The most beautiful flower

The most beautiful flowerViewed from the shop doorway, despite his haphazard zigging, and seemingly aimless zagging, the shabby-looking stranger was surely heading for Señor Alvarez’s mini-mercado. Almost in the single-minded manner of an ancient bloodhound sniffing out the trail of a half-forgotten, but much-loved sausage, to the grocer’s well-trained eye. What on earth could he want?

Pursued by a flowing cloak in a dust-laden wake, he appeared a well-seasoned traveller. “Just by the jag of his jib,” as the grocer would later have it. Whatever, the battered knapsack and scuffed, down-at-heel boots, bore witness to a life of  too many harsh journeys by foot.

After countless years of observing much of the world go by his shop doorway, without ever setting foot inside, Luis Alvarez had developed the knack of spotting the difference between a likely customer and a likely type. All patches, darned socks, elbows and sticky-out bones, the shabby old traveller slotted into the latter category. However much of a rush he tried to affect, even the most casual observer would’ve have judged the pace to be on the sluggish side. It took a good few moments more for the stranger to arrive at his predicted destination.

“Buenos dias” he greeted, as he removed a wide-brimmed, floppy hat with a flourish, and bowed graciously, before slapping it against his thigh, releasing clouds of appreciative dust he’d gathered along the way. Señor Alvarez nodded in the manner of a man who knows what’s coming next.

“Buena’,” he said.

“I’ve been marching along in this glorious sunshine since dawn, singing and laughing as loud as I can,” the old man said, mopping his glistening brow with a bright red handkerchief. “Needless to say, my efforts have rewarded me with the driest of throats and the thirst of an elephant after a heavy night on the jungle juice. Spare me a glass of cool water and I’ll pronounce you my best friend for the rest of my life.”

“Rest of your life, eh?” Senor Alvarez mused. “By the state of you, and the way you struggled to get this far, that’s a friendship destined to be cut short. So, I’ll tell you what, how about I sell you a bottle of water, while we wait for you to expire? One euro.”

“Not a bad price,” the old man said, “Not bad at all. You’d certainly get a damned sight more in hell, that’s for sure. During a blistering heatwave, that is. But I’m afraid I’m a bit short this week, so half a cup of warm tap water will do.”

Señor Alvarez slitted his eyes.

“It’s been a particularly long, and particularly hot, summer,” he said, “the pueblo hasn’t seen a droplet of rain in months. The land is so parched and the river’s run so dry the cattle are happy drinking sand. If I gave a glass of water to every miserable beggar who passed my door I’d go out of business in no time.”

“No matter,” the old man said, and smiled. “But I do have something for you.” Reaching two fingers into a leather pouch at his belt he pulled out a tiny, shrivelled seed. “Take this,” he said, holding it out. “It’s a gift, put it in a little pot somewhere cool and out of the way. And leave it over winter. If you can spare it a drop or two of precious water from time to time, all the better. If you can’t, no mind. When the spring rains come, take it outside and plant it in a corner that gets lots of sunshine. Come June you’ll have the most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen. You have my word on that.”

Taking the shrivelled seed with all the care of a man plucking a hair from his soup, Señor Alvarez rolled it pointedly between his thumb and forefinger.

“Must be drier than a constipated camel’s bum hole. Not that I’d know from personal experience. But a retired Moroccan camel drover once told me how dry they get. Makes sense, when you think about it. Not that I do waste any time thinking about how dry camels’ bum holes can get, the shop gets too busy for that. But if you think of a man who spend his entire life having to look at camels’ bum holes, he would know. I mean, you wouldn’t get camels very far trying to drive them from the front, would you?” He examined the seed closer. “Looks like it needs a rest before a decent burial,” he said. “It’s dead. All dried out. Even for a dry seed it’s dry. If I believe that’ll grow into anything, I’ll believe you’re the King of Timbuktu. You’re not the King of Timbuktu, by any chance, are you?” He looked up, but the stranger had gone, leaving but a small cloud of dust to show he was ever there.

Nevertheless, later that day, the grocer found an empty plastic pot in which to plant the seed. He put it on a shelf in the storeroom and promptly forgot all about it.

It was already February when he noticed it again, spotting what appeared to be the tiniest speck of green. The shrivelled, old seed had actually sprouted. Señor Alvarez took it out and put it on a window ledge near the lavatory. That’ll never grow into anything, he thought.

From then on he occasionally spared it a miserly drop of water or two. Enough to keep it at death’s door rather than from it. The weeks passed and the thirsty seedling could hardly push up a drooping strand, let alone a leaf . The grocer all but gave up, feeling rather satisfied with himself for not having wasted too much valuable effort for nothing.

He threw it out just after the first rainfall of spring. In a couple of days the little seedling had taken root and was starting to look healthy. Rather than be pleased, the grocer cursed its stubbornness. It was with some satisfaction he observed the first shower had come much earlier than usual. The second didn’t arrive until another long, dry month had passed.

