It was the early evening and still very hot. The path we'd been taking had come to an end and ahead of us there was only the brown quilt of shrubs on the hill and the maze of rocks leading to the top. We stood for a second in silence, he sipped on his water, and then we began to climb.
“Is this the way you came last time?”
“Not exactly. I took a longer route around to the left of town and there was a footpath that led all the way to the windmills.”
"Is it long from here?"
"I have no idea.” he said. “I didn't think there was any rush."
The boulders were hot to the touch and at first I stood back and watched as he tried to run up. He soon missed a step and his leg plunged into the mass of bushes. After he had regained his balance he untangled his shorts from the undergrowth and his leg re-emerged scratched and bleeding. I decided to go on all fours and move up the hill from stone to stone, making sure I had my balance before jumping to the nearest rock and grabbing on to the ridges with my hands and kicking out until I found traction with my feet.
After a few minutes I slowed down to rest, sitting on one of the larger rocks with my legs hanging off the side. There was something especially exposed about being on the hillside looking down over the town. The feeling of all the space still above us and the heaviness of the air gave a sense of being between two worlds. I took out my bottle, held it above my head, and tried to squeeze some water into my mouth. It came out quicker than I expected and spilt over my face and onto my shirt. I wiped the water away with the back of my hand and then I held the bottle at my hip and squirted some water towards him.
“I’m not in the mood,” he said without looking back
We climbed in silence for a while after that, moving upwards in broken spells of activity. Every couple of minutes I would pause and look down over the expensive houses nestled on the hill; they were all painted white and had swimming pools and large gardens. Beyond the town there was the vast plane of olive trees and beyond that more towns that looked similar to Xabia.
“I'd like to buy one of these someday,” I said to break the silence, gesturing towards one of the villas below us. I could see clothes drying on the washing line and the wrinkles in the surface of a pool.
“Start investing, I can sort you out with our entry level package.” He stopped climbing and perched himself on a rock with his elbows rested on his knees.
“What does that entail?”
“Get an account on our website then transfer some money to it. Tell me when you're done and I’ll put the package on for you. I get commission. You might get lucky."
“Do I really stand any chance of making money?”
“With the entry level package, not a chance.."
“Give me the full pitch.”
He started climbing again, quicker than before, and I followed his path from stone to stone. The hill was beginning to flatten out and there were less rocks now. I grabbed on to a tree trunk and levered myself up the final couple of meters to a kind of plateau.
“I’ve done it for you before,” he said finally.
“I still find it entertaining.”
“Unfortunately, after reciting it 9 hours a day, I do not.”
We had reached the top of the hill now and were able to rejoin the path. All the bigger rocks had cleared and to our left the trail we'd lost earlier continued down round the back of the town, past the motorway and cheap holiday complexes. At this height, above the crest of the hill, there was a light breeze and the sun was lower in the sky.
We walked over to our right towards one of the first stone windmills; it was about ten meters high and looked down imposingly over the plane. Along the trail towards the sea there were four more windmills roughly the same size, none of which seemed to be functioning.
“What were they for?” I said.
“I’m not sure.”
He walked towards the base and started to feel around the gaps where the stone had fallen away at its joins. He found a ridge with his hand about two meters up and then he started to dig around with his foot for a hole to push up from. I watched from a distance.
“If you get all the way to the top I will purchase every sales package there is until you get a bonus,” I said.
He didn't respond and I felt a wave of heat flush over my body as the breeze died down, I thought to myself how I could aggravate him further.
He had made two moves up with his hands and lifted his right foot up near to his waist. He would have to make a move now; lift up his other foot and hope he could find some traction. He flinched as if he were about to lunge upwards but then hesitated and lost grip with his left hand.
“Fuck it,” he said and jumped back down. “Where's the water?”
I threw him the bottle and our little confrontation was over.
The breeze reasserted itself now and walking along under the tree cover I shivered pleasantly. We headed towards the next windmill and he tossed the water bottle back towards me and said, as if assigning blame, "It's too fucking hot."
