Author: Paul House
Pages: 435

And They Pluck Out Your Eyes (1986): December 13th 1980

            There were five of them.  The monkey was being carried by the younger of the two boys. Cándido Rojas watched them walk stiffly towards him across the square, around the half-shell of the fountain at the base of the monument to Cervantes, and across the road against the lights. They walked in single file, the boy with the monkey in front, the goat bringing up the rear.

 

            Cándido Rojas slowly put together his makeshift stall, a metal frame and chipboard for a table, a second metal frame covered by a dirty tarpaulin sheet propped as a windbreak to his left. Bending, his fingers cracked in the cold, he pulled at a folding chair and the legs snapped open. His eyes watered as he looked up, the wind in his face. The young boy prodded the hard, swelling sore on the monkey's bottom, the monkey clinging leather-pawed to the collar of his coat, the sore pink and puffy, the boy laughing over his shoulder. Behind him a brother, the same angular gypsy face, laughed back. He carried a plank and a blue log under his arm, the metal toes and heels of his shoes ringing out on the cold pavement.

 

            For three years, since losing his right to unemployment benefit, Cándido Rojas had been selling cigarettes on the same corner of the Plaza de España in Madrid.  He pulled his anorac tight about his neck, his fingers stubby thumbs in the wind, and began to lay the bright packets in neat rows on the table.

"Two 'Ideales'."

He looked up. It was the father of the two boys. He had the same high, jutting cheek bones, the fine, pointed nose, the sallow skin. Under his arm a trumpet. Rojas pulled the cellophane from  a slim, black and blue box and handed two cigarettes across the table.  The man placed one carefully inside the band of his green, felt trilby and ran his tongue slowly down the length of the second to seal the paper.  He twisted the two ends of the cigarette so as to not lose any of the tobacco, then placed it inside the rim of his hat. He took out the first cigarette and slowly, carefully repeated the process. The two boys waited on the corner of the Gran Vía, looking into the sun.

 

            Cándido Rojas observed the other two members of the family. The goat nibbled at the knotted string which was held tight by the brown hands of an old woman, her white hair pushed beneath a pale yellow scarf. The man with the trumpet waited quietly, his thin lips smiling. He held a three-rung step-ladder and a drum. The man with the trumpet rolled the cigarette to the corner of his mouth with his tongue and cupped a match in his hands. Without speaking, the five of them turned into the Gran Vía, the boy with the monkey in front, the goat bringing up the rear.

 

            Outside the Lope de Vega Cinema Sergio Alvarez sat on the small, wooden box where he kept his polish and brushes, and he watched the procession approach him up the hill from the Plaza de España. He picked dried out pieces of black polish from beneath his finger-nails and glanced at his watch. Half past eight. He leaned his head back against a gaudy, painted poster advertising the film

 

                      M A R A V I L L A S

 

            Sergio Alvarez came from Navamorcuende, a small village in the province of Toledo.  There the cinema was a sheet on a wall in the village square. When there was a film, most Fridays during the summer, you took your own chair. And sandwiches. And if it rained, you sat under an umbrella until the sheet got so wet the bricks of the wall showed through and you couldn't see the film anymore. It was a long time now since he had been there. He had no reason to go back. Unless it was for the church bells and the village clock. In Madrid you never heard a clock chime.  Everywhere, digital clocks. In the cinemas they go off all at once.

Bibeep bibeep bibeep.

One after the other and all at once, the bloody things.

Like that one down in the square that gives the news and the temperature. And now says

 

                          HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

 

            He watched the thin, wriggling. furry back of the monkey, its black hands and long, human finger-nails.  Then the goat, matted, white coarse hair; thin, drained udder and dainty steps.  The old woman, the goat heavy on the string, tucked a stray wisp of wiry hair back beneath the restricting folds of yellow scarf.

 

            "Morning," she muttered towards the bootblack. Sergio Alvarez acknowledged the greeting with a slight jutting of his chin.

"Aye," he said.

 

            The five gypsies continued up the hill towards Callao. The road was lined with tall, formal buildings, domes and turrets, and on top of the domes, extravagant statues of angels. The facades, peppered by stonepillared or wroughtiron balconies, like the elaborately carved doorway of the Santa Andrea Insurance building opposite, were linked by a string of bulbs, Christmas decorations. Traffic-lights flicked monotonously from red to green and back to red. Sergio Alvarez wanted a cigarette. More than anything in the world, more even than a customer, he wanted a cigarette.  He would not have one, though, not until nine o'clock. That was the only way to cut down. On the hour, every hour. Even skip an hour if possible. The only way.

What's the time now?

No, don't look.

Not just yet anyway.