The prolonged interval without rain had the little plant drooping for want of a drop of water, until it began to wither. But Señor Alvarez wouldn’t surrender. He was determined to win. Its slow demise pleased him by making him feel his meanness was justified. It was weak. The scruffy, old beggar had given him a dried-up dud. One morning, he helped it along to its end with a swift kick in passing, wondering why he’d ever bothered with the useless little weed in the first place. He always knew it’d never come to anything.

By the time he was walking back to the shop one fine, June evening, he’d forgotten about it completely. Suddenly, his attention was caught by the most beautiful flower he’d ever seen in his entire life. Standing proud in the patch of ground by his neighbour’s house, he couldn’t help but marvel at its magnificence. It was enough to take his breath away.

“Isn’t it just the most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen?” his neighbour asked.

“Si, just what I was thinking. It’s very nice, but where did you buy the seed for such an amazing specimen?”

“An old traveller in need of a cup of water gave it to me late last summer. Such a shrivelled-up, dry, old thing, I never held out much hope. The seed, I mean, not the man. Well, him as well.” But Señor Alvarez had already gone. Spotting another bloom across the road he was taking a look at that. It was just as beautiful as the first, if not more.

“Alvarez!” someone else called out, “Have a look at this. Isn’t it the most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen?”

From pots on walls, in gardens and window boxes, stunning flowers were sprouting all over the pueblo. They were a marvellous sight. More beautiful than any flowers you’d ever see anywhere.

As the grocer reached his shop, he saw a faintly familiar silhouette wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, zig-zagging haphazardly in his direction, pursued by a flowing cloak in a cloud of dust.

“Buenas tardes!” the old traveller called out when he finally arrived, removing his hat with a flourish, while bowing graciously. “What a wonderful evening!” He batted his hat against a thigh, releasing clouds of appreciative dust it had gathered along the trail.

“You might think it wonderful,” Señor Alvarez said, “but you’re nothing but a fraud. The last time I saw you, you told me some old seed you gave me was going to grow into the most beautiful flower I’d ever seen. And I thought it was something special. Something just for me. Then I find out you gave everybody else in the pueblo the same thing. What was the point of a mean trick like that?” The old man appeared to have been listening to something completely different. He was smiling beatifically.

“And isn’t it wonderful? So many lovely flowers. Each and every one as beautiful and special as the person who tended it,” he beamed. “And that’s not all.” Stretching an arm wide, he moved it across a panorama of fields and woods beyond the pueblo. “Look around you,” he said, “there are more beautiful flowers than anyone could ever count.” Everywhere Alvarez looked was filled with similar, but never exactly the same, beautiful flowers. All except for his own small patch of barren garden. “Aren’t they the most beautiful flowers you’ve ever seen?” the shabby, old traveller asked. Señor Alvarez grimaced.

Copyright ©2014 Bryan Hemming

 

José Maria and Maria José

La Pepa“There she goes again, hanging out the washing, singing her heart out. What’s she got to be so happy about all the time?” Señor Alvarez was busy arranging cheeses in the cold display cabinet. His son, José Maria, gazed obliviously out of the shop window, he was supposed to be cleaning, and across the street to where Maria José was pegging sheets to a line on the terrace.

“The sun’s shining,” he sighed. Raising an eyebrow, Señor Alvarez regarded him curiously. He shook his head in resignation.

“Now it is, but what about tomorrow?” he said. José Maria didn’t seem to hear. “Anyway, she’s keeping from your work. You’re supposed to be wiping that window not gawping through it.” But José Maria continued gawping regardless. “If they paid me for the groceries they keep taking from my shelves,” Señor Alvarez wittered on, “then I might have something to sing about.”

“But your voice would never be so sweet,” José Maria lilted.

“Never be so sweet? What’re you talking like that for? Makes you sound like an idiot. Besides, you’ve never heard me sing.”

At that very moment,  José was rescued from the possibility by the entrance of Pedro waltzing through the open door.

“Hola,” Pedro greeted cheerfully, “Lovely day, eh?” Señor Alvarez didn’t say a word. With his his head now deep inside the display cabinet he resembled nothing so much as a wary fish staring out at hungry diners from a restaurant tank. Scrutinising the fisherman’s every move he watched him sidle towards the show of fresh fruit to pause before a pile of shining red apples. The grocer withdrew his head and stood up.

He saw Pedro run a practiced eye across the apples till it caught sight of a prize specimen. The fisherman plucked it out. Examining it carefully for any blemishes, before gently breathing on it, he polished it vigorously on his jacket sleeve. Fully satisfied with its appearance, he smiled broadly, as he crunched into it with a cracking sound. Señor Alvarez winced as though it were his own flesh being bitten into.

“Do you know how many of my apples you’ve eaten this week without paying for even one of them?” he inquired.

“They’re the best apples in town,” Pedro complimented through a full mouth, “so crisp.”

“And they’re for sale.”

“You won’t have them long.”

“Not at the rate you keep eating them.”

Pedro settled himself down on a stack of empty crates. “Well, they’re best when they’re fresh.”

“Then buy some.”

