I don’t usually get up this early. Alan, our rescue greyhound, opens one eye for a moment before deciding that there’s no threat to the household; or if there is, then Dad can deal with it as he’s up now anyway. He yawns luxuriously, breaks wind and settles back to sleep. So much for the Rapid Response Unit.
For the next twenty minutes the only sound to be heard is that of a half-asleep man being as quiet as possible – a cacophony, in other words, of wardrobe doors, crockery, window blinds, and poorly suppressed profanity.
Outside, the darkness is not as absolute as I expected. The cloudless sky, cobalt at the zenith, fades down through shades of gold and salmon pink before disappearing into the haze above the Hornachos mountains. The morning sun, although still hidden from here by the sierra, has already reached across the lake to light up the white houses of the village to a glowing caramel, here and there glinting brilliantly off glass or metal. A few thin, white columns of smoke rise vertically at the other side of the valley; this may be early for me, but work in the fields and olive groves will already have been underway for some time.
A little later, on my way down the camino that leads toward the village, I step aside as Jesús guides his flock of thirty or so goats noisily out through the main gate of his father’s granja and into the lane, deftly turning the bleating, jangling throng uphill with a few sharp whistles and calls. We nod and smile a brief greeting above the clamour before his attention is called back to prevent one of his charges from scaling the bank into another neighbour’s olive grove. The flock will spend the morning grazing the rough gorse and brambles in the foothills of the Peñas Blancas while their young escort sits nearby, drinking coffee from a flask and studying for the much desired qualification in agriculture or animal husbandry that will let him one day follow the same career that his father learned the hard way.
The air is still, and feels chilly even through a sweatshirt until I finally leave the diminishing shadow of the peaks and feel the welcome warmth on my back. Following the road down to the waterside, I sense the first hint of a breeze. The locals attribute this twice-daily phenomenon to the lake, a vast man-made reservoir that, even on the balmiest of days, conjures up a breath of wind for an hour or two each morning and evening. Out across the shimmering surface a small open boat is making plodding progress, guided by its lone fisherman pilot. I can see a small wake behind the transom, but the breeze is coming from behind me and carrying any sound from the tiny outboard motor away across the water. By now the sky has lost its blond skirting, and its unbroken blue promises an agreeable autumn day.
Close to the bank, circles of ripples spread and fade as bubbles pop to the surface where fish take an early insect snack. I try to see through the water to find the protagonists but the reflections are too strong and the angle too oblique. As I look away from the glare, though, I catch a small movement at the water’s edge. Looking back to try to find its source I can see nothing but reeds and scrub. No, wait, there it was again; and suddenly I make out the outline of an elongated head attentively watching the rippling surface just as I had been doing a moment earlier. It’s a heron, standing knee-deep at the water’s edge, and its colour so closely matches the tree roots and grasses that surround it that I have to concentrate to keep it in view even though it’s only a few metres away from me.
We stand like this for a while, the long curved neck of the bird extending little by little to lower its beak ever closer to the water’s surface. Eventually I’m sure the attack must be imminent and I notice that I’m holding my breath, and wonder for how long I’ve been doing so. After a tense moment, though, the heron takes a step forward and stands upright, twisting to face directly towards me with what I’m sure is an accusing stare before turning around and striding away through the shallows along the bank. Guiltily I realise that I may have just spoiled somebody’s meal.
I watch, not wanting to move, until the loping figure finally disappears behind a rocky outcrop. Once it’s out of sight I feel I have consent to continue on my way, so I turn to cross the road towards the lights of the Cafetería La Explanada.
After all, there’s no sense in us both missing breakfast.