Author: Paul House

Bulls: 1

Chapter 1 Build-Up It was a clear night and the moon was full. The field was covered in short winter grass and the tips of the stems shimmered in the moonlight. Victor Rubiales could see the herd of cattle asleep on the crest of a hill and at its centre, the sharp horns of a bull silhouetted against the horizon. The moonlight made the leaves on the branches of the holm oak sharp. Victor Rubiales removed his clothes slowly and a slight wind blew cold against his skin. He placed his trousers, shirt and boots in a neat pile beneath the nearest tree. He opened a leather case and he looked at the red and the white capes and the sword which lay inside. He took the small white cape from the leather case and screwed the end of the sword into one corner so that it fell across the blade and hung stiffly. He took one step forward and the scent of marjoram and thyme spiked in his nose. Before him, uneven scrub and treacherous lumps of earth. No smooth, carefully raked sand. He could just make out his brother Tomás, fully-clothed, moving in a half-crouch towards the sleeping cattle, a cut-out against the milky sky. Victor took the cape in his right hand and walked slowly forwards, his back arched and his chin lifted and slightly forwards. The earth was hard against his bare feet, the thyme pricking his legs and the white light of the moon washed across his naked body. Tomás awoke the cows and the solitary bull using an old picador’s pike that had been splintered in the bullring and then discarded. He held the pike tucked into his armpit and pushed the split end into the rump of one of the cows. The cattle lumbered sleepily to their feet. The bull stood, shook its head, sniffed at the air and became aware of Victor’s presence. It ran its hoof across the ground and tossed some dry earth up beneath its chest. Victor could hear its breath blow through the distance that separated them and he heard the pellets of soil rasp over its skin. All of Victor’s practised poise froze. His heart knocked against his ribs and pummelled into his chest. He tried to take a step forwards but his legs remained rooted to the spot. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears. A tidal wave of fear had paralysed his brain. And then the bull charged. It came down the short hill towards him at a trot. Its breath blasting and free. Victor’s breath snagged in his throat. His legs still refused to obey him. The bull was a dark fluid surge of muscle, every part of its body working together, the sinewed hump over its shoulder blades tightening. Victor licked his lips with a sandpaper tongue and took a step forwards, sliding the sole of his foot over the soil and turning slightly to receive the bull. He stood still. He knew that if he kept his ground and raised the cape slowly, the bull would go by him, lifting its head into the air, and it would be carried away from him. He would be safe. The bull charged and he did everything he had to do to make sure he was not killed. He heard the breath of the bull and felt its skin rub against his as it lunged into the empty cloth. His mouth was no longer dry. He was suddenly in charge. He knew he could put his feet together and work close to the bull, pull it around his naked body like a towel, the leathery back rubbing the sweat away from his thighs, the breath hot against his neck as it lunged upwards and past his chest. Tomás was on the hilltop. He was keeping a look out for the farmer or worse still the police. He could see his younger brother and the bull in the shallow valley, becoming more and more excited with each pass, until Victor and the bull were part of the same movement. The light from the full moon hit the surface of the white cape and almost made it shine. Victor pushed his waist towards the bull and brought the animal around him in circles, again and again. The bull passed so close to his body that it pushed him backwards. He rubbed his chest where the bull had bruised him as it passed. He looked down for a moment, annoyed that he had let himself get so close to death, but exalted because he was not dead. He rubbed the welts on his chest and looked back towards the bull. It was preparing for another charge. Victor shuffled his foot forwards over the dry soil. He put himself in the exact place he knew would make the bull charge, just slightly to the right of the left horn, into the bull’s territory. Dressed only in his skin, he took another small step forwards and across the face of the bull and then he flicked the white cape. The bull looked at him. With two hands holding the cape, he brought the bull close to his hip, made it circle twice and then released it with a simple flip of his wrist. Tomás watched his brother in the clearing between the trees. Victor was working very close to the bull, pulling it round him with long passes of the white cape. Then he snatched the cape away from the bull and it stopped in its tracks. He furled the cape around the stick and held it bent across his forearm then turned his back on the bull and pushed himself up on to his toes. The moonlight rubbed his taut shoulder blades and moved down over his haunches as he rocked from side to side. “That’s enough, Victor,” Tomás said under his breath. He hoped his brother was not becoming ‘bull-drunk’, taking unnecessary risks, intoxicated by his control and skill; overconfident. “Let’s call it a day,” he said, but he didn’t move. Victor had turned to face the bull again. He was getting into position to slowly and lovingly bring the animal towards him, thrusting his hips slightly forwards and swaying to keep the bull’s attention focussed on the top of his right thigh at the edge of the cape. He would draw the bull towards him and then, with a small movement of his wrist, make it follow the cape, convinced that behind the white cloth it would make contact with the solid flesh of his leg. But before he could do that, the blue lights and the sirens came. Laura Gómez was the Duty Solicitor called in on the night they brought Victor Rubiales into the police station. She had spoken briefly to Victor and explained to him the advantages of making an early guilty plea. Although he had admitted to being guilty, he had no intention of entering a plea of any kind. He seemed to be proud of what he had done. She walked with the Duty Officer back to his desk. He was a spongy man who smelt of baby oil and was known unkindly as Nenuco by his colleagues. “What is it?” she asked. “Breaking and entering? That shouldn’t be much more than a small fine. Why are you keeping him in?” The officer looked past her and through the open doors of the police station. The sun was coming up and the street outside already had the feel of early morning. He heard the metal blind on the