On the hour - bibeep bibeep bibeep

I'll look when that blasted goat has disappeared.

 

 

            Cándido Rojas was staring at the marvelous browns and

golds of the trees lining the square whilst he talked.

"You're late this morning, Rosa," he said.

"I'm not late," said the woman, "It's Saturday."

The leaves, brittle and spiked, moved slightly on the greybrown branches.

"One good gust of wind would bring that whole lot down," said Rojas, perhaps hoping. Then he turned to the woman:

"Relatives of yours have just passed along here. Ha, ha!"

Rosa Montero ignored him and continued to stuff red carnations into a green, plastic bucket. She placed her canvas chair back to the wind, her yellowstockinged legs fat and slightly apart, and she called out in a thin, nasal voice, her lips pursed in her fat cheeks:

"Vaya regalo de claveles que llevo, ¡oiga!"

Rojas winced involuntarily, as he always did when she shouted. The pitch of her voice jarred right the way up his spine. And there she was, rocking back in the chair with the effort of it. She was like a walrus, or a whale. Some stranded sea-thing, her lips pursed and pink in her round face. She lolled forwards suddenly onto unsteady feet and turned her back on the cigarette seller.

"Watch me stuff, I'm going for breakfast," she said over her shoulder.

Cándido Rojas nodded, for what it was worth.

"Sure, Rosa," he said, "Sure."

 

            BAR AMADOR. Down five steps and out of the wind. Inside, it smelt of stale tea and dish cloths. Rosa Montero looked at the barman suspiciously.

"White coffee," she said, "in a glass."

The barman nodded.

"And," she said, "give me some of that sponge if it's today's."

"It's in plastic," said the barman. "It's not today's, yesterdays or to-bloody-morrow's, is it? It just is. Take it or leave it."

"I'll have a doughnut."

 

            Rosa Montero did not remove her gloves. She pushed bits of sugary doughnut into the coffee with a wooly finger, dunked them up and down with the spoon, then slurped them into her mouth, soft and weighted with the milky coffee. The barman watched in distaste, chewing on a bun that was stale and gritty, pushing the doughy wad into his cheek with his tongue. Rosa Montero rubbed her sagging stomach in appreciation and took a tooth-pick from the bar.

 

            At 8.45, unable to resist, Sergio Alvarez lit a cigarette and stretched his long, thin legs towards the street, thinking: I'll smoke this and then I'll go and see how Cándido and

"Do you mind?"

A pudgy face and goldrimmed spectacles peering, squinting at him, motioning to brown brogues with scuffings of mud at the instep.

 

            Sergio Alvarez smiled, nodded, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs and happy, said, "After all, when all's said and done, it's my first of the day."

"I beg your pardon?"

 

            When the metro clattered out of VENTAS station, Aurelio Gómez concentrated and began to count:

MANUEL BECERRA

                GOYA

                     3 - 3 - 3

                                RETIRO

Now the long one

                                           4

to

                                               BANCO

                                                    SEVILLA

                                                                    SOL

                                                                              7

Just two more to go.                                           

He picked at the leather strap that held his walking-stick to his wrist, twisted it, untwisted it again. Not many people about yet, the train nearly empty. The hiss and bang of the doors opening.

OPERA

A woman pushed into the carriage and past him, thick with musty, cheap perfume. The whistle of the train and the doors shuddered closed. His hand shot out to balance as the train lurched forwards, the side of the carriage cold metal to the touch. Listening carefully to the rustle of the guard's clothes moving past to slide the connecting door back and talk in a low murmur to the driver.

Next stop then.

Aurelio Gómez pushed his legs wide to keep from falling as the train rattled and careered round the final bend and hissed into the station                   

      SANTO DOMINGO

                    rattled, hissed again and shunted to a stop. The clatter of the doors opening, the warning whistle, an isolated shout off at the other end of the platform. Aurelio Gómez ignored all of these things, concentrating on tapping out a passage to the stairs. He could already feel the cold wind on his face, sucked down into the tunnels by the trains. And at the top of the stairs he stopped, sniffing at the air. What's this? Hooves. Short steps clipping. The pungent, clinging smell of animals and human sweat. The click of a shoe.

 

            Sergio Alvarez pushed the ends of his fingers into the soft polish, and rubbed the cream into the toe of the shoe in rapid, circular movements, at the same time flipping the brush into his left hand and gliding it across the heel, the right hand catching it and pushing it over the toe, into the left hand again, a knock on the wood with the knuckle and whip it back up into the air to catch it, right-handed behind the heel, talking all the time:

"Colchonero or Merengüe? Atletico or Real?"

"Well, actually, I'm not much of a one for football."

