By S P Johnson
NOT QUITE TIJUANA
For my good friend and No. 1 Fan – probably my only fan - Nigel Deacon
Crane turned the throttle of the Harley down until it emitted a low, satisfying hum. He drifted on the road, content for the moment to take in the scenery.
‘A really good motorway’ he thought surprised once more by the sharp contrasts of old and modern he had encountered in Spain. He thought the scenery was much like that he would see when he reached his final destination next month – a kind of preparation for the real thing.
‘Tijuana, Mexico here I come.’
He slowed the bike almost to a halt to stare in amazement at a hill, well really more of a small mountain. He would swear he could see the faint indentation of long vanished steps sunk deep beneath centuries of time – like those seen in Inca temples - leading high up to the apex, almost formally square in shape. This hill although overgrown with vegetation was perfectly sculpted as if man-made and appeared to shadow the image of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, even down to a large jutting outward piece that could well have once been the base upon which a facsimile of the Sphinx might have rested in magnificent ease.
He laughed at himself for his fanciful imagination.
A long, loud blast of a horn as a massive cargo carrying lorry swept by, signalled to him that he really should not be stopped on a main highway. One could only do this in a country like Spain. Fantastic roads connecting everything to everywhere and, for the most part, traffic amounting only to the equivalent of village to village unless you entered a large town or a City.
Cities weren’t real life – at least not real life as lived by the varied population of Spain.
He thought Barcelona more like London than the real thing with its grandiose ring road – one could ride around it without ever entering the City – just like London and who wants that? He had not been too impressed when he had entered the City, except for the Gaudi architecture and, having seen all that, had beaten a hasty retreat not even pausing for any merriment or revelry – not of any kind! The ladies of Barcelona were too modern and brittle and the bars too bright and sophisticated for his tastes.
Madrid too, harsh, brilliantly sunlit with all the ugliness of a City that had lost its way – even the Spanish couldn’t wait to leave it, rushing away at every opportunity to spend some time in the ‘campo’ or scurrying to the Costas. It had amazed him how many of them spoke lovingly of Portugal!
It was sometimes difficult to reconcile all that with nearly every turn off from roads like these leading to some sleepy one or two bars village. One medium sized village he had visited boasted sixteen bars – one he thought for almost every resident! Whether set in a valley close to a river, or high on a hillside or mountain, they were often similar yet all unique. A few moments from the thrust of the modern highway and you could be transported back to the time of Franco – and before.
He mused on the thought that the Spanish seemed, like the Aztecs, to have been unable to contemplate a hill or mountain without immediately being filled with the desire to perch a hamlet or village precariously on the side of it or even at the very top, death defying tracks only a goat, or a light four by four could navigate, being the only means of attaining the same. Nowadays, strangely, most were laid at least with a smattering of asphalt, only the loneliest reaches, containing three or four houses that for the most part, were either abandoned farms, or falling down ruins being virtually inaccessible save by means of a hostile track that could rip a car’s undercarriage to shreds.
Then too, there were the amazing dwellings carved into and out of the hills and mountains themselves like the Indians in America although there were far, far more here in Spain. Perhaps the Indians had stolen the idea from the Spanish! Most of the very ancient, high in the clouds cave homes were abandoned it being impossible to live a normal, reasonably modern life in them as such. But others, those set just above villages or indeed comprising almost an entire village were not only still in use but until recently, the most desired of holiday homes by invading tourists.
Whilst he admired their ingenuity, their coolness in summer, their warmth in winter he would not want to live permanently in one. Many suffered from damp and occasional collapse of ceilings or walls and often the inhabitants would wake with a start wondering what time it was for while kitchens might be built at the front and usually as an extension of the cave itself, bedrooms were always in the complete darkness of the insides of the hill, and one became lost to time’s passing.
‘Like being swallowed by a whale’ he thought.
For himself he preferred the glorious gathering of town houses that normally clustered around small squares. He did not care whether they were of two, three or four stories in height, with or without balconies and raccas, the decorative but useful wrought iron bars that normally covered all downstairs windows. He adored them all indiscriminately.
‘Protection from Bandidos’ he surmised the iron guardians to be, although he guessed the modern equivalent would be burglars.
Even high on mountainsides, no matter how small the village, there was always a Plaza, usually a fountain and glory of glories – at least one bar. No wonder the Spanish had been so at home in South America! No wonder the Aztecs had been no match for them and fell with ease to the Conquistadors! You’d need to be a bloody conqueror simply to get home from your fields in regions like these each night!
That was the other thing.
How on earth did they manage to plant so many trees, olive, almond and cherry in such straight lines that flowed like endless platoons of small soldiers over the most horrifyingly steep and slanted mountainsides? Worse yet, however did they manage to irrigate and harvest them?
But they did. Almeria seemed particularly rich in these high mountain -like eyries of villages and, in some instances, towns of bewildering beauty, stunning buildings and fountains that forced him to wonder how materials had ever been carried to such places and how such things had ever been built.
Who could get a crane up the side of a mountain? He shuddered to think of the labour involved in dealing with such things by means of hands, mules and carts. He wasn’t sure anyone today would be capable of achieving such things, not even the Spanish.
‘The world has grown lazy’ he thought ‘we’ve got mobile phones, televisions, slick estates of houses slung together from plywood and moulded bricks or simply pressed out like Lego, cars that can move faster than a bird, planes that go almost as high as the heavens, but I’m not sure we could ever build another Basilica, a Coliseum, a Parthenon, or even one of the fortress like churches that seem to be the mainstay of every high, windswept village.’
He laughed again at the incongruousness of it all.
He would swear each village kept a couple of burros handy to shoo out into the street for the benefit of tourists. Everyone everywhere was always so friendly. He also thought they all seemed quite as mad as snakes but with the cunning of serpents. He was quite sure that, secretly, in the quiet of their ‘casas’ they laughed and talked about the ‘mad English’ or the ‘mad Americans’ or whatever and then held the equivalent of a Council meeting to determine by fixed agenda what their next moves would be to extract even more money from all these travelling fools. But still, they took one’s money so charmingly, so gently and, he had to confess, with grace, hardly ever overcharging except in the cases of those tourists who were rude or thought the local population so simple that they did not understand what was being said.
He was a tourist. This was the last leg of the journey of a lifetime. His lifetime.
He sat back on his haunches on the bike saddle, comfortably worn in now after the last six months’ usage.
He would be forty two in three months.
He had worked hard ever since he could remember. From fourteen years of age onwards, starting as a Saturday boy in a hardware store in the small Pennsylvania town he had been born in. Since then he had never stopped.
Until this year.
He had sold everything, filled with a sense of urgency as if time was fleeting and he would miss it if he didn’t hurry. He wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was but he was going to do it – going to get it – going to have it before it was all too late.
He had made eight million dollars from the liquidation of all his assets. He had not been sorry to give it all up, feeling as if weight had tumbled from his shoulders and so, in a way it had. He had felt that again when he had left the States, the fleeting thought crossing his mind that he might never see it again – especially if he had an accident while travelling. The thought had not bothered him unduly.
‘Mid life crisis’ Cynthia had snorted but she had taken the three million dollars as a final settlement. He would never have to see her again. He did not hate her. Generous even now when he thought of her, he told himself it was mostly his fault that their marriage had failed. Ten years of endless work to provide, to make provision, to secure bigger and better deals, to make more and more money.
Oh she had taken the money he had made and spent it with abandon, but had complained she never saw him. A typical tale really with a typical ending. Finding her one day in bed with another man, the man he had just made a deal with, had scarcely raised animus in him. They had been apart before ever they had divorced. He had laughed ironically at the fact that the man she had chosen to replace him with was – just like him! Another businessman, another endlessly working android. But it had seemed to work.
‘Good luck to her’ he thought ‘now she can marry him.’
Cynthia had not remarried, afraid she would lose the hefty alimony payments he made to her. It had not mattered how many times he had assured her he didn’t mind paying – and he didn’t, thinking it little to pay for salving his conscience – still she had not believed him.
Now she did.
‘I’m sorry’ she had said the last time he had seen her, when he had handed over the cheque ‘I’m sorry. Most especially about Kristen. It wasn’t your fault. I know I said it was but it wasn’t. She never listened to me either and I saw far more of her than you did. You should try and be happy Crane. I know I’m going to.’
And then she had gone.
He had stood in the silence of his office for the last time gazing at everything that had become more familiar over the years than his home had ever been. He had picked up the framed photograph from his desk. The only possession left. He had removed the photograph and stared at it.
‘Ah Kristen’ he had sighed, folding the picture in half and placing it inside his wallet.
His daughter had left him long ago.
Drugs, underage sex, rehabilitation, alcohol, and then finally a reckless marriage to a minor movie star. One wild party night too many and all that had been left were headlines in a paper. Two days later even that had gone.
Three visits to the cemetery and silent contemplation of the magnificent tombstone under which she lay, now embalmed and enshrined forever side by side with her reckless husband, had been enough.
‘Why was it’ he wondered ‘that death seems to convey a kind of deity on some people?’
Kristen would soon be forgotten. Her husband would not.
The minor star had become in death, what he had never been in life – a success, a major star - weeping girls and would be macho boys constantly trooping to the graveside to place gifts and presents and even a marijuana pipe for god’s sake on the cold white marble that bore their names.
Perhaps that had been the start of it – his discontentment with the way things were – his realisation that time was running out – the sense of urgency.
He placed the helmet back on his head and revved the Harley from its idling tone. He reviewed his plans again. Slow roundabout journey to Malaga. Pick up a flight to London and then from there, a connecting flight to Mexico.
He had never been there but he had dreamed of it. For years he had dreamed of it, through every anxious moment, through every near disaster, through every nerve- ridden, nail- biting bluff to win a deal and yes, even through his mourning for Kristen.
The ultimate in freedom. The border town glamorised and made desirable in every western he could remember. He hoped there might even be a minor villain he could sit next to in a bar and watch him as he went about his shady activities. And too, dusky, beautiful senoritas, all desiring him and willing to please. Exotic dances and endless fiestas. Life would be one long undemanding holiday.
He smiled faintly.
He wasn’t fool enough to kid himself that they would want him for himself alone. But money would get him what he wanted – what he needed. Equally, he wasn’t stupid enough to believe Tijuana would be anything like he imagined, like he dreamed, but it would be good enough. Good enough to loose himself in, live more hedonistically, capture the youth he had never had – he could live like that for the rest of his life if he planned it right. He had enough money. He was good at planning. Buy himself a small hacienda or villa, get in a good stock of tequila – not the bottles with worms in them - or was it snakes or tarantulas? He couldn’t remember. Anyway – just good, straight to the bottom of the bottle molten liquid tequila. And shot glasses. He wasn’t heavily into the fancy way of drinking it – margarita style – just a piece of lemon and a lick of salt and then – heaven falling down the throat.
Oh yes and just to keep him company, nothing serious, just enough to keep his libido ticking over – a Mexican belle, a senorita with long black hair, who wanted nothing from him emotionally, would make no demands and would satisfy his own few needs.
It wasn’t true that money couldn’t buy everything. It could. At least, it could buy what he wanted. Peace. No strings, no commitments, no obligations, no guilt – just peace, sex and tequila. He thought he wanted the peace and tequila more than the sex.
He brought the bike to life and roared off down the highway.
The sun was beginning to set.
