biting through clay, and marvelled as the men lifted the concrete semi-circular lining segments, one by one, laying them around the soft clay circumference of the tunnel.
As they followed the ‘mole' they might be moles themselves he thought trying to ignore an image of twitching burrowing noses forging passage for the ‘human creature’ in underwater land, with this mole bigger, spanning the length of two football fields and giving existence to dark tunnels, places that those from the olive groves he assumed, couldn’t negotiate.
With each segment they extended the march of the hole underground, further toward France, ‘overcoming’ the storm by ‘undercoming’ it as it were, low in the bowels of the earth secure from ruthless lashings between the tided seas. And the tunnel, once hollowed out would become the little island’s new limb, reaching across in subterranean darkness to touch a bigger land as if they’d never been joined in the first place before the splitting into continents.
When he saw one of the workers slip as they often did, he thought of Michel, then Conchita. But did he have an inkling then that she'd slipped too, or a six-sense of how more would all slip, as if the rug had been pulled from under their feet, in order to be found?
It was winter two thousand feet up above sea level in the muddy olive groves when Conchita learnt Michel had lost his sanity, and as the foreman waved to tell her, fell like the underground workers into a nest of metaphorical vipers whose outer semblance, as she worked from dawn to three wading and sliding knee deep in rain sodden raw earth, was the high gale that tore at branches and riffled the already sifted earth into circles with its whirlwinds.
In the Zahara hospital she found Michel cowering in the corner of a room muttering ‘this cannot be'. A marred light streamed unsteadily through the window, a striped orange curtain twitched uneasily in a wind that blew over dry uncut grass from outside, wheedling its way through a small opening in the metal frame, festering with odours from an old plastic mattress that leant against a wall bulging with Polyfilla-filled holes. No-one knew why Michel was so stricken, as if derangement was a chemical imbalance you could catch like a virus or a horror-movie, or, as his consultant un-technically advised - he was suffering from a combination of what he was powerless to control and what he wasn’t.
When Conchita tried to imagine what Bedlam looked like in Michel’s mind all she could see was a loop that wasn’t a link and couldn’t be punctured, and feeling so alone she might as well have been turned to stone cried out in frustration to the loop that prevented passage and forbad Michel’s answering, “Why did you have to be dragged down, unwilling, wrecked hero – a blinded Paracas, Texaco Caribbean, Brandenburg or Nikki - of the underworld? Till now I was no Eurydice needing rescue from Hades”.
A brooding cloud had invaded all their blues. The ‘ornate bird’ from the mountain terrace plateau-ed now not peaked, and as the bird was flat, the firebird dead, Conchita turned her eyes away from the mountains and lake that’d once contained something in a nutshell. The hills planted with olive trees (because the ‘olive fever’ demanded ever more virgin olive oil) had replaced the ancient almonds and the lines of olives marching in strict linear formation made the hills’ surface look like stitches in an old leather belt, goose-pimples on skin or stubble on an unshaven chin which, she decided, belonged to the land-owner she'd never met: the boss who made the rest of them seem like paltry baskers basking in a crepuscular light or in the dawdling emotion that light evokes in the small person’s ever wanting-to-relish but drained-of-power soul, living in a twilight world which savours the taste of a fermented grape or a marinade olive, but doesn’t profit from it.
So when summoned by Alberto she made her way in fury from La Villa to Zahara, ready to remind him that although olives needed to be gathered before they fermented to acerbity, whereas grapes needed to be left to erupt and slowly ferment, the purpose in preparing both - to achieve the highest quality of oil or wine - was always the same.
And that of the three substances which could be squeezed from the olive, the oil, the fibrous orujo and the bitter black briny film, the alpechin that floated to the surface of alpechineras ponds, only alpechin couldn’t be used for anything, not even recycling.
And she wouldn’t stop there. She’d point out that this filthy alpechin could never resemble the black nigredo or prima materia of the alchemists, the starting material of the personality, the soul that might be re-worked, modelled as it grew. And the result couldn’t be the gold of individuation, the person who got well, perfect and whole. Alpechin, she’d tell him, was an evil by-product that would not be regenerated. A substance like states of mind that aren’t part of us. A waste resistant to degradation.
And she’d tell him how alpechin had surfaced, so to speak, in one of his worker’s minds. Black scum rising. Unwashed and unshaven, Michel’s degradation not degradable. And softening as she’d have to, she’d ask him, would he, if he could, help her stop his madness? Short circuit the ever increasing loop?
As it turned out neither telling nor asking were necessary. Thrown off course by seeing a picture of herself on the walls as she walked down the corridor, reaching for olives, and then by a wooden jig-saw olive tree on Alberto’s desk identical to the one she still had given to her by her father long ago, she felt herself looking at his gnarled face in astonishment. Alberto, too pleased to see her likeness to his photo didn’t notice her expression at first. But as she picked up the wooden olive tree, slowly fingering and separating its huge parts, and he said he’d another he’d given to his daughter once, they both fell very silent as shock and truth dawned on them simultaneously. By the time Conchita left three hours later there was no doubt Alberto, her father, would help her in whatever way he could. He had a brother, her uncle, in England.