bar next door being lifted through its rusty latches and he thought of coffee. “They want more than €50,000 in damages,” he said. He pinched his nose to stifle a sneeze. “Hay fever.” “They want what?” “50,000.” “They can’t be serious.” “Any idea how much those bulls are worth?” Laura said that she had no idea. Nenuco shrugged. “But they’ve still got the bull. He didn’t steal it,” she said. “Useless now,” he said. “Worthless. It’s seen a man on foot. Worse than that, it’s been fought; it’s learnt that there’s nothing behind the cape. Suicide to send a bull like that to the bullring. It’s got to be sacrificed.” Laura put her hands on the desk and leaned forwards. Nenuco sat down and looked at her with a grin, pleased he knew something she didn’t. He felt intimidated when women had the upper hand and Laura always seemed to. “Compensation,” he said. “Damages.” He liked that better and grinned again. “And they say it’s not the first time he’s done it.” “Any proof of that?” Nenuco sniffed and looked away. Then he glanced back at the pile of papers on his desk and moved the top sheet to one side. A plastic biro with a chewed end rolled on to the floor. Nenuco bent to pick it up. “I guess,” he said from beneath the table. And then emerging again with the pen, “Else they wouldn’t say so.” “People say all kinds of things. It doesn’t make them true.” Nenuco ignored that. “The brother got away,” he said, obviously disappointed. Then he leant his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his raised knuckles. It was clear that he had nothing more to say. Laura switched on her phone as she left the police station. Although it was still only 6.30 in the morning, she already had five missed calls from her partner, Luís. She knew what they would be about. Why you get up in the middle of the night to do that job is beyond me. They pay you like shit. And those people aren’t worth saving anyway. Bums and drug addicts. She stopped walking and took the phone from her bag again. She clicked on each of the missed calls to acknowledge they had been received. It would only make things worse if he saw that she hadn’t seen them. It was that moment before the city has properly woken up. Madrid never sleeps, but there is a brief period as the night shifts are ending, the streets have been hosed down and the morning has yet to come alive when it is at its quietest. The shutters on the bar next to the police station were half open and, as she looked through the slatted metal, Laura could see a South American cleaner with a mop and a blue plastic bucket taking a cigarette break and talking to someone who was out of sight. A bus with three passengers pulled in to a bus stop across the road. Laura thought about running to catch it but an early-morning drunk was lurching towards her, a half-empty litre bottle of beer crooked in his arm. She waited for him to pass and the bus pulled away. She crossed the road and sat on the hard blue bench in the bus shelter. A digital sign told her the next one would be along in 13 minutes. She looked at her phone again, half expecting another missed call. Rick Morris had awoken early. He had made a pot of coffee and taken it back to bed and he was still lying there at 7.15. He had not slept well, but the idea of getting up depressed him. The idea of going to work depressed him even more. He watched the hands on the clock as they moved towards the red needle marking the time he had set his alarm: 7.30. If he’d thought he would go back to sleep he would have said fuck it and turned the alarm off. Instead he watched the second-hand racing around the luminous dial. When he walked down the three flights of stairs from his apartment to the street, sixty-six steps in all, he saw Isi struggling to get the bins in through the front door. Isi was a pensioner who took the rubbish out for them every night for a pittance to add to her pittance of a pension. She was not much taller than the bin and walked with a stick to ease her badly replaced hip joints. Rick always had a kind word for Isi and, no matter how he was feeling, always greeted her with his broadest smile. “Allow me, Isi,” he said, grabbing the handle of the empty bin and forcing it through the narrow doorway. “How are we this morning?” She looked up at him through round National Health glasses, screwed her lips together and took a deep breath. She reached up and put her hand on his shoulder. Then she shook her head slowly. “Not so good, Rick,” she said. He folded a five euro note into her hand. “Get yourself a little pick-me-up,” he said. She gripped his elbow. “You’ll be the death of me,” she said, limping a little way along the street beside him before stopping and giving vent to a wracking cough. “You take care of yourself, Rick,” she said in between coughs. “You’re a good man.” By the time he reached the entrance to the metro, he was already late for work. He had spent far too long in the shower, trying to wash some life back into his rundown body. He stood looking at the steps to where the daylight gave way to the underground yellow strip-lighting. His stomach felt awful and he turned away. He would get some breakfast first. There were two other customers in the bar when Rick walked in, a street-sweeper and a postman. The barman nodded across at him. “Running late again, are we?” he said, turning to place a cup beneath the coffee machine and warming a metal jug of milk. Rick adjusted his expression to one of personable acquiescence. He didn’t answer. The postman had a wicker chair strapped on to the top of his trolley and he was explaining some carving on the legs to the street-sweeper. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” he was saying. “Found it just down the road. People chuck out all sorts of things, you know. You and I are lucky we’re out on the street so early. That way, we get first refusal, as it were, on anything that’s out there.” Rick glanced over at the chair. It didn’t seem to him to be anything special. Just a wicker chair with carved legs. “A beauty,” said the postman again. The coffee came and it was hot and bitter. In the corner of the bar, a television was dishing out the news with the volume down. A straggling line of refugees somewhere, by the looks of it. Rick knew he should know where. For the others, though, it seemed that the chair was more interesting. “You can leave it here,” the barman was saying. “While you’re on your round. Leave it in the storeroom here. You don’t want to go carting that about with you all morning, do you?” “Somebody might pilfer it,” the street-sweeper explained, “when you’re inside posting letters.” Rick was watching the ragged line picking their silent way over a rocky path. He knew where it was, but his brain could not tell him the place. “I’d