“I would if I could, but they’re also the most expensive apples in town.” He took another bite. “You don’t want them going mouldy on you,” he said through a full mouth, munching contentedly, “because then you’ll never be able to sell them.”

“Chance would be a fine thing,” Señor Alvarez muttered to himself under his breath.

Pedro looked up.

“Where’s that lovely singing coming from?” he asked.

“Ask young dozy over there with his nose glued to the window.” Señor Alvarez nodded at José Maria.

“What a beautiful voice,” Pedro said, “It reminds me of someone on the radio.”

“It reminds me of the joys of spring and birdsong,” said José Maria dreamily.

“It reminds me of how much money her mother owes me for groceries,” said Señor Alvarez.

Pedro listened to the singing for a moment, chewing on his apple pensively.

“Isn’t the sound of that beautiful voice payment enough?” he mused.

“Why is everybody talking like an idiot today?” Señor Alvarez asked. “You ask her landlord the same question, see what he thinks. They haven’t paid rent in months,” he complained.

“How do you know?” Pedro fired back.

“I am their landlord,” Señor Alvarez informed him.

“You must be worth a fortune.”

“I might be if I got paid. Anyway, business first, what can I get you?”

“I just popped by to say hola.”

“Hola, adios.”

“Not so fast, I might take a few slices of ham off your hands, while I’m here, now that you come to mention it.”

The shopekeeper folded his arms.

“Is this going to be a cash transaction?” he said.

“It will be. I’m expecting some money at the end of the week.”

“I know the feeling only too well.” Señor Alvarez rested his elbows on the counter, “Happens every time I buy a lottery ticket, or get my palm read. What birth sign are you?”

“I didn’t read it in the stars.”

“Well, in that case, I think I should still have some ham left at the end of the week.”

“Don’t be like that, you know I’m as good as my word.”

“And so am I. Come back at the end of the week.”

“I can always take my custom elsewhere.”

“Feel free. There won’t be a dry eye in the house, though my bank manager might well breathe a sigh of relief.”

“Don’t be so stingy.”

“Alright, alright, bite the hand that feeds you. Cut him four slices of ham, José, if that’s what it takes to get rid of him. But make sure it goes on his bill.”

“And I’ll need a loaf of bread,” Pedro said. “You can’t eat ham without bread. It’s a sin.”

“But you can eat bread without ham. That’s a virtue. Forget the ham, José, wrap him a small loaf.” José was still staring out the window. “José? José!”

“I think he’s got other things on his mind,” remarked Pedro following the grocer’s son’s gaze out of the window and across the street to where the beautiful, young Maria José was hanging out sheets, singing gaily as she did. Señor Alvarez had his head back in the cold display cabinet by that time.

 

 

“I just can’t get any work out of him,” Señor Alvarez grumbled, as he climbed into bed next to Rosa that evening, “He seems so listless all the time, always moping about like a halfwit. I’m starting to think that he’s lost interest in the business completely. He won’t talk, he won’t eat, and he keeps floating around the shop all day in a weird trance. Do you think he’s on drugs?”

“It’s probably one of those things young men go through,” Rosa said through a yawn.

“What? Like acne and lice? He’s twenty-eight! That’s not young.”

“He might need to get away for a while. He hasn’t had a holiday in years.”

“He’s been to Barcelona. I’ve never been to Barcelona.”

“He was sixteen.”

“So? I still haven’t been to Barcelona, and I’m fifty-two.”

“Do you want to talk about him or yourself?”

“Him, of course, it’s you that brought Barcelona up.”

“Actually, it was you. I just said that it was time he had a proper holiday.”

“And I just mentioned that I hadn’t been there.”

“If you want to go to Barcelona, then go, but don’t keep me awake all night talking about it.” With that she switched off the bedside lamp to put an end to the discussion.

Señor Alvarez always regretted putting it on her side of the bed. Forty years of honing his powers of persuasion in the shop, yet still he wasn’t able to convince his own wife that the lamp might be better on his side, as he was always last to get into bed. She knew it made sense, she was just being obstinate. Pulling the bedclothes up to his chin he tried to settle down to sleep.

“I don’t want to go to Barcelona,” he said quietly into his pillow to get the last word.

A few moments passed.

“You don’t have to go to Barcelona,” came from the other side of the bed.

A few moments more.

“I know, I don’t,” he whispered almost imperceptibly.

“Then don’t.”

And Señor Alvarez knew he had lost yet another skirmish in a lifelong war.

 

 

“I can’t get married,” Maria José said sadly. She and José Maria were sitting on the harbour wall their feet dangling above the water.

“Of course you can. Why not?” he returned. Maria José picked up a pebble.

“We hardly know each other,” she said turning it over in her hand.

“We’ve been neighbours since we were children,” José Maria said. Maria José plopped the pebble into the sea below.

“I don’t mean know in that sense.”

“What other sense is there?”

“You know, know.”

“No, I don’t know, know,” he said and they both stared moodily into the dark water below.

“I want to be a painter, for instance,” Maria José suddenly announced. “You never knew that, did you?”

“A painter?”

“See, I knew would react like that.”

