The night before the night before we went on holiday, I heard noises, past three in the morning, in the street. People were talking: perhaps not loudly, but the thinness of the street and the thickness of the walls often seems to magnify any noise that takes place just outside.
There isn't much: you would think that obvious, in the small hours of a summer evening, but one of the reasons we moved away from Huesca and into the village was that in our previous home, early-morning noise was frequent, sometimes from rubbish collection which took place after midnight, and sometimes, in the summer, because of people gathering in the plaza outside, drinking and chatting until the police arrived to move them on.
We lived on the second floor: I used to think about buying a powerful water pistol, or even a hose, to drive them off without waiting for the cops. Moving away was probably a better option.
I heard talking. Gradually I understood that I was awake, and that the noises I heard were coming from the street, rather than having their origin within whatever part of the brain makes our dreams. My mind had been resisting waking, but now it had accepted it, it became more passive, more receptive, and the noises organised themselves into recognisable form. I realised that it was my wife talking. To whom, I couldn't understand: the only voice I could hear was hers, but stopping, like a telephone conversation, even though the noise appeared to come from the street.
The street acoustics are strange, and not just because noise becomes, apparently, magnified. Noises from the plaza behind our house also appear to come from the street in front, as if thrown there: a car passing behind the house will often sound as if it is passing in front. A succession of sounds will often echo between facing walls, multiplying their number while disguising their location: last summer, a horse, having broken out of its field above the plaza, ran through the village, at a similar hour of the morning, and with the clattering of its hooves and the echoing of the noise around the walls, it sounded as if a whole string of horses were galloping in circles around our house, since the noises never seemed to ease or pause. But when we found out, the following morning, what had happened, it had only been the one horse, trotting round the streets until it got tired.
That night, we had been in our spare bedroom, a storey below our normal room and hence closer to the street, because of an insect infestation that we were yet to completely repel. This summer we have been in that the same room, while R has been decorating the room. But though I was there, she seemed to be on our doorstep, insofar as I could determine where her voice was coming from. "¿No hay nadie?" I heard her say, and thought, from the question and the time, that she was talking to a child, who for some reason was outside our house in the small hours. I thought that she was asking them if there was anybody else at home.
In truth it was more serious. The question was that all right, whether anybody else was at home, but she was outside, not on our doorstep, and was asking not a child, but the very old lady, G, who lives in the house opposite us. Or what passes for opposite us, which means on the other side and along a bit, like the platforms at Haltwhistle station. G had fallen over, and had been crying out in pain, apparently for some time, before R woke up, and realised, more slowly than I had, since the earlier sounds were weaker and more distant, that there were noises outside. Eventually she had got up, put on some clothes and started talking to G though the thick, old-fashioned front door of her house.
She lives with her son, M, a farmer, who that night was away in Huesca, at a dance club, and we didn't have his number. Nobody seemed to have his number: R called JM, concejal for the village, but though he came straight down to see if he could help, he didn't have a number either, nor any way of getting into the house to see if G was all right. She had hurt her leg. How badly she didn't know, but too badly to be able to get up and let anybody else in.
Nobody did: and for the next hour or so there was a to-do outside as more people arrived, none of them having any clue of M's number or his exact whereabouts, or of how to get inside the house. Pliers were located, and applied uselessly but noisily to the door, and unsuccessful attempts were made to pick the lock. I couldn't understand why they didn't call an ambulance for G, and the police, so they could break in: but it is their village, to which I am relatively new, and for that matter their language, in which I am more than relatively weak. So the talking continued, accompanied by banging noises produced by the various means of trying to force an entry.
This went on for about an hour or more. Eventually they did call an ambulance, enabling me to make my own small contribution to the rescue by pointing, from our front step, down the street to guide the ambulance as it arrived, as if any assistance was in fact required. Meanwhile people had finally gained entry by breaking a pane of glass in an upstairs window. G, it transpired, had broken something in her leg, and the ambulance took her away.
It was not good news, though it could have been worse. Her femur was broken, and they say (as I write, a week and a half before this piece is published) that she needs an operation, if she is ever to be able to walk again. It would be difficult to live in her house if she couldn't walk, as it would in any house: but perhaps particularly difficult in one of these houses, where there is nothing on the ground floor but a hallway. Perhaps they could rearrange it, but even if they did, the hallway is not heated. They couldn't afford to change it round. M struggles to afford a few euros for a tractor part when he needs one. And there is not likely to be any help from anywhere else.
For now, she is in hospital. We are packing. Had she fallen two days later, or had we been in our normal bedroom, or had R not been, that night, a lighter sleeper than me, it's quite possible that nobody would have heard her.
I lost a couple of hours sleep. It's not important. Life in Spain at the moment is a permanent lesson in what is important and what is not, in what you can afford to lose and what you can't. But I think I could have worked this one out without the crisis. I lost some sleep. Somebody else might have lost the ability to walk.
She might, still, never get it back. But I did get back to sleep that night. I slept, and dreamed of snakes.