burn it,” he said to the postman. They looked at him, expecting more. “The chair,” he said. “Burn it. It’s probably riddled with woodworm.” “No tell-tale holes,” the postman said, caressing the legs with one finger. There had been no reason why Rick had wanted to spoil their fun and, now that he had done so, he felt too weary to continue. “Right,” he said, and ordered a second coffee. The line of people on the television walked now beside a barbed-wire fence. A small boy in a sky-blue shirt was being passed through the barbed wire to people on the other side. Rick drank his coffee quickly and walked to the door. “It’s Turkey,” he said as he left. When he arrived at his desk in the press agency, the first post he had to correct and approve was already in his in-box. He began to read without interest: ‘The chief herdsman on a farm near Colmenar had informed the Guardia Civil that he expected intruders last night because there was to be a full moon. When they reached the farm, they found the padlocks on the gates had been tampered with and, upon further investigation, they discovered one young man taunting a bull and another on look-out duties. When they saw the officers, the two men tried to escape, but one of them was arrested. An hour later, in a nearby field, the Guardia Civil found an old jalopy belonging to the intruders, covered by a tarpaulin with the car keys hidden in the petrol tank.’ He sighed and wondered what he’d done to deserve this. Well, he knew what he’d done. When he had been working for a national broadsheet in London, his wife had been killed in a hit and run accident. The police had finally tracked down the driver, a seventeen-year-old with no driving licence, who had been given a six-year prison sentence. Rick had spent far too long away from work unsuccessfully trying to come to terms with his loss and trying to understand how his wife’s life was worth so little. He couldn’t face the idea of carrying on as though nothing had happened and, because he had studied Spanish at university, he decided that the quiet backwater of the press agency in Madrid was somewhere he could be anonymous. Even so, he seemed to carry the memory of his dead wife around with him, almost as though if he let it go he would also lose some large part of his past. And the good thing about his past was that it had seemed to have a bright future, which was more than he could say about his present. If he looked ahead now, all he could see was getting by, getting through the day. And getting through the day was becoming harder and harder to do. He had recently, in the space of two Christmases, lost his two best friends, both to cancer. The loss of them had made him sombre and miserable for months afterwards and served only to emphasise his own vulnerability and the fragile nature of existence. He couldn’t say for certain that he had ever had any wind in his sails, but these two deaths coming so shortly after the death of his wife had taken whatever wind there had been out of them and left him not so much becalmed as adrift. The fact that he had also lost his job had done nothing to improve his state of mind. He had thought that moving to Madrid would provide him not only with a place to hide, but with the opportunity for a fresh start. He had been there for nearly a year now and was still crouched at the beginning of the race, waiting to hear the starter’s gun. Rick did, however, appreciate the size of the whiskies and the variation of tapas in the bars. He enjoyed eating parts of animals he had never tried before: pig’s ear fried with garlic and parsley, lamb’s feet in a light batter, tripe in a hot spicy sauce and, his favourite, veal sweetbreads fried on a hot griddle. And then the endless sunny days; and when the sky was so polluted they said the city was wearing a beret of filth, even then the sun shone through the haze and brightened the streets. Sometimes, in the evenings, he would just walk around the steep narrow streets of Malasaña looking at the couples in the bars drinking and making plans, seldom going in himself until they had started to empty and he could sit alone with a large glass of whisky, waiting for when it would be late enough to go to bed safely. Then he would go home and lie there, unable to sleep listening to old songs. “You finished with that?” It was the author of the article he had been correcting. He nodded. “I don’t feel there’s much I can add, Juan,” he said. “You seem to have made a basically uninteresting story tedious in the extreme.” Juan let out a deep breath between his teeth. Rick thought it sounded like the kind of breath you’d use to stop yourself hitting someone, a release of energy to keep the muscles soft. He didn’t blame him. He could have said something nice, something encouraging. “Succinct and to the point,” he could have said. “Nice use of the word ‘jalopy’.” Victor Rubiales counted the white tiles on the wall of his cell. He was trying to come down from the high of the bullfighting. That solicitor had asked him why he’d done it and he had been unable to explain. If she were here now, he’d tell her: If you put your life at risk, you get a richer life in exchange. He liked how that sounded. He tried to relax his muscles, to loosen his body and he tried to get his mind back to a place where it might do him some good. He started to count the white tiles again, starting at the top left and making his way across the wall to the right, but it didn’t work. As soon as he got into double figures, he would be back amongst the olive trees beneath the full moon, his heart the size of a beef tomato. Laura sat in her office and looked out over the red tiled roofs in the old centre of Madrid. Just beyond her window was the massive grey stone roof of the opera building and lying beyond it, like an over-decorated wedding cake, the royal palace and the cathedral with its modern baroque dome. “Do you find it as ugly as I do, the cathedral?” she said to a colleague who worked at the desk alongside hers. Ana Alvarez, the only other woman in the firm, looked up from some papers and glanced out of the plate glass towards the cathedral. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work here,” she said. “The view.” “No, the view’s lovely. But the cathedral. Don’t you think it’s ugly?” Ana looked at the cathedral again and gave her a quick smile. “Never thought about it,” she said, getting back to work. Laura continued to look out over the roofs of the city. “The opera building’s pretty ugly too,” she said. “Like a massive mausoleum.” “You’re in a good mood this morning,” said Ana without looking up from her papers. “Rough night, was it?” “No, not really. Just called out the once. Some kid bullfighting in the moonlight.” “Is that a crime?” “Apparently.” “What’s he accused of?” “Breaking and entering with severe property damage.” “That makes it an indictable offence. That’s a bit steep, isn’t it?” Laura thought about the grinning Nenuco back at the police station. “Did you know a fighting bull’s worth as much as 50,000 euros?” she said. Ana didn’t look up from her papers. “Is that so?” she said. “You could buy a couple of cars for that,” Laura went on. “You don’t like cars.” “What’s that got to do with it? If I had 50,000 euros, I wouldn’t be buying a car with it anyway.” “I wouldn’t be buying a bull.” Laura looked past the royal palace to the green swathe of trees in the Casa de Campo. “You can’t see the mountains today,” she said. “That’s where they found him. In the foothills of the mountains in a pasture with oaks and olive trees. Fighting a bull naked under the moonlight. It’s quite romantic in a way, isn’t it?” “Sounds stupid to me,” said Ana. “Why would you want to do something like that?” They sat for a while without speaking, both looking out towards the distant mountain range that was hidden by low clouds. Miguel, overweight and middle-aged, hair receding from a large forehead, walked over to them and sat on the corner of Ana’s desk, looking at Laura. “It all started over a hundred years ago with Juan Belmonte,” he said. “There was nothing romantic about it then. The only way the young Belmonte and his friends could learn how to bullfight was to sneak into the farms outside of Seville under the cover of night. They used to walk out along the banks of the Guadalquivir for over six miles and then swim across the river to the farms. After the swim their clothes would be soaking wet so they had to take them off. And they needed the full moon or else they wouldn’t have been able to see the bulls. It’s all very simple. With time, it has become a necessary rite of passage for all aspiring bullfighters. El Cordobés made it famous again in the fifties.” “Why would anyone want to do it in the first place? I don’t get it,” said Ana. Miguel, who would have loved to have had the slender physique and poise of a bullfighter, stood up from the desk a little clumsily and said, “It’s like boxing. The quickest way to escape poverty and hunger.” He took a couple of steps away and then turned to look at them again. “Drinks later on,” he said. “David’s birthday. You two coming?” “Yeah, sure,” said Ana. Laura hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. And then to Ana, “Luís doesn’t like it much if I’m out without him.” Laura had met Luís about nine months previously and soon afterwards they had moved in to a roomy flat he had inherited from his parents. It had been a little too soon for Laura’s liking, but he had insisted and she was afraid of losing him. At first, the relationship had been all she could have asked for. Luís had been kind and loving. He had been good company and he was funny. Recently, though, he had become controlling and clingy. He wanted to know where she was all the time. He wanted to know who she was with and he liked her to be there when he got home from work. He wouldn’t like her to go out for drinks to celebrate anyone’s birthday, let alone someone called David. She thought about the messages she had received that morning. “Birthday drinks?” she said to Miguel’s departing back. “Count me in.” Rick Morris was the kind of man you would find standing in the street outside the office having a cigarette even in the pouring rain. Today was no exception, although, far from raining, it was unusually warm for the time of year. It wasn’t only his need to top up the level of nicotine in his blood that drove him into the street. He felt closed in and stifled in the office. He had always done his best thinking when he was outside smoking or just wandering aimlessly along. As he watched some labourers repairing the road, replacing broken stones with neat square cobbles, he knew that if he was ever going to get his life back on the straight and narrow, he needed a good story to get his teeth into. Preferably a story that would take him out of the confines of the office, maybe even out of the city. He thought for a moment of wide open spaces and it almost made him happy. He finished his cigarette and tucked the dog-end away in the tin box his company had prepared and nailed to the wall by the front door. It had a thin slotted top where you could crush your cigarette, but it was full of unsquashed cork tips. Rick put the dog-end into the open mouth reserved for paper that lay beneath the metal slats. When he got back to the office, he called Juan across to his desk. “I’ve added a couple of things,” he said, handing Juan his article with two paragraphs written in red and inserted into the text. “A bit of background information.” Juan read aloud. “Spanish law requires any bull that has been used for a bullfight to be slaughtered, given that it will have learned something about the likely movements of the bullfighter.” Juan looked at him and then continued. “Many of Spain’s most famous bullfighters, such as Juan Belmonte and El Cordobés, learned their art practicing with bulls by moonlight, but the practice has largely died out and these days most matadors are trained in special schools. What’s the point? Everyone knows that.” “That is exactly the point, Juan. Not everyone knows that. You cannot presume that your reader knows as much as you do. Sometimes, it is important to spell it out.” Juan gave him a sulky look and sloped back to his own desk. Rick felt he should be doing more to earn his salary, but it was hard for him to care too much. He looked at his watch. Still hours to go before he could go home. Victor Rubiales told Nenuco he wouldn’t say anything unless his lawyer was present. “She’s not your lawyer,” Nenuco told him, saying again, not without pleasure, “You were caught red-handed, mate. You haven’t got a leg to stand on.” Victor had the confidence of someone who has already been where he was now and got away with it. When his life was not inflated by his bullfighting dreams, he and his brother Tomás would drive a lorry through the streets of Madrid in the dead of night ransacking the containers for cardboard. The cardboard would then be sold on to official distributors, but it was all illegal and they had to stay one step ahead of the police on their rounds. When he was younger, before his family had scraped together enough money to buy the lorry, he had sold amphetamines, barbiturates and cannabis outside the bars and nightclubs of Malasaña, the same part of the city as where he now picked up the cardboard. His first memories were not of schooldays, but of roaming through the streets of the city with his parents, his brother, a goat and a monkey, performing circus tricks for a handful of coins as his family had