“But I haven’t reacted. I just repeated what you said.”

“But you said it with a big question mark.”

“But a painter?”

“There, you said it again, the big question mark.”

“You can’t say a big question mark.”

“You can.”

“It’s just, well, a painter?” and then, clearing his throat, he looked thoughtfully out to sea as though considering the prospect. “A painter,” he repeated, trying his very best to remove all hint of a question mark, “hm.” Maria saw he was about to add something and leaned forward to hear. But taking a swift breath he seemed to think better of it. Then again he looked as though he was about to say something. Once again Maria José leaned forward to hear him. Yet again he stopped himself with another short breath. Cocking his head to one side his, and stroking his chin, his brow furrowed, conveying what he thought was a serious expression. Maria José’s head sank and she began looking at her shoes, swinging them idly back and forth. José Maria turned to look at her. “Si, a painter. Why not?” he declared. “Why should we always have to be satisfied with our lot in life? Just because my father is a grocer that’s no reason for me to become a grocer.” Maria José glanced up suddenly.

“You’re not thinking of giving up the grocery business?” she asked.

“Why not? Ever since I was a small boy my secret dream was to become a flamenco dancer.”

“A flamenco dancer?” said Maria José with a big question mark.

“Si, why not? You want to be a painter, so why shouldn’t I want to be a flamenco dancer?”

“But how will we live?”

“I will dance and you will paint, that’s how we will live,” José Maria announced. Maria José looked troubled. She wasn’t the only one.

 

 

“A flamenco dancer!” Señor Alvarez exploded, “But you can’t even walk without tripping over your shoelaces.”

“I don’t wear shoelaces.”

“That’s even worse. At least with shoelaces you had an excuse. Oh my god! I’ve raised a moron. It’s all her fault, I tell you!” he shouted pacing up and down the shop floor shaking an accusing finger at the ceiling. In the apartment above his wife Rosa was just sitting down in her dressing gown to watch her favourite Mexican soap. She shook her head. Her husband was rowing again. “She wouldn’t let me beat you. I always knew what you needed was a good beating, but she would never let me give you one. But it’s never too late.” Wagging a pointed finger, he looked his son in the eye. Not for the first time he noticed what a strong young man he’d grown into, several centimetres taller than himself. The little grocer mentally weighed up his chances of being able to give him a sound beating. No chance in hell. “No, it’s never too late,” he repeated, wagging his finger again. Yet the words were a little quieter this time, all the more profound for their lack of conviction.

The rest of the day he couldn’t stop himself referring to his son’s newfound ambition. “Dance along to the bank, will you? I want you to put a cheque in.” José Maria pretended not to hear.

A little later he saw his father wipe his forehead with the back of his hand in a theatrical way while staring up at the ceiling. “My bolero is killing me,” he complained melodramatically, “and my trousers are tight enough to squeak.” Another time, “José, José, you’ve been on your feet for hours, you don’t want to bruise your little toesies, go upstairs and have a lie down. You must keep them trim and pretty for your dancing.”

“I’m not tired, thank you very much. And my little toesies are fine,” José Maria said with as much dignity as he could muster.

By mid-afternoon the grocer realised his tactic of ridiculing his son wasn’t working. He would have to be more subtle.

“So,” he said seriously, “how much do you think this dancing business will cost?”

“Cost?” José looked up into the space above him, “How much will it cost?” he asked. “Ooh, I don’t know, what with this and that.” That it might cost anything at all hadn’t occurred to him. “I haven’t done all the calculations yet,” he said, “There’ll be my dancing shoes, of course,” He thought what else he might need, “and quite a few other things dancers need.”

“Like what?”

“Other stuff, special socks and things.”

“Dancing socks? What on earth are you on about?”

“Si, I’ll need dancing socks.” And grabbing it from the top of the counter he added: “I’ll bank that cheque for you, now.”  With that he rushed out of the shop, and into the street, so swiftly he almost knocked old Sanchez from the ancient bike he was dismounting. The strings of plastic onions hanging from the handlebars wobbled so much they looked as though they might fly off into the air.

“Watch where going you clumsy young fool!” Sanchez yelled after him. Turning towards the shop door he saw Señor Alvarez standing there, grinning maniacally.

“Dancing socks,” the grocer said, shaking his head. “Whatever will he think of next? I ask you, dancing socks?” With two fingers of his right hand he imitated a pair of legs dancing in the air. “What is the world coming to?”

“Dancing socks?” Sanchez grumbled, “What on earth are you on about?”

“My words exactly.” Señor Alvarez nodded, “Dancing socks.” The nods turned back to a vigorous shaking from side to side, like a dog with a flea in its ear. “It’s ridiculous. He can’t even walk out of the shop without knocking people over, and he wants a pair of dancing socks. I told him, he has to learn to walk properly first. I don’t know where the stupid boy gets all these daft ideas from.” He swivelled his eyes to the ceiling, pointing upstairs, where his wife sat watching TV. “Dancing socks.” Then, suddenly assuming a serious expression he looked at the old bike Sanchez was leaning against the wall, “Where did you get that rusty old contraption?” he said, just to change the subject. “It looks just like the one old Miguel used to ride. According to Marlene, it went missing.”

