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A lone bugle bruises the soft evening air. Almost as if The Last Post were sounding from some long-forgotten desert fort of the Spanish Foreign Legion. Picking up the sparse refrain, the strains of a squeaky saxophone and clarinet drift across the pueblo’s rooftops, as a roll of snare drum skitters over pantiles in hot pursuit. The random bashing of a bass drum struggles to catch up. At once, the sounds swell the narrow lanes and alleys of the fishermen’s quarter. And then it starts to rain. It seems to have been weeping rain for months.
With Easter just a couple of weeks away, Santa Catalina’s brass band has been rehearsing more vigorously. They have yet to learn to start together. Though you might not think it from listening, they’ve been practising since before Christmas. I can’t help linking their rehearsals to the weeping rain.
For five evenings during Holy Week the band will parade the barrios of the fishing port. So far, the sound they produce reminds me nothing so much as the scores to old Western movies, where the hero faces execution by firing squad. You know the sort of thing. A Mexican military band of unshaven soldiers in grubby, ill-fitting uniforms strikes up a wailing tune on battered instruments, as a forlorn cowboy, hands tied behind his back and his head hung low, is escorted into the dusty plaza of the pueblo for a final cigarette. Then he gets away.
Santa Catalina wakes sluggishly from its winter hibernation, as souvenir shops, bars, and cafés make ready for the expected holiday rush. Paint pots, rollers and brushes are out everywhere to make the town whiter than a sparkling pair of underpants in a TV advert for washing detergent.
In the Town Hall square, things are buzzing. Paintings and ceramics are being ferried into the arts centre. Housed in the old building, which used to serve as a fish market, it’s playing host to an arts and crafts market this Easter. Faces I haven’t been seen in months re-emerge. Lola, the clothes designer from Cádiz, is planning a fashion show. Alfredo, a local painter famed for his alcohol consumption and womanising, is stocking his stand with bottles of Rioja to get him through the holiday.
Adding to all the excitement, an art competition has been planned for Easter Saturday. The idea was Marlene’s. Not only does the the Swiss aristocrat own an art gallery in the ancient Moorish quarter, but she also runs the arts centre. Entrants have one day in which to complete a picture and win a grand prize. It’s part of her ambitious plan to make the town the cultural centre of Andalusia.
Juani tells me it’s all my fault she entered my name. What’s all that about? For the life of me, I can’t remember the drunken evening I am supposed to have boasted how good I was at art. There were too many drunken evenings in Juani’s Bar over winter. And far too much boasting. I blame the rain. I do recall her chivvyng me to enter something or other. But I can’t remember what. To her mind, in light of my obvious modesty, it was only right she should take it upon herself to put my name down. It’s what friends are for. Like I need friends who volunteer me for anything.
Whenever I think of Easter I can’t help picturing an empty deckchair billowing in a freezing wind on a desolate prom against a backdrop of rain lashing a deserted beach at Skegness. And that’s how I felt to learn I was in an Easter art competition. Like an empty deckchair on the seafront at Skegness. Billowing. Desolate. I faced the same choice as the town band’s bugler, either I found a hiding place till after Easter, or got some practice in. He had chosen the former.
But he couldn’t stay missing for long. The Friday before Palm Sunday, a search party finds him semi-comatose in an alley in the nearby pueblo of Las Palmas. He had been celebrating a second cousin’s return from Argentina. Or was it a cousin’s second return from Argentina?
United once more, the band rallies in a frantic, last-ditch effort to be ready. There hardly seems enough time, but this is the Andalusian way of doing things.
Though it converted to an arts centre more than ten years ago, holidaymakers still call in for fish down at the old fish market. Seemingly unfazed by the many pictures hanging on the walls, and countless handicrafts displayed, they ask if there are any fresh prawns, or which month the tuna fishing begins. It is here I will find the competition I face.
Leaning against a pillar, I spy on my most likely adversaries. Preparations are underway for the holiday invasion. Whether it’s from the nerves of that, or thoughts of the art competition itself, the atmosphere is as taut as a bricklayer’s bicep. So far, I am more impressed by the ferocity of the infighting than the art. Artists and artisans shout and gesticulate at each other with undisguised malice. The sight of two artist lovers sparring publicly affirms I am in the company of bohemians. I take mental notes. Should everything else fail a bohemian tantrum could come in handy on the day.
The Saturday before the first big procession on Palm Sunday and the brass band also seems to be falling apart with nerves. They sound worse than ever.
Ready or not, early evening, Palm Sunday, the long march sets off from the church. Led by the priest, the mayor, the police chief and other assorted bigwigs, a procession of sinister, hooded figures, looking far too much like members of the Ku Klux Klan for my liking, snakes its way through the narrow lanes and alleys of the pueblo. Sandwiched by crowds of tearful and devout onlookers, a team of penitients lugs a huge shrine mounted on their shoulders in its wake,. Comprising a giant, plaster effigy of Jesus on the cross, complete with flowers and silver candelabra holding burning candles, the shrine heaves from side to side precariously, as the penitients move slowly forwards, stopping for frequent rests. Their bodies shrouded by the shrine’s swishing, black skirts, only the pentitents feet remain visible. Following them, the band plays the mournful dirge they have been crucifying for countless nights over the previous months. Unable see where they are going, the penitnets are guided by men shouting and banging staffs onto the cobbled streets. It;s a gruelling task, going on well into the early hours. Many tire. For this reason they are accompanied by substitutes carrying refreshment.