always done until the bounty days of drugs and cardboard. He’d been six when he had his first scrape with the law. He was living then, still lived, in fact, in a shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. Some older boys had crucified a cat and he had been hanging around on the edge of the group when the police arrived. He never knew whether or not the cat was already dead when they’d nailed it to the caravan door, but he heard its cries for years afterwards. His father went in and out of jail as often as most people go to the seaside on holiday. After visiting their father in Carabanchel prison, Victor and Tomás would walk to Cuatro Vientos airfield to watch the light aircraft coming in because Tomás wanted to be a pilot. They would stand behind the fence at the end of the runway for hours watching the small single-engined planes of trainee pilots doing circuits and bumps, Tomás holding a balsa wood replica driven by an elastic band and red plastic propeller. On one visit to the airfield, Tomás had wanted to get closer to the planes and they had pulled the bottom of the fence up high enough to crawl under. They lasted ten minutes inside before they were caught by airport security and carted off to the police station. Ignacio Campos saw the world from the back seat of an official limousine. He had no idea how much a cup of coffee cost and it had been an age since he’d had to pay for a meal in a restaurant. He had been Chief Constable for several years, he was a supernumerary member of Opus Dei and was heavily tipped for an important government post in the near future. He had a wife he deigned to see most week-ends and two sons who dressed and looked exactly like he did, even down to the chevron moustache and lightly greased hair. He was not widely liked and he didn’t care. “Take Route Four today,” he told his driver before he adding, “Morning, Sergeant.” Campos was obsessed with personal safety and had devised twelve different ways of getting from his home to his office. He had no evidence that anyone wished to have him killed, but as he told his wife, “Can’t be too careful. Lot of lunatics about.” The driver made a long detour through the Casa de Campo and Campos flinched when they drove beneath the cable car, imagining snipers carefully taking aim from the blue gondola as it rattled past more than 30 metres above him. He felt safer by the time they reached the middle of the park where the maples and elms were set back from the large artificial lake leaving almost a boulevard for them to drive along. It was early morning so the rowing boats were still moored and empty. A long jet of water rose and fell in the middle of the lake and, behind it, Campos could make out the cathedral and the royal palace. “Plans for today, Sergeant?” he said. The Sergeant looked at him in the rear-view mirror with expressionless brown eyes. “A couple of meetings this morning, sir, and then lunch with the Minister. Nothing on the agenda for the afternoon.” Campos smiled. He could already taste the lobster he would order for his first course and the roast lamb he would have to follow. Breakfast had been frugal, a single piece of fruit; his wife had put him on a diet. To take his mind off food, he lit a cigar and puffed the smoke towards his driver’s neck. His wife also thought he had given up smoking. “You know what I call you and your ilk, don’t you, Campos?” the Minister had asked the other day. Campos had said that he had no idea whilst hoping it was favourable. “The Patriotic Police,” he’d said. “People who do what’s right, what’s expected of them, without asking questions.” “Political Police might be nearer the mark,” Campos had suggested, considering that, at least in his case, he only did what he was told to. “We’ll stick, I think, with Patriotic. Political sounds a bit sinister, don’t you think?” the Minister had concluded. “Patriotic Police,” Campos mused as he sat and smoked in the back of his official car and wondered what patriotic duty he might be asked to perform that afternoon. Laura and Ana were sitting on the base of a lamppost in the Plaza Mayor eating sandwiches. They often went there for lunch to watch the people paying over the odds for their drinks and meals. Laura’s phone rang and she took it from her bag. She glanced at the screen and clicked it off. “Someone you don’t want to talk to?” said Ana, looking straight ahead towards the arches along the far side of the square. “Just Luís,” said Laura. “He keeps phoning me, checking up on me all the time.” She held the phone tightly in her hand and squeezed her fingers around the screen. “He says it’s his way of looking out for me.” A human statue jerked suddenly into life to frighten a small girl somewhere away to their left. Laura glanced across at the man who was dressed and painted to represent a street sweeper. “That’s one hell of a job,” she said. “Can you imagine that? Standing there all day without moving or speaking.” “He just moved,” said Ana. “You know what I mean. Just standing in the same place come rain or shine. Freezing for half the year and sweating your arse off for the other half. And for what? How much do you think they make?” “Probably more than us.” “That’s not saying much.” They both looked over towards the stationary street sweeper. “Do you need looking after?” asked Ana, turning back to face Laura. She shook her head. “But he seems to think I do,” she said. “He’s just jealous, I suppose. Well, I know he is. If he had his way, I wouldn’t even be working. He’s even jealous because I make more money than he does.” “I don’t know how you manage,” said Ana. Laura looked at her. “With the jealousy,” she explained. “I wouldn’t be able to.” “I try to ignore it,” said Laura. “There’s no point fighting it. Anyway, how are you and – shit – whatsisname getting on?” “We’re not,” said Ana. “He was too boring.” “Shame. I liked him.” “No, you didn’t.” “No, I didn’t. He wasn’t good enough for you. You could tell straight away he was only after one thing.” “He was good at that, at least.” A group of tourists arrived and stood before them, the guide explaining the equestrian statue of Philip III. “The horse was known as the sparrows’ graveyard,” the guide explained, his voice flat as though he were reading from a book. “During an anti-Royalist demonstration in 1931, a bomb was slipped into the horse’s open mouth and it blew a huge hole in its stomach.” The guide turned to point vaguely towards the horse. “Hundreds of tiny skeletons fell from the hole. It seems that the sparrows would crawl into the horse’s belly through its open mouth to escape the heat of summer and then found they couldn’t fly out again.” “I’ve never heard that before,” said Ana, looking over shoulder towards the bronze statue. “I know how they