“It’s mine!” Sanchez grizzled, “Anyway, I haven’t come round hear to swap tales about dancing socks and old bikes. I’ve got a load of tomatoes I need to get rid of, you interested?” Señor Alvarez’s ears pricked up. He was very interested. Tomatoes were selling at a premium, several local crops having failed due to lack of water.

“Tomatoes, you say,” he said non-committedly. Then made a sucking sound through his teeth. “Ooh, you’ve picked a bad time with so many coming on the market just now.”

“Well, it’s the tomato season,” Sanchez grumbled, “that’s when they grow, I can’t pick them any other time.”

“I don’t know.” The grocer said. His face screwed up as he stroked his chin. “I suppose I could come and have a look, I might be able to take a few off your hands to help you out. They’d have to be cheap mind.”

“I wouldn’t bother coming to you if they weren’t cheap,” Sanchez complained, “When do you want to come round?”

“How about now?” Señor Alvarez said, starting to remove his apron. “Things are a bit quiet, as you can see. Closing the shop for a couple of minutes won’t hurt.” If he went right away he might be able to shift a few kilos before the afternoon, the demand was so great.

“That’s a bit quick for somebody who doesn’t want them,” Sanchez mumbled, “What about this evening.”

“You’re right,” Senor Alvarez bit his lip, “There’s no hurry where there’s no demand.” He retied the strings to his apron. “I’ll pop round about five, before I open again.”

“Make that nine,” Sanchez said, “after you close. “Dancing socks! Pah! Mad, the lot you.”

 

 

“The boy’s an absolute fool,” Señor Alvarez told his wife later in bed that night. “Dancing socks. He says he needs dancing socks. I can’t think where he gets all these stupid ideas from.” He looked down at his wife reading a cheap romantic paperback.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, without looking up, “It’s just a stage he’s going through. He’ll get over it.”

“That’s what you always say. He’s not five anymore. I could understand if a five-year-old said something like that, but he’s a grown man. Dancing socks!”

“Do you remember when he used pee in his pants?” Rosa said.

“He was three-years-old.”

“Si, but he doesn’t do it any more does he?”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“He doesn’t pee in his pants anymore, does he.”

“Of course he doesn’t, he’s twenty-eight.”

“Exactly my point, he doesn’t do it anymore. It was just a stage he was going through. He got over it. Now I’m going to switch the light out so that I don’t have to listen to any more of your useless jabber.” She switched it off.

Señor Alvarez sat staring into the dark. He wondered how his wife thought switching a light off could affect his talking. But it had. He got into bed. He would have to show her that it couldn’t. This time he was going to win. He would have the last word. He settled himself down.

“Sometimes, I think he gets it from you,” he mumbled from under the bedclothes.

“It’s not me who’s with him all day,” Rosa said sleepily. Señor Alvarez waited for a few moments listening to her breathing. Satisfying himself she was asleep, he murmured in hushed tones.

“But it’s the early years that count, when you had him.” Nothing, no reply. He smiled to himself. He had won at last. He had had the last word. But it didn’t quite provide the satisfaction he’d expected. Just one more comment, that would do it, while the going was good. “That’s what did the damage,” he whispered, and listened. He could hear his wife’s slow breathing. Still not a word. He closed his eyes and drew in a weary breath of satisfaction.

“And who was it dropped him while he was a still a poor little baby?” Rosa asked. “If there’s any damage. That’s what did it.” And it was true. He had never been able to forgive himself. She had won again

 

 

“Do you remember when we first met?” Rosa asked her husband at breakfast next morning as soon as José Maria left the table to open the shop.

“How could I forget?” Señor Alvarez said, though he couldn’t for the life of him remember. He hoped she wasn’t going to question him further.

“You were full of big ideas about what you wanted to do.”

“Si.” Wherever she was leading him, he knew he didn’t want to go.

“Do you remember the secret you told me?”

“Si, everybody tells little secrets when they’re courting.”

“But this one was special. You couldn’t bring yourself to tell your father, you remember?”

“Si, I remember everything.”

“What was it?”

“Which one? There were so many little secrets we shared at the time.”

“But you said you remembered this one.”

“I do remember.”

“What was it then?”

“I said that I wanted to marry you.” That had to satisfy her.

“Well, actually you didn’t. It was me, I said I wanted to marry you.”

“We both wanted to get married, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter who said it.”

“It’s not the same thing at all. You were too timid. If I’d waited for you to ask, I’d still be waiting. Anyway, that’s not what I meant. Don’t you remember telling me that you wanted to be a matador?”

“Me? A matador? That’s ridiculous!”

“Si, those were my very words.”

“But young men always say things like that. I didn’t expect you to take it seriously.”

“And what about the old matador’s cape you bought?”

“I bought a matador’s cape?”

“It’s on top of the wardrobe. In an old suticase, you wouldn’t let me throw it away. You took me up into the woods one day and made me rush at you holding two sticks to my head.”

