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Love Was the Thing on the Costa Calida
by Carl Halling
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It could reasonably be said that the most intense romances are those which are unexpected and between individuals who seem to the outside world to be the most unlikely possible candidates to find love with each other. For such was the passion that flamed one summer over a quarter of a century ago in southern Spain between two utterly diverse twenty somethings, namely, Englishman Mark McCracken, and Spanish girl Isabel Martinez.
They were different in temperament as well as appearance for while Isabel was a shy girl from Madrid with classically Iberian features, including long dark hair and pale olive coloured skin, Mark was a golden-headed extrovert. He was also almost textbook pretty in the manner of the modern Pop or movie idol, with long-lashed eyes of the deepest blue and cupid’s bow lips so finely wrought that many a woman might muse they were wasted on a man.
Its setting was Santiago de la Ribera, a beautiful former fishing village by the Mar Menor on Murcia's Costa Calida where the McCracken family had been vacationing every year since the late 1960s. But it wasn’t until the early ‘70s that Mark and his brother Jim started to be noticed by the local youth, most from either Murcia or Madrid, so that a large ever-evolving group attained a closeness of quite extraordinary intensity that lasted for several summers running until it was fatally compromised by Mark’s absence.
This occurred in consequence of his having been persuaded by his family to work as a sailing teacher in Palamos on the Costa Brava; and while he lost his job after only a few weeks, he’d already established strong emotional ties with the town, and so stayed on until the end of the summer.
A similar thing occurred the following year when he was despatched to the Andalusian town of Fuengirola with the purpose of setting up a sailing school. And while this plan fell through, he somehow fell into the position of lead singer for a four-piece band playing nightly at a local night club.
He stayed loyal to the band even once the original guitarist had been replaced by a gifted young Frenchman, but due to loss of strong leadership, things were never the same after his departure. And when it finally became clear to him the band had run out of steam, he made the trek to La Ribera to find her magical ambience yet intact, and his presence much anticipated.
But he himself had changed, not least in his style of dressing, which was coarser than in previous years, having been influenced by the London Punk movement, and he was prone to prima donna outbursts exacerbated by months of hard living, which may have alienated more than he realised at the time.
One thing is certain is that by the time he arrived in la Ribera a year after that, his network of friends had entirely dispersed but for a handful of die-hards, while the town itself seemed somehow different in his eyes. In fact, for want of a better word, it had become Westernised, so that every bar was chockfull of Pop music played at ear-splitting volume, while its youthful patrons seemed to Mark to be infinitely more sophisticated than they’d been only a handful of years theretofore.
The upshot was that La Ribera was no longer a place he could stroll through as if it were his personal principality knowing full well that sooner or latter someone would be hailing him from a nearby window, street corner or roaring mobylette, situation which he viewed with a terrible sadness born of guilt.
For he was used to being the centre of attention, a state he achieved with ease either through his looks, or a flamboyant, furiously social personality which could at times verge on the obnoxious, and which had ensured him a lifetime of clashes with authority. And he’d already prematurely quit an astonishingly lengthy series of institutions for someone of such tender years. Indeed, there was something almost feverish, one might say pathological, about his incessant need for attention, which typically extended to his attire which at times betokened out and out exhibitionism.
Yet, stronger personalities had the power to intimidate him with ease, and he was painfully aware of his lack of substance. Perhaps for this reason he found himself being drawn to the gentle Isabel, whose manifest depth and sensitivity seemed to create a marked contrast with his own magnificent superficiality.
But then, perhaps he wasn’t so shallow after all. For there was an ineffable tenderness to him that was enormously appealing to women, while alienating more conventionally masculine males, the majority of his friends being arty mavericks such as himself. And he could be quite extraordinarily sentimental…a true romantic in the classic sense of the word.
Yet any profundity on Mark’s part had yet to manifest itself to any degree, although it could be said it was divined by the hyper-receptive. Those such as Isabel perhaps; and to Mark she was depth incarnate; and so placid that in company she barely uttered a word, preferring to look on with her enormous dark brown eyes, while occasionally flashing a shyly mysterious smile.
To many she might have seemed the girl least likely to attract the interest of one such as Mark McCracken, and yet she was confident enough despite her diffidence to seek out his company, and to make her interest known to him in the early days of his sojourn, although doubtless he knew her from previous summers. And so before long she’d become part of his entourage, which also included his brother Jim, and best Spanish friend Fred, an ethnic Frenchman raised in Spain.
Fred was similar to Mark in so far as he was blond and strikingly good-looking, and therefore enormously popular with the fair sex, and while he was also extrovert, he was more socialised than Mark, who had a lifelong history of unaccountable perverseness and provocation of authority. But Fred was deeply and genuinely fond of the Europhile Englishman, and vice versa.