must’ve felt,” said Laura. “The horse’s mouth was sealed up when the statue was restored,” said the guide. The tourists looked at the statue, relieved that it was no longer a threat to the birds. A couple of them took photos and one of them took a selfie standing before the railings around the decorated stone plinth. “Why do people do that?” said Laura. “Selfies? I’ve never understood it.” Ana said nothing. “I suppose I can understand it if you want a photo of yourself with someone famous, but Philip III’s horse?” “Maybe it’s like talking to yourself,” Ana suggested, although she was not convinced. Laura stood up and brushed some crumbs from her legs. Ana held out her hand and Laura pulled her to her feet. They began to walk across the square to find a bar for coffee. “Talking to yourself has a purpose, at least,” said Laura. “You can work out problems, convince yourself to do something you know you should. Anyway, I don’t talk out loud to myself. It’s all inside. And I still don’t understand why someone would take a selfie of himself standing before a horse.” “I’ve had an idea,” said Ana. “You could take selfies of yourself at different times of day and send them to Luís. That way he wouldn’t have anything to be jealous about.” “Yeah,” said Laura. “Great idea.” They laughed and went into a bar with stuffed bulls’ heads all along the wall behind the counter. Laura looked at the one closest to her. “God! They’re massive, aren’t they?” she said. “I’d never realised, never been interested before. I’ve been in here hundreds of times and they were just there on the wall. They didn’t mean anything. Shit! They’re huge. Imagine that coming for you.” Ana was talking to one of the waiters. She wasn’t listening. “Elvers, I think,” said Ignacio Campos running his finger down the short list of Starters. “And goose barnacles.” He had chosen the two most expensive things on the menu. “Oh, and perhaps cardinal prawns?” This last he would leave to the Minister’s discretion. The Minister didn’t care. It wasn’t his money. “Yes, indeed,” he said. “Cardinal prawns. Not so fond myself of the goose barnacle. After all, I often think they are only expensive because they are so difficult to obtain. They’re like eating sea water, if you ask me. But cardinal prawns; plesiopenaeus edwardsianus. Delicious.” And he left it at that. Ignacio Campos would eat goose barnacles the next time he was asked out to lunch. He glanced quickly around the restaurant in the hope that there would be someone there who would note that he was too. It was the normal crowd of suited expense accounts and, at a corner table, one woman. Campos glanced again and grudgingly realised she was a member of parliament. He didn’t hold with women encroaching on his world, a place where he had felt very comfortable for a long time now. He thought they could only mean trouble. “Flibbertigibbets,” he told the Minister, thinking aloud. “What’s that, Campos?” the Minister looked at him over the folded linen napkins. “How is your wife, Minister?” it reminded him to ask. The Minister grunted and said something which sounded to Campos like ‘mustn’t grumble’, but it could have been anything. He relaxed back into the comfort of his chair and settled into a studied silence. He was not adept at small talk. Words made him nervous. The Minister, on the other hand, was half in love with the sound of his own voice and would fill any gaps in the conversation that Campos left. “Got any friends in Galicia, Campos?” he asked casually, reaching for a glass of white wine, which coincidentally came from Galicia. Campos shook his head. He too drank the wine. It had a slightly salty, citrus taste which he found very pleasant. He smiled at the Minister from beneath his moustache. “Well, perhaps not friends. Professional colleagues, then?” Campos shook his head again, although there was that fat detective he’d known at college. What was his name? Torres? He was up north somewhere. Could have been Galicia. Yes, Torres. Campos wondered vaguely what had become of him. “Why do you ask?” The Minister was holding the wine bottle close to his face. It was a black bottle with a wide base and had a white italic signature across the black label. “Angel Sequeiros Albariño,” he read. “Fine wine,” he said and then he looked over the table at Campos. “Why do I ask? No reason. Just wondered. Heard some things. Wanted to know if they were true.” “I could probably find out for you,” Campos offered. It was a small price to pay for lunch. The Minister waved the bottle and put it back in the ice bucket. When the cardinal prawns arrived, Campos was disappointed to see that there were only two each although they had been cut down the middle to look like four. He sucked on the creamy jelly from the prawn’s head and smiled in appreciation, concerned that the Minister appeared to be only eating the meat from the tail. “It’s probably nothing. Name came up, you see,” the Minister said finally. “Wanted to have it checked out for myself.” The elvers were a distraction. Campos was barely listening. A hundred euros a plate, he was thinking, looking at the small terracotta dish on the table between them. He stirred the elvers slightly with a small wooden fork to coat them in chilli, garlic and olive oil before taking his first impatient mouthful. “What name?” “Vindel. Mean anything?” Campos shook his head. He watched as a waiter delivered a tray of suckling pig to a nearby table and momentarily regretted his choice of sirloin steak. But of course he knew Vindel. He was originally from a small village in the province of Guadalajara but the family had moved north to escape the hardships of the post war years. Vindel had started work at the age of eleven in his father’s grocer’s shop, was driving a delivery van whilst still under age at fifteen and by the time he was eighteen he had made his first million selling contraband. He made a fortune in the eighties when smuggling tobacco had been considered as legitimate a way of making a living as any other. Smoking American-made Winston cigarettes was not something you did on the quiet; you boasted about it. From cigarettes, Vindel soon moved on to narcotics: marijuana and cocaine. Because he had never been arrested, he was one of the lesser known capos, but Campos knew him, had even done business with him when the price was right. “I’ll have a man look into it,” he said, still watching the suckling pig. “If you wouldn’t mind,” said the Minister. “Local elections,” he explained. The waiter brought their second courses and laid them on the table. “Perhaps a red wine, sir?” he said. “Vega Sicilia,” said the Minister, looking down at his food. “Ah,” he said in appreciation. “Suckling pig.” Rick left the office and went to a bar for lunch. Alone. He had three