Ask him something else. You have to talk. They expect it.

"You caught me at it, mate, you did. Trying to give it up, you see. Only smoke one an hour now, on the hour, every hour, like a clock."

Sergio Alvarez spat on his fingers. He sensed an odd movement away to his left, but ignored it, glanced merely from the corner of his eye whilst smiling and continuing to speak, his voice rigid with the boredom he could not overcome.

"I see they've killed someone else this morning. Didn't catch who, just glimpsed it on the front page."

The customer, Jorge Arias, nodded.

"I have yet to read the paper today."

"Best thing to do, that is."

"What's that?"

Alvarez looked past his customer's head towards the sky.

"Damned pollution," he said. "You go down there," pointing left towards the Plaza de España, "and you can't even see the moun­tains."

Jorge Arias squinted in the direction of the bootblack's grubby finger, about to murmur an agreement, when suddenly there were just blurred shapes wavering out of focus, his glasses gone. He flung out a clenched arm for protection and peered towards the furry outline of a man.

"5,000 pesetas or I break them!"

The voice of the man thin and shaking.

"Come on, you fat bastard, don't try to be smart. Five thousand or I'll snap these fucking glasses right down the middle!"

Arias stuttered towards a reply, the humiliation at first greater than fear, stupidly pleased there was no one there to see him.

"Oh God!"

The blasted inconvenience. It's not the money, it's the bloody inconvenience. Can't see a thing. Give him the money. He might have a knife. Probably some damned junkie with a knife. The voice again, almost whining now from the misty denim shape.

"Come on, fatso, don't push your luck! Don't force me to do it!"

Oh God! I only hope I've got. Five. There. Proffer the money towards a laugh, high-pitched and nasal, the crisp note snatched away, Arias straining for a hint of sound, exasperated, on his knees in the middle of the pavement, was near to tears.

"Stop him! He broke my glasses!"

    

            Aurelio Gómez heard the shouts and felt someone push past him into the entrance of the metro.

"No good shouting at him, cock, he's blind!"

Sergio Alvarez did not consider the untimeliness of his remark, but bent to pick up the two halves of the spectacles that had been dropped a few yards up the street.

"I reckon with a bit of sticky tape they'll be as right as rain," he suggested, forcing the remnants of the glasses into the out­stretched, almost pleading hands of his customer. He wondered whether to continue polishing his shoes. Arias pushed one of the lenses to his eye and looked accusingly at the bootblack.

"Why didn't you try to stop him?" he said, feeling ridiculous and ashamed at his weakness.

Alvarez blinked.

"What happened, I heard shouts?"

Arias turned to the blind man.

"Nothing," he said, able to presume in the face of this new stranger. "He was too quick for me. He broke my glasses."

He looked again at the bootblack.

"Must go," he said quickly, "I'm already late as it is. Damned junkie!"

 

            Crossing the road, he stuffed the two halves of his glasses into his coat pocket and tried to make things out on the huge front door of the Santa Andrea Insurance Company S.A.

    

            "What happened?" asked Aurelio Gómez again, noticing that Arias had moved away to the right and was crossing the road.

"Some punk," said Alvarez, spitting towards the concrete flower-troughs that lined the road. He watched the paunchy shape of Jorge Arias squeezing itself between two taxis that had stopped at the traffic-lights.

"Some punk," he said again, "Wanted some money."

"Couldn't you stop him?"

"Nah!" said Alvarez. "He was too quick. They always are too quick, these punks."

He looked at the blind man's shoes. Black, solid, sensible shoes.

"Tell you what, though," he said, taking Gómez's arm and turning him to sit, "I'll give your shoes the once over, how about that?"

 

            It was not the money. At 51, Jorge Arias had worked his way to the top on the basis of sacrifice and hard work. He had plenty of money. It was not that. He twisted the soft metal frame of the glasses. Somehow, he would have to explain to his wife. "Carmen," he would say, by phone from the office, distance the best policy, "I was attacked."

"Good morning, Mr Arias."

"Ah, good morning, Escudero."

After all, it's hardly fair to take it out on him.

"I was wondering, Escudero, ehem....."

"Yes, sir?"

Escudero ran a finger along his nicotine-stained moustache and pushed his tongue into the gap left by one of his front teeth. Arias waited, formulating the words first in his mind, unable to see more than a bleary form leaning towards him from the glass of the security box.

"Escudero, I was wondering if you might know of a good optician hereabouts."^He reached a fleshy hand into his pocket and withdrew the two halves of gold-rimmed spectacles.

"You see....."

Unable to provide further explanation, he placed them on the wooden surface of the counter.

"You see.....what has happened?"

"An accident, sir?" suggested Escudero.

