10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 36

Matrimonial relations

Jeremy Clarke Las Alpujan-as There's a man in one of the high mountain villages who lives with a cow and spends much of his time studying the cloud formations. By all accounts he can predict the weather for months, even years ahead with some accuracy, a skill passed down from father to son. For several months now, however, the clouds have consistently baffled and amazed him Nothing like them, apparently, has been seen either in his lifetime or his father's. If pressed to stick his neck out, his prediction for the coming year or two is tragedy, miracles, and meteorological cataclysm.

On Saturday I joined a protest in the town square of the local equivalent of the county town, a hippie-infested place lower down the mountains (my ears popped on the way), about the water shortage. Free buses ferried in protesters from all over the region to raise their voices about the removal of yet more water from their rivers to supply the golf courses and greenhouses down on the coast. The sky-watcher was pointed out to me before the protest began. He was marching up the high street towards the town square, minus his cow, with his jaw thrust out.

In the town square, smoke-blackened hippies and English arty types rubbed shoulders with Spaniards of all ages and classes. Strength of feeling was also illustrated by the fact that subsistence farmers from all over the mountains who never or rarely come to town were also in attendance. Even the shepherds were out in force. One of these shepherds — a silent, watchful man with bright eyes — was familiar to me. I'd seen him occasionally in my local bar. I greeted him and stood next to him during the interminable speeches.

My Spanish is virtually non-existent and Miguel is reputed rarely to speak at all in any language. So after an exchange of greetings, the conversation ran out. But this was fine because Miguel's silence was more companionable than most people's chatter. For him, it seems, watching a congregation of people is like going to the zoo — staggering in its variety, faintly absurd and ultimately beyond rational analysis. So I conformed to this unspoken attitude and we observed the crowd together, sardonically but without comment.

Once, however, he nodded towards a passing pair of labradors on leads, obviously related, and said, 'Matrimonial'. By this, I think, he was suggesting that the dogs were possibly married. And about half an hour later (the speeches were still going on), he made the universal hand-to-mouth gesture signifying that it was time to go and have a drink.

So we ambled across to a nearby bar and drank a glass of lager each. He drank his as if it were some kind of holy sacrament. I ordered another. And after this it seemed that a point of no return had been reached and I kept them coming for the rest of the afternoon. We said nothing, just drank. At one point, however, I broke the silence by reviving the marriage theme. 'Matrimonial?' I said, pointing at him He took up his glass of lager and cradled it lovingly to himself, meaning, I imagine, that alcohol was his wife.

After that I drove us back up to our village in the mountains above. When we were near, Miguel indicated that I should come back to his place for one. Following his directions down a convoluted boulderlittered track, we finally arrived at his remote hut. The blood-tinged cloud formation in the evening sky was unlike anything I'd ever seen.

Miguel threw a bush into the fireplace and set it alight and, by directing his breath into the flames through a blowpipe, soon had a blaze going, on which he placed a sooty frying-pan filled with great lumps of raw meat. Lovely.

But as we sat together over the fire watching the meat fry and sipping from bottles of beer, I noted a change come over my new friend. He seemed suddenly solemn — theatrically so. Then he sighed into the fire and began shooting shy glances in my direction with his striking, unnaturally bright alcoholic eyes, as if he was building up not only to speak, but also to say something controversial.

When he finally came out with it, what he said, as I understand it, was that I was a wonderful man and that I should live with him as his novia (pronounced knob-ia), which means girlfriend. Starting from now. 'Matrimonial?' I said, wondering if his intentions were honourable. He stared into the fire. 'Si,' he said, imbuing the syllable with a sense of conditionality. Marriage might be problematical, but Spain is a liberal country these days and he certainly wouldn't rule it out.

Well, I said, getting up, I really ought to be going. I don't have a clue what he said next, but in tone and delivery it was Hitler warming to his theme. He went nuts. If Miguel thinks anyone's going to marry a man with a quick temper like that he's got another thing coming.