He didn’t think he would make it to Allbox, a large Spanish town, before sunset. Home of the British he had heard, a little slice of England, set down and reorganised totally around their wants and needs and, he had also heard – nowhere to park –what could be more British than that!
He wasn’t sure he wanted to spend the night there despite all the amenities he had been told it possessed. His eyes caught sight of the next road sign and turn off.
He could almost see it from the highway. Not large but not too small. Surely he could find a room there. If not well – it wouldn’t be the first time he had slept on the ground beside his bike. Six months travelling through Russia, China, India and all points east and west had hardened him, inured him to the need for total physical comfort. Now, all he needed in the way of possessions were packed inside the bags fastened to the bike.
‘Downsizing they call it’ he thought humorously.
It had even downsized some of him.
Once he had used to work out every day. The last five years he had ceased to do so – there was never enough time - and had started to sink into the sliding of sagging flesh that heralds the onset of middle-age – his six pack beginning to assume the size of a small crate – his muscles commencing the start of the slippery slope to love handles, his breath becoming just that little bit more laboured whenever there had been a need to run for a taxi or rush up an escalator. Too, more lines had begun to appear on his face, his skin slowly donning the unhealthy pallor of someone confined – a prisoner.
Well that he had been.
Even his fair hair had begun to show – at least to his eyes – the beginnings of grey and the light he had seen in his blue eyes every morning in the mirror when he was younger, the light that women had often said sparkled with life and good humour and drew them to him, that light had gone, utterly and completely. He smiled now not realising that, unconsciously, he had taken the turn off to Tijalo. At least this six month dream of a journey had begun to take care of some of those things – harden him, change him, lighten him, renew him.
He was leaner, fitter, than he had been in years. Oh he would never be the same man he had been ten years ago but he was not sure he wanted to be. He was not sure exactly what he wanted to be but he was sure of one thing.
He wanted to be a different man. The kind of man who might live in Tijuana.
The coldness of beer is important
He sat at the bar playing with the rim of the glass, a ‘tubo’ as they called it and watched as cold, condensing beads of liquid ran down the side of the slender, cylindrical glass.
He was still amazed at all that had transpired.
Who would have thought a small, off the beaten track place like this would hold so much excitement, so much entertainment and, it had to be said, so many lopsided moments of tension, even possibly, fear. And all washed down with the coldest beer and the best tapas he had ever had.
He mused for a moment on the fact that these small bars managed to sell really cold beer and cold soft drinks while hotels in cities seemed only able to take an edge of warmth from the same. Nothing was ever really cold. Perhaps their turnover was so great they never had time to chill them properly although he doubted this, as all the bars he ever frequented in cities seemed half empty. Just as well he had enjoyed it all he thought a little glumly as it looked like he would have to remain here for a day or two now.
That would mean a slight change of plan but – what the hell – time was his own now, he could go or stay whichever he wanted to do, anywhere, anytime.
Except here. He had to stay whether he wanted to or not. At least for a day or two.
He thought that never had the Spanish’s flexible use of the word ‘manyana’ taken on a more pertinent meaning for him throughout his three weeks of discovery in this country than it did now.
Did it really mean tomorrow?
If only he hadn’t turned off.
He couldn’t remember doing so and had only realised he was off road when the bike had begun to shudder and judder in protest at the reckless speed it still sped at along the rural track and, coming to with something approaching alarm, he had changed gears with alacrity as he and the bike had slid, wheels skidding in protest, towards the end of the bone jolting ride that he could see now dissolved into a small, tiled, dusty plaza.
It had been right on the end, almost on the very edge of the plaza itself that the front wheel had screamed – that was the only word for it – it had literally screamed as if someone was killing it. In a way that was the truth. Something fierce had risen up out of the ground and bit his tire, tearing the life out of it with the agonising wail of air that followed.
Even at that slow pace he had been unable to stop himself from falling off, tumbling and rolling in a graceful motion as if he had wished to dismount, to land upon his stomach, his head upright, still encased in his helmet, and arms folded beneath his chin, for all the world as if he had stretched out in comfort on a sofa or bed to watch the drama that now unfolded before him.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion – like an action movie sequence. The bike continued on its own, still erect for all the world as if it needed no rider, as if it knew exactly where it was going. The plaza unfolded before him like the panning shot in a film.
To his left were some two or three tall, thin houses with flat whitewashed fronts, clad only with baby balconies of black iron. The middle house was higher by one floor and that had a balcony that stretched from one side of it to the other and was far more graceful in appearance. ‘A princess between two attendants’ he thought.
There was a slip of an alleyway and then a long low, pale pink coloured building with a sign for Cruzcampo beer above its dark arched doorway signalling this was a bar. Two very small tables were set directly outside, one each side of the entrance, each partnered with two rickety looking metal chairs that appeared to have been rescued hastily from a fire sale at Ikea. Directly to the left of the bar and almost central to the middle of the Plaza were three or maybe four, extremely tall, extremely wide and extremely glorious jacaranda trees in full bloom, the blue of their sublime flowers reminding him of the blue used by Fra Angelico in his painting of the Coronation of the Virgin that he had stood in front of in complete adoration and admiration in the Louvre many years ago.
Next came a small fountain, of simple design, that gurgled and gargled and threw an occasional, joyful gush of water into the air, beads of the same being flung off by the force of the jet to hit any unwary passer-by. The fountain sat full square on, claiming attention as the focus of this placid, grey tiled area of the village. To the right of him there appeared to be a cluster of tiny shops, possibly a baker’s and a butcher and one with darkened and dusty windows that might or might not contain anything or nothing and that might or might not have been closed for ever or open for business – it was impossible to discern.
An iced cake of a church with a bell tower that was as large as the church itself, sat snugly and firmly up against this last shop and one’s eye was immediately drawn to the huge notice board set in the middle of its end wall. It was of giant size – but contained only one notice stuck artistically in the middle – no doubt the order of service he thought vaguely as he lay, unresisting now to the happenings of fate, upon the ground.
Completing the scene was a small, two storey, white stucco building that sat diagonally on the corner with a view of the entire square. It looked clean, simple and welcoming and he wished heartily that he was inside the room on the upper floor, the one half of the slender pair of French doors wide open onto the very tiny balcony, a long curtain hooked to the side which fluttered gently against the tie that held it as if trying to escape.
The Harley had begun to tilt, but again, it did this slowly, gracefully, as if it were the star of a ballet choreographed by Robert Helpmann prior to his performance as the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but with all the mastery of the elements that herald the inevitable onset of disaster.
He had become conscious of a gruelling pain in his right ankle but had not had time to dwell on it, feeling fate was surely hurtling down upon him from every corner of the sky.
As the Harley continued its slow descent, his head began to swim and he closed his eyes, unable to watch his precious machine smash itself to pieces on the strong trunk of the jacaranda tree whose branches nodded and swayed with the stately grace of a Dowager Duchess about to greet a curtseying debutante.
As he lay his head on his arms and braced his ears for the enormous sound of death, he wondered if he had concussion.
He could have sworn that, just before he had closed his eyes, he had seen several brightly coloured Arabs, male and female, rushing from both sides of the Plaza towards his bike.
He was definitely concussed.
He became aware that it was raining, raining in his face. He kept trying to brush it off but it was very persistent. He uttered a low growl of anger and grabbed at the offending water. He opened his eyes in astonishment to find his hand now possessed the hand of another. That other held a cool, wet rag, no doubt dipped in the fountain, and instantly, he realised where he was.
He was sat on one of the rickety chairs which, praise God, had so far not collapsed under his six foot three frame and weight and the hand he held belonged to an arm that apparently belonged to the girl – no woman for she must have been around twenty six, twenty eight, maybe even thirty – that now hovered over him, a calm, grave serenity lighting her even featured, somewhat tired looking face. She was one of those women that, while not possessed of great beauty, had a quality that was restful the more one was in their company. Her hair was a nondescript blonde, darker than his own, of an equally nondescript length, that hung lankly with no determinable style.
Her eyes, which were close to his own showing anxious concern, were a greeny- brown colour with barely seen fair lashes. Her nose was straight with just the slightest hint of a bump at the end and her mouth, well her mouth was a glory.
He found it hard to pinpoint exactly why he thought this for he would have found it impossible to say whether it was large or small, thin lipped or full, only that - when she smiled he wanted to kiss her instantly. He controlled this desire well considering it had utterly confused him.
He had travelled half the world and met an endless assortment of females almost any one of whom was better looking than this female in a pale green, sleeveless shirt-waister type dress that came to just above her knees and had surely gone out of style years ago, the colour leeched from its original deep emerald shade by constant laundering. All those gorgeous women he had met and yes, he had kissed a lot of them and other things besides.
But not one of them had he wanted to kiss instantly at the sight of a smile, even if it was a slightly concerned one that now adorned her thin face.
‘You’re awake then? How do you feel. And can you let go of my hand so I can finish wiping your face?’
Her voice was even and low, holding shades of determination within the quietness of acceptance of the way things were. He was astonished that she was English. What was a woman like her doing in a place like this?
His astonishment was compounded when, glancing around him he saw he was surrounded by a conclave of what was definitely Arabs. In fact, he could hardly see an ordinary person.
He shook his head and closed his eyes as if to rid himself of the last remnants of his fall. Then he opened his eyes again.
No. They were all still there. Males and females in varying Arabic costumes, some so magnificent they must surely be royalty and others of a more drab and day to day variety. Some were young and some were old and one or two were children but all wore similarly concerned expressions on their faces and murmured and muttered amongst themselves in what was definitely Spanish even though it was spoken at a pace too fast for his tourist learned phrases to follow. Alarm began to fill him.
Could he possible have entered the only slave trafficking village in Spain?
That might explain this girl’s presence, although she didn’t look or sound as if she were here against her will. Could this tiny place be the only village in Spain entirely populated by Arabs?
He gulped a little.
Were they terrorists? This was something all Americans now suffered from – that any Arab might, just might be a terrorist. He tried to be more level headed.
He couldn’t think they were. What self respecting terrorist would go around in such brilliant garb, drawing so much attention to themselves? He opened his mouth.
‘I’m fine. Who the hell are all these Arabs? How many pieces is my bike in and who are you and what are you doing in this place?’
Her smile was wider now and even more kissable he thought if only he didn’t have such an audience or such an aching head.
‘Wow you do recover fast. No, they’re Moors - but only temporarily. Spanish Moors actually. It’s the Moors and Christians festival here for the next three days. It’s every year, everywhere has one. You know, you must have heard of it. It celebrates the Christians driving the Moors out of Spain and can I please have my hand?’
He jumped and released it immediately.
‘Don’t worry’ she said soothingly ‘ your bike’s okay. Just a shredded front tire. They’ she nodded to his audience who now also nodded and smiled vigorously in unison at him ‘they caught it and hung on for dear life. Stopped it crashing into the tree. It’s over there.’
She nodded her head and, turning his own, he saw it now, entirely in one piece save for scraped paintwork and a tire that ceased to qualify for such a name, leaning against the wall of the pale pink painted bar.
‘Thank God’ he said relief filling his voice ‘can I get it repaired?’
She smiled, this time humorously and at the same time, a thin cylindrical glass was thrust into his hand by a dark visaged Moor he would later come to know was Juan, the bar owner, nodding and smiling – and definitely Spanish! He drank half of it in one go without even thinking about it, the cold, gaseous liquid filling his mouth and his brain instantly so that for one moment he thought the top of his head might explode and then everything settled back to normal and his eyes focused once more and he realised his headache had gone.