Arias heaved a sigh of resignation.

"Exactly. Yes. An accident. That's right. Exactly."

He turned towards the lift, then back to the porter.

Can't even see the blasted man. Wave the hand towards him.

"I'd like them as soon as possible. I have work to do."

"Leave it to me, sir."

It's always the same. The last Saturday but one before Christmas, you come in to do some work and some punk breaks your glasses. Arias muttered something perfunctory towards Escudero whilst waiting for the lift. Annoyed and embarrassed once more by his disability, he turned away from the man, as though by hiding the fact that he was without glasses might somehow miraculously bring them back.

Damn! Can't tell which number to press. All the little, round black buttons the same. Arias ran his fingers sullenly over the numbers. That one it must be. 7.

 

            The lift doors glided open with a click and Arias stepped out onto the lush fitted carpet of the seventh floor.

"This is it alright," he muttered, "Bloody phone's ringing al­ready."

He pushed his way into the office and reached towards the shrill, jangling telephone.

"Hello. Arias, Direc....Ah, Escudero. It's you."

"-"

"Yes, of course. If he can't fix them I shall be needing them anyway today. I'm going to the theatre, you see. Garcia Lorca. Nuria Espert. Doña Rosita...."

                               ....la Soltera, he said to the empty mouthpiece, his stumpy forefinger bringing the conversation to an abrupt close. Damned blasted loneliness makes you talk too much!

 

            He sat at his vast, important, mahogany desk and pushed his knuckles into his eyes, rubbing the palms of his hands down his face and then back up to rest a peaked roof over his eyes.

And I know what Tulio will say, too. Make a joke of it.

Nevermind, you don't need glasses. You always go to sleep after the first Act, anyway.

Which was sadly true.

 

            Alone in his office, his solitude emphasised by his dark, blundering inability to see more than vague, smudgy shapes, Arias thought loosely of his son, and how he might best be slotted in to the firm. Before Christmas would be nice. A sort of Christmas present for the lad. After all, you have to look after your own, don't you? No one is going to deny you that. No need for justifi­cation, nor guilt. It's not as if I were the only one. From the government down. And I worked hard to get where I am, made many sacrifices along the way. That has to count for something. Gives you the right to some kind of reward, at least. Might even help the boy to settle down. Stop him gallivanting about with his arm in the air. And Carmen would be pleased.

 

            Sergio Alvarez tucked his scarf beneath the zipped collar of his imitation-leather jacket.

"I'd always understood that people spent more money the worse off they were," he said, blowing onto his windbitten hands.

"And so they do," said Cándido Rojas confidently. "They go out more. They go to the cinema, to restaurants. That sort of thing."

Alvarez moved a couple of cigarette packets on Cándido's stall.

"At least you've got a job," said Rojas. He envied the bootblack the tradition of his work.

"It's only one step up from begging," said Alvarez sulkily.

"Better than one step down," suggested Rojas.

"You twat!"

Rojas was slightly in awe of the other man. The fact that he had always lived this kind of life, perhaps even did it out of choice, created a barrier between them that was emphasised by Alvarez's propensity to swearing.

"Tell you what, Sergio," he said, finally, "Let's go get ourselves a cup of coffee. Knock off for half an hour."

Alvarez nodded and swung his wooden box into the crook of his arm.

"Leave it. Rosa'll watch over it."

"No," said Alvarez, "Might find a customer. You can never tell. Damned sure there'd be one if I left it behind."

Rojas rubbed the backs of his legs where they had stiffened with so much sitting. The two men walked to BAR AMADOR, Alvarez tall and bandy, Rojas squat and bald. The shorter man slouched as he walked, his round head a fat ball on his shoulders.

"They spend more on betting, too," he said, "on the pools, on bingo."

Alvarez scarcely nodded. He blew on his hands and rubbed the chafed palms together.

"Christ!" he said, "It's a real bloody nipple-stiffener today, and that's no lie."

They walked down the five steps and into the bar.

"And then there's the lottery. The Christmas Lottery."

"That's more tradition, though, isn't it?"

"They buy more, Sergio. That's what I'm saying. They buy more. Now, then, coffee is it?"

"With a tiny nip of brandy, eh? Fucking brass monkey's it is."

"Two degrees centigrade," Rojas informed his companion.

"All I can say, Cándido, is that I'm glad I never married. Could never support a wife on what I get."

"You manage, Sergio. Christ knows how. You manage, that's all. You have to. The State should make some provision, perhaps?"

"They're never out of work, are they, Cándido. There's the rub!" Alvarez smiled and sipped at his brandy.