With just a few days to go my painting hasn’t improved. But I certainly look the part. My clothes spattered with more oil paint than Jackson Pollack’s studio floor I feel like a true artist. Rather than from my own efforts, the spatters are the result of getting too close to Juani’s loaded brushes in my attempts to study her painting technique. As well as gazing down at her cleavage while drawing in the heady scent of her perfume.
It’s Wednesday morning before Good Friday, and it’s been raining like Bank Holiday Monday at Butlin’s. A rude wind pricks reddened cheeks with cold, sharp showers, while whipping up the full moon tides, and bringing out the anoraks. The nightly processions have been going on for three days already. Miraculously, the band starts and finishes its tunes more or less together. They are rewarded by nightly soakings. The weather keeping holidaymakers indoors, it looks as though the week is going to be a complete washout down at the arts centre.
Though the sky is clearing by four o’clock, a black cloud has gathered down at the arts centre following news Alfredo has threatened to vacate his stand after a spat with Marlene. She insulted the market’s most talented painter and renowned drunk by hanging another artist’s picture on his wall without seeking his permission. It’ll take more than a couple of glasses of brandy to calm him down.
But at least it looks like the hiatus in the wet weather will last until for the evening opening of an art exhibition at the Town Hall Gallery at eight. The skies clear enough for the sun to peek through. Marlene has had a hand in this too – not the weather – the busy entrepeneur’s art group painted the pictures. Perhaps, I’ll pick up some pointers.
Everyone seems to have dressed up for the occasion, except for Juani and I. There is enough bling, sequins and hairspray to satisfy a minor Hollywood ball. The talent is daunting. I pray the exhibitors haven’t heard about the art competition. Fat chance with Marlene in charge of everything remotely connected with art.
By Thursday afternoon, tension at the arts centre has reached fever pitch. Nerves are as tight as a tourniquet. At the same time, Alfredo is as plastered as the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Their spat forgotten he is attempting to flirt with Marlene, as she paces the centre court issuing pointless orders and inventing new rules as fast as she can think of them. The bohemian lovers, who were only sparring before, are now at each other’s throats. Not one tiny work of art, or little piece of craft, has sold. It’s only natural someone has to take the blame.
By Good Friday things are going from bad to worse. Nothing good about it. The rain has returned reinvigorated. The town’s shops, bars and restaurants, are pinning all hopes on a fine weekend. At the arts centre whispers of rebellion are in the air. Young José complains there’s no lighting for his table of stones painted with funny faces. Marlene hands him a length of perished flex, telling him the only way to fix things is to tie one end round his neck and fix the other to the ceiling. José stares at the flex perplexed before bursting into tears.
Morning comes early as usual. Saturday wakes without me. Endless tumblers of local wine to soothe a last minute panic attack have seen to that. By the time I emerge from beneath the bedclothes to yet more gloomy skies threatening rain, it’s almost midday. The art competition began at ten, and I feel as though someone left me out on the lawn overnight. Submissions have to be in by six. I hurry to Juani’s house; I am using her paints and brushes.
By the time I lay brush on canvas it’s almost two, and I’ve got a hangover the size of a barrage balloon. Juani and her boys, Juan and Angel are already busy painting. Peace and tranquillity descend; perfect twins for creativity. They don’t last long. Children can dash off paintings quicker than the bat of an eye. With Juan metamorphosing into a buzzing jet fighter, flying about my easel, and Angel sulking in a corner, art becomes impossible.
Only two hours left to finish, and someone seems trapped in my head, banging on my skull with a wooden mallet to be let out. I try to think of excuses not to submit my canvas.
Five to six sees the four of us marching through the holiday crowds to the Town Hall Gallery, our paintings tucked beneath our arms. Holding my impression of Santa Catalina against its sweeping bay, away from public gaze, I am gripped by the alcohol-fired delusion it will magically transform into a masterpiece over the eight-minute walk. As Juani and the children couldn’t quite make out what it was, it must be a stunning, modern abstract.
I place it against the gallery wall and stand back to admire it. Whichever way I look the same yellow ball is falling out of a dull, grey sky into a dull, grey puddle. There are fifteen competitors in all. Some seem very talented. I consider moving my picture to the children’s section, where there are fewer entries. But some are still too good.
Judgement time. Slowly walking along the line of paintings, the panel of three judges pause before my work for some minutes more than the others. Inclining their heads this way and that, they whisper to one another, before smiling at me. I become convinced they have recognised a talent way beyond their expectations.
My legs turn to jelly as the runners-up are announced. My name isn’t among them. There can only be one possible explanation. As the winner’s name is called, I take a deep breath, and step forward, when I am shocked to realise the name wasn’t mine. So I swiftly bend to pick up a dead fly from the floor, mumbling, I wonder where I’d put that.
The excitement over, an embittered and shrunken shadow trails Juani, Juan, and Angel to the arts centre for Lola’s fashion show.
Still, by the end of the evening there is a sense of achievement. With Easter almost over, artists and artisans are discussing with Marlene how the art market can be back in business for summer. Not only did Juan and Angel win boxes of crayons for their efforts, but Juani and Alfredo have both sold pictures. Lola has judged her fashion show successful enough to be planning another.
But there is something missing in the soft, evening air. Then I realise what it is. No brass band. Well that’s a plus. Drums, saxophine, clarinets and trumpets have been mothballed till the next big town event.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
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