The sole applicant for the waiter’s postion humped his hulk down on the rickety chair before her. Señora Mendoza winced, fearing a leg might break. A big bear of a man. Clumsy-looking. As much hair sprouting from his shirt collar and cuffs as plastered to his crown. Freshly-shaved. Cheeks and jaw gleaming blue. Dark, bushy eyebrows guarding deep-set brown eyes. Gazing into her face. Heavy-lidded, with absurdly long, raven lashes. Almost like those of a child. Señora Mendoza examined his expression. Stupid. Too stupid to know the right end of a mop, let alone wait tables.
Yet the big man answered her questions confidently in a unexpectedly soft voice. A voice betraying his need for work in agreeing to the pittance she offered without protest, before conceding to the long hours she demanded.
But was there enough grey matter behind the expansive brow to add up and give the right change? Would he dip his hairy hand in the till to skim the day’s takings? She wondered. He didn’t look the type to complain, or answer back when insulted and abused by the kitchen staff. Neither did he ask any questions. That went in his favour. Too much curiosity in employees signalled trouble. Whether it was to steal, or curry favour, the curious always had motives. Then again, the uninquisitive, quiet ones could be just as bad. She couldn’t be too fussy. The tourist season had already started. Her decision made, she’d take a chance. After all, the big man was just a typical low-rent waiter. He’d do. Like all the others, she’d have to keep an eye the first couple of weeks. With that Señora Mendoza hired the big man on the spot.
Despite hulking great paws hanging down to his knees, Marco proved surprisingly gentle with her glassware, and almost dainty on his enormous feet. He was more than willing to do whatever she asked, and never seemed to tire. Even though there was probably little difference in their ages, he made her husband look like an old man.
Santa Catalina wasn’t always the popular holiday resort it’d become. While Rosa Mendoza was growing up it’d been a poor fishing pueblo. Her father made a scant living fishing. Their luck changed after he inherited his brother’s tapas bar following an untimely death. The two men had been out fishing when her uncle fell overboard and drowned. For a time afterwards, rumour suggested it wasn’t quite the accident her father claimed. The brothers had not always seen eye to eye, and often quarrelled when the worse for drink. Whatever the truth, life got better from the moment of her uncle’s demise.
The tapas bar stood on the seafront at the corner of the only road leading to the beach. A little on the careworn side, it was roomy enough to house a restaurant for the tourist season, and its frontage had a fine view of the sea. Most summer evenings the tables and chairs outside were more often full than empty.
In her uncle’s day it’d been the haunt of local fishermen, and still was for most of the year, but as tourism began to flourish, so did the bar. Not that her father did anything to pander to the hordes of strangers thronging the streets. He ran the bar as it had always been run.
“They can take us as they find us,” he said. “I’m not going to waste a whole lot of money tarting the place up just because a few holidaymakers pop down from Seville now and again. It might put off our regulars.”
Nevertheless, July and August soon became the most important time for business. In those two months the bar took more money than for the of the rest of the year combined. In truth, it was an inherent thriftiness, which came from years of having to go without, that stopped him making improvements. But it wasn’t the only reason. Along with secret guilt for the manner he’d come by his fortune, he suffered an irrational feeling his luck might not hold. He was terrified change might bring more change and too much change wasn’t necessarily for the better.
When worry and ill-health finally forced her father to retire, Rosa and her husband took over running the business. They weren’t unused to restaurant work. As a schoolgirl, she’d often helped her uncle when things were busy, and Luis Mendoza had waited at tables since the age of fourteen.
True to her word, Señora Mendoza kept a keen eye on the big man for the first few weeks. She noted he was never late, and always clean. She watched the way he carried casks of beer as though they were pillows stuffed with down. Not only did he know which was the right end of a mop but he wielded one with the dexterity of a housewife. She observed the manner and speed with which he attended to diners, and appreciated the subduing influence he exerted over her rowdiest clients. Without uttering a word, one stern look from beneath those bushy eyebrows could quell a riot. She saw a quiet dignity in his manner. Not a word she would normally use, dignity, yet it was the only one that fitted. He rarely spoke first with customers but would talk when talked to. A few friendly exchanges about the weather here and there, nothing deep. He was a bargain at twice the rate.