“I think I’d remember doing something as stupid as that.”

“Well, it’s obvious you don’t, yet you did, I can get the cape down from the wardrobe to prove it. It’s the same thing as José saying that he wants to be a flamenco dancer.”

“It’s not the same thing at all. A matador has to face hulking great bulls.”

“That’s not what I mean. What I’m saying is that you stood as much chance of becoming a matador as José has of becoming a flamenco dancer.”

“But a matador risks life and limb. The biggest danger a flamenco dancer faces is stubbing his toe against a piano.”

“That’s not my point. You know it isn’t. It’s the fact that you once had an impossible dream. Now José has an impossible dream.”

“Mine wasn’t impossible though.”

“Of course, it was. You’re frightened of little goats, let alone bulls. You won’t go anywhere if you suspect there might be a goat there.”

“A goat’s not the same as a bull, woman. People don’t fight goats. Even goatherds are frightened of goats. You have to be; it goes with the job. They’re so unpredictable.”

“And bulls are predictable, I suppose?”

“Well, at least a matador has the advantage of knowing that when he goes in the ring to fight a bull the bull will charge at him head on. Goats come rushing up behind you when you least expect it. Everybody knows that. That’s why there are no goat fights. Goats cheat.”

“Sometimes, I wonder why I bother talking to you.” The grocer’s wife got up from the table to leave him to finish breakfast alone.

 

 

Señor Alvarez kept up the pretence of trying to encourage his son to become a flamenco dancer for several days. And it seemed to be working. He could tell by the troubled look on José Maria’s face that he was having second thoughts about his flamenco dancing twaddle. A couple days more pressure and he would be begging him on bended knee not to let him become a flamenco dancer.

The morning he saw he moment of triumph approaching, he steeled himself against celebrating victory too early. He’d have to keep turning the screw just a little bit longer. Besides, he was starting to enjoy it.

“Papa,” José Maria began, “About the flamenco dancing,” he went on. The grocer had him, hook line and sinker. “I will become a flamenco dancer if you really want me to.”

Knowing he couldn’t afford to lose his nerve at this late stage in the game, Señor Alvarez continued to bluff: “Now I’ve had time to think about it, it’s what I want more than anything else,”

“On the other hand,” José Maria said, “it’d be stupid to rush into things.”

“Then again it’d even more stupid not to act straightaway on such great idea as this. I can see your name in lights now.” The grocer spread his arms wide open.

“There’s no need to exaggerate.”

“Small lights.” The grocer closed his arms a little.

“I’d probably have to leave home,” José Maria said, looking sidelong at his father, “And that means I wouldn’t be able to see so much of you and Mama. I think I’d worry about you. What would life be like without me about the place?”

“Wonderful, we’d have more time to ourselves, there’d be less washing, less cooking, less mess. But don’t worry about us, think about yourself, and all the advantages it would bring. Think of the freedom you’d have. The freedom to cook your own meals whenever you want, do your own shopping, and wash your own socks, and stuff like that. Your dancing socks, and your tights.  All without being tied to your mother’s apron strings and timetable.”

“But I like being tied to Mama’s timetable.”

“Si, si, si, I understand. But you have to think freedom. Freedom. All the freedom you’re missing out on now. The freedom to rent your own flat at a price you’re willing to pay, the freedom to make as many phonecalls as you like without me breathing down your neck all the time, telling you how much they cost.”

“Yes, those are some of the things I’ve been thinking very hard about. It all sounds very good, but I’d worry about the shop all the time.”

“Why worry about the shop? We’ll manage. I won’t have to pay any wages, for a start. And what with you earning all that money dancing, perhaps I could think of early retirement.”

 

 

“My father wants me to be a famous flamenco dancer so much, I can hardly bear it.” José Maria blurted out suddenly. Maria José couldn’t help thinking he spoke a little sadly. “He talks of nothing else.” She looked at him with her eyes opening in horror.

“That’s great” The enthusiasm she tried to inject into her voice didn’t quite come out. “Isn’t it?” she added.

“I’m not so sure, anymore,” said José Maria.

“But it’s what you’ve always wanted.”

“Yes, but I can’t help feeling like I felt like when I was a little boy. There was the Christmas when I was six, I got the bicycle I’d always wanted. When I got it I wasn’t so sure I wanted it quite so much.” He looked out to sea. “I ask myself whether my father wants me to be a flamenco dancer because I’ll never make a good grocer. It would be a good way of getting rid of me.”

“Look, José,” Maria José began slowly, “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

“It’s alright, I’m committed to it. I know everybody wants me to be a dancer, and I won’t let you all down, I promise.”

“No, it’s not what I wanted to say.

“I’ll try my best to become famous and make enough money, so you’ll be able to paint.”

“Listen to me,” Maria José implored him. “Painting doesn’t matter, I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to become a flamenco dancer just because your father wants it. I want what you want. I want you to be a grocer. A good grocer, so I can be proud of you.”

José Maria looked up into her face.

“You mean it?”

