‘Terra Firma – very large, about which nothing is known’, was how Columbus described the mainland of South America. David finds himself on anything but firm ground when he arrives in Venezuela to work for Jordi’s uncle Manuel, the Minister of Planning. Jordi’s exotic family befriend him – the uncles who chased out the last dictator, the grandfather, too old for deep-sea fishing but still chasing young women at ninety and Christina, Jordi’s sister. He finds cliffs to indulge his passion for rock climbing. And at work he meets Chelo and falls in love. He discovers that the site of the new town he is helping plan is on an earthquake fault and that his boss, Manuel, owns the land.
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What d’you think?’ Jordi asked, after David had gone.
‘He’s neat,’ mused Mariella, in the mirror, brushing her hair.
‘A neat and tidy Englishman—never been kissed! What Aurora wouldn’t do to get her hands on him.’
‘I wish your sister would control her fucking instincts!’
Mariella pulled a face. ‘The English understatedness …’ she said, ‘the old clothes—he’s together—on him they work.’
‘And on me?’
‘Oh Jordi! You look crumpled two minutes out of the laundry.’
‘Will he fit into the set-up? There’s a lot at stake …’
‘You may get more than you bargained for.’
‘Have you noticed the way he walks?’ Jordi nodded, but she knew he would not have. ‘He plants his feet firmly, not heavily, just well balanced.’ She walked across the bedroom, imitating him.
‘He’s no push-over you mean?’ laughed Jordi.
‘He may look cool, but he’s passionate,’ she said,
‘If you haven’t climbed for a while your body feels stiff and awkward, and you’re filled with doubts and fears. What if this hold breaks just as I’m pulling on it? Is the next pitch too hard? From below everything beyond the next ten or twenty feet tends to look impossible, especially if you’re out of practice. You have to restrict your vision and concentrate on the next moves. Some days, magical days, you climb well: your mind stays sharp and doesn’t race ahead. I used to think climbing made you confront the inevitability of death. I now believe it brings you up sharply with life. When you’re afraid, really afraid, fear takes over and you’re paralysed. When you climb well, sights and sounds, the smell of rock and lichen, the finger tip touch of a small hold, are so intense you feel most of life is just a pale shadow of the real thing. On some climbs there is such delight at the top that, for a few moments, the world seems a beautiful, uncomplicated place.’
Climbing on the cliff next to the Cota Mil, the motorway separating Caracas from the Avila, 1971