Within a few days of Mark’s arrival in La Ribera, a large party arrived at the Alaska discotheque on the edge of town. This included Mark and Jim and their parents, Fred and his brother Armand and their parents, Fred’s cousins and their parents and two close friends, together with Isabel and several other young Spaniards. And within a short time of doing so, Mark hit the dance floor, to be surrounded by fellow dancers, as he always was.
For it was as if there was an aura of the constant possibility of impending excitement about him, and one that would ultimately yield him the fame he so clearly desired as many saw it; and they clearly wanted to bask in it, in the hope perhaps that some of it would rub off on them. Yet it wouldn’t be too long before he found the burden of his mysterious magnetic enchantment too heavy to bear, as if it were in danger of crushing him; in fact, perhaps this was already the case.
At the same time, he wouldn’t have traded it for the world, and he clung to it greedily, gloating as his party swelled, to be supplanted by Fred and Armand, and other old friends of his from the golden days of La Ribera, such as Toto, a perpetually smiling Madrileño who’d been close to Mark and Jim for at least five years, and Isabel, charmingly clad in a light blue dress.
Before long, as was the custom in those days, the upbeat Disco tunes had made way for a long series of ballads for the purpose of slow dancing, and the dance floor experienced a mass exodus. And dance floor peacocks such as Mark were immediately reduced in status as a result, that is, unless they could swiftly secure a dance partner
“Quieres bailar?”, he whispered to Isabel almost pleadingly, his recent cocksure attitude having altogether deserted him. But there was no need for him to be so timorous, as Isabel had no intention of refusing him. And they danced for what must have been a full forty minutes without speaking a word.
Once the slow dances had passed, they sat down together, again with neither of them uttering a sound. For Mark found himself intimidated beyond all measure by Isabel’s supreme passivity and depth of sensibility, and yet at the same time by simply being close to her, he was experiencing as much pure happiness as he was capable of in those days, which was a lot. And when the slow dances returned, and Isabel asked him to dance this time around, he attained something close to an apogee of joy.

Soon after the party had returned to La Ribera, Mark suggested that rather than bring the night to a close, a small group of them hold an impromptu gathering on one of the wooden bathing facilities projecting out into the Mar Menor known as balnearios.
When they agreed, Mark went briefly back to his apartment to retrieve a cassette tape recorder complete with pre-recorded cassettes, and his old acoustic guitar after which he, Fred, Toto and Isabel set out for the balneario.
And passing amorous couples and several clustered groups of rowdy revellers, they soon settled under Costa Calida skies with the music of Frank Sinatra singing songs of Tom Jobim, which Mark’s parents purchased on cassette specially for what may have been their first ever holiday to La Ribera in the summer of 1969.
“Joue la guitare, Bowie,” said Fred, deploying such a nickname by virtue of Mark’s apparent favouring of David Bowie. Although he also resembled Sting of the internationally successful New Wave band the Police, and there was one instance of a kid repeatedly calling to him in the back streets of La Ribera,
“Oye, Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting”, although entirely without menace. For in those days, the youth of Spain were remarkable for their sweetness of disposition and almost total lack of aggression.
“Qu-est-ce-que tu veux que je joue?” Mark replied.
“I don’t know,” said Fred, “something romantic perhaps?”
Toto passed him his guitar, and he set about entertaining his small audience with rudimentary guitar skills which in those days extended to a host of rockers, and one or two simple love ballads such as Francis Lai’s theme to “A Man and a Woman”. But people seemed to like it when he played, because he had a fine singing voice a little reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s.
In time, the part elected to return to their respective apartments, so Mark collected his paraphernalia before joining his friends in the short walk back to
The beach. But no sooner had he done so than he fell into a large crack in the balneario, which caused his guitar to come crashing down with a loud discordant twang, and his tape recorder to follow suit, with several cassettes littering about his prostrate person.
Luckily he was unhurt, but his new imitation leather jeans were badly torn, and Sinatra sounded as he’d had one too many straight bourbons when played back on Mark’s freshly injured cassette player, although the cassette itself was perfect; and would remain so thereafter, a testament to fine workmanship.
Mark’s friends helped him out of the gaping fissure that had caused his humiliating plight while Mark himself burst into incredulous laughter at his ill fortune, which caused their concerned expressions to dissolve into smiles of relief. And before long, they were bidding each other goodbye for the night before setting off for their respective sanctuaries.
But no sooner had Mark started to hobble away towards his apartment than a little cry halted him in his tracks. It was Isabel.
“Marcos, she whispered, will you take me home please?”
“Of course”, he replied, before setting off for the five minute walk to Isabel’s apartment, where he laid his guitar against a wall, while Isabel placed the cassette recorder she’d been carrying beside it.
“Good night, Marcos”, she said.
“Good night”, Mark replied, before kissing her on the cheek, but before long, they were locked in a loving embrace.
After a time, Mark was finally on his way home in the smallest small hours of a warm Costa Calidan morning, filled with thoughts of Isabel. And it was times like these that constituted the highest points of Mark’s life in those days. Simply, he couldn’t conceive of how things could get any better between himself and Isabel, so that thereafter, it was almost as if he vanished into the social whirl that always surrounded him.
In fact, it could be said that Mark’s very popularity led to a kind of isolation, although how much he collaborated with this it’s impossible to say, and in decades to come, even he was baffled by its mysteries. But one thing is certain is that it could lead to unspeakable misery, especially when it occurred to him that once again, a once pure love had faded because of it.
Much of the remainder of his vacation was spent in a chaos of activity with his family and friends, and once it was over, he returned to London to seek work as an actor, finding a degree of success as such until a fallow period two years later saw him return to La Ribera. And this despite the fact that there was little for him there that remained, but it was as if he was trying to make up for having forsaken his beloved town at the height of her golden age.
But after one further visit two years after that, and then a final one at the end of the ‘80s, the La Ribera era was definitively put to sleep. And by this time, its participants had already long settled into adult life, in terms of professions, families, children and so on. But Mark never did.
Instead, he continued to extenuate his gilded youth until it came crashing down around him, soon after which he forsook his previous wayward existence and became a Christian…came crashing down around him, as his guitar had done on the balneario all those summers ago when he’d held Isabel so tightly in his arms and youth had its fling…while love was the thing on the Costa Calida.

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