We reached the next windmill, this one was sightly larger and had a thick iron door and barred windows. As he investigated I turned around and up towards the actual mountain behind us -- Montgo -- we had only made it to one of the foothills. We had said earlier in the week we were going to climb it but I presumed we wouldn't find the time now. It would have been tough, I thought.
“Come and look at this,” he said.
I turned back round and walked over to where he was stood, looking through the window of the windmill with his hands on the iron bars.
Over his shoulder and through the window there was a circular room taking up the interior space of the windmill. The room was small and looked like the set of a play. There was a desk, a wooden chair, a bed, a battered looking stove, pans hanging on the wall, tools and a small toilet in the corner. Every aspect of life; so obviously placed it seemed fictional.
“How old do you think this stuff is?” I asked.
“Maybe it’s civil war era.”
“Franco stationing people in windmills up here?”
“I don't know. Maybe there were rebels in the mountains.”
“Does the door open?”
“It looks pretty impenetrable.”
We walked over and he pushed against the door, it rattled slightly and some dust from the stones above it came off in flakes and fell to the floor.
“Let me try,” I said and I grabbed each side of the metal frame and shook it. I could see it straining where the hinges were built into the stone. He pushed past me again and tried the same shaking motion, the iron started to rattle and built up into an unpleasant ringing sound. I turned around to rest and drink more water. As I drank I saw a man and a dog emerging from behind the other windmill. They were jogging towards us, the dog on a lead, and the man shouting something in Spanish.
“Stop,” I said, hearing my voice competing with the sound of the metal ringing in the door frame. “Wait, stop doing that. There’s someone coming." He stopped and turned around. I stood up and we both waited for the man to get closer.
“I’ll talk,” I said.
“We both can.”
The man and the dog slowed down and walked the last few meters up to us. He had something in his hand that he was gesturing toward to us. I couldn't understand all of what he was saying, it wasn’t helped by his heavy breathing. This.. I think… my dog… here… Spanish?
“Sorry, our Spanish is badly. Speak slow,” is probably what I said.
The dog barked and the man pulled back on the leash. He stepped forward and opened up his hand. Resting in his palm was my inhaler.
“Oh." We looked at each other. "Muchas gracias.” I took it from him and he said something back in Spanish too fast for me to understand and then he laughed and pulled at the dog’s leash and walked on in front of us to the next windmill and towards the sea.
“I must have dropped it when we were climbing onto the trail,” I said.
“I see,” he replied and we continued walking in the direction the man had gone with his dog.
The next two windmills stood just ahead of us, back slightly from the edge of the path and smaller and less well maintained than the first two. He was pouring some of the water over his face in an effort to cool down, and watching him do it I felt some kind of coarse feeling, like familiarity, or guilt.
“What are you doing to do next year?” I asked as we moved into the shade and onto a more defined gravel track.
“I am going to leave the call centre by the summer."
“To do what?”
“Tour guide. It’s easy money in comparison. And I cant last much longer where I am.”
“I've always admired how long you've been able to stand it.“
“You know the trick to being a tour guide?" he said, ignoring my remark. "There is no salary, it’s all paid by tips. So by the end of a tour, let's say you've built up a bit of a crowd, made some jokes, alluded to your own life in the city in some way. Then, when everyone is grouped round just as it is set to finish, you mention that it’s your first day and that it also happens to be your birthday. Then you announce that the tour is over and that all tips are greatly appreciated. You can make 100 euros a tour."
"Everyday is your first day, everyday is your birthday?”
He looked up at me and tapped his temple -- then he did some kind of dance where he swung his arms around in a circle in celebration of all the money he would make and I laughed. We walked around the base of the first windmill, looking for any windows or perhaps a clearer route in the worn away stone for our hands and feet to climb up with. I jumped up at a ledge that jutted out about 3 meters up from the ground but missed it and quickly stumbled back onto the path and we both walked towards the next one as if it hadn't happened. After that a silence came about and we walked on for a while, past the final two windmills.
"You know, we should talk about William -- at some point," I said.
"At the very least I wouldn't mind hearing where you think he has ended up."
"I can't tell you anything with any certainty. I think he has gone back to England. Well, last I heard he has. A week before he left, or disappeared or whatever it is he has done, his girlfriend rang me up asking me to come round, it was an emergency she said. I got there and he accused me of launching some conspiracy against him, spreading it around to everyone. He was paranoid."
