The arrival of budget airlines at Murcia and Almeria has, it is true, introduced this corner of Spain to a wider international public. For the very few who make it beyond the coast and into the remarkable area that contains Europe’s only true desert, though, it has introduced them to little except extreme poverty.

Images had been playing in Ignacio’s head for years. The ravined sandscape of the Tabernas Desert, the cave dwellings of Purullena with its strings of peppers drying in the sun; people who still lived without many of the most basic amenities despite the tourists. People like his mother.

Ignacio wasn’t surprised that tourism hadn’t brought its wealth trickling in from the coast to irrigate the desert. In the 1970s Franco had tried to build a fortune on the concrete high-rises of tourism and succeeded in creating a golden crust around the edge of Spain, but only by leaching the rich yellows from the sandy heartland and leaving a dustbowl of poverty behind.

It was in September 1976 that he had left Spain for Oxford University, where he had spent the next 20 years. He gained a first in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and went on to teach International Relations. In 1996 he had returned home for good with his Spanish wife Nieves to advise the government on its plans for infrastructure, explaining how to gain maximum investment for minimum kilometrage. Now he was the senior civil servant in the Ministry of Trade, and his hope was to build prosperity on jobs. Not jobs created on the back of aeroplanes full of tourists, but jobs created on the back of Chinese cars.


Rumours of the factory had spread fast, and met with universal disapproval from everyone who spoke on the subject. Ignacio’s new bosses, riding on a wave of popularity after dispatching Señor Aznar at the polls, had tried at first to bury news of the plan, and when that was impossible had tried to bury the plan itself. They accused Ignacio of trying to piggyback on the latest trend, of jumping on the Chinese bandwagon without considering the environmental future of his country, a future that could never be taken back once he had destroyed it. He was no better than a snake-oil peddler they whispered in the corridors of the Ministry. He was worse than that, in fact, they muttered, sneaking in snide references to traditional Chinese medicine that press cartoonists had eagerly taken up.

Ignacio was gloriously intractable. He had left Spain before, he pointed out, and could happily leave her again, taking his vision and his contacts somewhere people had the insight to listen. Every time he said it he felt the words burn his tongue as he thought of the years he had spent away from home; but by the time they reached his lips they were calm and implacable.

Everyone who spoke on the subject objected to his plans, but Ignacio only cared about the hundreds of thousands who had no voice. The thousands who had an unspoilt landscape and no hope with which to enjoy it. Thousands like his mother. He fought his masters for every day that brought the factory closer, report by report, plan by plan, article by article, with the guerrilla fervour of the Communists fighting off Franco. He knew that at any moment the bombers might come and flatten the futures of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen with the stroke of a pen.

Ignacio would not be a Picasso or a Hemingway. He would not remind the world of a tragedy that had already happened. If his home died he would die with it; if not a warrior’s death then a simple broken heart. He would never leave. He had left before, but his home had always been there to return to. If he couldn’t bring jobs to the southwest heartland of Spain there would be no home for him to return to. Its lifeblood would be sucked out to sea, drowned in the endless detritus washed away from the villas on the shore. He was fighting for his people and his mother, but he was also fighting for his own survival.

Now his masters had given him one last meeting with the COO of Guangzhou Automotive, to put together a response on the environmental impact of the factory. That would buy enough time for another last meeting, and maybe another after that. He looked at Nieves sleeping beside him and ran his hand along the curve of her shoulder, taking in the peppercorn grey of the hair that fell over her back like the snows of her name. For all the years he had been away, she had been the cord that connected him to his home. If the jobs failed to come, he wondered if the cord would snap. He imagined her dangling him by the silver thread of her hair over the peaks of the Sierra Nevada; snow above him and snow below, holding him in balance until one of them melted and he fell to his death on the rocks or floated into space.


Zhimin Yang shook his hand cordially as he met her at Madrid airport. He bowed his head deferentially and she bent her knees to him. Both ignored the flashes of the press photographers and the screams of the protesters. Ignacio scanned their well-groomed faces and wondered whether there would be more or fewer when they reached Guadix. He welcomed her to Spain, and they exchanged gifts. Even once the darkened doors of the state car had closed no-one would have known how much more of each others’ bodies they knew than their hands.

“Thank you for coming,” Ignacio said. His voice was firm and deep. Any tremor came from middle-age and cigarettes and not from uncertainty. He had never been uncertain about anything that mattered. He loved his country. He loved Nieves. He wanted Yang.

“I think my visit may do more harm than good.” “Not to me.” Ignacio’s eyes didn’t move from her. There was no need for him to smile to reinforce them.