"You know what?" went on Rojas, tapping the counter with an extended finger, "I'd have to sell something like two thousand packets of cigarettes a week if I wanted a decent wage. That's about 34 packets an hour. You can't do it, can you?"

Alvarez snorted.

"34 packets an hour, my arse! Your fags are all nicked, all smuggled, anyway."

Nevertheless, he was impressed with his friend's mathematics, unaware that the figures had been worked out time and again during the boredom of the long winter mornings at his stall.

"Better off begging," he said suddenly. "Know where to put your­self, keep out of the way of the Portuguese mafia, and you can make anything up to five thou' a day. Or break people's glasses. That pays well, too"

"Pull the other one," said Rojas, sniffing across his sleeve.

"Straight up!" Alvarez insisted. "You stand outside the big cinemas, the big department stores, and you make a bomb!" He prodded the fatter man's shoulder, "Now, then, if you've got a kid with you!"

"I guess," admitted Rojas grudgingly. "Still, it's one hell of a life!"

"Any job on the streets is hell in winter."

 

 

LA ALDEA

 

SATURDAY                               DECEMBER 13th 1980

 

FASCIST YOUTH LEADER SHOT

-------------------------

 

The secretary of the fascist youth organisation, "Frente Nacional de la Juventud", was gunned down yesterday in the entrance to the block

 

 of flats where he lived. The identity of the killers is, as yet, unknown, but it is suspected to have been a political rather than a criminal act.         

 

                                                                          

            Marta Valero flicked the newspaper just out of reach of the bunched hands of Angel, her two and a half year old son. She sat back against the hard, wooden bench and moved the pushchair back and forth with her foot. The wind blew in cold gusts and the sun shimmered brilliantly across the lake. There were two intrepid rowing boats dipping across the water and the harsh reflection of the sun splintered in the waves. She looked across to the opposite bank of the lake, the elaborate, pillared semi-circle shining white beneath the noble statue of Alfonso XII, steps and stone lions leading down to the metal grille about the water. She pulled the newspaper away from the child's tearing fingers and looked quickly at page 44, half hoping that they would have forgotten to run the advert. But there it was.

   SERVICIOS * * * RELAX

   ---------------------

  

* Flavia. American, Master, Diner's.

  Apartamento-hotel. Tel: 270 10 37

 

* Xaviera. Inclusive hotel. 24 hours.

  Tel: 411 25 78. Visa.

 

* Katy. Chico-chica. Tel: 232 57 91

 

* Marta. Tel: 274 48 40

 

 

Stupid. Why had she not thought to invent a name? Put something else too, like the others. The bench creaked as a black-suited man lowered himself heavily smiling, finger prodding towards the baby's chin to chuck and say, "What a handsome little fellow!" squinting at the rosy puckered face.

"Say goodbye to the nice gentleman, Angel."

Marta tilted the pushchair onto the squeaking back wheels and

turned towards the bandstand. Angel leaned to his left and twisted his face to look at the man, podgy hand waving. Some pigeons fluttered down for the hard, crusty, stale breadcrumbs tipped from an old lady's brown, paper-bag. Angel tugged at the straps of the pushchair and waved his arms up and down. The fat man, at a discreet distance, following, waving his fingers stiffly. It's as though it were written on your face.

* Marta. Credit Cards accepted. Hotel or apartment.

Tel: 274 48 40.

You can't even go for a peaceful walk. Where does he think I got the baby from? No, they know that as well. Something there is that says: Unmarried mother.

The wheels crunched across the grit and gravel of the path, over the thick, black shadows.

A fat hand on my arm.

"Excuse me, miss, you forgot your paper."

His sickly, ingratiating smile and sallow cheeks. Pink tongue licking at a shiny bubble of spit.

"Thank you."

If they weren't all so repulsive!

"Maybe you would accept my invitation to a cup of coffee? I generally have one myself at this time of day, at the Cafe Lion, you understand. Friends drop by. They know you are there. It is a good arrangement. Of course, if you'd rather not."

The palm of his hand was sweaty, the spongy fingers dabbing at her shoulder. Glasses joined above the nose by a grubby piece of elastoplast.

"I love 'the Retiro', don't you? It's so peaceful."

Stop the pushchair. Marta sighed, put one foot on the metal rim that ran along the back of the chair and looked at the blacksuited intruder.

"It is kind of you to offer," she said, "but I try not to work at the week-ends."

Arias, embarrassed, pushed tight fists into his pockets.

"I didn't mean to suggest," he stammered, feeling the colour rise to his cheeks, "I didn't mean."

 

            Arias watched the girl's slim hips. Cramped in his annoyance he squeezed the end of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

"Awfully pretty girl," he muttered, sniffing. "So what if she did think that!"