glasses of red wine and a small slice of Spanish omelette. It was surprisingly moist, surprising because it had not been made freshly but cut from a large round disc that had been on the bar for most of the morning. He asked for the newspaper and looked at it with little interest. “Ignacio Campos,” he read, “is being tipped for a senior post in the next government. The current Chief Constable will thus be rewarded for his unrelenting stance against petty crime and prostitution in the city.” Rick turned and leaned his back up against the bar, his elbows resting on the counter. He took a sip of wine. “Stance against petty crime and prostitution?” he said to himself. “Who are they trying to kid?” He had heard of Campos but knew nothing about him. He wondered whether there might be a story for him there. He had, after all, covered politics in a previous life. But he soon became bored with the idea. “I need to get away,” he said. “A change of scenery. That’s what I need.” That was when he had ordered his third glass of wine. He had always made it a rule not to drink more than two glasses at lunchtime. He hated those people who came back to the office smelling of alcohol. He had had a boss back in London who had never worked in the afternoons. He would return after a very liquid lunch, go into his office, close the door and sleep until six. And be paid a small fortune for doing so. Rick would see him slumped forwards over his desk until, at about 7 o’clock, he would gather his things together and leave. But he had good contacts and wrote things people wanted to read. Rick ordered a black coffee to clear his head and take the smell of wine away. He hated black coffee. Laura could hear David, the birthday boy, talking about his weekly routine. “On Mondays and Wednesdays, I go swimming. On Tuesdays, I go to yoga and on Thursdays, I go to the cinema. Well, that’s the theory anyway.” She wondered how old he was. He looked young, but probably wasn’t, she decided. It was the swimming. Anyone who did that much swimming was trying to stay young. And on Thursdays, the cinema. Laura couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out to see a film. Luís didn’t like the cinema, nor did he like her going without him, so they stayed at home. Luís liked it when they drank a bottle of wine together. Sometimes a couple of bottles. And they listened to music. Luís was teaching her to appreciate classical music. They were studying Haydn at the moment. She enjoyed some of Haydn. The violin concerto. But she would have liked to go out more. When they had first met, they had gone away a lot for long week-ends. Luís had shown a great interest in Romanesque architecture and had taken her to Segovia, Salamanca and Toledo. They had eaten out in cheap restaurants, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. They had invited people round for dinner, Luís being particularly proud of his rice dishes. They had even been to the cinema a couple of times. And then it had all stopped. Or rather, Luís had begun to object whenever she suggested they do something. It had begun with excuses – headaches, overwork, too tired – and then became flat refusals. “Thirty-six,” said David from the other side of the room, holding up a plastic cup of coffee and toasting the air. “So, a couple of years younger than you,” Laura said to herself. She wondered whether it was nearing forty that had made her move in with Luís so quickly. Because, although she sometimes thought she did, she knew she didn’t love him. Juan sidled over to Rick’s desk with a sullen look on his face. He moved with a disagreeable shuffle. “You got anything to do with this?” he asked, handing Rick a piece of paper. Rick made no effort to take the paper so Juan placed it on his desk, smoothing out the corners. “I mean, I’m not going to do it.” “Do what?” Juan turned around to see if anyone else was listening. A couple of disinterested faces looked back at him. “They’re not going to send me out to some godforsaken hole in the mountains on a wild goose chase.” Instead of looking at the paper, Rick looked at Juan and thought: What a graceless jumped-up little shit. “At your age and in your position, you go where they tell you to go,” he said and then he read the piece of paper. Something about the discovery of a mass grave from the Civil War. Juan snatched the paper from Rick and walked back to his workstation, his feet scuffing over the floor. At university, Rick had had more than a passing interest in the Spanish Civil War. He had always imagined himself joining the International Brigade in some smoky pub in Soho, shipping out to Spain and then marching alongside the likes of Hemingway and Dos Passos, sending dispatches home from the Post Office building in the Gran Vía in Madrid and then spending long evenings with mysterious dark-haired ladies in Chicote’s cocktail bar next door. He had written a special paper on poetry in the thirties. “Anyone know if Chicote still exists?” he asked the room at large, the sound of his voice surprising him. “Sure does,” said a colleague from over by the window. “Gran Vía. Just down from the Telefónica building.” Rick couldn’t believe he had been there so long and hadn’t seen it, hadn’t bothered to look. But then, recently, he hadn’t been bothered to do very much. He stood up, took his jacket from the back of his chair and walked across to Juan’s desk. “Maybe I’ll do this one,” he said, flipping his fingers for the paper. There wasn’t much to go on. Just an unmarked grave, supposedly from the Civil War, three bodies and the name of the village. “Yes,” he said. “I think I’ll cover this.” Rick Morris left the office and took a taxi to the Gran Vía. He got out at the Telefónica building and walked the short distance downhill to Chicote. He stood outside the revolving door for a while but didn’t go in. He looked up at the bright red neon sign and then stepped forwards to peer through the window. It was art deco, red leather stools on stainless steel legs and walls filled with black and white photographs. It was still only late afternoon and the bar was empty. “You’re free to go,” said Nenuco, holding the door of the cell open. “My lawyer got me off? I knew she would,” said Victor Rubiales. He gave Nenuco a tight grin. “She’s not your lawyer,” said Nenuco. “Now fuck off.” Another officer came into the station as they were at the duty desk. He nodded towards Nenuco. “Where’s El Cordobés off to then? I thought we had him bang to rights.” “Insufficient evidence,” said Nenuco. “Orders from the top. They’ve dropped the charges.” “Well, he’s one lucky bastard, then, isn’t he?” Rubiales checked his belongings, looked at the bullfighting capes in his case. He moved the white cape slightly before clicking the case closed and