In her observations she began to find herself enjoying the way his shirt sometimes stretched tight across his back as he washed up, or stacked chairs. The way he smiled broadly when greeting customers, which was such a far cry from the peasant surliness of the other waiters, her husband and, she had to admit, herself. There was something of the gentleman about him. He was polite and well-mannered. He even spoke quietly, never shouting across the restaurant floor like everyone else. He didn’t appear to smoke or drink, least not while working, so there was little chance of anything going missing from behind the bar.
She repeatedly convinced herself she didn’t exactly like him, in the same way she didn’t exactly like or dislike any of the waiters. They were just waiters, like chorizos were chorizos, and dumplings were dumplings. She found him easier to put up with than the others, that was all. There was nothing to put up with.
Luis Mendoza couldn’t stand him. He taunted and bullied the big man mercilessly; getting him to do things he wouldn’t dream of asking the other waiters to do. Yet, no matter how much he goaded him, the big man never rose to the bait.
“Marco, you great ape! Can’t you find anything better to do than stand in the doorway frightening away the customers? Why don’t you get a cloth and bucket and clean the table legs. They haven’t been done in weeks. Make yourself useful, man!” They’d never been done since her uncle bought them at auction fifteen years before.
“Marco! Where is that idiot whenever I need him?”
“Señora Mendoza sent him to fetch the bread,” Pepe, the kitchen boy, said.
“Fetch the bread? An animal that size? You don’t send an elephant to fetch bread, you send a donkey. You should’ve gone.” And as Marco appeared at the door, “Where have you been? You stupid oaf! Don’t tell me it takes all that time to get a few loaves of bread. You’ve been slouching off for a crafty smoke, I know. We don’t need slackers round here, there’s work to do. We do it as a team, if you don’t like it, you might as well pack your bags.” Marco took it all in his stride. You could’ve thrown rocks at the man’s back and they would’ve bounced off like tennis balls without him noticing.
If he had a history, he wasn’t telling anybody, nor did Rosa ask. In the same way she wasn’t particular about the origins of some of the imported whisky she stocked, she wasn’t particular about his former life. All that mattered was they both came to her at less than the going price. That the whisky arrived at the back door under cover of darkness was nobody’s business but her own.
His odour intrigued her. Not sweaty in the manner of a man who rarely bothers with anything so elementary as bodily hygiene, it was spicy in the way she imagined bear musk might be.
She’d only taken him on for the high season, July and August, intending to let him go as soon as it finished. But as September drew close, she found herself thinking up reasons for him to stay.
“We could always get Marco to paint the side wall, when things get a bit quieter, Luis,” she mentioned in passing one day.
“And let the council get half the road painted for free?” Luis Mendoza countered. “Put a brush in that gorilla’s paw? You must be joking! He’d splash paint all over the place. You might as well give a stick of dynamite and a box of matches to a monkey, the damage he’d cause. Besides, what’s the point of painting the side wall for winter? Who’s going to see it? All you’re doing is giving the rains something to lick at. By summer, it’ll be back in the same state. No, we’ll get that wall painted in spring.” He’d used a similar argument for not painting the previous spring: “What’s the use of painting a wall for summer? The sun will only dry it too quickly, so by autumn it’ll all have flaked away in time for the winter rains to soak in. We’ll do it at the end of the season.” He was just as mean as her father.
“Luis, I’ve been thinking, what about putting up some more shelves to stack the wine on? I’m fed up with tripping over crates in the storeroom all the time. Marco seems pretty good with tools. Look at the way he mended that chair the other day. You were going to throw it out. Perhaps we should ask him to build some shelves before he moves on. He might like a couple of extra weeks’ work.”