A small boy raced towards him on a bicycle, the rusted pedals clanking and protesting, towing a triangular kite that skimmed across the dusty surface, the long tail colourful squares of shiny paper. Two more boys chased after the kite, urging it to take off with shrill whoops. Arias watched them race away towards the octagonal bandstand, weaving between the trunks of newly planted trees. He noticed that everyone was a couple or a family. Hand in hand, arm in arm, feet scuffling and rasping over the sandy paths, down the avenues, round the fountains, all the park clogged with crisp brown and gold leaves, hard, shiny conkers like polished wood, the people in twos, fours and families.

"So what if she did think that!"

The air smelt of winter. Cold and faintly tangy with frost. Arias looked at the fountain in the centre of the Plaza de Nicaragua. The fountain had almost dried up, a thin, sorry dribble of water from the bloated bronze frogs and tortoises. Two of each.

 

            Marta and the baby turned right to walk eastward along by the fence where it was quieter. Arias looked at them once more, then past them to the white dome of a church. He looked left, the Puerta de Alcala visible at the end of an avenue of green, spindly poplars.

"Getting nippy, it is, too," he said to himself, his shoulders hunched into the wind. "I'll have to wear that damned overcoat, even if it does smell of mothballs."

Grumbling, Arias walked past the man with the puffy, red nose

selling balloons, and out of the park into the street.

"I'll bet I look a right cunt, too, with these bloody glasses broken and no overcoat!"

 

            A cold, raw wind blew down the calle Alcala, although the sun was shining. The morning seemed fragile, as if with the first, sudden movement it would break. James Hardman observed it from the warm, bustling sanctuary of BAR URBE, observed it through red, peeling letters that had been half steamed away from the window.

 

                        eef      ruo yrt

                     eht fo ytil i eps eht

                            esuoh

                         satesep  52

 

            The owner of the bar, Marcelino Sanz, fingered the croissants and bayonesas and looked at the back of the Englishman's head.

"You going back to London then for the Christmas festivities?"

Hardman turned, distracted, still trying to think of an article he was writing, still thinking of the glare of the sun on the road.

"What's that, Quino?" he said, looking along the length of the bar to where the older man was standing.

"London. England. Are you going back? For Christmas."

Hardman smiled, for want of anything better.

"I had thought about going, only it seems I can't." he said. "Never been to London, though, in my life, except the airport of course."

Quino nodded as though he might have understood.

"I can't, apparently, leave, and I can't stay here."

A hand landed on his shoulder.

"Morning, lads."

"Morning," repeated Hardman automatically. He was thinking about his passport, how on page 13 there was a stamp in purple ink, which said:

 

DIRECCION GRAL DE SEGURIDAD

FRONTERAS

1 SEP 1980

ENTRADA - C

FUENTES DE OÑORO

 

That was when they had gone to Salamanca, to Ciudad Rodrigo, and into Portugal, three and a half months ago, now. And in another week, that extra half month would be three weeks, which was three weeks too many. Hardman had been to the police, to the

immigration department.

"Ah, yes. This stamp is out of date."

"I know. That is why I have come. I want to go to England."

"You can't leave the country with this stamp, it is out of date."

"I shall, in that case, remain here for Christmas."

"No, you can't do that. The stamp is out of date. You will have to pay a fine and be expelled from the country."

So it had been decided. A further trip to Portugal to sneak across the border to obtain yet another entry stamp on the way back. Hardman turned and rested his elbows on the bar and looked through the glass door towards the grocer's shop across the street.

Brittle, empty orange-boxes had been tipped into the street, the fruit itself forming a clean pyramid of colour against the whitewashed walls of the shop. A metal dish for weighing the fruit rocked in the wind.

"And the wife?"

It was Javier Romero, from the corner shop. He seemed genuinely interested.

"Everso slightly fatter," said Hardman over his shoulder.

"To be expected," affirmed Javier Romero, the experienced father of six. "When's it due. Another month, isn't it?"

"Something like that."

Hardman found it impossible to concentrate, to distill his wife's pregnancy into a living being. Or himself into a father. He liked to imagine that the birth of the child would be an event like any other, that it would not make any overdrastic changes in him. Yet he was already changed. This business of the stamp, for instance. He'd already been living illegally in Spain as a tourist for five years, what did three more weeks matter?

"I'll bet you're excited!"

It was Quino leaning across the bar to nod in anticipation. Hardman returned the old man's smile, trivia seeming, at least, to be one way out.

"Of course, I am. Who wouldn't be?"

"After four the novelty does tend to wear a bit thin," Javier Romero left no room for doubt. "Besides which you tend to run out of names."

"Ha ha ha."