then he turned to the policemen. “One lucky bastard,” he said with a smirk. Tomás was outside in the street. They hugged tightly and then walked away towards their waiting lorry. “What happened?” asked Victor, taking a cigarette from his brother. “Sánchez – from the cardboard,” said Tomás. “No idea how he did it or who he spoke to.” “Who gives a shit?” said Victor. “Let’s go and get a drink.” Laura was the last to arrive for the birthday drinks. A last-minute phone call had kept her at the office. They had all gone to one of the chic dimly lit bars on the other side of the Gran Vía. By the time Laura got there they were all on their second drink. “What’ll you have?” asked Ana, pushing through the drinkers to the counter. “A tonic,” said Laura. Ana ordered a gin and tonic. “You’re supposed to be having a drink,” she told Laura and added, “It’ll do you good.” The bar was full of raucous good cheer and they had to raise their voices. “What kept you? I thought you’d got cold feet.” “Phone call from my bullfighter, thanking me for getting him off.” “But you didn’t.” “I know.” “Anything from Luís?” “Not since lunchtime.” “You did tell him you were coming?” Laura shook her head. “What would’ve been the point? He would’ve told me to go home. I didn’t want that.” The bar was a big square room with bare brick walls and fishing nets strung between the ceiling lamps which were upturned lighthouse towers. It made you think you were down by the docks somewhere, rather than landlocked and two hundred miles from the sea. The shellfish being served at a nearby table helped to feed the illusion. Their colleagues were in a corner by the kitchen, twenty people away. Laura and Ana pushed through. Birthday boy greeted them with sarcastic applause. The others grinned “Why are men such jerks?” Ana whispered. Laura shrugged. Their male companions made room for them to squeeze in to their little private group. “Corporate law mainly,” David was explaining to someone. “I mean, Laura’s the only one of us who regularly sees the inside of a courtroom when she’s doing her charity work, looking after her waifs and strays.” “I’d rather do that than help people to legally break the law,” she said. “What’s that supposed to mean?” asked another of their group, a man with a pasty pock-marked face and greasy hair. “You know very well,” she said. “False income reporting, misuse of trusts…., you name it. David will find a way to make it legal if you’ve got enough money. As will the rest of you.” The man with the pasty face was about to speak but Laura went on. “You don’t even know who you’re defending half the time because they don’t actually have a face, do they?” “Laura got a real person off today,” Ana joined in. “Not a company.” They wondered vaguely how she’d done that without leaving the office, but they weren’t going to argue. Not on David’s birthday. They’d get another round of drinks instead. Calm things down. Unlike the men, Laura and Ana didn’t need to drink to find things to say to each other. They moved away from them and found a table where they could sit down. “So, what happened with boring boyfriend?” Laura asked. And sipped her gin and tonic and smiled. “I made the mistake of mentioning kids. I’m the wrong side of thirty, that’s all. I’ve got to start looking at my life. Try to find out where I’m going.” “You frighten him off?” “Not exactly. His reaction was a little disappointing, that’s all. And so, I thought: What am I doing here? And I couldn’t find an answer. I told him it was over, took my key back and chucked him out.” “And that was that?” “Unlike your Luís, he hasn’t even phoned me.” “Don’t remind me. I’d just managed to forget him.” “Fucking men!” “So, what now?” “I don’t know. Keep looking, I guess. There must be some good ones somewhere.” Rick opened the door to his flat, walked in and dumped all his things on a small table by the door. Without turning on the light, he walked down to the kitchen and got some ice. He put it into a glass, poured a whisky and placed the drink on the kitchen table. Then he went to the fridge again and opened the door. He looked at all the food he had bought earlier but didn’t fancy any of it. He closed the fridge door, took his drink from the kitchen table and walked back to the front of the flat to his bedroom and his sitting room, both of which had balconies on to the main street. He went into the sitting room, sat down in an armchair, put his whisky on a small table and looked into the darkness. He hadn’t tasted his drink and he hadn’t put any lights on. The flat was quiet. There were a few odd scraping noises from upstairs, as though someone were moving furniture, and a smell of cooking came through to him from the inner courtyard. He looked at the whisky and wondered why he had poured it. He took a sip. It tasted of routine and boredom. He put the glass back on the table. His mind was numb but it was also racing and he found it hard to focus on anything. There was a soft throbbing at his temples. He looked again at the glass of whisky but didn’t drink. He had done nothing all day, yet he was exhausted. His body weighed him down when he tried to move. He felt like crying. Rick stretched forwards and put some music on, something he had been listening to the night before. Now it was inappropriate, would do nothing for him and he turned it off. He pushed himself up from the chair and went back to the kitchen. When he opened the fridge, the light was bright and lit up all the food inside. He took out some bacon and made himself a sandwich, which he took back to the front room, without getting a plate. The butter dripped over his fingers. He opened the balcony doors, stepped outside and tried to focus on something to think about. There was only an angry page of nothing. He went back inside the flat, sat down in the darkness and looked at the glass of whisky. Then he took the glass back on to the balcony and tipped the whisky into the street. He was going to throw the glass after it, but there were too many people about so he placed it on the table and sat back in the chair, looking at the wall. He stayed that way for over an hour before going to bed. Rick took off his shoes, but got into bed fully clothed. He switched the radio on, listened for a few minutes and then switched it off again and lay back looking at the ceiling. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He wasn’t tired, but he was exhausted. He would have loved to be drunk, but he didn’t want to drink. He felt terribly alone but he didn’t want to see anyone. He drifted off to sleep at about three o’clock, but he was awake again before seven, watching the second hand of the clock racing towards his 7.30 alarm call.



Sample Chapters

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