“Of course.”

“As good as my father?”

“A lot better, I hope.”

And they both laughed.

“And I want you to paint,” José Maria said.

“And, si, is also the answer to your question,” Maria José said.

“Which question is that?” José Maria asked with a worried look.

“The one you asked the other day.”

“Which one?” the grocer’s son asked again. Maria José was gazing shyly at her feet. And then a huge smile spread across José Maria’s face.

“You really mean you’ll marry me?” he asked. Maria José just smiled.

Copyright© 2014 Bryan Hemming

Old Miguel and the Cat

“If Calle Cádizonly hope were beer instead of beer being hope,” said Antolin.

“Si,” said Pedro, “I’d much rather be completely hopeless than completely beerless.”

“Seems to me you’re gifted with both in equal measure,” Juani muttered, while finishing wiping tables. But nobody took the slightest bit of notice. There was too much wisdom floating about.

“If hope were beer, I’d have more than enough to open a string of bars.” Antolin said.  We all nodded in agreement. It’s what we’d all do if hope were beer. At least we hoped we would.

Little changes in Santa Catalina, and little enough as change may be, a little change in your pocket is far better than no change at all. Especially on yet another of those endless, steaming afternoons when all folk of sound mind are snoring away the siesta. That left Antolin, Pedro and I the last of the hopeless straddlers in Juani’s bar once again. But if we didn’t have much hope at least we still clung onto the last remnants of our diminishing supply of obstinate determination.

Without enough for another drink between us we were left with the  hope of being visitated by a minor miracle. One of the sort that were commonplace in days gone by. But time was not with us, having almost whittled our lives away so much as to run dry of pointless conversation. But not quite.

Juani’s boys had gone to stay with their father for a couple of weeks. Stuck between a pair of fishermen fresh from a fishing trip, the only breath of sweet air around came from her continual, impatient sighing. Having wiped her last table, she’d taken to leaning her hip against the bar, in that way of hers, toying idly with strands of long, black hair, far too listless and filled with straying thoughts of her family, to think of closing. It was Pedro who punctured the contemplative lull with one of his less sensitive observations. If not exactly a refreshing pearl of wisdom, at least it was different.

“The amount of time cats spend licking themselves is enough to make you think they taste real good” he said, slouching against the other side of the bar. I wasn’t quite sure if he was keeping it up, or it was keeping him up. Both looked as though they might collapse at any moment. Following the fisherman’s gaze my eyes came to rest on Juani’s tortoiseshell cat stretched out on top of the fridge, licking his generously proportioned testicles. So loud and tortured was each lick you might think his tongue got so painfully glued to the things he had to rip them away. Which conjured up another scenario. If Pedro wasn’t going to raise it, neither was I.

It took some time for Antolin to pick up the thread left hanging so temptingly in the air. Slumped on a stool, his elbows on the bar, he was picking his teeth with a matchstick, pausing occasionally to examine the scant harvest. If he didn’t eat something soon, they’d be nothing left to pick.

“They don’t,” he finally said.

“What don’t what?” said Pedro, having already forgotten what he’d been saying.

“Cats don’t.”

“Cats don’t what?”

“Cats don’t taste good.”

Pedro stirred to attention.

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Take my word for it; you don’t want to know.” And immediately, Pedro desperately wanted to know.

Having sucked a fleck of dental detritus from the matchstick back onto the end of his own tongue, Antolin glanced up to make sure Juani wasn’t looking before lightly spitting it onto the floor. Then, shifting his weight from one buttock to the other, he eyed Pedro without so much as a blink. He wasn’t giving anything away.

Pedro’s face screwed up. An unwholesome vision was beginning to take hold.

“You don’t mean to say you’ve licked one?” he asked. “How disgusting!”

“Of course, I haven’t,” Antolin said. “It was old Miguel.”

“You licked old Miguel?” Pedro said. “That’s unhygenic.”

Antolin sighed the sigh of a man weary of explaining the obvious.

“And licking cats isn’t? Of course I haven’t licked old Miguel. Or a cat. We’re talking about him, not me.”

“Let me get this straight, you’re saying old Miguel once licked a cat?”

“Not licked one. You couldn’t know how one tasted just by licking it. He ate one.”

“A cat? He ate a cat?” The concept was so unimaginable Pedro needed to keep repeating it. “Miguel ate a real cat?”

“It was back in the civil war. There wasn’t much else about to eat.”

“But he ate a cat?”

“Not a whole one. He couldn’t do that.”

“I’m not surprised, it must’ve tasted awful.”

“No, that wasn’t the reason. If he’d been given half a chance, he’d have wolfed it down, tail and all. But he had to share it with the others. That’s what he told my father. He and his men had run out of rations. They were up north in fighting Franco in Catalonia when they got stranded behind enemy lines. He once showed me his medal.” The explanation confused Pedro further.

“He got a medal for eating a cat?”

“Not for eating the cat, stupid, for his brave exploits. You don’t get medals for what you eat, even if it is a cat. They were starving, according to my Dad. It was the company cat.” That was too much even for my ears.