‘Paralysed’ he thought ‘paralysed with shock’ but he wasn’t about to complain.
The girl eased herself onto the other rickety chair, an easy unstudied grace in every movement.
‘As to your bike, well the answer to the question of repairs is yes – and no. Yes it can be repaired but no it can’t be until after the festival. Nobody works and everyone takes part in the play and parade and fireworks, well most of the fireworks are just bangers, the Spanish love fireworks that sound like guns and so no one can deal with it until after the fiesta.’
‘Couldn’t I phone for someone outside of here to come and do it?’ he asked hopefully.
Now she laughed out loud.
‘You could, but that would just be extra expense for no result because they’ll all be having festivals of their own. You might get someone to courier it from a City but think of the cost. Better to wait until it’s over and then Juan can fix it for you. He’s very good. He kept my old Citroen going long past its sell by date. It’s gone now of course. I have a scooter instead now.’
It seemed to him the every other person in Spain possessed a scooter whizzing and banging about –and the young males in particular, proudly un-muffling exhausts and revving their machines to make them sound like his Harley. Whenever he heard the totally raucous sound these macho customised bikes made, followed by the sight of yet one more ancient pop-pop scooter, he collapsed into silent laughter.
Drinking more of his beer and assessing all she had said, he turned to her, and laughed a little embarrassedly at the sight of his still engrossed audience.
‘Why are they all watching me?’
‘We don’t get many visitors – well none really, except for the odd tourist like you who comes here by mistake – or accident.’
He rose and began to walk – or rather limp - towards the Harley. His ankle still pained him but he could tell it was minor. He felt that, personally, as far as his health went, he had little to complain of.
He stopped halfway and turned around.
Again he laughed.
Not all, but some of them, the Spanish Moors, had followed. She, the girl stayed where she was – he would have to find out her name, stop thinking of her as the girl, a bit impersonal that – how would he feel if someone kept thinking of him as ‘the boy’?’
He laughed again.
No one would surely ever think of him as a boy again. He saw now that, at his laughter, huge smiles had broken out on the faces of his followers. He gave up. He shrugged and made his way to the bike. He bent down, placing the glass with the dregs of the beer in it carefully upon the ground.
He examined the tire.
It was hopeless. Shot to pieces. He would just have to delay getting to Malaga. He would just have to delay everything. It didn’t really matter. He had given up being on a schedule. Time was his own now wasn’t it?
And so here he was.
It was the morning of the fourth day. A lot had happened since he had first arrived. So much he scarcely knew how to think about it. But he had to.
He stood leaning against the pale pink wall, holding his helmet in his hands, his leathers already beginning to stick uncomfortably to his flesh even in this cool part of the day, conscious of the waving jacaranda branches ‘mimosa’ he thought vaguely some people called them. He stared out over the plaza. Far, far in the distance between the many hills and arroyos that filled the horizon for three hundred and sixty degrees he could see the glint of water in the rays of the dying sun.
Was it a lake or simply one of the many reservoirs that filled spaces everywhere for the irrigation of trees and crops? Not reservoirs as other countries thought of them although there were many of those too, magnificent man-made lakes that enhanced the views as if they had always been there. No, these were often small, personal, the size of swimming pools, large, medium and ‘Grande.’ He had learnt some words at least in the short time he had been here.
‘Tubo’ for beer, ‘vino’ for wine, ‘gracias’ for thanks – although the Spanish strangely hated to be thanked overmuch, deeming it offensive to their friendly nature. Many other words had latched into his brain too.
‘Luego’ a shortened form of ‘see you later’, No one said good day or good night, at least not in full, tending to corrupt the words to one such as ‘buena’ instead of ‘buena dias’ and ‘noches’ or even more simply ‘Hola’ no matter what the time of day or night.
He thought it was all very confusing that proper Spanish, learnt by rote or in a classroom, seemed inadequate and seldom understood, but he had the weird sensation that once learned, this easy, lazy way of speaking would make for an altogether more relaxed, enjoyable way of life. Altogether ‘moy bien’!’
And ‘chica’ for girl.
And he wasn’t sure how you spelt it but ‘gusta’ ‘mucho gusta’ for beautiful, or lovely.
He laughed at himself and then became sombre. True to their word Juan had fixed his bike, once started, working furiously from the crack of dawn as seemed to be the Spanish way.
He was leaving any minute.
He had things to resolve before that. Things had happened so quickly – too quickly. They often did when travelling from place to place, country to country. None of that had mattered the last six months. Now it seemed it did.
The last thing he wanted was complications. He had just wanted to meander his way to the coast. Catch a plane – and then another plane.
He still could.
James Dean and Glamour Girls
Allbox was terrible.
He had arrived in the early evening, daylight still prevalent at this time of the year, the drive from Tijalo passing for him in a dreamlike state during which he refused to think of all that had gone before he left.
Scenery flashed by, one sign or turn off seeming very like another until at last he had reached his goal. He wished he hadn’t. There was no denying that as far as amenities went, Allbox had them all.
Every single item an English person might miss from their homeland in the way of groceries – and many other items from ‘civilisation’ was available for sale here. Work was obviously plentiful as was demonstrated by the non -stop building and rebuilding that seemed to be apparent on every corner of every street.
No doubt this was all good for the local economy and he could not deny that in an age of recession not everyone was as blessed as he had been in making all his wealth before this mini crash and employment in this area would certainly be good for all concerned.
The truth was the place was soulless. Soulless and lacking in beauty or appeal on any level save that of the practical and immediate. After a dishearteningly tepid beer in the bar of the small hotel he was staying in he took himself to bed.
He lay fully dressed on top of the cover with the fan above him going full blast. He turned the television on to distract his mind but could only stand to watch it with the sound muted, understanding none of the Spanish except vaguely on news channels.
The meaningless pictures danced before his eyes and eventually, they closed. He did not sleep. At least it seemed as if he did not, rather he drifted on a sea of fractured events and scenes that rose and descended in his mind like small waves until at last, seemingly powerless to prevent these things, he rose from the bed and left his room, opening the door straight out onto the patio- like tiling that ran full length down the front of the single storey white -washed building that constituted the annex to the hotel.
His bike was directly in front of him, double chained front and back to what looked like an iron hitching post.
To one side of it drooped a dusty looking tree with a thin trunk.
It was not a jacaranda.
He had never chained up his bike in Tijalo.
He drifted over to it and lounged against the saddle, raising his face to stare at the stars above him. The non- stop muted sounds of traffic irritated him. He had become used to the silence of Tijalo at night, broken only the lulling hum of the fan that blew welcoming puffs of air across one always returning just on the point of the heat beginning to intrude and chasing it away.
Sleep had come easily there. Of course there had been other things that had enabled him to sleep so easily.
The night here in Allbox was grey coloured only faintly tinged with black, the street lights and the lamps of the hotel combining to leech the colour of night to a sort of over- done twilight. The stars were still clear enough to see here but not as clear as they had been in Tijalo. There were street lights there too of course, but only three or four. Just enough to find your way home without bashing yourself if you had had a skinful.
Which he had had that second night.
He gave in. He gave in and thought about it all again. Especially the events of the second day and night – and then the third.
His memories of the first day and night were hazy, no doubt due to the slight banging about of his head and body when he had hit the ground.
Several beers later after the shock of the first, he had ascertained the name of the bar owner was Juan. At first he had wondered hazily if every male here was called Juan but had later learned he was indeed one and the same, doubling as both local barkeep and mechanic. He seemed very good at both.
The girl – no it was time to stop that – Thea ‘short for Anthea’ worked in the bar helping out in general, cleaning, serving and apparently, with no particular fixed hours, fitting them in to suit herself around the needs and demands of her son.
It had not been long after he had been seated at the bar – about the third or second beer - he had become aware of the sensation of being stared at. At first he dismissed it because they all did it. Stared at him. But the feeling persisted and, swinging about face on the stool, he had encountered a pair of solemn round green eyes that would have come to the height of his hip had he been standing, gazing fixedly at him from where the owner of the eyes sat on a chair, dangling and swinging his legs and occasionally aimlessly pushing a rubber ball about on the table’s shining, sixties-like laminate top from one hand to the next. The child’s hair was a dark brown colour with a slight wave in it and he estimated his age to be about eight years.
‘Hello’ he said ‘who are you?’
Crane knew without a doubt that this child was not Spanish, although it was likely he spoke Spanish more fluently than any tourist might master.
‘I’m Crane’ he offered in return.
The boy nodded his head in the direction of the girl with the smile who was busy serving a table populated by what seemed like the largest family he had ever encountered – and the noisiest.
At first he had thought everyone was endlessly arguing with everyone else until he realised that was just how they were – loud, noisy, gregarious and generous.
‘That’s my mum, she works here, she takes me to school on our scooter. Can I have a ride on your bike?’
‘I wish you could. If it was fixed I’d give you a ride. What’s your mum’s name.’
‘I saw you fall, it was fun. It looked like you were flying – or dancing. The bike came on really cool on its own and I thought it would smash to pieces.’
Crane thought the boy looked slightly crestfallen that it had not.
‘Your Mum’ he tried again ‘ what’s her name?’
‘Thea they call her. Her name’s Anthea. My dad’s name was Roberto. He went to be a bullfighter. He got killed.’
Crane was appalled at the matter of fact manner in which the boy supplied this information.
‘I’m sorry’ he said ‘did a bull get him?’
The boy shook his head.
‘No. He never got to fight a bull. Scaffolding fell on him and he was crushed. He was working on a building site. I don’t mind. He left when I was three. I cant remember much. Mum has a picture but its all dark and crumpled. She keeps it in a kitchen drawer. He had black hair and it was curly. Not like yours.’
‘I’m sorry’ Crane said again gently, nonplussed as to what to do or say. It had been a long time since he had had to deal personally with a child and when he had – well time and events proved what a failure he had been at it.
‘Don’t pester Carlos. Leave him alone. Go home now and watch tele. I’ll be along in an hour or so. Ask Maria to give you a drink of juice.’
She had come up beside him unobserved and her hand rested lightly on his shoulder as she spoke to her son.
‘I can get my own drink out the fridge. I’m not a baby’ the boy said scathingly to Thea.
He rose then and began to make his way to the door turning just before the exit to call ‘will you give me a ride when your bike’s fixed?’
‘You can count on it Carlos. One ride on the Harley, booked and paid for.’
He thought it amazing that everywhere he went, children were there. The Spanish took them with them to everything. No latch key children here. Every bar was always full of them, every fiesta and he had been astonished that they were often up until the early hours, laughing and playing the mindless games of the young that only the knew the rules of. He thought this was why he had seen so few drunken Spaniards. Growing up in a culture that not only allowed but positively welcomed children into bars as a matter of course, cut all taboos of the forbidden, making alcohol and its surroundings part of the platter of everyday life.
‘Perhaps’ he thought ‘the so-called civilised States could learn a lot from these countries that even now, they tended to look down on.’
He knew of course, that just like everywhere else there were undoubtedly criminals, murderers and wheeler dealers. But they were not so profuse. As if the Spanish simply refused to admit them to the community of these small places or, if they did, they were known by name and shunned accordingly while those of a simpler mentality were often tolerated and most of the time looked after, rather than being shut away in institutions.
Things blurred a little after that. Beer and exhaustion have a tendency to do that. But he remembered the salient facts.
