It was just one of so many dreary sodden days in early July. I turned the kitchen tap. It made a hissing sound like air rushing out of a balloon. The PVC pipe strained a little. And then nothing. My heart sank, along with many other internal organs.
“Here we go again,” I muttered.
I had a bowl full of coriander and spinach to wash. So I picked up my bucket and ambled down the nettle-ravaged path to my spiffy new rainwater catchers. This is what they were installed for. This very moment.
I must connect that upper tank to the main pipeline, I thought. Then I’ll just switch over and have water in the taps. A month later I’d still be thinking that, because though I didn’t know it at the time, I was at the beginning of the great mystery of the disappearing water. The days in July flowed by. But the water didn’t. The taps remained as dry as my dad’s sense of humour.
Where does my water come from?
All the fields in this area are connected to the local spring via a haphazard network of pipes probably first laid back in Franco’s day. It’s a recipe for mishap and fiasco; a free-for-all of sprawling pipelines “maintained” by a gang of makeshift plumbers like myself. Add a hundred or so free range cows onto the scene, gambling calves and charging bulls among them, and hey presto! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what’s going to happen next.
Every year pipe connections burst open, water troughs are tipped over, or some berk leaves a tap on. This is why I have three one tonne water tanks: One at the top of the land which at some indeterminate point in the future will feed into the main pipework and supply all the barns, plus two rainwater catchers which at some similar indeterminate point will feed that upper tank via a pump. The stalling point is the pump, namely because I have an aversion to what I’ve experienced as the most inefficient product of engineering to be inflicted upon the world of non-mechanics. Over-sensitive thingummywhatsits always itching to malfunction, needing continuous fiddling with, filters cleaning, non-return valves checking, this and that. That we are sending numbskulls into space but still haven’t mastered something as fundamental as the water pump is testimony to everything that’s wrong with our world.
Anyway, each day I ambled down to my rainwater catchers, and filled buckets à la middle ages. Every day I trotted down into the dappled shade of the gulch, gave thanks to my spring, and filled my drinking water bottles too. I rather liked it to be honest.
Every now and again I’d see Farmer Quilo driving up the slope in his Peugeot to the mother tank. It's a big concrete cistern that collects all the local spring water and feeds most of the fields in my area. I knew Quilo was either closing or opening the taps. Sometimes I’d get a dribble out of mine. Usually nothing.
One day when I spied my farmer neighbour passing by, I flagged him down. He drew to a halt, wound down his window and grinned.
“Hey, what’s going on with the water Quilo? I haven’t had any for weeks!”
Quilo's rosy apple face turned from his familiar pink Honeycrisp to full on deep Red Delicious. His ever present grin subsided.
“The tank keeps emptying,” He blurted. “We don’t know why. There’s no water!” He shut off his engine and leaned his elbow on the window frame, readying himself for a rant. “It’s those people down in Acebal with the backup tanks. They steal it all before we get any. Or maybe it’s that guy who’s rented that cabin over there. He’s nicking it and pumping it up to that massive deposito on the hill. Hmph!”
“But don’t you think it could be a leak somewhere? Maybe the cows...”
“No! It’s not a leak. Someone’s taking it! The weekenders with their summer cabañas. So I’m turning off the taps until the mother tank fills up again.”
A part of me was irritated. I wondered if a teeny tiny corner of Farmer Quilo might have been shutting off the water to spite the summer weekenders. But the majority of me found the whole thing hilarious. Every rural place I’ve ever lived, no matter the country, has some Jean de Florette thing going on.
Jean de Florette
For those who haven’t read or watched it, Jean de Florette is a novel set in provincial France at the beginning of the 19th century. In the story, a naive, hardworking city chap named Jean moves to the country, taking his family with him. He has a dream of living the good life and turning the place into a farm (sound familiar?) But the wily villagers block his water spring, and thus the woe ensues.
What always strikes me about that novel is how ubiquitous it is through space and time: The romantic clueless city-dweller moving to the country, the never-ending water issues, and the inevitable village politics, it’s all there. Let me tell you, if you’re moving to the sticks it will be there for you too. That’s why you want water on your property. That’s why you want some political savvy when dealing with your neighbours too.
The days pushed on, wet in the sky, dry in the pipes. Farmer Quilo drove up and down the hill, and each time we had the same conversation at my gate. As we did, I secretly rolled my eyes and thanked the Ladies of the Wells that I’d installed those rainwater tanks. I thanked the land I had a spring in my gulch too. For me this water thing was but a small inconvenience. Before too long I was bored of even asking about the water supply. I had enough of my own.