“And what am I meant to do all winter? Sit on my arse watching football on telly, drinking beer, I suppose?” That he would do it anyhow didn’t seem worth pointing out. “Besides, you can’t trust a buffoon like that with a hammer, you might as well ask a child to do it, there’ll be nails sticking out all over the place. Or blood and guts spattering the walls, for that matter. A hammer’s not a tool in the hands of a beast like him, it’s a weapon.”
“It looks as if the season is going to go on a lot longer this year. Señora Gomez says her pension is fully booked right up to the middle of September. I was thinking of keeping Marco on for a bit, just in case we need him.”
“And say it doesn’t go on any longer? How will we find his wages with no money coming in? Anyway, what’s the use of having that great hulk moping round getting under my feet all day?” She didn’t bother mentioning the only way a man as big as Marco was going to get under his feet was in the unlikely event he was buried before him. “Have you any idea how much it costs to keep this place going? I’m not running a charity for the useless and unwanted.” Rosa knew exactly how much it cost, she kept the books. Besides, the business was still her father’s. And it was destined to be hers. The will made sure of that. It was something her husband seemed to be forgetting rather too often of late. More and more she started questioning his role in the equation. She was growing to resent the way he passed himself off as the proprietor. Added to that, he was a miser. A miser with her family’s money.
With finances no longer a problem their only concern should’ve been what to do with their hard-earned cash. For the moment it piled up in a bank account, gathering interest in the way books gather dust. But whereas Luis Mendoza hated spending, Rosa never got the opportunity. He sat on their riches like a mother hen. Wealth couldn’t change the habits of a lifetime. They never took holidays, and they didn’t spend money on clothes. They never went to the cinema, or ate at other restaurants. They never went out at all. When business finished for the day, they sat in front of the television before going to bed. He with a few bottles of beer and she with a pack of Ducados. There were no children to bring up, or pass the money down to. She had never been keen on children, and had grown accustomed to a life without them. Besides, she was fast approaching the age when they’d no longer be an option. Luis Mendoza drove the same estate wagon her father had driven for over ten years.
“What’s the point of replacing something that works perfectly well?” he complained whenever one of their regulars boasted of a new car they’d bought. “They’ve got more money than they know what to do with these days. Wages have gone through the roof. No wonder we can only get dunces like Marco to work for us. Nobody wants to do an honest day anymore.” But it was the Mendozas who had more money than they knew what to do with.
And, as the old saying has it, money only goes to those who already have enough. Or so it seems. One day, as the end of August approached, a bachelor uncle of her husband’s died unexpectedly, and Señor Mendoza had to go up to Burgos for the funeral.
“You needn’t come,” he told her, “They won’t be expecting you at the height of the season. I’m only going myself to make sure that flock of vultures, who call themselves my family, don’t get my share of the loot. There are things of sentimental value in the house I was promised as a child. I only want what’s rightfully mine. I’ll leave them to haggle over the rest.” He would be away for five days. With him gone she and the rest of the staff would have their work cut out.
Before he set out on the long journey, she suggested it might be wise to get Señor Escobar to take a look at the car. It hadn’t been sounding too good lately.
“He only looked at it last spring,” her husband moaned, “said it’d got another good ten years in it, at least. What’s the point of throwing good money at it? I’ll spend more money than I get if I follow your advice. He wasn’t exactly rich, Uncle Alejo. He ran an ironmongers, not a goldsmiths.”
As the car spluttered into reluctant life early next morning, she saw black clouds coming from the exhaust. With a shake of her head she went back into the restaurant.
Late summer was busier than ever. With her husband away she found herself working up to eighteen hours a day, and cursed his uncle for dying at such an inconvenient moment. His family were all the same, never a thought for others.
She was in the stockroom getting herself in a muddle with the figures when Marco came in to tell her they were running low on Coca-Cola.
“Can’t you see I’m doing something!” she snapped, “Curse this bloody new system we’re supposed to follow! It’s more work than it’s worth! Don’t the government think we have enough to do already? The figures don’t add up the way they say to do it.”