She had served him on and off and, in between other chores, she had talked, as if she had been long deprived of her own kind and needed just this once to tell someone, anyone, her story, to have attention focussed on her wants and her needs for a change.
He had been both appalled and fascinated.
The great thing about transient travel from place to place - and one that had attracted him to the idea of a wandering journey - was that one was never there long enough to form relationships – to have to endure the intimacy of confession, or life stories that, whether boring or entertaining, required some amount of co-operation and effort on the part of the listener.
He had hoped never to have to do that again and had worked hard to ensure he didn’t. He had had enough of failure.
‘Are you trying to be James Dean? All that blonde hair and leather. Big motorbike and sunglasses. Is that what you want?’
At some point she had said this to him, half serious, half laughing.
‘I thought actually I was a bit more like Ewan Mcgregor – you know ‘Long Way Round’ on the tele.’
She had had the grace to keep a straight face.
Her hand had come up and pushed at a piece of lank hair, pulling it off her face and holding it against her head with her hand.
‘I wanted to marry Antonio Banderas – instead I got Roberto. I went for tango lessons in London. He was a teacher. Barely spoke a word of English. He looked quite a bit like him – at least I thought so, young as I was. The trouble was he really did think he was him – women everywhere and some insane idea he could be a bull fighter. And so we came to Spain. The nearest he ever got to bullfighting was chasing the three goats we used to have - and one of them fell off the side of the mountain! He was born here. I never met his parents. They were dead before I married him. The rest of his relations live up the north somewhere. Kinda looked down on him and his family. Gypsy blood. He had some distant relatives in Barcelona but quite frankly they didn’t want to know him – too much a peasant. But he was very charming and could dance like an angel.’
‘Did you think you were Catherine Zeta Jones then?’
She had looked puzzled.
He had nodded ‘You know ‘The Mark of Zorro.’
She had patently never seen this film.
‘No’ she said ‘I always wanted to be Angelina Jolie – Lara Croft Tomb Raider.’
For some reason they had both laughed.
She it was who lived in the small white washed house on the edge of the plaza renting it from Maria, the ancient proprietress of the dusty, musty shop that was indeed open and sold, of all things, gifts, ceramics, cosmetics and any and everything else one might need or not as the case may be. Customers were few and she apparently existed on the small rent Thea paid her and looked after Carlos while she worked. This was apparently done for free and out of affection, with gifts being exchanged from time to time between them of small cost but significant meaning. Maria herself lived in a tiny apartment above the shop and her age was unknown, her appearance only indicating she could be anything between fifty and a hundred.
Thea had been here for nearly ten years. Carlos had been born at home with the aid of a doctor and Maria and even then she had said Roberto was useless, cringing almost in fear at holding an infant. Most Spanish men were good fathers and loved children even if it were in a fiercely macho way, but not Roberto.
‘He couldn’t wait to leave’ Thea had said ‘and one morning, just after Carlo’s third birthday, he put on his best shirt and his tight black leather trousers. He kissed me hard and said goodbye just as if it was any other day that he would go and look for work he never found. I knew from his eyes he would never come back. He knew I knew. But we both pretended. I was panic stricken. How would I manage, what would I do? But my throat closed over. Must have been the last remnants of pride or something, but I said nothing, said none of the crying, screaming things inside, just kept them there moaning and trying to get out.’
Life had got better.
Juan had given her the job, Maria the house to rent and the purchase of a scooter from her meagre funds enabled her to take Carlos to school and back and sometimes, rarely, a journey to Baza if she had an extra few euros to spend.
She knew everyone and they knew her. They had all rallied round. Small gifts of vegetables when in season, extra cleaning jobs, a quarter of a pig when it was slaughtered, things like that. Now she just drifted from day to day but she was not unhappy.
Later, much later, they had drifted into the square, watching dancing and drinking and, in the distance, fireworks. He had wondered vaguely where these were being let off. The sound of their loud bangs seemed to echo and re-echo across and around the hills that surrounded the village so that he was completely uncertain as to what direction it came from. It didn’t seem to matter enough to waste the energy in asking and so he didn’t. Much later, she had told him there was a tiny spare room with a single bed that he could have for the duration of his stay. She would be glad of the small rental payment.
He remembered falling onto the bed, unwashed but totally exhausted. His last conscious thought had been that the bed was far too small for him. His feet dangled over the end by a good foot.
When he realised he had inadvertently made a pun he had laughed fatuously and fallen asleep.
Paintings in a small place
He was awoken by a beam of sun that cut him diagonally across his face telling him quite forcefully that he had forgotten to close the curtains in his exhaustion and also his mind had registered the gentle ‘pht pht pht’ of a scooter.
Staggering to the small window he saw the back of the moped driven by Thea with Carlos behind her, disappearing in the direction of the main road.
He turned away and padded for the bathroom in his bare feet, scratching his ribs and yawning.
Opening the door to the bathroom he walked in without looking and immediately yowled with pain, and then he was holding his right foot, howling and hopping until he fell up against the small bath and sat heavily on its white surface until the pain receded.
He scowled angrily, rubbing his foot seeking to find what had been determined to maim this already injured part of himself.
‘Aha’ he roared out loud and lunged forward, his long arm extended to scoop up what he could only think of as a kind of robot about eight inches in length with outstretched arms ending in fierce claw like appendages. Turning it over in his hands he retreated and sat down once more on the bath.
It was a kind of Transformers toy. At least he knew what it was. Or thought he did. It had been a long time since he had had to deal with small children’s toys left lying around. A very long time.
He stood it carefully on the flat, white tiled surface behind the taps of the bath where later as he sank up to his neck in water, it eyed him balefully.
While he was indeed up to his neck in water this had only been possible because most of his very long legs were bent upwards and stuck out of it, looking like tall white mountains, the bath being one of those the Spanish ‘and the French’ he thought loved so much. About half the size of a normal man.
‘Were all French and Spanish men small?’ he wondered ‘or is it just that they never take a bath and only the females do and they are all short?’
He knew this wasn’t so and ruminated on the fact that, Spanish Senoritas prior to marriage, were amongst the most beautiful women in the world and then, as soon as they wed and had one or two children it seemed to him that they underwent some kind of Stepford process.
‘They go in looking like movie stars and come out all looking the same – short, stocky, muscled arms, hair cropped to just above or below the ears with the same swept back style and a seeming distaste for wearing anything approaching viable fashion.’
At least it seemed that way to him. The only thing that didn’t seem to change was their natures – warm, easy, relaxed, engaging and all embracing if they took a shine to you. Woe betide you if you angered one of them though. He thought he might prefer to face a tiger rather than a Spanish Senora in full flight of anger.
‘Thank god for women’ he had thought as he had luxuriated in soft, soapy foam bubbles.
‘Not only do they have toiletries a man would love to use but never have the nerve to buy, they also think ahead.’
Silently he blessed Thea.
At one point he had thought he might have to get dressed before washing to go and collect his meagre supply of toiletries and clothes from his saddlebags but when he had retraced his steps to the small bedroom he had found them, the bags themselves neatly on the floor and any and all items displayed on top of the small chest of drawers. The drawers were made of some sort of cedar he hazarded, in the typically Spanish style, sturdy and lasting although they did rock a little on one side, but this was due to the uneven flooring.
Later still he had found warm coffee still reposing in a pot that smelt to him as if it was the most delicious in the world. He had surveyed the small Spanish style kitchen, sat at the round wooden table that would, at a pinch, allow four around its circumference if one didn’t mind knocking elbows with one’s neighbour and here, at least, he did not think this would be a problem.
He had greedily consumed two slices of toast, thick with dripping butter, before wondering guiltily if he had eaten most of her week’s supply. He would buy some more. There must be a bakery, perhaps a grocery store and to that end, he had roused himself somewhat reluctantly, and departed.
An hour or so’s exploration later, he arrived back at the house, flushed, perspiring but triumphant with bread, butter, local cheese, vegetables, fruit, particularly cherries, he was very fond of cherries and some sardines.
The rest of the small shops were set on a meandering hilly road that began in the gap between the three houses and the bar. It had seemed to him that every shop he desired was at least half a twist and a bend away from the last but everyone he met had stopped to hail him, to smile at him and, despite his constant repetition of ‘Habla Dispacio’ had nodded and then proceeded to gabble as fast as ever accompanied by many gestures. In the end, he had given up, contenting himself with smiling continuously, nodding his head in accompaniment with theirs and making small sounds of ‘Si’ or ‘No’ or simply laughing whenever he thought it appropriate.
It had seemed to work and he had begun to relax.
He had been disappointed that she was not there when he returned and momentarily wondered where she was and, with a slight surge of fear, whether she had had an accident. This had calmed almost immediately when he had realised that she must have gone to work, for he had seen the small scooter propped against the side wall of the house when he returned with his spoils. He had gone there immediately, only putting his head inside the bar to ascertain if she was indeed there, but not wishing to drink as yet.
She had indeed been there but had not noticed him – although some of the patrons had and nodded and waved – and so he had quietly withdrawn.
Preparations for festivities were in full flight. Everywhere small stalls were being set up with various bright, glittery things being displayed for sale. A raised dias had been erected and decorated that stood to one side of the of the Plaza at the end of the three town houses just before the exit from the village. No doubt there was to be music and so much later it proved to be. He had been so engrossed in his explorations and repeated attempts to engage him in conversation that he had not noticed that Thea must have been and gone again at sometime, until after a couple of beers and tapas at the bar where he had looked in vain for her, he heard the sound of scooter and, hurrying outside, was amazed to see her returning with Carlos.
The Harley was still where he had left it and now he was torn between two things for Thea had stopped and Carlos had jumped off and immediately sped towards the Harley, while she continued with the scooter towards her house.
He didn’t want the boy to damage the bike anymore than it was already and Lord knew what those small hands might get up to and yet he longed to go to the house and speak to her. In the end the desire for safety, both of his bike and of Carlos, won out and he moved towards the bar where he could see Carlos gently stroking the massive frame as if it was some wild animal that needed to be tamed. Much time was then taken by the explaining of various parts of the bike and their functions and also the speed that could be attained, where he had been, how many miles had he travelled and where he was going next and had he had any other accidents and how and why and when of so many things that he lost track of them all.
As he lost track of time.
‘That’s enough. Leave Crane alone. Go in and wash. I’ve put food on the table. It’ll be the play in an hour and you don’t want to be late.’
Her soft, slender hand had ruffled the boy’s dark hair and a fleeting kiss planted on his cheek and then he was gone.
‘You too’ she said turning towards him ‘I’ve found all your largesse and you’ll need food. It’s a long night or’ she amended ‘as long as you want it to be. In case you’re wondering, Carlos only had a half day. Everything stops for the next two days or so. Except the bar of course.’
‘But I don’t have to work tonight. Juan will do it – as and when he feels like it and there are stalls with sangria and lemonade and vino as well so, for the next two nights one can always get a drink.’
They made their way back to the house, Carlos already lost to sight and Crane thinking how neatly she walked beside him, her long, slightly too thin legs, adjusting their stride to his.
The meal was a success – in every way. Thea produced a cheap bottle of red wine that was so rich and full bodied in taste that he could have sworn it tasted better than the finest Cabernet. She even allowed Carlos a very small glass of it which, after the first two mouthfuls where he pulled a slight face, he did not touch again, preferring the cold, coloured and sweetened ice cubes she produced from the tiny refrigerator that sat upon the work surface near the sink.