“Guangzhou is a very progressive province, Ignacio. The local authorities know that people in the west do not understand our country, and they expect protests. It doesn’t bother them. But these people are not protesting against China, they are protesting against you. That does not look so good.”

“Yang, people in Madrid love to protest. But the people of Guadix, of Jaen, they aren’t protesting. They are the people who will be working in your factory.”

“The Party in Guangzhou won’t see that people are not protesting in Jaen. They will only see that people are protesting in Madrid.”

“Then we must show the Party that there is nothing to protest about,” Ignacio said. “These are idealists, environmentalists. They are against the coal industry that fuels growth across China. They are your government’s enemies.”

“Do you really think that?” Yang turned so that she was at 45 degrees to him. She looked up at him out of her deep brown eyes, eyes that for as long as he could remember had been looking somewhere else, somewhere he didn’t know about. “My government wants to do business with Spain. Your government in Madrid listens to these protesters, so my government will listen.”

“I know.”

“Ignacio, if I didn’t believe that I could answer their objections about environmental impact I wouldn’t be here.”

He knew that as well, much as he wished that it wasn’t true.

Yang smiled at him. “Which doesn’t mean it’s not good to see you.” She gripped the soft leather of her document holder tighter, as though she were squeezing his hand but thought it improper to do so in front of the driver.


In 1992 Zhimin Yang came to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. She was hungry to claw her way into the world and create a foothold for her country wherever she went. Oxford was the perfect place to start.

Yang met Ignacio in her second year. He was giving a presentation on Franco’s attempts to open Spain to the outside world in the 1970s, and the extent to which a dictatorship could run an open economy. She closed her eyes and imagined him as only a voice. It was the deep, certain voice of love, of the love of Spain. In every word she heard the sound of which her love for China was an echo. Her heart was the echo of his; she was the echo of him; just as China was the echo of Spain.

As she sat and listened she knew that she needed him. It was not a want or a passion, but a need for her own survival. His voice was the cord by which she would pull herself out into the world. If she let go she would fall forever back to the ground of her ancestors. She would spend the rest of her life singing love songs to her Chinese friends, but no-one outside would ever hear her voice.

Ignacio was speaking but the words were lost to his ears. He was closed to everything but the sight of her. At first he had wondered if she might be sleeping, and had felt palpable embarrassment. He was glad that she hadn’t opened her eyes and seen the redness in his cheeks; he knew that his voice hadn’t wavered.

As he studied the contours around her eyes he saw that she was too relaxed even for sleep. She was listening. She had shut off the whole world to everything but his voice. He felt dizzy and had to sit down to hide the extent of his arousal. He was overcome by the perfect self-sufficiency of this gesture, by the calmness and wholeness with which it was directed at him. He was more embarrassed than before, but although he couldn’t hear whether his voice had become unsteady he was sure that it hadn’t.

He felt as though his voice were somewhere else, dancing with her eyes. He was glad because he knew it meant that there was no need for them to go through the pleasantries of introduction. For the hour of the lecture they were removed from everything around them. She was a formless pair of ears sucked in by his voice; he was a soundless pair of eyes sucked in by her body. It was the perfectly balanced imbalance of desire.

How could she make him love her, she wondered? He loved Spain. She must make herself embody everything Spain stood for, everything that evoked the passion in him. She must embrace its fire and certainty so that he would embrace her.

How could he make her love him, he wondered? She was completely self-contained in her calmness. He longed to snatch her out of her sufficiency, to launch a raiding party and take her by force but that would never do. He must become as calm as she was, fall into the rhythms of her completeness until he became part of her.


The car carved its way through the Spanish Plain on the road from Madrid to Jaen. On every side the land was a rolling sweep of sand and soil, criss-crossed with olive trees wherever it was fertile and populous enough to harvest them; dotted with aloes and cactuses where it was not.

“What are the hurdles I have to jump?” asked Yang.

“Environmental impact.”

“Which could mean anything. Carbon footprint, infrastructure expansion, change of land use, destruction of habitat, disposal of waste. Is any of them a dealbreaker?”

“Not for me,” Ignacio said. He smiled, realising that the remark was a little disingenuous, “There are lots of reasons the protesters give,” he continued, “and the one they shout loudest about is carbon.”

“They think it would emit less carbon to import their cars directly from China? Or is it that lorries driving across Spain are their concern, but lorries driving to Chinese docks to load Chinese boats are ours?”

“Carbon is what they shout loudest about but it is not what they care about most. They shout loudly because they think it will resonate with protesters elsewhere. They think if they scream to the world about emissions protesters will come from the US and the UK; France and Germany; and form a human fence around Guadix.”

