It is November and in our corner of Andalucia that means time to get back to some serious work on the land.
Up and down the valley, the old boys are out in force, tidying, pruning and repairing the caballones, the banks that retain the water when they flood the fields. At the sides of the plots of land, little piles of firewood appear, neatly stacked.
Because our trees had been neglected for so long, there is an enormous amount of mess to deal with. Geoff has cut up a nice lot of logs for the fire, but the spiky twigs and smaller pieces that are too twisted to fit into the chipper have been waiting for months now.
Normally by now, there would be little bonfires burning most days, as the trimmings are burned to keep everything spic and span. The usual rule is that bonfires are not allowed between April and November. I was eagerly anticipating the start of November, so we could begin to tackle our stacks of tree detritus. The pyromaniac in me has been champing at the bit, itching to prance gleefully around, arranging, poking and prodding daily bonfires.
November came and nobody was lighting fires. It seemed odd, but I assumed it was because of the lack of rainfall. It turns out we have had such a dry year that the Medio Ambiente people are unwilling to grant bonfire licenses. I channeled my energies elsewhere, only twitching slightly as I made Christmas cakes and planted vegetables. The call of the matchbox was strong, but I resisted it.
Eventually, the town hall put out an announcement: bonfire licenses were going to be available at twelve noon on Tuesday. Anyone whose bonfire was going to be less than five hundred metres from the mountains must have a license. That meant me. I hastily arranged a lift into town and began digging around for every piece of documentation that could possibly be required.
I woke up unusually early on Tuesday. Anticipation had played havoc with my sleep patterns. I know it is rather sad, but the joy of choking on smoke, watching to see where the flames will flicker into life next and rubbing my hands gleefully while a roaring bonfire crackles and pops is one that never diminishes for me. Add to that the prospect of finally restoring some order to the chaos, and I was almost drooling.
When I walked into the Ayuntamiento, a man in a Medio Ambiente fleece, holding a clipboard and a pad of official-looking forms was hovering outside the room where everything that matters usually happens. I decided I would play it cool and walk past him. I could ask AFO Man or the always very helpful Pilar what to do and there was a chance I would understand the reply.
AFO Man nodded briskly and led me out to speak to Medio Ambiente Man, who was checking his clipboard in a very intense fashion. After an extremely brief, very rapid exchange they turned to me.
‘Where do you live?’ asked AFO Man. I stuttered out our address, instantly reverting to my default setting of guilty-until-proven-otherwise.
‘Where’s that?’ demanded Medio Ambiente Man. I was very relieved when AFO Man took over and described where we are. The relief was short-lived.
I understood that much, but the rest of the conversation went straight past me. I must have looked blank, because Medio Ambiente Man gestured that I should follow AFO Man into the office. He said something that I took to mean that I would have to apply in December.
‘Do we need to wait for some rain, before I can have a fire?’ I asked, realising before I had even finished asking, that I would probably not understand the answer. I was right. I had no idea what his reply meant, so I thanked him meekly and went into the office like a student summoned to the head teacher’s room.
I spent the next few minutes standing uncomfortably in front of AFO Man’s desk, not a hundred percent sure whether he was still dealing with me or not. There was much tapping on the computer keyboard and shuffling of paper.
Eventually, he asked my name. I was back on firm ground. This was one I could answer with confidence.
‘And your parcela and poligono number?’ My confidence slipped to somewhere around my ankles, like PE knickers with bad elastic. There I was, with every bit of documentary evidence I could think of and he wanted something I had never been asked for before.
‘Ummmmm something something 126?’ I ventured hopefully. I had seen some numbers on our house deeds last year and thought I might have almost remembered something useful. The look on his face soon disabused me of that idea. He started rummaging through the numerous grey box files that live on the shelves behind his desk.
Four files in and he still had not found the numbers he was looking for. I tried mentioning Baltazar. Once before, mentioning the elderly man who owned our house for about fifty years worked well. Not this time.
I was beginning to worry about the further hurdles I would have to deal with when I came to apply in December. How much information did he need in order to tell me when I should come back?
He carried on taking down files and flicking through them.
‘We bought the house last year from Donna,’ I ventured timidly. That did the trick. He pulled the keyboard back to the center of his desk and typed in Donna’s details, which for some reason, they all seem to know. I hesitate to ask why. I would not understand the answer, no matter how juicy it might be.
‘Oh yes. Is this the right one?’ He turned the screen to me. I confirmed that this was indeed our house.
‘Is it on the main road?’ I explained that we are on a small slip road off the main road and he nodded, all the while scribbling on a two-page form he had printed off.
A couple of minutes later, he swiveled the form to face me and indicated that I should sign it. Once I had, he opened his drawer and began taking out an array of official stamps. He stamped, he signed, he stamped a bit more, signed again, flourished about in a very official fashion, mentioned December 15th, strode to the photocopier and copied the form. Back at his desk, he stapled the pages together and handed me one of the copies. It appeared to be a license. I scanned it rapidly. I was right: it was a license, and I breathed a sigh of relief that my fear that I might keep applying month by month and never actually acquire one was unfounded.
I could see that it mentioned having water to hand and that December 15th and between 8am and 2pm came into the equation. My heart sank. We have so many piles of twigs and trimmings to burn that we could never do it all in six hours.
‘Is this just for the one day?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he seemed surprised. ‘It lasts until the end of March.’
I have checked the form since, and I can see no mention of March. I am often surprised by how much is not said, when almost everything appears to be subject to scrutiny and regulation. I shall not let that concern me, however: AFO Man says I can have a bonfire on December 15th and every day thereafter until the end of March. I make that one hundred and six bonfires.
I can hardly wait!