‘He loves them’ she murmured conspiratorially to Crane ‘but I have to limit him to two at a time just in case he freezes his stomach to death.’
Sounds of music and merriment had been present in the background for some time but now as the sun began its slow descent, the summons became louder and more urgent. Thea rose saying ‘let’s leave the washing up. The play will begin soon. You have to see that.’
Crane rose too ,watching her surreptiously as she quickly cleared the table. She was wearing a white elasticised top with small ruched sleeves that fit snugly to her torso, ending just above her waist. Whenever she moved or stretched it moved too, revealing just a quick glimpse of taut bronzed flesh that tantalised rather than teased. Her breasts were not large but fit snugly within the shirred material. The faint hint of cleavage was more maddeningly arousing to him than if she had revealed acres of flesh.
He felt a faint disapproval at the skirt she wore which was denim and short, at least one inch above her knees, maybe two.
‘Should the mother of an eight year old be wearing something quite so revealing and sexy’ he wondered.
He wondered even more about that when, her back towards him as she clattered china into the sink he saw that the rear of the skirt was possessed of a slit of at least four inches that revealed a constant flash of her thighs. Then she turned and smiled at him and all such thoughts flew from his head. He had actually begun to move towards her he realised later when, whatever he had intended, was interrupted by the return of Carlos bearing some smudged and drawn on white piece of stiffened paper which he proudly presented to his mother.
‘See, I made you this birthday card at school. It’s got a blue elephant on it ‘cos I know you like blue and his trunk’s holding a big present for you.’
She took the slightly grubby card from him and bent a little kissing him at which he shied away a little, patting her with his hands and saying ‘don’t, ugh, that’s enough, don’t be soppy.’
He flew out of the door and was soon lost to sight.
She turned to Crane, flushing a little under his quizzical glance.
‘My birthday’s tomorrow. I’ll be thirty two.’
She said it bravely, almost defiantly.
‘He doesn’t like me kissing him much now, you know what boys are like when they get to his age. Well you would, wouldn’t you? After all, you’re a ‘boy’ too aren’t you?’
Crane laughed, taking the card gently from her hand so that he could look more closely at the garish blue elephant that seemed to him to have only three legs and a rather short trunk for its size, although the present attached to it was enormous.
‘Not much of a boy now, I’ll be forty two in three months, ten years older than you.’
He handed the card back to her and then said quietly ‘you should have told me it was your birthday. I would have…….’
‘Would have what?’ she asked abruptly ‘brought me a card? Why should you? You don’t even know me.’
Fearing she might have been too harsh, for Thea was ever of a gentle temperament if not forced to be otherwise by circumstance, she smiled again and said softly ‘there’s no need. I try not to think about them now. I’d rather they just began to blur into each other a little. Don’t you get like that about birthdays?’
‘To tell you the truth I can’t remember the last time I celebrated one.’
‘What a miserable couple we are! Come on! Let’s go and see the play.’
And so they did.
The scent of Jacaranda trees
When he had opened his eyes in the morning he wasn’t sure where he was. His head ached a little but not as much as he was sure he deserved. His mouth was slightly parched with the faint acrid taste at the very back of it that signalled the consumption of rather too much alcohol the night before.
He raised himself upright cautiously taking nothing for granted. Yes, he was lucky, the room didn’t spin, his head felt clear, all he needed was a pee and a drink of water and he could face the world again.
He was glad of the quiet.
He didn’t think it could be more than seven in the morning.
He thought it likely other revellers were also seizing the chance to lie quietly in their beds, some no doubt not even having the benefit of the gorgeous jacaranda scented breeze that blew in across him from the open French Door, its curtain waving gently like a friendly dog wagging its tail.
Now he sat bolt upright.
Turning his head slowly to the right he saw her.
She was still sound asleep, her flyaway hair half covering her face, lifting and falling gently in the light breeze.
She lay on her side facing towards him.
She was wearing very little.
In fact she was wearing nothing. His eyes took in the sweep of her hip before it disappeared under the thin sheet.
In fact, he too was wearing nothing.
She made a small sound and turned over on her back revealing her firm but not overly large breasts.
He averted his eyes.
He groaned softly.
He remembered everything now with the clarity of one who had been in his cups the night before and the morning of reckoning has come upon him.
The jacaranda trees had filled the Plaza with their luscious scent competing with the strong smell of various foods being barbecued or pre-prepared and now ready to be dipped in and dealt in all their lush glory. Music from an earnest group of musicians playing on the dais had caught her attention and she had dragged him by the hand, to the front of the three or four lines of hastily assembled chairs that he thought might be uncomfortable to sit on for any length of time because they were of the folding variety.
He reluctantly forced his eyes from the small group of children clustered around his bike and prayed to the patron saint of Harleys to protect it from too many machinations of too many small and sticky fingers.
She had pulled at his hand, her eyes full of warmth, laughing and urging him to dance. He had tried to demur but had been pushed by other couples now determined to enclose them, some old and partnering each other in a sedate waltz despite the fact that the music was definitely playing a fierce, passionate tango; children dancing everywhere he was sure with a far better talent than he could muster; two men dancing one in front of the other as if in competition and couples who were quite large in body but graceful in appearance.
He had given in and surrendered to the fire of a fiesta, the pleasure of a party, the havoc of a holiday. Later, he had watched, completely riveted, a play that consumed some two hours of time at least, not understanding hardly a single word but transfixed by the passion of the actors.
All the while things had been accompanied by drinks of varying types and strengths, he at least from time to time, having the wisdom painfully acquired both by age and certainly many experiences, to leaven his alcohol with the occasional soft drink. Carlos had appeared on swift, darting wings at various intervals, at one time holding his hand tightly during some tense moments of the play that obviously he understood even if Crane did not!
He could not be certain when Carlos had left them entirely; when exactly she had no doubt taken his sleepy, eye- closing form home to bed, he protesting all the time. He was only certain that when she returned it had been late, the music now playing softly in the background as one or two stronger couples still managed to shuffle round and round.
He had been astounded earlier during a break for the musicians, at the loud disco music that had been played, every tune evoking hits of the eighties and even more astounded that not only did some of the Spanish know all the words but that he , he had danced to most of them hardly knowing what he was doing, conscious only of her laughing face that seemed to be present no matter where he looked. They had walked away from the hot bustle of the crowd still in the plaza and he, having checked on his bike once more, they had begun to make their way desultorily towards home.
They had both stopped simultaneously underneath one of the jacaranda trees.
They had looked at one another no doubt in the best tradition of the movies he thought cringing inwardly and then, as if to break the spell, a huge, sticky, sweet smelling bunch of the blue flowers had fallen to land neatly on top of his head.
She had laughed out loud, doubling over from the waist and affording him finally, a view down her top that he thought was every bit as good as the promise the cleavage had offered. She had straightened and begun to brush the offending flowers from his hair.
‘Be still. They can be quite sticky. That’s why people never park their cars under them. But there’s one consolation. They say if the flowers land on your head they bring good fortune. I can’t vouch for the truth of that because I’ve never had them fall on my head but it can’t hurt to hope can it?’
The flowers gone now she smiled at him.
‘Oh you do smell so sweet’ she murmured.
His affronted dignity now forgotten in the light of her smile and the pleasure in the evening and the drinks he had consumed all conspiring against him, he had bent his head to her upturned smiling face and kissed her.
He remembered very little after that.
A frantic, reeling, rolling, fumbling, stopping and starting and leaning and falling; doors, walls, furniture, all becoming way stations for the touching, feeling, kissing, tasting, holding that engaged them both so wholeheartedly he could scarcely remember their actual descent into the bed, nor their obviously mutual disrobing.
He vaguely remembered feeling as if he was drowning, but not caring or even wishing to do anything about it, preferring to drown if that was what it took to stay in this maddening, intoxicating sensation that was both exquisitely sexual and heart -warmingly comforting. Had they made love only one time – or had it been many times? That he could not answer and now, in the light of day, it seemed not to matter.
He rose from the bed and made his way quietly to the bathroom.
On his return, noticing the door to Carlos’s room ajar he looked in on the boy.
He thought he had never seen a small boy look so like the painting of an angel. Of course he knew only too well that when awake he was anything but! But still – he realised with something approaching alarm that he knew nothing about small boys, only what he could remember from his own childhood and that so long ago as now seemed to have been someone else entirely, bearing no relation to the man he had become.
He had never had a son. Only a daughter. He knew nothing of small boys. He wondered idly why he was even bothered by that fact.
Entering the bedroom again he was greeted by a sight that simply bedazzled him, forcing him to rub his eyes but yes, Thea was up.
Her head was bent, concentrating on the purpose that now possessed her, her fine, fair and now, slightly dishevelled hair, covering almost all of her face. She wore a plain white bra, not fancy or frilled but rather of the more everyday serviceable kind. Her small briefs were white and plain too. She had managed to insert one leg into a pair of jeans and was now struggling to do the same with the second and failing, hopping and lurching like a broken doll, the material being possessed of that devil that gleefully comes to visit on those mornings when one is in a hurry but one’s fingers are slightly more uncoordinated than usual.
‘Thea’ he said ‘what are you doing? I thought you didn’t have to go to work. It’s your birthday.’
Her head snapped up and she flushed with the mortification that is no stranger to anyone who has been in such situations and he, well he understood it more than most.
‘I don’t. But Carlos is going to stay with a friend. It’s just down the road a little. I forgot. He’ll be up any minute and raring to go. I don’t want him to see, to know.’
Crane held up his hand.
‘Stop’ he said firmly ‘just stop a minute. Does Carlos know how to get to this friend of his? Tell me.’
‘Yes’ she said ‘of course he does. Why?’
‘Then don’t worry. I’ll take him. On the scooter. I’m sure if I can manage a Harley I can manage one of them and, with Carlos to give me directions, we’ll be there in no time. No need for you to do anything. Just go back to bed. Have a birthday lie in.’
Thea ceased to move.
She stood as still as a statue.
She looked at him.
He fancied he saw the brightness of tears in her eyes but it was gone in a flash.
‘Are you sure? You’d do that for me? You don’t mind? I mean, what about his breakfast and he’ll need clean clothes and…….’
He had walked over to her then and clasped her by the shoulders.
‘Stop’ he said gently ‘consider it a birthday present. I’ll get his breakfast, I’ll do whatever needs to be done. Trust me. I’ve been to camp you know in the States, you learn survival skills in those things that never leave you. I’m quite sure I can cope with one small boy.’
She had sagged against him, still one leg in and one leg out of the jeans, the soft warmth of her body full length against his own. He waited for a moment and then said ‘None of that now, or I’ll never get him there will I?’
‘Okay’ she said ‘okay, you’re sweet, as sweet as blue jacaranda flowers.’
She had scampered for the bed and flung herself in it leaving her clothes where they lay which he now threw at her in playful anger for calling him sweet.
Later when he returned she was asleep again.
He left a cup of tea on the bedside table and covered it with a piece of linen to protect it from the depredations of flies which alas, he had already concluded were the price one had to pay for such a climate. When finally, she came downstairs at about eleven o clock he had raised his head from the Spanish newspaper he had purchased on his way back and had been struggling to decipher sat at the round kitchen table and smiled at her.
‘At least I can understand the pictures.’
She had sat on his lap quite firmly as if on a mission, clad only in a thin, faded short silk dressing gown that had once been a deep purple but was now only a mere hint of lilac. She had pushed at the newspaper until he had been forced to let it flutter to the ground.