“Let me have a look,” Marco suggested.
“What’s the point in you having a look? I might as well let a bear to have a look.” He was peering over her shoulder. His musky scent filled her nostrils. “If you think I’m going to let you sniff about my affairs,”
“Ah, that’s where you’re going wrong,” he said, pointing at one of her columns, “Those figures should be in this row, they’re expenses.” She could see he was right. “If you put them there, they’ll go in as profit, and you’ll end up paying taxes on them.”
“I know that! It’s the system that’s wrong. It was much better the way we did it before.” She slammed her pen onto the book, “If you think you’re so clever, you do them. But you better get it right, or you’ll be out of the door quicker than you know.”
“I’ll do them after we lock up,” he said, “We’re run off our feet at the moment.”
After they closed, and the others left for home, Marco sat himself at the desk in the little office at the back of the bar and started to go over the accounts. Rosa went up to bed.
Hours later, she woke at the sound of a motor scooter revving below the bedroom window. From light seeping beneath the door, she concluded Marco was probably still working. Or had left the lights on. She’d have to check. Reaching for a pack of Ducados she always kept on the bedside table, she pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Then got of bed, put her dressing gown over nightdress, and crept downstairs. Sure enough, door wide open, a bulb was burning in the stockroom. The big man sat hunched over the desk. A clock on the wall read 5am. He’d be back at work by nine. Hardly enough time to get any sleep. Suddenly, she felt pity for him.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked, “Your eyes must be getting tired looking at those figures all this time.”
“Nearly finished,” he said, without turning, “But coffee would be nice.”
“Perhaps you could do with a brandy as well?” He swivelled his chair to look at her.
“No, thank you very much,” he said, and something inside her stirred at the sight of his childlike eyes. She found herself putting a hand on the collar of her dressing gown and pulling it down slightly. His gaze followed her every move. She walked across to the desk and, leaning over him, stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray.
“It’s late for you to go back to your pension, why don’t you stay here for the night? I can make a bed up in the spare room. Or perhaps … ” what on earth was she saying? “Perhaps you’d like some company.” Her hand reached out to touch his shoulder. “A man like you looks as though he could do with company from time to time.” Marco rested a hand on hers. Then taking it gently up he laid his thick lips on it. Her heartbeat quickened. “Marco,” she whispered in a long breath, and bent down to kiss his mouth.
When she woke, it was to find him no longer beside her, just the scent of ursine musk to remind her he’d been there. She kissed the pillow where his head had lain.
At nine o’clock he was behind the bar again, looking to all the world as though nothing had gone on between them. She liked that in a man, it meant she could trust him. “Marco!” she shouted, “Why didn’t you tell me we’ve almost run out of Coca-Cola?”
As the day drew on, she tried to think of reasons to keep him behind for another night after the others went home. It seemed impossible. The great brute had done the books far too well. If she asked him to look at them a second time people might suspect something was up. Finally, she mustered enough courage. Catching him in the storeroom fetching a few bottles of wine, she touched his arm.
“Marco,” she said in her gentlest of voices, “It’s not nice staying alone here at night. I’m always afraid we might get burgled without a man about the place. After you’ve had a chance to wash and rest at your pension, why don’t you sneak back here? I could never feel frightened with a man like you around.” For a moment his eyes held hers.
“Okay,” he said, and took the wine into the bar.
That night they made love as she’d never known love could be made. When she eventually lay on her pillow exhausted, the dusky pink of dawn had begun to light the eastern skies. Marco dressed and went back to his pension leaving his bear musk scent behind. Once again, she kissed the pillow where his head had lain, and lay awake staring at the ceiling thoughtfully. The following day her husband would return. That he would be back so soon began to disturb her deeply. And the thought his would be the next head to rest there filled her with disgust. From that moment it would be impossible for her to find any time to be with Marco. They had only spent two nights together. It wasn’t enough. Marco had stirred emotions within her that had been submerged so long she had forgotten they were there.