The other good news was, it hadn’t stopped raining or misting or doing whatever that liquid fog thing is that the locals call orbayu, since June. My two vegetable gardens were thriving as a result. If you’re embarking on an off-grid homestead, it pays to know 80% of your water usage will go on growing food. This is why, despite the consternation of all those who look at my photos and say, “ooh chilly”, I chose the damp, cloud swathed rim of northern Spain. Plenty of water. I fear the vast majority are never going to comprehend just how fundamental H2O is until they too turn the tap on and find nothing coming out.
It pains me sometimes to see how impractical people are. If you want to be free, you have to get back to basics. Reality check: There are three things you actually need: water, sunlight, and earth. If you haven’t got those then you are always at the beck and call of some administrative twit and to those who vote for them. But if you do have access to these three things, it doesn’t matter what the government says, or if you live in a chicken coop, or if they claim you need this or that paper to do this or that thing. You. Are. Free. And that, let me tell you, is a good feeling.
“Hey Quilo, where’s the water president gone to?” I asked one day as I passed him on the road while I drove to the town. “What’s he doing?”
Quilo stuck his head out of his own car window. “I dunno,” he shrugged. “He can’t find the leak... or the person who’s stealing the water,” he added, eyes flashing.
That there was a president of our tiny, malfunctioning water network is an indication of the level of bureaucratic hilarity that is Spain. I knew about this because last year we’d been in exactly the same waterless boat and a meeting had been called in the village. I’d enjoyed every minute of it; the medley of tractors littering the entrance, the farmers umming and ahhing, the president and the treasurer waving their stamped and signed forms that we all had to sign too.
Luis of the Hillock
Like almost every other man in the village, the president of our water was called Luis. Luis of the Hillock no less. He was a salt-and-pepper-haired chap in a shiny tracksuit who owned a hut up in our parts that he kept a number of stray cats in. I would often give Luis of the Hillock my hens’ eggs, and he loved the wild irises that grew all over my land in June.
“Can I give you anything in return?” He always asked as I passed him a bouquet.
“Oh no, you always sort the water problems out for me,” I’d reply in true village politics style.
I knew that I only had to mention his name to Quilo for the speed dial to be engaged. What do you know? The next day I turned the tap and whoosh! Water.
A couple of days later there was a rumble and a roll. I spotted Farmer Quilo’s yellow tractor hulking past. Running down my land, I waved at him. The tractor slowed at my rickety rackety gate and the tractor hatch flung open.
“Hey! There’s water. It’s a miracle!” I shouted.
Quilo leaned out not looking half as happy as I was.
“So who was the thief?” I asked, a crease of mischief burrowing into the sides of my mouth.
Quilo rolled his eyes knowingly. “Not sure exactly. But Luis of the Hillock turned off the pipe to the guy renting up on the hill and to the Belgians. So it’s one of those two. Told you. It’s their water tanks sucking up all the water.” He whistled with an air of vindication.
I suppressed a giggle. It was terribly hard.
Since then things have returned to their familiar water-filled normal up here on Mud Pico. And for the hundredth time I praise the inventor of the tap. Unlike the pump, the tap is such a simple, beautiful, functioning creation. So useful. So underrated. So unlikely to go wrong. To wash your hands under a spigot is a blessing few appreciate. Ah...the pleasure of these little things.
A few days ago my Danish friend Loke came to visit. The mist came with her. It swamped the mountains, and then the neighbouring fields, and finally even the ash tree succumbed. We sat in my brand new privacy corner which was superfluous because no bugger could even see one metre in front of them, let alone us in my land having a cup of tea.
“How are things up your end then?” I asked as I swilled the teapot.
Loke reached for her mug and sighed. “Oh my we’ve got a whole political thing going on with the water,” she said. “The mother tank is leaking. Remember that neighbour who kept WhatsApping me, and then turned a bit weird? I think he has shut off my supply.”
I winced and chewed my lip.
“We’ve got a meeting this Saturday in the village street to discuss what to do,” she said.
“That’ll be great fun. Don’t tell me there are two factions,” I chuckled.
“Exactly. The newcomers versus the original villagers. But half the originals have left and live God knows where, so I’m in conversations online with people I don’t even know.”
“Have you read Jean de Florette?” I asked.
Loke shook her head, blonde strands flattening against it in the damp. I plonked my mug on the table, sat back, and grinned. “You should. It’s a great story.” Standing up, I felt the mist condensing further into that fine Asturian drizzle we know so well. “Oh and get a rainwater catcher too. It’ll change your world.”
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Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.