He didn’t mind. What she wished to show him was far more interesting than anything he would find in a newspaper – Spanish or otherwise.
Dreams of elephants
That third day was positively magical.
He felt in many ways as if he floated along on a river of events over which he not only had any control, but did not wish to.
Thea had taken charge. She organised a light picnic, just fruit and a bottle of wine and determined they should ascend the small winding track that led from behind the village to the very top of the mountainous hill it was built upon.
There was a strange, small, truncated tower that stood almost at the summit that looked like nothing so much as if it had been chopped off from something larger and set down, much as a giant might have moved a chess piece, and he had seen several of these at different intervals on his journey, some so high he had wondered if they had been erected piece by piece or hauled to their resting place intact. Either possibility was difficult to envisage for in some cases, there appeared to be no track and no possible way, at least to his eyes, of either getting the thing up there, or having any ground to move around upon if it were to be built once the desired space had been reached. It was one of those many mysteries that no doubt every country possessed, peculiar to the nationality of the indigenous population or those that had invaded and conquered them way back in the mists of history.
Whatever the case he was perfectly happy to follow where she led and to listen as she chided ‘that we must go now and reach the summit before the heat of the day kicks in otherwise we’ll never make it.’
He understood only too well some thirty minutes or so into the mission. The track permitted only the passage of a single person or at the most, that of one and a half small people. Conversation was difficult if next to impossible because the gradient, although gradual, was steep and required much effort of the leg muscles and even more of the chest and lungs as the air altitude became higher and thinner. He was immensely glad that he wore only a sleeveless white tee shirt and those cropped cotton trousers that came to just below the knee. He thought the heat beating down upon his neck might rival that of hell itself. Finally, the goal had been achieved and he had run his hands over the rough hewn stones filled with a sense of mystery and wonder. There was no writing upon any of them and nothing to provide an explanation.
‘Some’ Thea had said ‘are fairly modern and are shrines with statues as nearly every area has its own version of the Virgin. Others were put in place long before, perhaps even before the Spanish as we know them were little more than separate tribes. Everyone is so familiar with them now they are scarcely noticed or visited but I thought you would like it – and that.’
She flung her arm wide in an expansive gesture and he turned from his inspection of the small battlement to take in the view.
He was silent. He thought it might take a day to count the many varied tops of hills and mountains that surrounded them in a perfectly circular three hundred and sixty degrees. The endless dipping and shading of colour, green, brown, beige, grey, ochre and the fiery red of soil in places that reminded him of Arizona, filled the eye with the colour and confusion of a kaleidoscope and the constant shifting of shadows made everything appear as if it was a leaving, breathing, organism.
‘Mother Nature at work in all her glory’ he breathed in awe.
His eyes travelled down from the blue, cloudless sky and perfection of scenery to the village below. It looked, as often these small villages did, like something unreal, something imagined, or something an artist had combined with his own personal view to catch the mind and the heart. Halfway up – or down depending on your point of view - he noticed a wide plateau that seem to hang almost in the air itself although a pathway did indeed branch off from the one they had traversed by which the plateau could be reached. In the middle of this wide, stately arena, sat a house.
A magnificent, but faded house with many long windows that even from here, he could tell were boarded up. It sat full square as if it were the monarch of everything around it. It had small crenulated battlements that appeared to be perfectly in keeping with the size rather than overly ornate. He could see too from where the sun shone on it that once it had been a warm, cream colour with white decorative adornment, but now most of it was a uniformly sad drooping grey where the paint had long since weathered.
Thea moved towards him.
‘It’s been closed up for the past fifteen years, before I got here. The owner died and his son moved to Barcelona. He’s very rich and wasn’t interested in it. Its never even been offered for sale – just forgotten about. I’ve gone there, sometimes with Carlos and sometimes alone. It’s wonderful. I dream about it sometimes. Y’know opening it up, bringing it back to its beauty, clearing the ground where the orange and olive trees are, planting roses and more trees and sitting on the patio - you know it runs all the way round and on one side the hill drops away like you’re standing on the edge of the world. Oh it’s perfectly safe, a long way off from the house itself but imagine what it’s like to own such a thing, to know its all yours, your own kingdom.’
He smiled benignly down at her.
‘Shall we go there? Sit in the shade and have our picnic there?’
She clapped her hands.
‘Oh yes, let’s. No one will mind.’
He didn’t say he was close to exhaustion. He was so hot he wanted to throw himself into a deep cold pool. His fair hair clung to his head like wet slabs of fish and he wished now he had opted for having it shaved like a biker rather than rebelliously letting it grow longer than his formalised ‘I am the great tycoon’ haircut that had waved back from his high forehead, giving him even greater, more intimidating stature than his above normal height already had.
‘I must look like some ageing hippie’ he thought but he followed her placidly as she sped like a small dragonfly down the path towards the turnoff for the house, her large shoulder bag containing their picnic flying out behind her as if it sought to hold her back.
She wore a thin, gauzy dress, colours and hues of every description enmeshed in it, none vying for dominance. It was not fitted but simply fell to just below her knees and was held up by small ties at each shoulder. She looked stunning and cool and desirable. She had stopped at the turn off waiting for him to catch up.
‘The track’s wider here’ she said ‘we can walk together.’
Promptly she grasped his hand and held it as they walked together along the wide track. Wooden arches raised their outstretched arms above them that no doubt had once been covered in vines, or roses or other climbing plants that had long since withered and died. But still they offered slight shade as they moved and the open sky seen through them was like variations on the same painting.
Much later, sated on wine, fruit and cheese, sipping water as they sat against the strong wall of the house on the end where the land dropped away, both of them commented on the magnificence of the view that seemed, at that moment to Crane, to have been specially created for them. The long shadow thrown by the house as the sun moved in the heavens continuously changed the aspect before them and he was cool now, cool and content.
She was playing idly with a stick, drawing circles and squares in the dust, conversation having ceased between them as both had begun to be consumed by their own thoughts.
He reached out and stroked the smooth, bronze, bare shoulder where the strap had slipped down and she came at once instantly into his arms as if she had merely been awaiting his signal. He kissed her once softly, the second time with more passion, his hand coming up to rest gently on her breast. Then he suddenly stopped and drew slightly away, looking down at her face, her flyaway hair falling as it always did half across it, unable to maintain a style for any length of time. She pushed at it with her hand and then holding it against her neck, she tilted her head to look at him.
‘It’s alright’ she said ‘I don’t want anything. I’m not expecting a great romance, or declarations of love if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m not stupid. I don’t expect you to think you’ve found the love of your life. It’s just……..nice and I’m glad you’re here and I’ve enjoyed it all and when you go tomorrow, well that’s alright too. So you needn’t worry. It’s okay.’
‘I’ve got this dream. It’s the only one I think I’ve ever truly had. I want to go to Tijuana. Live there. Do nothing, think nothing, just ride about, lay about and let whatever happens happen. My life has been so regulated, so, so stiff and I’ve always done everything I should, or thought I should, and none of it worked and then when I lost my daughter, well the marriage was over long before that, and then there seemed no reason not to and I don’t want, I can’t, I don’t want to get things wrong again – ever again – and I don’t want to feel, can’t mess things up anymore.’
She stared at him.
‘I had a daughter. Well almost. After Roberto left, I discovered I was pregnant. When I was three months along, I had a miscarriage. No real reason for it. The doctor’s said it was stress. It was a girl. Sometimes, sometimes I think about her, imagine what she’d be like now, how much fun she and Carlos would have and then, then I think, perhaps it’s just as well y’know, I can only just provide for him, how would I have managed two? D’you think that’s horrible of me? It tears me in two sometimes, thinking of her, missing her even though I never really had her and then thinking, well just as well ‘cos I don’t have the money. I hate myself then. Perhaps it was my fault. Maybe, maybe I sort of wished her away and she went and now I’ll never have her.’
Tears dropped silently down her face and she released her hand, allowing the hair to fall once more in its haphazard fashion. He put his arms around her and pulled her against his chest and stroked her hair while she cried. He whispered comforting things to her and gradually she calmed. He told her about Kristen and showed her the old, folded photograph he carried in his wallet. She stroked his face and kissed him gently.
They drank more wine and then more water.
They sat side by side holding hands, saying nothing more and doing nothing more. Eventually she said, ‘we should go back. Carlos will have to come home and either you or I will have to get him.’
They rose as one.
‘I’ll get him’ he said and then, almost as an afterthought ‘I’ve got something for you, a birthday present, here’ and reaching in the pocket of his trousers he drew out the small blue box he had been touching on and off the whole day, wondering when exactly to give it to her and hesitating in case she thought, thought he might be trying to pay for something.
Her two hands took it and opened it and he was gratified by the gasp she gave.
He had bought it earlier when he had purchased the paper after dropping Carlos off. Only three or four shops around and one a mishmash of gifts and a surprisingly fine selection of jewellery.
Her fingers lifted the bright, sparkling thing out of the box. It was a tiny elephant all made of diamonds hanging on a slender silver link chain. The diamonds were real. Small but real. He didn’t think she would know that, that she would be caught up only in the brilliant shining, winking and glitter as it turned on the chain, flashing in the rays of the descending sun. It had cost two hundred euros. He would have paid more.
‘It’s lovely, quite the loveliest present I’ve ever had.’
She turned and twisted it in her hands so that the diamonds flashed for a moment as if powered by a hundred suns. She turned to him, smiling but with he thought, a hint of sadness in her eyes.
‘Put it on, put it on for me.’
He did this his fingers brushing the warmth of her slender, brown neck as she held her hair away so that he could fasten the clasp.
They returned home then, not speaking as if it were either too hot for the effort of words or they had said all that needed to be said.
Carlos had been full of excited descriptions of his day and this had prevented the possibility of any lull in conversation. Supper and then bathing and storytelling – Carlos insisting he tell him a story this time which he had, a long, involved ramble about his time in Asia during which Carlos had fallen asleep ‘no doubt from sheer boredom’ thought Crane – all this had taken them well past the time of needing to talk.
While Thea fidgeted and fussed around tidying and moving things about in the tiny kitchen he had gone outside for a last cigarette in the peace and breezy warmth of the plaza. He had thought himself alone as he stood under the jacaranda trees until beginning the walk back, he had seen Maria in her usual position in the shop doorway staring at him. She said nothing but he could feel the power of her eyes upon him as he entered the house. He felt as guilty as the son of a lord might feel for trifling with the affections of a beautiful peasant maiden to the chagrin of the local village. He supposed he was lucky there was no swain to call him out for a duel although he thought it quite likely that Maria would have been happy to play that role.
‘She’s probably putting some old Spanish spell on me right now’ he thought as he looked through the kitchen door, watching as Thea carefully placed the clean glasses and cups on the slightly too tall and too thin open wooden dresser.
Guilt it was now made him speak.
‘Think I’ll turn in now. Got a long day ahead tomorrow once they’ve done the bike. My bones ache from all the walking today. I’ll just wash up and then drop straight into bed. No bother sleeping tonight I shouldn’t think.’
She stared at him for a moment and then smiled slightly.
‘You do that. You’ve earned it. There’s nothing much left to do here and then I’ll probably turn in too. I’m very tired. As you said, it’s been a long day.’
She turned away from him then, back towards the cutlery in the drainer.
His last view of her was her calm face as she used her right hand to place knives and forks in the drawer while her left gently stroked the glinting, shining, diamond elephant that hung between her breasts.