As soon as she got up, she changed the bed putting the dirty linen in the wash. But the pillowcase she took, with its scent of musk intact, to place in the drawer she kept her underwear.
The afternoon brought the first siesta she’d had in weeks. Marco told her he could look after the bar alone for a couple of hours, as it wasn’t busy. Sleep did little to help her feelings of weariness. When the phone woke her she was tired and irritable. She’d half a mind to leave it, but then decided to answer just in case it was something important. It was her husband. He was cursing and shouting how his brothers and cousins were trying to cheat him.
“They want to take it all! The man hardly left a bean! The house is mortgaged to the hilt, the business was virtually bankrupt. I don’t know where all the cash went. The only thing that’s left is his furniture, and that’s a load of junk. But they’re laying claim to anything that doesn’t move. I’ve got the feeling he might have a stash hidden somewhere. I’m not leaving them here to find it. Fat chance I’ll stand of seeing what’s mine then. I’m not having it, I tell you!” He went on to tell her he would be staying in Burgos a few more days to sort things out. She suddenly felt very pleased. “Marco!” she called downstairs.
Things seemed to go far more smoothly when her husband was away. She and the others began to work as a team. Marco more than filled the gap he left. He made sure the tables were cleared and wiped, the floor and work surfaces were thoroughly cleaned, and there were plenty of stocks in the stockroom. The staff seemed almost happy to be at work. There came to be a sparkle about the place. More tourists were attracted to the bar, and in their wake came more money. Some of the locals began to get disgruntled. The place got so crowded, occasionally it took a little longer to be served. They made veiled threats to take their custom elsewhere. Even this Marco took in his stride. Whenever he had the time he listened to their moans patiently. He was able to pacify them. It was as if he’d been around forever.
Her husband phoned again that evening to complain his brothers and cousins had gone too far, and he would have to get lawyers involved. It wasn’t the money; there wasn’t any, it was the principle of the thing. She told him to do whatever it took, and to take as long as he needed. Although the bar was busy, they were managing to cope. A smile crossed her face as she replaced the receiver. “Marco!”
It got to the stage where she spent the whole day looking forward to another night of passion with Marco. They established a routine. She gave him a key to the back door. At the end of each evening he would pretend to go to his room for the night, but then sneak back.
Gradually, she became unable to keep her distance during the day, and started to snatch kisses whenever they were alone. She couldn’t keep her hands off him. She knew she’d gone too far when they were almost caught. About to make love in the office during one quiet afternoon, they thought better of it. It was just as well they did. She hardly managed to readjust her skirt when Pepe entered.
“Don’t you ever think of knocking!” she shouted at him, her face flushed. Pepe looked at her quizzically. Nobody ever knocked, they were usually too busy to observe such niceties. She would have to be more careful.
A full fortnight had passed when the telephone call came from her husband saying he was coming home the following day. Everything had been settled. He and his relatives had come to an agreement. They had decided there was no point in putting vast sums of money into the hands of lawyers over a few sticks of furniture, so they were going to draw lots. He didn’t sound at all pleased by the arrangement.
“I’ve been through the house with a fine-tooth comb. There’s nothing, I tell you, nothing. Not a peseta. To think of all I did for him! The ungrateful bastard,” he ranted. “When I was a teenager I looked after him for two whole weeks one summer when he was ill.” He forgot to mention he’d gone there for a holiday, and hardly spent any time at all with his uncle. She had been with him. “Where were they then? Nowhere to be seen. Yet as soon as he passes away, they’re round like a pack of jackals. You should’ve seen the way Pedro was going through the house with his pen and clipboard. He doesn’t miss a pipe-cleaner, that one. And you remember the clock on the mantelpiece? Guess who laid claim to that? Chicita. Only said he promised it to her. I don’t think she even knew what he looked like. I can remember him telling me: ‘When I’m gone, I want you to have that clock. Take care of it, it’s worth money. You looked after me when I was ill, nobody else did. It’s the least I can do.’ It’s probably not worth a light, but it’s the principle of the thing. I used to wind it for him when I was a boy. It’s my clock, not hers.” She didn’t care to hear about the clock.
