by Irina Papancheva
She saw him standing a short distance ahead, tall, bright-haired, bright-eyed. He was waiting for someone. For her. She was walking towards him, calm and contained, but also with an inner elan, such as she had not experienced for… an immeasurable time. As she moved closer towards him, the features of his face became clearer: a broad forehead, fine nose, the upper lip slightly thinner with a mole above the left corner. Gripped by sudden tension, she felt the hairs on her skin prickle in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. He was holding a light blue surfboard. He saw her, his eyes laughed, the mole lifted with his smile. Marina felt a throbbing low in her stomach as if the smile had penetrated her womb and shifted something inside. Without taking her gaze off his bright eyes, Marina smiled back, but with slightly more restraint. Only then did she look down. Another step and they were level. One more, and she passed him.
Desert in the middle of the ocean: this was her first thought when they came out. She felt the breath of the sea on her face. Breath, different from the cool breeze of the air conditioners. A disembodied caress in the middle of the rocky desert.
Gerard has encircled her waist with his hand and leads her somewhere. She does not ask where because she knows. She walks with him, surrendering herself to the hand that gently but powerfully pushes her farther and farther away from the airport and from the blue (or maybe green? maybe grey?) eyes of the boy.
Gerd looked deep in thought. It was as if, in the minutes she had left him to go to the toilet, he had managed to travel far, far away… She followed his gaze. A couple was walking away from them towards the exit of the airport. The woman’s dark hair fell in waves on her back, just below her shoulders. She wore a blue linen dress that outlined a slender body and revealed shapely legs. The man’s hand rested on her waist. He was taller than her, with silver hair. Nothing to explain the slight wrinkle between Gerd’s eyebrows, his motionless expression. What could have attracted his attention?
It sometimes happened that he briefly drifted away. At such moments she had no idea what was going on in his head. Not that she knew much better the rest of the time, but then she did not wonder. In these moments, however, she had the feeling that she did not know him at all, did not know anything about him. She would wake up one morning and see his side of the bed empty without the imprint of his body. And then she would realise that she had made everything up. Everything: their cohabitation, waking up together, early morning lovemaking, the flat, furnished with such enthusiasm (more hers than his), the long walks by the river, the journeys, the surfing, even Fuerteventura… Such crazy thoughts. What would a therapist make of this? Not that she needed one. The analysis she could do herself.
His exquisite profile turned towards her. The fog lifted from his eyes, and his mole twisted into a smile. She felt like covering this mole with kisses. Every time she felt like doing it, but this time more than ever.
She restrained herself. Such public displays were not for her. He grabbed the handle of the suitcase, and the two of them continued to the exit where Enrique was waiting.
He and Gerd embraced joyfully. In his English with its strong Italian accent, Enrique regaled them with tales of waves and surfing, and with plans for the coming days… Gerd and Enrique were like children, excited and eager.
Half an hour later, in the flat. This was their third time on the island, and it felt as if they had never left. Enrique made coffee while they put their luggage in his bedroom. He slept in the small living room-kitchen when they were there.
“How are you, hombre?” Gerd patted him on the shoulder.
“Not too bad. Now I work in a bar. Mostly in the evenings. In the mornings, I sleep late and then – the surf.”
“This I call a life!” Gerd laughed.
Did she hear envy in his voice? If he could live such a life, would he prefer it to their orderly existence in Freiburg? She did not want to know. But why these thoughts again? She had probably overstretched herself. The island will bring back her balance, she was sure of that.
Salida de emergencia. Emergency exit. The transparent sticker on the window of the minibus made the inscription look like it was carved in the sky, an emergency exit to heaven.
Three days before departing, she had bought a second return ticket with an earlier date. She had become anxious. What if she could not leave the island? If she found herself in a self-inflicted exile? All the photos she had seen of Corralejo showed the ocean, the dunes, surfers, a few commercial hotels and restaurants, and a couple of streets. Except for the ocean, it did not look like a place she would like. Her memories were similar – a promenade, a restaurant where they had had lunch. Nothing else. They got onto the bus and headed for the dunes. A second return ticket. Was this her emergency exit?
“What are you going to do on the island? There is only sand there,” a Spanish acquaintance had asked when he heard she was leaving for Fuerteventura.
Unamuno had spent four months here, and his exile, unlike hers, was not imaginary. What did the island do for him? Did it help him face his demons? And how had he mastered those demons, while not knowing the date of his departure?
She did not want to step into this territory. The second ticket was her warranty for peace of mind.