Night and Day
Contrary to his belief he had not slept, the single bed seeming at once too constricting and, conversely, too empty.
‘Was it possible’ he wondered ‘that I have already grown used to her presence?’
He had not slept as such with someone beside him in years until last night. Oh he had had sex, usually he leaving whosever apartment it was, in the early hours to make his way home to the huge house where he had lived in solitary splendour, but to sleep with someone, no he had not done that. Not since Cynthia had left. He had been fairly solitary all his life until her, her and Kristen and, when they had gone, it had been easier to fall back into his old ways. Easier and safer. Of course, here, here in Tijalo he had an excuse. It was a small house, he had been drunk, they had spent all that time together, she had obviously not been averse and, and…
He tossed and turned and then tossed some more. Finally, he gave up and sat on the edge of the bed facing the small open window, letting the breeze that was pleasant but did not cool, blow over his hot, aching, naked body as he smoked a cigarette, inhaling deeply in an effort to concentrate, to relax.
He heard the door open quietly. He did not turn around. He felt the bed dip gently under her weight and knew that she knelt behind him. Her arms went around his waist and her hair brushed against his back as she bent her head to kiss the nape of his neck. He drew on the cigarette once more fiercely, and then tossed it with devastating accuracy through the window. He caught one of her hands and raised it to his mouth, sucking on her fingers and then kissing the palm of it. She moved until she was half across him, her arms now linked behind his neck, caressing his hair and his flesh. He bent his head and kissed her and she pressed against him until they both fell onto the bed.
They said nothing to each other that night except once she moaned his name, ‘Crane, Crane’ into his mouth as they melded. The night was hot, sticky and glorious. He could not remember when he fell asleep except that it was shortly after she had sighed with exhausted pleasure and curled herself into him, her limbs entwined with his, the heat of their perspiring bodies enveloping him like the drowsing warmth of a sauna, her hair plastered against her head as if she was fresh from a shower, so wet it was. His too had been wet but the bed no longer seemed empty and neither did he.
He slept late. Very late. When he arose it was already eleven thirty. He could not remember when he had slept so long or felt so refreshed. He could hearing banging. A gentle, constant banging and, pulling on his trousers, he went to the front door. There, across the plaza he could see Juan putting the finishing touches to the Harley. True to his word, today was the day.
He felt a quiet excitement beginning to build in him. Soon, soon, within the hour he could be on his way, Tijuana beckoning with open, blowsy arms on the horizon of his mind, Tequila and sunshine and water and dark eyed, dark haired women drifted across his mind in a tantalising mirage that he had only to reach out and grasp to make real.
The night exploded back into his head and he felt a thousand knives pierce him in all directions. Pleasure, comfort, desire, peace, sleep, fragrant skin, soft arms, and then – entrapment, commitment, responsibility, problems, no doubt rows and arguments taking the place of desire and affection. He thrust it all away. He wanted none of it. He told himself this quite firmly. He had been here before and made a mess of it. The very idea, even the conception of the idea, made him feel physically sick. He couldn’t no, he didn’t want to walk this path again. That was the one thing he was certain of.
When he entered the house again he could tell by its silence that Thea had long gone, no doubt to the bar. He didn’t need to see her again. He knew that was the coward’s way out, but once gone from Tijalo it wouldn’t matter, he wouldn’t have to think of it. A quick look into Carlos’s room told him he wasn’t there either. No need for goodbyes with him then. He wondered where he was and felt a vague alarm that he did not know. Then he told himself it was none of his business anyway, nor did he want it to be.
He washed and changed quickly, pulling his leathers on with reluctance due to the heat but he knew better than to travel without them. One or two painful spills and abrasions had long ago taught him the necessity of protective clothing especially on long journeys on unfamiliar territory.
He pulled out a wad of euros and then doubled it, placing it under the edge of her cup that still sat on the table. ‘It wasn’t payment for services rendered’ he argued with himself, it was rent. If he chose to leave an extra amount, a tip, well loads of people did that if they had enjoyed themselves didn’t they? He drank a cold cup of coffee not wanting to stop to make some fresh for fear of – what? Fear of being caught, of being seen, of being accosted? He felt slightly angry. He had done nothing wrong, he had promised nothing. Hadn’t he even gone all out to explain, to tell her? It was her, after all, who had come into his room, not the other way around.
He hadn’t sent her away – hadn’t refused her. He tried to tell himself laughingly ‘what man would?’ But he wasn’t very good at that. He had never been at ease in a ‘Jack the lad’ role, despite his efforts at the same over the last six months.
‘Tijuana’ he told himself, ‘Tijuana will change everything. I wont have to try or do or be anything else but what I want. It’s time to go.’
He made it to the Harley, drawing euros from his wallet as he walked and pressing them, too many of them, into a protesting Juan’s hands where he stood some paces from the bike admiring his handiwork.
He revved up the engine, turning the throttle up and down, listening to the sweet, purring sound of escape and new scenes, new places, new people, here under his hands, at his command, his control. From Maria’s house a small figure appeared in the doorway and then ran across the Plaza at full speed to stand accusingly in front of the bike.
‘You promised me a ride. You said when it was fixed I could have a ride. You said so. You lied. You’re going without taking me for one aren’t you?’
The boy had his small fists clenched in fury. Crane thought if he had been a man he would surely have aimed a punch at him by now.
‘I know I did, but it’s late. I have to go Carlos. I’m days late already. Look. Tell you what. If I come back this way, you can have two rides, no three, how about that?’
‘Don’t want three rides, want one now.’
He thrust out his lower lip belligerently and, as if by magic, Thea appeared from the bar. Her swift glances took in the situation immediately. Crane could see disappointment flare momentarily in her eyes and then the glazing of acceptance displaced it. She moved quickly to her son and, placing an arm around his thin shoulders spoke quietly to him, telling him that Crane had to go, was late already and anyway he might come back and would let him ride it then. Carlos shrugged her away angrily.
‘I’ll send you a postcard. Lots of postcards just for you.’
‘I don’t want a stupid old postcard. You promised. I hate you.’
The words rang in his ears as he watched Carlos tear furiously back across the Plaza into the waiting arms of Maria who pushed him inside, glaring over her shoulder at Crane ‘every bit as balefully as the evil transformer toy’ he thought.
He silenced the bike and got off, standing awkwardly with his helmet in his hands, looking at her but not knowing what to say.
‘I’m sorry’ Thea said quietly ‘I guess he got really fond of you. Children are like that. But then I suppose you know that. They’re not like us. They don’t always understand. They don’t think about anything, or weigh anything up – they either like someone or they don’t. Of course he doesn’t really hate you, he just said that.’
‘Yes he does’ Crane thought ‘he meant it, just like Kristen did.’
‘I don’t blame him’ he said aloud ‘I guess I’d hate me too.’
He paused and then said rather desperately ‘Didn’t you ever have a dream, something you always wanted to do but never could, don’t you even now maybe have a dream?’
He was not to know that his eyes held an appeal for clemency until he thought about it later. In any event she gave it to him.
‘Yes’ she said quietly ‘I do. But my dream is smaller than yours.’ She laughed a little, her mouth trembling slightly. ‘It’s alright. Don’t think about it. You should go now. We’ll be alright. We always are. I’ve had a wonderful time. Thank you. Thank you for everything.’
She touched the diamond elephant lightly, smiled at him once briefly and then was gone, back into the bar.
He leaned back against the wall of the bar feeling exhaustion plough through him and the day scarcely begun. Everything was so complicated. He tried to think it all through. It took some moments and he began to notice the Plaza coming to life as people emerged from their houses to begin the daily business of life as it was lived in Tijalo. Not his life. Not the life he wanted.
He moved to the Harley and mounted.
He sat for a few moments with the engine idling. He glanced around the Plaza. The jacaranda blossoms seemed fewer to him today. No doubt they would soon all fall and then be gone. Just as he would.
He checked once more briefly that he had not forgotten anything, fastened his crash helmet and then, setting his face determinedly to the view ahead, he opened the throttle and made his way to the highway that would carry him to his dream.
He was out of his room and paying the bill before seven, refusing all offers of breakfast except for coffee, wanting only to escape the confines of this awful, barren town. An anomaly, a bleak joke of a place. He thought the name described it well.
‘Anyone who lived here’ he thought sourly ‘lived ‘all in a box’.’
They just didn’t know it – comforting and cosseting themselves with jars of marmite and lemon curd and telling themselves it was all worth it just to have a ‘little bit of England’ a ‘home from home.’
‘Don’t they realise that’s the whole point ‘ he thought as the last remnants of the place dropped behind him ‘the whole point is to get away from home, get away from everything that’s disillusioned you, kicked you in the teeth, made you want to die or cry, or both.’
He consciously made the decision not to think, letting the whipping wind whip under the edges of his helmet and cool the leather of his jacket, allowing only the steady beat of the Harley’s heart to possess him, to echo through all the muscles of his body. He let the motorway take him and lost himself.
It must have been an hour or so later that he pulled into a roadside hostel, large, white with all mod cons and, best of all, impersonal. Hostels like these blurred into one another so similar were they and so many found across the interior of Spain.
Not that he minded. His very transience preferred the impersonal. He asked only that it serve cold beer, be air conditioned but hopefully not to the point of refrigeration, and that he could sink into a seat or sit at a bar with the absolute certainty that no one would bother him.
The hot sun beat down on him like a chastising parent as, removing his helmet, he strode into the hostel. He brought a beer – for once cold enough to satisfy his concept of the same – and seated himself at a small table under the aegis of a dusty potted plant and then surveyed his surroundings.
The huge bar area was virtually unoccupied, save for one family sat at a large table with six chairs. There were four of them. The proverbial two children, boy and girl, the girl in this case being the elder, he thought possibly about twelve and the boy round about ten.
That they had been arguing – not just the children with one another, but the girl and father too – was readily apparent. The boy, slumped defiantly in a chair, arms folded and crushed against his body; the girl stirring and stirring her melting iced drink and scowling at anything that moved; the wife, a thin, dark haired woman who looked as if she might once have been a model and was still beautiful in that anorexic kind of way and the husband, tall, blonde and obviously caught in the middle between capitulation and aggression.
‘I hate you’.
The girl had spoken, looking at her father.
‘I hate you. You always take his side, never mine. I hate you. When I grow up I’m leaving and I don’t care. If I die you’ll be sorry.’
Instantly his mind winged back to the day Kristen had said such things to him, only she had been older.
Standing in his office, he already fidgeting with his watch, a meeting to close a deal about to begin, only trying once more to warn her of the unsuitability of her connection to this evil genius of a movie star who seem to have her wrapped around his fingers like one would a silk scarf, pulling and releasing whenever the fancy took him.
He had told her he would cut off her allowance.
‘I hate you’ she had said, ‘I hate you and I don’t care if I never see you again. I’m going to marry him and that’s that. I can’t wait to be free. To be happy. You don’t know what it’s like to be happy. Just because you’re not doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. He loves me. I love him.’
Nothing he had said had made any difference.
Except to make her hate him more.
He had never seen her alive again.
Six months later Kristen and the boy star were both dead.
The father was bundling the two children out to the car, the girl shrugging and tossing her shoulders, throwing off his guiding hand. The wife was still packing up all the things they had brought in with them – books, a cell phone, a Gameboy, Kleenex and other odd bits and pieces. He watched through the wide window as the father and kids made their way to the car.
He had done the right thing.
It was the right thing to have left.