“So when will you be back then?”
“If I start out tomorrow afternoon, I should be back in time for the weekend rush.”
“There’s no need to hurry,” she said, “It sounds as though you’ve been up to your neck. If you want to spend a couple more days up there, don’t worry about us, we can cope.” ‘Us’ and ‘we’, they were strange words for her to be using she would have to be careful.
“No, I’ve left you on your own far too long, you must be exhausted.”
“Not at all,” she said, “I don’t want you driving when you’re tired. Take a couple of days off.”
“You make me sound like I’m fit for the grave. No, expect me tomorrow night. We’ve not come into a fortune, so I can afford to retire. I tell you, this going to end up costing me.”
Next day, she was in a bad mood. She almost fired Pepe twice, reducing him to tears on both occasions, deciding at the last moment each time she couldn’t afford to lose anybody. She was even hard on Marco, calling him a clumsy fool when she dropped a couple of plates as he stood next to her. But she didn’t want him to walk out, and made up for it by fondling him the moment they were on their own.
It was late afternoon. The lunchtime crowd had been heavier than they had ever known. The cash register ringing like Christmas bells, it’d never been so full. The tables had been cleared and wiped, the washing up had been done, and the floors had been mopped. There was hardly anybody in the bar apart from old Manuel playing the slot machine, and an Englishman drinking himself into a stupor. She was leaning on the bar watching time ticking away to her husband’s return, as Marco polished glasses and stacked them on the shelves. He always found something to keep busy. They’d never done that before he came. They usually came straight out of the dishwasher without so much as a glance. “What’s the harm in a couple smears?” her husband would say, “They’ll be dirty again soon enough. This isn’t Barcelona. They can take us as we come. We’re simple folk. What’s the point in having a dishwasher if you have to do the work yourself? If it’s good enough for our regulars, it’s good enough for the rest of them.” But she liked to watch Marco holding each glass up to the light examining it for marks before polishing them away. There wouldn’t be any more of that once Luis Mendoza returned. The phone rang at that moment, starting her out of her reverie.
“It’s the bloody car!” she heard her husband’s voice complain again. “It’s gone and stalled on me out in the middle of nowhere. Of all the times to choose. I knew we should’ve bought a new one. After all that money I paid out last spring to have the engine fixed. Just wait till I see that robber Escobar. He swore it’d keep going for another ten years! And now this has to go and happen. On the top of everything else. Why is it always me?”
“So, will you be home tonight?” All she could think of was one last night with Marco.
“Don’t be stupid, woman! I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere in a broken down car stuffed with junk. How the hell do you think I’m going to get back tonight? Do you think I’m going to sprout wings and fly? And if you think I’m going to hire a car at their prices you’ve got another think coming. No, I’m at a bar. They gave me the number of a cheap mechanic, but he won’t be able to get here till morning. I’ll sleep in the car till he arrives.”
“Good,” she said.
“What’s so good about having to sleep in the car?”
“I mean it’s good that the mechanic is coming in the morning.”
“Better he came tonight, the lazy so and so. Oh, by the way, one bit of good news, I got the clock. I managed pull a swift one. I changed a couple of numbers round after the draw while nobody was looking. You should’ve seen the look on Chicita’s face when she drew the lawnmower, it was enough to curdle cream.” As she replaced the phone she began to realise she was happy the car had broken down, she didn’t care if she never saw her husband again.
And yet another last night with Marco passed. This really would be the last.
Next morning, she sacked Pepe almost as soon as he walked into the bar. He was late again. Then she had to ring his mother to say she was sorry, and could she tell Pepe the job was still his. He came back an hour later, but sulked for the rest of the day, making it hard to get any work out of him, though she tried to be sweet as she was able. Lunch came and went; still her husband failed to show. The phone rang at five. It was him.