Yang chuckled to herself at the idea. “They want to encourage people to fly from all over the world to protest about the carbon emitted by transport?” “It’s a shame you don’t write cartoons for El Pais.”

Ignacio laughed with her.

“So what do people really care about? What’s the one thing I have to do?”

“What they really care about is the impact on the land.” Ignacio sighed. It was true. The protesters really hated the factory because of what they thought it would do to Spain. Spanish protesters! Mostly from Madrid it was true, and they were more European than Spanish. But still, what mattered to them was exactly what mattered to him: the future of Spain; the preservation of Spain. Sometimes their language was so close to his he felt as though they were a part of him, and he wished that he could cut them out like a tumour.

“In China we lose millions of hectares of productive land to the desert every year. People who could support themselves one year are dead the next. People hate the desert.”

“I know. But these people want our desert to remain desert; and it does then people will die there.” More people will die, he thought.

“I don’t understand.” Yang sighed.

“That’s not true. It is they who don’t understand. And unless we can make them my home will die.”

“But they won’t listen to us.”

“Then we must speak a language they will listen to. Even if it’s their language.”


As they left the café there was no sign of anything but the end of a beautiful late summer day. Yang had arrived back at college early for her third year. Ignacio had been helping her think through options for doctoral study the following year. They had been for a long afternoon coffee and decided to walk back through the Parks.

Yang was delighted that she was beginning to express herself like a true Spaniard. She could hear the passion in her words. She had begun to feel a writhing in her stomach as the words came out, and wondered if this was how his passion felt. Ignacio was similarly pleased with himself. He had soon found that the control he exerted over his tongue was producing a smoothness in his emotions that was completely new to him. He wondered if this was the contentment she felt.

They were so busy being pleased with themselves that neither of them noticed the sky go black above them. Neither noticed anything until Ignacio felt the thwack of a hailstone on the back of his head, looked up, and got another in his eye. He took off his sports jacket and placed it over Yang’s head.

“It’s OK,” he said quietly. “There are trees just down the path. We can shelter.” He could feel the soothing calmness in his voice and he knew what an opportunity this was. He fought against its lack of control, but still he could feel the urgency of his excitement pressing him.

Yang could no longer hear for the pounding of the hailstones on the path. She grabbed Ignacio’s arm and ran for the trees. As the thump of her feet pushed blood through her she realised what a chance this was. Desperate to reach the trees she fought the desire to close her eyes and lose herself in the smell of the hail and the cigarette smoke on his jacket.

Safe under the thick canopy, Ignacio held his jacket around her. He wiped the dampness from her forehead with his hand, kissed it away from her eyebrows with a tiny motion of his lips. His hands moved slowly to find the small of her back and merge themselves into her. In the furious noise he was aware of nothing but his absolute stillness.

Yang could feel her breath quickening and catching. She took his hand from her back and pushed it inside her blouse. She clawed at his shirt and his trousers, pulling him to the floor with them, ripping off her underwear and jumping astride him. She thrashed and jerked her body on top of him and soon she was unaware even of the noise of the hail above her screams.

Ignacio closed his eyes and reached for her, filling his mouth with her tongue and rolling it slowly against the back of his teeth, until the rhythm of its softness engulfed him and he was aware of nothing but the slow coursing of waves of stillness through him.


“Did you marry Wei?” Ignacio asked. The last personal communication he had had from her, the summer after her Finals, was a letter to say thank you for everything and that she was engaged to a young IT consultant called Wei. She had never come back to take up her doctoral place.

“Yes.” Yang’s face, her whole body, seemed to transform at the mention of him, as though his hands were there invisibly holding her upright, as though his lips were there nestling gently in the crook of her neck.

“Tell me about him.” Ignacio felt his eyes moving over her, drawn to the tiny movements that seemed to signal Wei’s invisible presence. He felt arousal stirring. His eyes were slick to her skin, but he felt them drawn somewhere else, drawn by the invisible cord of Nieves’ silver hair.

“He is the best man I ever met.” She smiled without any embarrassment or apology. She intended no slight and he understood none.

“Tell me how he makes love to you,” Ignacio asked without embarrassment. He intended no offence and she understood none.

“Gently.” She smiled, and he knew that she was not smiling at him but through him to Wei. “With the gentleness of my home.”

Ignacio took her hand and smiled. He gripped it firmly, feeling the heat flowing out of him. He could feel the willing give of Yang’s fingers beneath his.

“Tell me how you make love to your wife,” she said.