He could never make a go of it.
It looked like no one could.
Not even this perfectly normal looking family.
He wondered in a detached way if they all hated each other; if the husband had affairs; if the wife longed for the peace and quiet of a life alone; if the boy wished he could live in a wilderness with only animals for company and the girl……
His attention was caught now as he watched the father and daughter both standing rigidly beside the door to the large Saab, the boy already in the back and punching rhythmically on the seat in front of him with small, angry feet.
Suddenly, the father reached forward placing both arms around the girl, pulling her resisting body against his own and stroking her dark brown hair, his head bent and obviously saying something to her.
A moment later her arm went up around his neck and she kissed his cheek and said something. He could not hear it but could tell by the shape her mouth made as she spoke that she had said ‘I love you Daddy.’ Her father stroked her hair again and opened the door and the girl got in and sat down, the slam of it closing, starting him from his reverie.
He glanced around and his eyes met those of the rake thin wife.
She smiled at him and shrugged her shoulders, and nodded in the direction of the car park.
‘They’re always arguing’ she said in an apologetic tone.
‘It’s because they’re both so alike, both so strong willed but they love each other really. I always try to give them a little space when they’ve argued, I find they soon make it up. Boyd can’t stand it when they argue, he’s a quiet boy, just wants everything to be pleasant. Life isn’t like that though I keep telling him. Families always argue. No one gets it right all the time. The thing is you have to keep trying don’t you – just do your best? No-one can do more than that can they?’
She smiled at him and then, gathering her various bags and books and bits of assorted debris, she left.
He watched again as she got to the car and her husband opened the door for her. Her hand brushed him lightly on the chest and he smiled down at her as she seated herself.
Two minutes later they were gone.
He sat silently for a long time, absentmindedly ordering a second beer when approached by the barman, a large man of indeterminate race whom he though might even be Turkish but could not bring himself to ask.
He wanted to think. Everything washed over him with the force and ferocity of a tidal wave, engulfing his senses so that he felt as if he stood on a beach alone and then everything receded and things seemed clearer.
‘The thing is you have to keep trying don’t you – just do your best? No-one can do more than that can they?’
That was what she had said.
He felt as if a priest had given him absolution.
For the first time in years he felt as if he could suddenly stand upright again, as if he had been bent and twisted for so long he had ceased to be aware of it; the crippling factor of his failure with Cynthia and Kristen becoming a part of his body as well as his soul. But now this ordinary wife and mother had given him what he had been searching for this past six months.
Freedom as real as if chains had been un-manacled, bonds had been sliced with a sharp knife and the prison door had been opened and he could walk out into the light and smell the coffee.
If he chose.
Could he dare once more? Could he take that terrible desperate leap of faith again, the hope that, mundanely, everything would be alright?
‘just do your best? No-one can do more than that can they?’
Was that all it took? Just doing your best?
He felt, he truly believed that it was. He had done his best with Cynthia, with Kristen and maybe his best hadn’t been good enough but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try again – did it? And he wanted to. He knew that he wanted to. At least he wanted to try and want to do it.
He rose abruptly the screeching of his chair sounding very loud, echoing through the large, empty room.
‘Like my life’ he thought ‘empty and echoing.’
He didn’t want that anymore. For a while he had, but not anymore. He would try again. Just try to do his best.
Reaching for the Blue Bird
He slowed the Harley to an idling halt just after the commencement of the turn off. He sat quietly staring ahead of him. In the distance he could just make out the entrance to the Plaza.
Doubts filled his mind. He had had no doubts when he had turned around and headed back but now he did. He had not questioned himself like this since Kristen. But now he did.
What if he was mistaken? What if when he got there she didn’t want him back? What if he had read everything wrong? And then there was the boy. Carlos. What if he failed again, what if something dreadful happened to the boy because of something he did – or worse – didn’t do? Did he have the right to mess with their lives – change everything forever? They had been content enough before he came. Should he leave them alone? Just because he wanted, no he would be honest, needed them, did that mean they had to automatically need him?
His hands trembled on the rubber grips of the bike.
She had not tried to stop him leaving.
Maybe she didn’t want, didn’t need him like he needed her. And that was the truth of it. He needed her. His mind was suddenly filled with images of her; her hand pushing her lank hair from her face; her lean body one foot in her jeans, vulnerable as her face had suddenly shown her pleasure that for once, someone wanted to do something for her and, most of all, the way she had reached for him that last night and then afterwards, folding her body into his as if it was the most natural thing in the world; as if she had always been there.
He took a deep breath.
He thought maybe he had been a coward long enough. Too long. Years too long. Shutting himself off from anything and everything except the most facile of connections – all so that never again would he feel the terrible pain that had threatened to destroy him. Nothing had been allowed to touch him. He could get hurt again. He could feel pain again.
On the other hand.
Before he could think any longer he forced the bike’s throttle open and took off - if anything, even faster than the first time he had come here. At the last minute he remembered and swerved a little, instantly laughing at himself for forgetting he had been present when they had removed the buried ploughshare. The danger was no longer there. He throttled down and moved the bike quietly into position leaving it parked as so often before against the wall of the pale pink bar.
He glanced around the Plaza. No one was there. No one that is except Maria who stood in the doorway to her musty shop, arms akimbo as if daring him to do anything to hurt anyone.
He waved to her.
After a moment’s hesitation, she waved back.
The fountain gurgled and gabbled joyously, the sun’s rays illuminating it so that the beads of water it shed glittered and gleamed like precious jewels.
Turned to face the bar door once more, he took a deep breath and entered, mentally glad the sun was sinking behind him and everything would be cooling down now. His heart thumped and for a moment his vision was blurred. When it cleared he felt as if he had never been away.
The three or four patrons already in situ, nodded at him as if there was nothing unusual in his being there. Juan was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps he was fixing a car, or a quad bike, or a JCB, or even a tractor.
At first he could not see her as he approached the counter. Then, as if by magic, she rose, dark blonde hair falling haphazardly as her head appeared above the counter, followed by the rest of her at the far end. She had obviously bent to the floor to pick something up, a drying towel from the look of the thing in her hand. She was facing away from him and talking to the two men seated at the booth in the corner. Their silence must have told her something was different and slowly, slowly she pivoted around until at last she was facing him.
She stood silent for a few moments, her face impassive, impossible to tell what she was thinking or feeling. Placing the cloth sedately on the top of the counter she moved towards him until at last she was there - in front of him. She surveyed him intently, her eyes looking him up and down as if searching for something. She was not smiling.
At last she spoke.
‘You’re not James Dean.’
‘I’m not Ewan Mcgregor either.’
They stared at each other.
‘You’re not Catherine Zeta Jones’ he said to break the sudden impasse.
He was conscious of the silence that now permeated the air of the bar as if the other patrons too held their breath.
‘I’m not Angelina Jolie either.’
‘I’m Thea – just Thea.’
‘That’s fine with me. I’m Crane, just Crane.’
‘That’s fine with me too.’
‘Well since that’s all been sorted out and everything is fine then I’ll just, just…..’
He rose from his seat and leaned across the bar.
She was smiling.
So he kissed her.
At once the air was filled with the murmur of excited but subdued talk.
As he subsided back onto his seat she said quietly ‘Can I get you anything? A tubo perhaps?’
He looked at her, conscious that he had a silly grin on his face but not caring that he did and making no attempt to remove it.
‘Yes, but not beer. A tequila. Yes I’ll have a Tequila. But not from a bottle with a worm in it’ he added hastily.
She smiled again as she reached behind two exotically labelled containers of whose contents he had no idea, and withdrew a plain labelled bottle of pure white Tequila – no worms in sight. She placed the bottle on the bar and reached for a shot glass.
‘You have one too’ he said.
‘I can’t’ she answered ‘I’ve got to pick Carlos up from school in a few minutes.’
He looked longingly at the bottle and licked his lips.
‘I’ll get him. It’ll be quicker if I do it and he loves the Harley. I did promise him a ride on it after all. The drink can wait ‘till I get back. It’ll still be here won’t it?’
‘Oh yes’ she said ‘it’ll still be here. Everything will still be here.’
She leaned forward across the bar and kissed him.
‘Every time you smile’ she murmured ‘I want to kiss you. From the very first time.’
Later, arrived at the school, a tiny excitement growing within him at the thought of seeing Carlos, at the thought of all he would have to tell him, at the hope that Carlos would be equally pleased to see him, as he sat on the purring Harley he wondered at his audacity, his sudden and complete willingness to take a chance on everything when before he had vowed never to take a chance on anything again – at least anything that was not in the sterile world of business.
An ambient feeling began to ooze through him, slowly enveloping all of his body and his mind.
His brain churned. All became clear. He would buy the house – the house on the plateau. Lord knew he had enough money to do so, wealth that Thea had no idea about. He didn’t think she would even care about the money. He would buy the house, they could live in it, Thea could grow roses, tend the trees, do whatever the hell she wanted and he – he could watch her – and Carlos. And maybe, just maybe there might be a child, another child. A girl, or a boy. It didn’t matter which. It didn’t even matter if there were no other children. They would have whatever they had.
The ambient feeling curled and rolled in him lighting corners in his mind he had forgotten were there.
He saw Carlos walking towards the gate, head down and shuffling his feet and then watched as Carlos lifted his head, saw him stopped dead and then began to walk towards him again. Come out of the white school gate Carlos slowed little by little until he came to a halt a little to the side of where Crane sat astride the idling Harley.
‘You’re not wearing your leathers’ Carlos said.
‘No, I’m not’ answered Crane.
Carlos shuffled his feet, dropped his head and said, head still bent ‘Does that mean you’re not going, that you’re staying?’
‘How clever you are. Yes, that’s exactly what it means. I’m not going.’
‘Not for a long time?’
‘Not for a long time’ said Crane gravely.
Slowly Carlos lifted his head, his eyes sparkling, his small mouth so much like hers, beginning to curve in a smile. It was at that moment that Crane realised what that ambient feeling was. He had been so long without it, that its arrival was much like that of a friend one has not met for so many years that they appear, at first glance, to be a total stranger.
‘Try and be happy Crane’ Cynthia had said.
It was happiness that now stole through him lifting all the latches and opening all the doors and letting the sun in. Everything seemed calm, serene, safe. He knew it wasn’t. Nothing ever was. There were no guarantees. But he could handle that now. He thought he could deal with things now, deal with them if not better, then at least differently and this time, this time, there would be someone to help him. Maybe Thea wouldn’t want the house. Maybe she would prefer to stay in the white house with the French Doors, stay working in the bar. It didn’t matter. He would do whatever she wanted. Just so long as they were together. That was all he needed.
‘I’m happy’ he thought ‘I’m happy.’
Carlos seated behind him, small arms clasping him firmly around the waist, the Harley purring like a contented cat, he allowed the feeling to suffuse him.
He hit the turn off and began the shuddering drive along the track, the Plaza ahead of him growing ever larger, and the jacaranda trees nodding and waving their blue plumage like peacocks displaying their tail feathers. He saw her standing near the fountain and a great gush of love consumed him.
Love for everything encompassed in the small world that had now become his. He lifted his eyes for a quick glimpse of the open French doors in the small white stucco building. The long curtain still waved like a would-be escapee.
It was there, there in that room that he had first begun to be happy again.
He could see now that she was smiling. He wanted to kiss her.
‘It’s not quite Tijuana’ he thought ‘but - what the hell!’
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2009