“I can’t believe it!” he said, “They’re all bandits out here! Whoever said country folk were simple had yet to visit this nest of thieves, I can tell you. They’re as sharp as razors. I swear the mechanic that came out here spent more time looking at the antiques than he did the engine. He even had the cheek to ask me how much I wanted for the clock.”
“So, did he fix it?”
“The clock? It’s not broken, you stupid woman!”
“No, I meant did he fix the car?”
“Of course he didn’t. I just told you, he hardly spent any time looking at it. He said he can’t do it out here, and has gone to fetch a tow truck. He tells me it probably needs a new gearbox. I don’t believe him for a moment. I tell you, they’re all crooks. I’m going to have to watch him. I can’t sleep in the car another night, my back’s killing me. So now I’ve got to throw myself at the mercy of some pension. God knows what that’s going to cost. I swear this trip is going to make us paupers. I should be back tomorrow, but don’t count on it.” Another reprieve, another last night with Marco
And it was the same the next day.
“He says he’s got to order the part from Madrid. It won’t be here till after the weekend. I can’t leave it with all those antiques inside. I have to hang around his stinking garage all day, as it is, just to keep an eye on things. I don’t trust that mechanic one bit. He won’t stop asking me about the clock. If that disappears I swear I’ll have the police on him. Why on earth you didn’t let me buy a new car, last time it went wrong, I don’t know.” He had insisted they didn’t get a new one, as it would be a waste of good money. She remembered his smirk, as he told her Señor Escobar had remarked he’d never seen a car of such an age in such good condition. And if he looked after it as well as he had been doing, he’d get at least another ten years out of it. That had only been in April. Time and time again she’d heard the story. Still, she had won another couple of nights with Marco out of it.
“I can’t believe it! They’ve only gone and sent the wrong part. They’ve promised to send the right one in the morning. And I’m sure that mechanic has been going through the stuff in the back while I’m not there. I can’t even go for a sandwich. Now, I’ve got to go through it myself to make sure nothing’s gone missing. I’ll have to make a big fuss of it, so he can see I’ve got my eyes open. And there’s been a couple of other people sniffing round the clock today. One of them looks like an antiques dealer. I’ve got a feeling it might be worth something. He asked to look at it, but I wouldn’t let him, just asked him if he could put a price on it. Said he couldn’t possibly know without looking inside. I didn’t let him, of course.”
And so it went on.
“They sent the right part alright, only that’s not all that’s wrong with the damn thing. I’ve a good mind to leave it here, and that pile of junk, the money they’ve cost me. That antique dealer has turned out to be a nice bloke though, took me to dinner last night, paid for the lot. Turns out there’s a pretty good restaurant in town. He certainly knows a thing or two about wines. We must have had three bottles. Best stuff I’ve ever tasted. Bit of a fool where money’s concerned, cost him a packet. That’s his look out, he offered pay. Those Madrid types, still wet behind the ears most of them for all the education they get. I promised him a look at the clock tomorrow. Who knows, it might even pay for a new car.”
Each day he phoned something else seemed to go wrong.
“The bloody pendulum’s missing! Filipe says it’s worth next to nothing without it! I can’t believe it! I’m sure it was there when I took it. Said he’d still give me 10,000 pesetas without it though, just to take it off my hands. Got his cheque book out there and then. I said I’d have to think on it. I tell you, I’m sick and tired of the whole thing. It’s brought me nothing but bad luck. I’ve a good mind to take his ten grand to pay for the pension, and my time. And leave the rest of the junk to rot in the mechanic’s garage.
“He took me to dinner again last night. Paid for everything, a real gentleman. You can tell he’s got class. I tell you, if it wasn’t for him I would’ve gone mad stuck out here. I told him I didn’t think I wanted to get rid of the clock yet though, as I’d been promised it as a boy. He seemed to understand, and upped his offer to 50,000, seeing as I’d had so much trouble out here.”
Not a day would pass without a telephone call.