"What did you say?"
"I assured him that I hadn't, which was futile of course. And then I left because it felt like he might be about to attack me."
"What did his girlfriend say?"
"Nothing of any substance. I haven't heard from either of them since."
"He's deleted any way in which I can contact him." I said, feeling some remnants of sweat trickling down the inside of my arm.
"He's done the same to everyone."
He was looking away from me and I didn’t feel the need to try and catch his eye. We had begun our descent towards the sea front now and I could see the port ahead of us -- a maze of white boats and their masts. It was starting to become cooler; the sun would pass behind Montgo at some point in the next hour and I shivered in anticipation. As we had got closer to the sea the trail had begun to change from gravel to a rough concrete before progressing finally to a tarmac road. Now a car came past and we shuffled onto the side to let it pass. Looking down at my feet I could see that the tarmac at the road’s edges had melted away slightly in the heat. Then I looked up the road ahead of me, and a few meters away, resting next to a lump of molten tarmac, there was a worn away tennis ball. I bent down to pick it up and peeled away some of the grass that had become stuck to the tarmac and then in turn the fibres of the ball.
“What is that?” he asked.
I showed him the ball. “Maybe the man with the dog dropped it,” I said.
He moved over to the other side of the road and gestured at me to throw him the ball. I obliged and he caught it theatrically with one hand. He threw it back to me and I copied the same one handed catch.
"Wait a second," he said and then he ran down the road in front of me until he was twenty meters away.
I threw him the ball again but misjudged the distance so it bounced twice before it reached him.
"You've got to give it a bit more height," he shouted.
"Yes, I know." I said. "I've gotta get used to the weight of the ball."
He took a couple more steps back down the road and then launched the ball up towards me. It looked like it might end up going into the trees but it came dropping back down and I caught it at the edge of the road.
"Let's go down a bit from the trees."
I ran along the road towards where he had been standing and he jogged further down, stopping at the junction which led down to the sea. We were out of the hills now, there was one of the vast, white houses to our left and a worn down stone wall to our right. We could see the town more clearly from here; the beach, the white buildings at the sea front and the church and old town just beyond that.
I stretched my shoulders in a rolling motion, took a couple of steps back and then threw the ball as far as I could. I watched it move through the air, half blinded by the sun, before it landed safely in his hands. He held it up and then repeated that same dance he had done earlier.
We carried on for half an hour as the sun began to set. By the time the ball had ended up in someone's garden I was sweating heavily and we went and sat on the wall to drink some water and roll a cigarette.
I rubbed my hands against my shorts to dry them off but my fingers still struggled with the thin papers. Eventually, not saying anything, he took over for me, shaping the tobacco with ease and then handing me back a finished cigarette.
"I've worked out what that room in the windmill was by the way," he said.
"My dad told me that the windmills are somewhat of a heritage sight for the town. I am guessing that the room was some kind of museum display."
"A display documenting how they used them?"
"Exactly, although we still don't know who they are."
He handed me the lighter and we smoked in silence for a while, I could feel the sun beginning its final slide behind the mountain.
"Another thing my dad told me," he said. "Apparently the sea used to come up way further onto the plane. So 2000 years ago, when it was a Roman port, the sea would have come up to the old town." He pointed over towards the church spire and the disordered cluster of buildings that made up the historic centre.
"It makes sense I suppose. All the beach front will be modern, on account of the tourists."
He agreed and then paused mid sentence, we had both noticed the vague sound of someone breathing heavily next to us. We turned around to see a cyclist struggling up the hill, he made a small gesture towards us with his hand and we nodded back.
After putting out our cigarettes against the wall he finally finished his thought, “Shall we head into town?”
“Sure," I said. "We've got plenty of time to kill."
He smiled and I felt the gentle flush of the sun one last time before it passed behind the mountain. Looking up the hill the cyclist was turning out of sight, round the corner towards the trees and the windmills. I looked back down to the port and then to the old town; then we got up and walked down to the beach to find a restaurant, drinking the last of our water and talking wildly of all the things we could get to eat.