"Look in the bible," said Hardman, "There are some great names in the bible. Phut, for example."

Javier and Quino wondered. If it were serious.

"Yes, yes. Phut Hardman. And it came to pass that James begat Phut and of him was the whole earth o'erspread." 

"What's that then, a boy or a girl?"

"A boy, of course, Carlos. If it is a girl, we shall call her Susana, or something like that. Elisa." 

Marcelino Sanz nodded in appreciation, recognising a good catholic sounding name.

Romero had finished his coffee and was waiting for his change. He spat on a twenty-five peseta coin, dropped it into one of the fruit machines, and left the bar before witnessing his loss with two lemons and a pear.

James Hardman pushed his way along the length of the bar past morning shoppers and workers from the Post Office across the road. He went up three steps to the raised part of the room that was behind the counter and sat at one of the four marble-topped tables. He ordered another coffee and a brandy, pulled a typewritten sheet of paper from his pocket and began to read.

    

            It is certainly possible that the name Madrid comes from the Arabic word Magerit, although Mr Menéndez Pidal has suggested the Celtic word Mageterito as its origin. The city is the political and geographical centre of Spain, and lying at a height of 650 metres above sea-level, it is the highest capital city in Europe.

 

            Archeological finds have been discovered from the paleolithic age, the neolithic age and the bronze age along the banks of the River Manzanares, proving that modern Madrid is the ultimate product of a prehistoric settlement.

 

            The real history of Madrid, however, begins in 850 A.D. when Mohammed I conquered what was then a Visigothic settlement, but it is not until 1083 that the christians finally took the city. It became the capital of Spain during the reign of Philip II.

 

            There are more bars in Madrid than in any other city in Europe.

 

There were three beginnings, all of them bad. Hardman looked at

the dark brown nutty surface of his coffee. Somehow it used to be much easier. He couldn't take this business of writing non-fiction seriously. Everything he wrote sounded like it was meant to be read on the television, or as though it had been written by someone else. He sipped the coffee. He couldn't believe in it. But it meant, at least, that he didn't have to translate quite so much. And after all, his poetry never made them any money. The odd sonnet accepted disinterestedly by the magazine of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

 

            Quino and Carlos were arguing about coffee, the older man rubbing the palm of his hand across his bald head in impatience. Something about Two kilos is enough, and the Video shop next door has been broken into again. Video Madrid, just round the corner.

Hardman ran into the street, to see. On the corner, a bunched crowd of people.

"They've got one of them."

"They've got one of them trapped inside the shop."

"The other one ran off. They want to escape."

"How many?"

"I didn't see."

"Some of the gang are trapped."

"But they'll be armed. They always are these days, aren't they?"

"I say they should be shot."

"It's alright. He's got him by the neck now."

 

            In URBE the argument continued as to whether two kilos of coffee was, or was not sufficient to get them through the holiday period. Hardman returned as the police arrived, a decision taken.

"Quino," he said, "Where's the best place to buy a christmas tree?"

The old man grinned happily.

"I'll bet it's been snowing for weeks by now in London," he said.

   

The end of an era came just five days ago in a hail of bullets. In New York City. Not since the shooting of Kennedy has a murder had such an effect.

 

        Aurelio Gómez pushed the small transistor radio to his ear.

There's no heaven.

That little sod of a nephew: How do you know you've been asleep if you can't see?

I should have said: Juanito, when I'm asleep, I can't hear the sirens. The lullaby of Madrid. There's one now, down to the left over past Rosales. Dee-dah dee-dah dee-dah. Lying in bed in the cold, there's always one starts up somewhere.

I wish the football would get a move on. It must be getting near time, raised voices all way the way up and down the street.

Nice, too, to think you have clean shoes. Even if you're wearing odd socks, you might as well have clean shoes.

"Bye, mate."

A familiar voice, it could be any one of a hundred.

Say something anyway.

"Bye. See you Tuesday!"

A little joke to end the day. Reckon I'll get off home and listen to the football there, in bed with a cup of cocoa. Hold on. Feet scuffling.

"Two, please."

Aurelio Gómez fumbled two tickets away from the safety pin holding them to his collar. Waiting tapping his feet, the man spoke to him.

"Shocking business, this shooting."

"I didn't particularly like John Lennon, but all the same..."

"What?"

Gómez held out the tickets.

"I don't want that number, it must end in six."

"I'm sorry, if you could, perhaps, help?"

Cold fingers under Gómez's chin took two lottery tickets, ending, one supposed, in 6. The gruff voice continued.

"No, no, no. I mean this shooting this morning. Terrible business. Something should be done!"

"Shooting is shooting, whoever the victim," suggested Gómez timidly.