“He only went and took me out to dinner again, Filipe did. That man has real class. I asked him what he was doing in a dump like this, and he said he liked to get away from the city from time to time. Told me it was a real pleasure to have the chance of my company, that my bad luck was his good fortune. And guess what? He told me we can stay at his apartment when we’re next in Madrid. Gave me the address as well. He says he’s only interested in the clock because his father had one exactly like it. Somehow it got misplaced when they moved house. Pity there’s no pendulum to it.”
Nothing seemed to be going right.
“You won’t believe this one. I turn up at the garage this morning only to find the damn clock gone! I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that mechanic. Kept on asking about it, he did. You can spot a wrong ‘un a mile away. Anyway, I called the local police and he’s down at the station for questioning. I’ve no idea when the car will be fixed. I think I’ll call round to see Filipe. He’s been so kind, it’s about time I took him out for a meal. Not in that fancy restaurant though, not at their prices. Just as I was thinking of selling the bloody thing to him. I should’ve done it while I still had it. 50,000 pesetas could come in mighty handy with all the bills I’m going to have to pay.” The next day his voice sounded strange.
“I called round to Filipe’s hotel last night. They told me they don’t have a record of anyone staying there with that name. But I bloody well met him there three times, I told them, they must remember. They said they remembered very well, but he never stayed there. He only used to eat lunch there from time to time. And then they started going on about his credit card or something. I couldn’t be bothered to listen. I tell you, I can’t believe the people out here, so stupid as not to know a gentleman when they see one. I’m going to that fancy restaurant tonight, to see if they know where he is. I’d really like to buy him a meal before I go. He’s been such a salvation. I’ve enjoyed his company so much. And to offer his apartment like that to a complete stranger.”
He phoned again a few hours later.
“Look, I’m in a phone box outside that restaurant I told you about. The one I went to with Filipe. I can’t understand it, I turn up, and suddenly I’m presented with a huge bill. I’ve had to write out a cheque to get them off my back. There seems to be some misunderstanding over credit cards. Of course, I told them that I don’t have a credit card, but they kept on going on about ‘my friend’. I said if they meant the antiques dealer from Madrid, then they should say so. If there has been any misunderstanding, he’d sort it out. All they had to do was let me use their phone, and I’d ring his apartment in Madrid, they’ll let me know where he is. They wouldn’t let me.”
It was the early hours of the morning the phone rang again. Just as she and Marco had finished tidying the bar, and were climbing into bed. She decided not to answer, but it went on ringing. She couldn’t make love with that racket going on. Finally, she got out of bed and put on her dressing gown.
“I’m at the police station. There’s been a horrible mistake. You’ve got to get me a lawyer. They’ve arrested me. I don’t have much time. The stupid police here are accusing me of all sorts of things. Stolen credit cards, running up huge hotel bills without paying. They’re saying they’ve been looking for me for months. They reckon I’ve been travelling all over Spain with an accomplice conning old ladies out of money and antiques. It’s absurd. I’ve given them the number of Filipe’s apartment in Madrid, and the fools keep saying it doesn’t exist. It’s not thousands of pesetas they’re talking about, but millions. The police out here are terrible; they won’t listen. They just keep on telling me I could get ten years. I don’t know where Filipe’s got to. I keep telling them the sooner they find him, the sooner this whole mess will be sorted out. I can’t think what that thieving mechanic’s been saying. The thing is they seem to believe him instead of me.”
She replaced the receiver. Ten years, certainly better than thinking he’d be back tomorrow night, or the next night even. No need to spend good money on hiring a lawyer. Their account was in her name. Without her signature he wouldn’t be able to do anything. She would have to call into to see the bank manager first thing in the morning, to make sure everything was all right. She went back upstairs and climbed into bed next to Marco.
“Marco,” she whispered, and he murmured something out of a half-sleep, “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “Seems rather silly for you to be paying out for a room when all the time I’ve got so much space here. When you finish tomorrow night, why don’t you go down to your pension, get your things, and bring them up here?”
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
For another Santa Catalina story click onto: The Most Beautiful Flower