Beyond the help of medication or negotiation, Michel looked near to death. As there was only one thing that might save his life the consultant said, there was nothing to lose. So Alberto used his influence to get the controversial treatment, and despite everyone’s horror, Conchita’s shame in agreeing, Michel got the deep dark shock that stopped him from turning to acid on a hard, stony ground. Leads got strapped to his head. The switch flicked on. And after the lightening through his brain had saved him Michel vanished from the mountains along with the father Conchita had just found - was he Charon or Hades or just plain Alberto – and her.
Before closing his mill behind them she noticed Alberto’s olive tree jig-saw still standing on his desk, and on top of his reading material about the tunnel a book on Jungian psychology: Finding Lost Treasures of the Deep opened at the chapter, Freeing blockages, beginning “What goes up must come down….”. But Michel’s transformation seemed unrelated to psychology. The book was about Bleriot or plumbing her father said both grateful for the catharsis of black humour to expel the blackness of alpechin. Before Jung and the defining of the unconscious and before flight, Heraclitus had said that what went up and what came down were one and the same thing.
Conchita went with Michel where he could convalesce to an outhouse of Albert’s perched high at the edge of the Saxon shoreline, Conchita’s mother, reluctant at first, persuaded to join them in Albert’s main house where Alberto was staying. In her version of the Orpheus myth, Conchita recalled, Eurydice had descended to rescue Orpheus so he couldn’t turn her to stone. After a few weeks her mother tending the garden full with yellow irises as bright as blazes of sunshine at midpoints, was joined by her father. At the garden’s edge roots of tamarisk, its fruits the manna from heaven, clawed the soil of the sea-banks to keep them stable. They wondered what the marshy flats below looked like when they were sea and remembered a harbour.
On a dull day along the coast the bobbing grey sea, monotone and simple, became a mantra humming under a mist of more grey, a light drizzle of rain on the skyline, and the whiteness of a domed gazebo (I will gaze) picked out by a single ray from an otherwise hidden sun, dazzled: a full-stop setting the limit of sea-horses and long-shore drifts alike. Brandished like these white domes on green-grey seas, as green as Conchita, not grey, and as smooth as satin unfurling, she was, Michel said as she walked on the beach in her emerald green skirt and olive jacket, his gazebo, setting his gaze anew. When she put out her foot to trip him they tumbled together on to the pebbles.
Mickey Man Friday, as Albert’s new hard worker had been nicknamed, said quietly to Albert in his strong accent so his mates couldn’t hear to take the mick, that he’d had a dream of forging new passageways as if dreams like cross-pollination were as easy as enemies becoming friends, then gone underground at the point where the seas were at their narrowest and most powerful, down where it was deep, dark, damp and dirty and there was no-sense-of-water nor solar blazes at midpoints above. An older man who looked like Albert the foreman, the workers said, dug beside him.
Two years later, 1990, Christmas approaching, Mickey/Michel was deep underground when the English and French came together under La Manche, Cozette and Fagg popping their heads through to where lazar and radar waves had guided the ‘moles’ that then got buried. He heard the crowds roar and saw photographers’ flash-lights bounce off the sides of the tunnel along with his own. His was the only picture Conchita saw that captured this ‘moment’. He kept it just for her.
When disaster came to the tunnel as irony would have it, it came from fire not flood, but Mickey/Michel couldn’t have been that disgruntled worker who’d set fire to concrete linings which, like a micro waved potato or repressed psyche, had exploded because there was no means of letting vapour escape.
For the Channel of communication, whether it linked lover to lover, father to daughter, head to heart or England to France, had been prized open. During the tunnel’s construction from 1987 the Wall had come down, Mandela been released from prison and Communism in the Soviet Union looked set to collapse. The high speed train rushed and sighed with relief.
Twenty years later, one hundred and one years after Bleriot’s flight Michel and Conchita still walk on what Michel and Alberto helped form from over four-million-cubic-metres of slippery chalk marl, alchemical clay dug out, loaded on to conveyor belts, amassed, spread out, dropped into lagoons, formed into mounds, smoothed down then grassed over with paths for them to walk on, inside and outside the mind. Not as big as the island Conchita’d hailed from, this mound, Kent’s newest land still made Britain bigger by sixty-eight football fields and three Cheops pyramids.
As if progress had made way for one more Heraclitean pebble of change to be thrown into the one underlying, riverine, cosmos, Samphire Hoe, below the cliff where Gloucester never fell, was solid, underfoot now not underground or in the sky. More solid than the point where light had danced on invisibly mixing seas, this Hoe or grass-covered land, monument to and of earth extracted with huge effort to allow passage and communion between two lands and people, made way for the change-without-fear that levelled nightmares, moving like that train or river, stopping us from turning into stone.