Before she left, she had read most of Unamuno’s philosophical books with a pencil in hand. She had underlined some of the sentences and taken notes. During her flight, she started reading ‘The Agony of Christianity.’ On page 28 she circled the following passage, adding an exclamation mark:
When Lev Shestov, for example, discusses the thoughts of Pascal, it seems he does not want to understand that being a Pascalian does not mean accepting his thoughts, but to be Pascal, to become a Pascal. From my side, again, it has happened many times that, when I’ve met a person in some writing, not a philosopher nor a wise man but a thinker, when I’ve met a soul, not a doctrine, I’ve said, ‘But it was me!’ And again, I lived with Pascal, with his century and in his ideals, and again, I lived with Kierkegaard in Copenhagen, and in the same way with others. And isn’t this the highest proof of the immortality of the soul? Would they not feel in me, as I feel in them? After I die, I’ll know if I am to be revived like this in others. Although, even today, don’t some of those outside me feel inside me, without me feeling inside them? And what peace there is in all this!
Would she be able to become an Unamuno while on the island? Would Unamuno truly live in her, and her novel? Would they connect in the space, tricking time?
The bus drifted along the road through the dunes. Everything was the same. Everything was different. The volcanic mountains. The golden sands. The people who climbed the sandhills, strangers in the desert. The vastness of the ocean. A joyful ease filled her. She had returned.
She would find the keys in the Indy café. Her landlord, a young Spaniard, had told her this in a text message. She got out at the stop at the top of the main street and walked down it. It was a long, busy street, with a shopping centre, rock bar, restaurants, shops for different brands… Indy café. The blond woman behind the counter introduced herself as Alma, gave her a set of keys, and told her how to get to the flat. It sounded easy. Down the street. The square on the left.
“Come over for a drink later,” she suggested.
The apartment was empty. A kitchen with a bar, high stools and a sea view. Two locked doors in the hallway and one that was open. This must be her room. It was bright, with a king-size bed and a wardrobe. She arranged her clothes, took a shower, and went out.
“For the Greeks, exile was heavier than death because those who are far from home cannot be sincere, and those who cannot be sincere in their homeland are not able to be, because they are not really in it.“ 
The beginning of any journey can be so predictable with its excitements and expectations, and its repetitive actions (finding rental cars or taxis; journeys to and searches for the hotel or flat or house; contemplating the landscape and getting to know it, taking it in, attempting to digest it and hold it – if possible, forever – or forget it – if possible, forever; checking in, feeling satisfied – or not; noting the comfort or lack of comfort; looking for a place for breakfast or lunch or dinner; the end of the first day). It has just started, and it is already over. The only space in which it can be kept and experienced again and again is the space of memories. Even the awareness of the current moment cannot keep it from slipping away because the moment we are trying to stop has already passed. But still, every time there is something new, something different that distinguishes it from all the previous beginnings of all the previous trips.
This time it is the feeling, the special feeling that the meeting – no, not a meeting because they have not met yet – that the passing encounter with the boy has brought her. It is difficult to give it another name because it is so sudden and illogical, unreal but alive… the feeling. That is the word she used for it on that Saturday morning in January, shortly after she and Gerard got into the white Audi and took the road to Corralejo.
Gerard tells her something. She is not listening. She only catches occasional words as her eyes, behind sunglasses, scan the rocky landscape. Fuerteventura, Germans, World War II, Franco, Africa, asylum. Suddenly she becomes aware of the silence. Gerard has stopped talking. She takes a look at him; his gaze is fixed on the road. His sunglasses with a fine frame turn towards her and his hand gently caresses her knee.
Palm trees surround the hotel. “White, tidy cottage, two linden trees in front.” How ridiculously your memory can surprise you. It strikes suddenly. Before you know it, it has already sucked you in. On the remote island in the ocean, a child’s voice has started tinkling in an attempt to recite Ran Bosilek’s poem “White, neat hut.”
She banishes the memory. It does not belong here. The only similarity lies in the whiteness, nothing else. The hotel has eight storeys, a lush garden, a swimming pool, jacuzzi and dozens of sunbeds. No linden trees at all. The room is spacious, with a view of the ocean, the sands and the mountain ridge behind them.
And the ocean… The ocean has the colour of a postcard: blue-green, azure overflowing into the yellow of the island. Yellow like the dress she bought before they left, which now lies in her suitcase with her other dresses, her underwear, sandals and jerseys, patiently waiting to be worn for the first time. It is as if it had been a presentiment of the island, a hint of what was ahead of them. A sign, but of what? The island, the desert, the straw-coloured hair of the boy? Her eyes take in the ocean and draw her into it. Now they are one. Her lips open slightly, and she gives herself to it.
