It was the end of my first afternoon in Castro Urdiales, and I was being shown round the lodgings that the Inlingua people had arranged for me-a tiny bedroom in a modern apartment just across the road from the Academy. My guide was the live-in landlord, Santi- a dapper-looking fellow in his forties who, as he had explained to me in between cursory references to the temperamental nature of the bathroom fittings, supplemented a primary income drawn from a management job at the local oil refinery by renting out rooms to itinerant 'young professionals'. The whistle-stop tour of the rather dank and box-like inner quarters had concluded- not, one imagined, by accident- at the apartment's one remarkable feature- a balcony affording magnificent views of the Cantabrian coastline.
'Of course you'll have noticed the oar back here', Santi remarked as we peered over the railings.
I had not. I had been too busy admiring the seventy-yard-high waves of the Atlantic Ocean, crashing angrily against chalk-white cliffs directly in front of my face.
'Impressive, isn't it? It belonged to my grandfather, as a matter of fact . He was the best oarsman that Cantabria ever produced.'
I noticed the sporting heirloom in question now. It was made of expensive-looking wood, about thirty yards long, and attached at knee-height to the outer wall of the apartment, just underneath the window-ledge that separated the balcony from the main living room. It looked like it would take the strength of three men just to lift it from the hooks that kept it in place, never mind make any meaningful impression with it on the fast-flowing rivers of Cantabria.
Santi's grandfather must have been an impressive figure indeed, I reflected as I wrote out a cheque for the first two months' rent. Certainly he coudn't have lived in this place- an overenthusiastic stretch of the arms whilst yawning of a morning could have taken out two internal walls and sent room-fulls of unsuspecting flatmates crashing to their death against the unforgiving rocks. Still, the rent was cheap, and the morning commute consisted of getting in a lift, crossing the road, and ascending two flights of stairs. I would just have to make the best of it.
As the weeks and months went by, it became apparent that the cramped nature of the living quarters was the least of my accommodation-related problems. To put it briefly, Santi was an unusually houseproud man. To put it slightly more insistently, Santi could have cleaned, tidied and polished for Spain- a country which would have been a prime contender for Gold Medal honours should The Obsessive Pursuit of Domestic Cleanliness ever be adopted as an Olympic event. Needless to say, the live-in landlord expected the same unimpeachable standards of home hygeine from the rent-paying twenty-somethings under his roof. A stern view indeed was taken of any departure from the pristine- a coffee-cup left unwashed for twenty minutes on the kitchen workbench, say, or a magazine left open at the dining table. I took care never to find out for sure, but imagined that the discovery of a stray hair on the gleaming white porcelain of the bath would have resulted in summary evicition, quite possibly effected by means of that ocean-facing verandah.
In the circumstances it was perhaps unsurprising that I spent most evenings (and every Friday and Saturday night until six in the morning) out on the town. But occasionally- very occasionally- the rigours of the constant social whirl would have taken their effect so comprehensively that a cosy night-in was the only option. It was on such a night that the incident occurred- the incident which means I can never go back to Castro Urdiales again.
There were just two days to go before the teaching contracts were up, and we were due to leave Castro Urdiales for ever. Myself, fellow teacher Rachel and Abby were taking advantage of Santi's absence for the evening (he was rumoured to keep a ladyfriend in Laredo and would at unpredictable intervals depart for the mountains on romantic errands) by flaunting a flagrand disregard for the houserule (which, by the way, hadn't been mentioned during that whistle-stop introductory tour) that forbad lodgers or their houseguests from setting foot without pre-arranged permission either in the living room or on the balcony.
It was on my fourth- no, maybe my fifth attempt of the evening at hurtling the windowsill to gain access to the outside that disaster struck. The strong home-made Cuba Libre in my right hand (also the fourth or fifth of the evening) caused me slightly to misjudge the descent to the floor level, and instead of a comfortable landing on the patio, my feet became lodged painfully against some weighty obtrusion half-way down- wooden, by the feel of it- which after showing momentary resistance, crashed under the force of my right Doc Marten shoe and gave way. The sound it made- a hollow 'Craaa-aackk'- was momentarily loud enough to drown out the incessant volume of the waves crashing against the cliffs below. Somewhere in a not-far-distant churchyard, in a very long, wide, grave, the finest oarsman that the Cantabria ever produced, turned in his grave.
Me, Abby, and Rachel were slower to react- by maybe half a second. After this shocked interlude, drinks were set to one side and frantic efforts were made to splice back together the severed seagoing implement. Our frenzy was to no avail. The oar, while not smashed quite clean in two, was disfigured by a jagged split which ran near enough from side to side and along a quarter of its considerable length. Only the merest sinew of ancient oak prevented a split into two pieces of approximate fifteen yards each having been effected by my clumsy, alcohol-ridden size nines. The best we could do- and we had to admit, even through Cuba-Libre tinted glasses, it was next to useless- was to shove a large plantpot in front of the stricken artefact, in the hope that Santi's renowned eye for detai might comprehensively desert him on his inevitable return from the amorous clutches of the Woman of the Mountains.
The cold light of day brought an even more forlorn outlook. Hungover, we traipsed the streets of Castro looking for a hardware store that might, miraculously, store a patent adhesive designed specifically to effect invisible repair to giant one-hundred-year-old pieces of rowing equipment. The best we could manage (hampered as we were by a reticence to explain to any shopkeeper the precise nature of the job at hand, lest it become apparent that an assault by a drunken hooligan had put paid in seconds to the town's most prized cultural artefact) was a tube of overpriced standard-issue superglue.
Needless to say, the overpriced adhesive proved about as much use as the oversized plantpot at hiding the evidence of our misdemeanour. The only option left was to sweat out the remaining twenty-four hours before the next coach left for Bilbao Airport, meanwhile praying to whichever Deity we could call upon that Santi did not take it upon himself to return home beforehand and sreak hideous vengeance. As you have no doubt guessed from the fact that I am alive to type these words, the Woman of the Mountains clearly held more allure on this occasion than the 7:15 Sunday morning departure from Laredo Central, and we made it onto that Bilbao express in one piece. Which is more than can be said for Santi's grandfather's oar. May he- and it- rest in peace.