“Desperately.” He gripped her hand tighter, and Yang could feel that that heat was flowing through her to Nieves. “With the passionate desperation of my home.”


The A44 takes you directly from Oxford to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales. It is a single road with no junctions. Ignacio was exhilarated by the directness of it. Oxford is almost as far as it is possible to get from water, yet he would take her straight to the sea without pause, without hesitation. Why did he want to take Yang to the sea? Because it was something she had never seen except from the air. For her it was exotic. This was a way that he could open up her senses to the caustic rasp of salt and ozone in her throat with a brutal directness that he had forbidden himself to use on her body. Taking Yang to the sea was a present to himself to slake the hunger that he had to keep bound up inside him in the way he imagined her mother’s feet had been bound as a young girl. For a moment he closed his eyes at the wheel and let the licking, crashing waves rape her in his head, then drove on calmly, without pause or turn, until he came to the sea.

The room looked out over the Irish Sea. Yang stood in the vast bay window as though she had been frozen. Her eyes drank in every foaming droplet of the water. She felt every wave wash over her skin as it hit the shore until her body was in perfect time with the rhythm of the sea. She sensed each group of waves growing calmer from the crash of the first as though bringing her body to the point of something beautiful and slowly pulling her back, her anticipation building as the energy of the sea dissipated, until it was flooded with another mighty crash.

For almost an hour she was too entranced to be aware of the tiny moans that left her lips, floating out where they would be drowned by the brushing of water scraping pebbles. Ignacio watched her from the bed, as fixed on her as she was on the sea. She was unaware of anything, unaware and unembarrassed. He counted each sigh that left her lips, watched the twitches of her arms and the cyclical tremors of her belly. She was so perfect in her self-containment that he was overwhelmed by the desire to rip the dressing gown from her, force himself into the space and share it with her. He ached to be part of the blissful peace, to impose himself on it with all the violence of the waves that seized the beach in time with his imagined thrusts.

Under her breath he heard “I love you” in a whisper so quiet he was never sure whether it had come from her or from the sea itself. Whether it was directed at him, at the sea, at the penumbra cast by Wei’s gentleness from the future, or, in the one clear moment of her life, at herself, she would never have been able to say; even if she had heard the words before the noise of the waves carried them out to sea.

It was almost the only place they had been where they hadn’t made love. At the time he had pleaded with her, and she had cried into her pillow as she stared out at the moon reflected on the sea. Looking back it had been the one perfect night they had spent together. Nothing altered Ignacio’s image of her pinioned against the window as his hips took her with the raging motion of the waves. And no matter how she looked at herself in the only memory she had of the sea, nothing ever pressed against the perfect union of her body and the caressing rhythm of the water.


Once you turn off the main Madrid to Jaen road for Guadix, even the olive trees begin to recede and the sandy undertow of the desert draws you in. Ignacio thought of its pull in the way he thought of a black hole. Just as light never escapes from a black hole, so the voices of the poor never escape from the desert. They rely completely on the voices of others to explain to the world that they are there.


Ignacio knew what she was going to tell him, but he knew that he would have to let her say it because it was something he could never bear to say himself. “Yang?”

“We will get out of the car when we reach the site, because I want to see the place your mother died. But I won’t build here. If they will not listen I will not speak their language to make them understand why they must have a factory.”

“I know.” His voice was steady and firm, and any tremor came from cigarettes and middle-age rather than uncertainty. “And my home will die.”

“In a way.”

“In the way that matters.”

“I know.” She offered no resistance to the strength of his hand, and met his eyes. Perhaps for the first time he felt them looking directly at him and not somewhere else.

They stood on the baked earth together, on the crown of a ravine that looked out over the valley where he had planned the factory. By the wire fencing below them they saw thin lines of protesters. They were too far away for Ignacio to see if they were wearing the designer tat of the city, too far away to hear their voices. He didn’t feel resignation. He would never feel resignation. He felt hate. They were Spanish just as much as the people of his mother’s home, weren’t they? No, they weren’t Spanish; they were European.

“You know what you should build?”

“I should build a factory,” Ignacio said.

“No. You should build a giant aquarium. An ocean theme park, with dolphins and orcas. The sea has sucked the life from the heart of your country. You should take it back.”

“Turn the desert into coast.” Ignacio smiled to himself. He smiled and then he laughed at the ridiculous brilliance of the idea. It was possible it would work. He was certain that it would buy him a little more time.

Yang stood on the hill and smiled. She was standing in front of the burnt soil but her eyes were looking through it, looking somewhere else. She was looking beyond it through a window on the sea where waves moved with the gentle rhythms of her body.