He listened to the man's footsteps clicking efficiently up the hill. Just because you're blind they think they can be rude to you. If they win, they don't buy you a drink even. The least they could do.

 

        "As I refused to give him money, he broke them!"

"Probably a junkie, Jorge. But you should be careful, he might've had a knife, a gun even."

"Well, Tulio, if the police aren't there to protect you..."

And they believed him!

He insinuated with a slight shrug of the shoulder.

There was Carmen, though. She would not be taken in.

"But you look so ridiculous with them like that. A piece of grubby elastoplast. Like a stupid little boy that's broken them in a fight. Why you don't have a spare pair I can't imagine."

"I sat on them, Carmen. Last summer. They were in the front of the car. I sat on them."

Arias removed the glasses and examined them thoughtfully.

"This is the spare pair," he said.

It was useless to argue with him. He was beyond argument, standing there like a pathetic little boy. She watched him sternly. He was fidgeting from one foot to another.

"You might have taken them off, at least, between the Acts, Jorge."

Yes, she remembered him now sitting on his glasses, how they, she and Ramón, had laughed at him peering shortsightedly through the August sun towards the sea. But she would not think of it. Her husbands glasses with the little clipped sun-glass attachment in two pieces on the front seat of the car. But it was no good. Just looking at him made her feel old. Perhaps that was why she disliked him so much.

"And what do you think of the play?"

Her white face proffered, slightly raised, Carmen questioned their judgement before they spoke.

"Very good indeed," ventured Tulio, wondering. He adjusted his

tie, and looked across bobbing heads and cigarette smoke, the foyer of the theatre awash with conversing faces. All so apparently knowle­dgeable . He and Jorge were engineers. Well, Jorge wasn't. What should they know about plays, for Christ's sake! Talk to Arias, rescue me from these women.

"Terrible thing, Jorge, what? It's symptomatic, you see, isn't it? Violence in the streets. It should be stamped out!"

He punched the palm of his left hand energetically. It might have been the play he was punching, his lack of understanding. Arias responded.

"You don't have time to think, Tulio, that's the real problem. And then there was the bootblack."

As if that might explain it, his assumed bravery.

Ding ding ding ding ding ding

"Once more into the breach," he smiled, pointing theatrically back towards the stalls. Tulio walked behind, clasping his shoulder. They edged past pushing knees, ducking ineffectually, a little awkward, to sit. Beside him, Canadian silver fox and thick, expensive perfume - his wife. And to his left, Tulio's full lips whispering close to his ear.

"If you can escape Wednesday night, there's a game of poker."

-Ssssssshhhhhh!

He turned, the chair creaking, then back. You could sense the garlic, hot on his breath.

"At Rafa's."

Arias leaned into the prickly surface of the seat and closed his eyes. On stage, soft, explicit whispers drifted through a dusty, summer evening. You could almost imagine the scent of flowers, his wife told him later that night, when they had gone to bed.

"Yes, Carmen," he'd said, "The scent of flowers. Perhaps an air-freshener used between the Acts?"

" And didn't Nuria Espert look old?"

"Yes, Carmen. She must be getting on for your age I suppose."

She wondered whether he tried to irritate her on purpose. A car horn tooted its way down the street. And he said he didn't know what she was talking about, stupid man. Carmen pushed herself down in bed, turning away physically from her husband, and sought refuge in what she could remember of the play.

Such a shame he was a communist, though, the writer.

 

 

            They were alone on the platform. Ramón Arias looked at his watch and smiled. He squeezed the girl, his tight fingers about her waist.

"No," he said, "I don't mind that you have to be in early, just

so long as you don't mind my not having a car to take you home."

The girl snuggled into the crook of his arm.

"Marisa," he breathed in her ear, saved from having to say any more by the grating arrival of the eastbound metro, yellow nights and noise, rattling to a standstill. Marisa turned towards him, and brushed her lips hurriedly across his.

"No," she said, "I don't mind at all. I like the metro at this time of night. Like having a special train just to take us home."

Ramón fumbled uncertainly towards a breast, large and firm in her coat. When he was certain that he'd felt it, he turned away and responsibly, thoughtfully lit a cigarette.

"I hate it that you have to witness all those bums," he said, puffing smoke to take his mind away from nipples.

"Pissing up the walls, begging, puking up everywhere. You shouldn't have to see those things, Marisa, you're too beautiful."

He was pleased with that. It came out far better than he could have imagined. Made eloquent by the vicinity of her body, he continued.

"They'd be better off if someone came past when they were stinking drunk and tipped them all off onto the tracks."

She kissed him twice more before the train came. That made six times in all.

 

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December 13th 1980