There is no time to waste. Time-is-wind-is-wave-is-surfing. Three hours of breaking the waves, the wind, the time, the surf. The moment you are on the board, all doubts, fears and thoughts scatter and disappear like sea foam. Keeping yourself on the board requires your full concentration. It takes presence. Here and now. One hundred per cent. An uncoordinated thought and the board slips beneath your feet, the wave knocks you, swallows you and spits you out wherever it decides.
She remembers the beginning, the first lessons. Catch the wave. That is it. But how do you catch a wave? How? You learn. Gradually. It is a feeling. A feeling that you learn to have. To possess this wave, to make it obey you, to make it yours. Like taming a rebellious horse. The horse is a different thing, a being. You make contact. You make it obey. But the wave… How do you conquer an element?
Gerd slides with the coming wave, slightly crouched on the board. He carries himself on it gracefully. The wind stretches his bright hair. Blows in his tanned face. A winner. A master of the waves.
How long ago was that? How had she managed?
She takes the next wave and also stands up. Flying in the spray, the wind, infinity…
She had lunch on the square, which was visible from her kitchen window. The restaurants were full. She had imagined a deserted Corralejo in January. Instead, she found herself in a city flooded with sunshine and warmth, vibrant, joyful and hospitable. Quite different from the city in her memory.
The supermarket was around the corner. Everything here is around the corner. Comfortable, easy, calm – and slow. That is how she felt the rhythm of Corralejo in those first hours.
She did the chores for the next few days, then dropped in at the Indy. Alma was not there, but a big man was standing behind the bar: Kumar, the Indian owner. When he discovered she was Bulgarian, he told her of another Bulgarian who cleans his house. That surprised her. She had expected to be the only one on the island, which had more or less turned its back on Europe. She asked him to put them in touch, and he called her. They arranged for the Writer to go and see her the next day at a Sunday market.
“…the chance, which is the beginning of freedom,” Unamuno winked at her.
She drank a small beer and met another member of Indy’s team. Enrique, an Italian, had moved here because of the surf. His friends, a German surfing couple, had also arrived yesterday from Freiburg.
She spent the afternoon walking on the promenade and lying on one of the wooden platforms there. Not far from her was a statue of a woman with a long dress and an elegant hat. She was staring at the ocean, shading her eyes with her hand. Next to her was another statue of a man, a woman and a child, embracing. This woman’s face radiated bliss and gratitude. Next to them, a bucket of dead fish. The statues of the waiting woman and of the woman whose waiting has been fulfilled: that is what she called them on this first day.
A street musician was playing the guitar and singing his arrangements of well-known pop songs. A lyrical and heartfelt performance. She turned her face to the sun and felt the tension that had built up over the past months melting away. The heat, the caress of the breeze, the gentle sound of the ocean… She has arrived in a different place. Different from the confident purposefulness of Brussels, from the crunch of the heavy European machine, the organised gaiety of the after-work parties, the easy communication and the difficult relationships, the shiny sports clubs, the smell of urine on the central streets, the poverty of the homeless sleeping on cardboard, the designer chic of the eurocrats, euro-consultants, euro-lobbyists, euro-successful-people, to whom it seems she now also belonged. It was… different. She wondered what she had wanted the second ticket for. She already knew she would not use it, she would not leave Corralejo in a week, nor two weeks, nor even a month; she knew she might never wish to leave Corralejo… And this knowledge came to her not as a thought but as a feeling. A feeling of peace, freedom and profound harmony that was forming somewhere at the depths of her tired being.
 Unamuno: Articulos y discursos sobre Canarias, Francisco Navarro Artiles, 1980, Discurso de los juegos florales
 Unamuno: Articulos y discursos sobre Canarias, Francisco Navarro Artiles, 1980, Discurso de los juegos florales
Irina Papancheva is a Bulgarian fiction writer who lives in Brussels. She is the author of the illustrated children’s book ‘I Stutter’ (Ciela, 2005), the novels ‘Almost Intimately’ (Kronos, 2007), ‘Annabel’ (Janet 45, 2010), ‘Pelican Feather’ (Janet 45, 2013) and ‘She, the island’ (Trud, 2017), the novella ‘Welcome Nathan!’ (2019) and short stories. ‘Almost Intimately’ got the audience nomination in the 2008 Bulgarian national literary competition South Spring (Yuzhna prolet), and ‘Annabel’ has been shortlisted in the 2014 January Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.
Irina’s work has been published in Bulgarian, English, French, Arabic and Persian.