We met the grey lady when we were on holiday, camping in Northern Spain. The holiday was partly to help my son, who was studying GCSE Spanish so myself, husband and 14 year old had headed in our VW camper van for Spanish beaches.We made it as far as Sitges, a small town on the Costa Dorada. Our campsite wasn’t actually on the beach, but about a mile away, across a main road and two open, barren wastes. On the campsite our nearest neighbours were a colony of tiny brown ants. They were hugely industrious, moving in untidy but determined lines gathering food and returning it to the nest. Others would appear with tiny stones held high, which were also transported towards the nest.
We fed the ants with crumbs from our breakfast table. They were particularly keen on the brioche which we’d bought in a boulangerie near Carcassonne on our way down through France. They also liked the plum jam which was spilled by mistake, they couldn't transport the jam so had to eat it in situ. Never were small brown ants so well fed.The morning was getting very hot, as this was Spain in August the heat wasn’t unexpected. Our pitch was becoming unbearable, despite the sparse olive trees that we were theoretically sheltering beneath, so we headed for the beach.
We carefully took our lives in our hands and crossed the main road, heat shimmering from the tarmac, and walked across an open area of uneven ground with concrete bases of some long demolished structures. Across this bare area was a fenced off private garden with shady shrubs and trees. Alongside this was a well-worn path, which we followed. It felt like the right direction.The open space closed in until the path was slightly shaded by the private garden to our left and a ramshackle fence of chain-link strung between concrete posts. The edges of the path had low growing weeds, many dried out and on the fence side the mesh was inerwoven with brown, brittle weedy stems, shrivelled leaves and thistles. The open area beyond was equally brown.
This deserted trail was hot and frustrating, the green oasis to our left was out of bounds and we had no idea how far it was to the sea. There was nobody else on the trail, until it curved slightly and there she was, strolling along ahead of us; the grey lady.Perhaps lady is a slight misnomer, but she was certainly female. She possessed a pair of long, tanned legs and once we were slightly closer we could see her huge brown eyes with lashes that any supermodel could only dream of. She was dressed in a thick, grey, fluffy outfit which might have seemed totally unsuitable for this hot and arid climate, if it wasn’t for the fact that she was an ostrich.
I wasn’t very familiar with the native wildlife of Northern Spain. I had been bitten by mosquitos. We’d all seen swifts shooting through the hot air, shrieking with abandon. There were plenty of sparrows around and of course our own little brown ants. However I was fairly certain that Spain was in Europe and that the ostrich was a bird native to Africa and Arabia, not Sitges.We followed her cautiously along the stony trail. I knew she was a hen ostrich because the males flaunt bright, white and black plumage, females are calmer and less vain; however she was still very large, for a bird. We kept our distance behind her; I seemed to remember stories of humans being disembowelled by a kick from an ostrich. For about a hundred yards she sauntered along, sometimes glancing coyly back at us, sometimes pausing to pick up an unseen morsel from the weed and stone-strewn ground, then the path began to open out.
There in the middle distance was the blue of the sea. And between us and the sea, on another open area in a similar state of disrepair, was a huge, azure tent. Not a tent like the squat, ungainly frame tents that shared our camp-site, this was a thing of joy and beauty. It was adorned with gold trim and huge tassels. At four corners were little gold capped minarets and the azure and gold striped central structure soared skywards, many tall poles, strong ropes and taut cables taking the strain.The circus tent explained the ostrich. As we crossed the circus site we also saw camels and ponies, tethered to tall stakes from which were suspended nets full of hay. We watched the camels and ponies munching the hay, until a man appeared from behind the circus tent. I turned to point out the grey lady to him, but she had vanished. I don’t speak Spanish but tried to mime ostrich, with one arm above my head, fingers simulating a beak. He wasn’t impressed.
We went on to the beach. No grey lady there, not even very many people. The sand was gritty, litter strewn and not very welcoming. We paddled, then several unidentifiable, brown things appeared, floating around our feet. They didn’t seem to be native fauna so we stopped paddling. We bought bottled water from a small kiosk and decided to return to the campsite. At least we could take a cool shower there.We wandered back through the circus site, which was still largely deserted. There was no sign of the grey lady there, or on the weed strewn path, or on the barren area by the main road. Back at the campsite we cooled down with showers and iced drinks from the tiny icebox in our van.
We didn’t have the energy to return to see the circus. The heat inside the big top would have been unbearable, even if it offered the possibility of seeing our grey lady. We spent the rest of the day watching the ants. After one more night at Sitges, we headed for Barcelona. We never saw her again.