They drove back in silence. Yang was turned to the window. Ignacio watched the tiny shivers of her body and wondered what it would be like to see through her eyes; he wondered, but not for too long. He stared past her through the one way glass and felt the heat reflected from the sand warming his blood.

As the land flattened off and they approached Madrid Ignacio found himself playing with words like a child playing games in the back of the car. Nieves and Nevada, capped with snow, the one pulling him back, the other drawing him forward. Madrid and Madre, his city and his mother, the one pulling him on, the other drawing him back. He felt as though he had spent his life travelling between forces that held him in balance.

He asked himself where Yang fitted into the balances of his life. Perhaps there was no place for her. No, there had to be a place for Yang, just as there was a place for his mother, and a place for his wife; a place for his city, and a place for his home. Maybe, he thought, she was the imbalance in his life, the force that had no conterpull, just as her country was the force that would one day inexorably swamp his. He pictured the absurdity of dolphins jumping into the air outside Guadix, and he looked at her staring out of the window at waves he couldn’t see. He knew exactly where her place was. She was the one who would bring the sea to his home, as he was the one who had brought her home to the sea. The cord that held them together was the coast, the narrow band so fragile that it moved with every tide, but strong enough that it was always there.

~ by yearzerowriters on January 20, 2010.

11 Responses to “Coastlines”

  1. Very well crafted, and moving. Some repititon, i thought, but was that for stylistic effect?

    Keep up the excellent writing.
    All best!

  2. Thanks, Hisham. Yes, the repetition was intended for effect – I wrote this at a time when I was reading too mcuh Kundera, so there IS some over-repetition probably 🙂

  3. I love the cool dispassionate tone of this – it somehow accentuates the passion within the story for me.

    Reading about the embrace between them reminded me that it’s hard to write about sex in England and not be accused of bad writing – so much so that some novelists have confessed that they avoid the subject. I suspect it’s partly a vestige of the old English embarrassment at all mentions of sexuality – the Donald McGill view of passion, a world of outsized women and tiny, submissive husbands in bowler hats, or Carry-On films. Only now the critics scream “Oh please! Bad Sex Award!” (Will Self, who was nominated for a Bad Sex Award recently, asked if he REALLY wrote about sex badly or wrote well about bad sex?)

    You write about their passion in a way that is integral to the story, that’s essential to it and opens up into a perspective on their relationship. In fact the whole story seems carefully constructed so that it dovetails together. You always make me aware how little I really know about writing, how much more I have to learn.

    • It’s almost impossible! The very best writing of sex I’ve come across is Remittance Girl’s – her writing is utterly mindboggling. The control she shows is incredible.

      I’m glad you liked the structure – a lot of time went into that part of it 🙂 Thank you!

      • I hope bringing up the subject of writing about sex isn’t a conversation stopper! Or rather, a thread killer.

        Am I right in thinking this was written a while ago?

  4. Yes, but it hasn’t seen the light of day for a while – I went back to it researching A Life Drawn Freehand, and found I still liked it. It’s very different from Songs – more what I wanted to do with Songs when I started – it wears its Kundera on its sleeve in the structure. Songs originally had that but I streamlined it immensely in response to feedback (and people still find it hops about too much)

    • I haven’t read Kundera (saw the film of Unbearable Lightness of course) so I couldn’t spot the influence. Does he play with POV shifts? (Authonomites consider this a mortal sin 🙂

      • Oh yes, he absolutely does. I’m reading a novel at the moment – the first one to be published under the To Hell With First Novels imprint – where the POV skips about all over the shop – it’s marvellous!

  5. I love the structure to the story too, and overlay of different & parallel themes works so well that they appear freely interchangeable – speaking of kundera, i read “slowness” this summer, my 1st & so far only kundera reading, it’s brilliant, the 4 or so themes the weaves in and out of relative to each other – and on the topic of ‘skipping POV’, i read “Southern Mail” by de Saint-Exupery immediately after kundera, and found it to be one of the best examples of skipping POV –

    anyway, great writing, looking forward to reading some more

    Thomas Stolperer

    • apropros “southern mail”, the desert is a major setting and a theme – just realized that – would make great suggested reading’ entry for ‘into the desert’

  6. Thank you for the suggestion – I love the idea of having a mix of suggested reading as well as the inevitable clamours of 2666

    Yes, Slowness is one of Kundera’s very best – his recent novellas are a return to the form of his earlier work like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and he does seem to be able to weave themes like a tapestry in an incredibly short space olf time

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