“You’re not trying to tell us the Spanish Republican Army issued company cats as emergency rations?”

“Well, maybe not the company one, any old cat. It doesn’t matter, who the cat belonged to, he and his men ate it.”

“It might not matter to you, but what about its owner?” Pedro pointed out, “It might’ve have been the only companion to some poor, lonely old widow with no surviving relatives, who put a few tit-bits out for it each evening. She might’ve have been calling for it most of the night. and even gone out searching in her nightie. All to no avail. She could’ve thought it had fallen down the well, and then fell in after it, trying to get it out.”

“I think she’d have heard it mewling  if it fell into a well,” I said helpfully.

“Not if it lost consciouness,” Pedro said.

“True enough,” I said. “But then if it fell in a well it most likely would’ve drowned.”

“Not if the well had run dry.” You had to hand it to Pedro, he thought of everything. “Besides, even if it hadn’t run dry, cats can swim when they have to.”

“Do you want me to finish the story or not?” Antolin asked.

“Sorry, go on.”

“After Miguel and a few others got separated from the rest of their company, they found themselves surrounded by a huge band of Franco’s rebels. It was the middle of winter, and had been snowing for almost a week without stop. Completely cut off, with no way of receiving supplies, or making their escape, they had nothing else to eat, so they ate the cat.”

“So the well could’ve iced over,” said Pedro, but nobody was listening by that time.

“Let me get this right, you’re saying they kept a pet cat in the middle of a battlefield?” I asked.

“And a hamster too, I suppose,” added Pedro. He was doing it on purpose. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist joining.

“Perhaps they were keeping a canary for a Christmas feast,”  I popped in for good measure

“It’s not funny,” said Antolin, “I’m trying to answer your infantile questions. They were starving. Maybe the cat just happened to be wandering by.”

“Wandering by? through a battlefield, in a snowstorm?” Having had his own hypothesis, about the widow and the well, dismissed so readily, Pedro was not going to let Antolin off the hook just like that. “And you think my story about the poor, old widow was stretching things a bit far. You know, sometimes your coldness towards poor old widows is chilling in itself.”

“Perhaps it’d stopped snowing for a bit,” Antolin snapped, “I don’t know, do I? I’m only telling you what Miguel told my father. Why do you have to keep asking so many questions all the time? It’s far too hot.” Pedro fell into thoughtful silence. But not for long.

“What about all the bullets flying about? Surely the cat would’ve run away?”

“They might’ve had it on a lead,” I said in an attempt to be helpful by restoring both fishermen’s pride and dignity under increasingly difficult circumstances. But, thinking I was still travelling the same cruel road as he, Pedro had different ideas.

“Or they could’ve kept it in a basket,” he teased. “One of those that people use to take cats to the vet in. They’ve got a little door on the front, so you can get them in and out. They could’ve snacked on it whenever they felt peckish.” With a finger and thumb, he began demonstrating how the little door of his invisible cat basket would’ve opened and closed, and how Miguel and his men would’ve bitten off a piece of cat from time to time. When he turned to look at Antolin once more. he saw his lips were drawn tight. Pedro cleared his throat. “Did they cook it?” he asked, his brow furrowing with affected curiosity.

“Of course, they cooked it. They wouldn’t eat it raw, would they? I mean who in their right mind would eat a raw cat”

“But the fire would’ve given their position away to the enemy,” Pedro announced victoriously.

“The enemy didn’t know they were there,” Antolin countered.

“That’s what I mean, as soon as they lit the fire, they would’ve known exactly where they were.”

“Yes, but they wouldn’t have known it was them, would they? All fires look the same. You don’t have Republican fires and Nationalist fires, do you? Everybody would’ve used fires to cook on.”

“Now you’re stretching things a bit too far,” Pedro said, “there can’t have been that many stray cats wandering about a battlefield in a snowstorm. Certainly not enough to feed an army.”

“I didn’t say they were all eating cats, did I? Just Miguel and his men. The others might’ve had spit-roasted oxen with all the trimmings, for all I know.”

“Or barbecued lamb chops,” I suggested.

“They might even have had salchichas, come to that,” said Pedro. “There’s nothing better than a couple of fried salchichas on a cold winter’s day.”

“Or a hot summer’s day, for that matter,” sighed Antolin, with not a morsel left between his teeth to pick. “Imagine them, sizzling away on a hot plate, filling the winter air with their delicious fumes. Ooh, I could murder a salchicha right now.”

“Salchichas, beer, and crusty bread,” said Pedro, “I can almost smell them.” He sniffed the air. “Juani, you haven’t by chance got half a dozen salchichas doing nothing in that fridge of yours, have you? I’ll pay you next week. Promise I will.”

“Funny you say that,” Juani said, “but no, I haven’t. But I could lend you the frying pan to cook up the cat if you’re that hungry. You can take both with you on your way out. That’s if you can catch the cat without getting clawed to death.” Looking deep into our eyes, there were obviously no takers. “Any of you want anything else before I lock up?” She asked, sweeping across our our expressionless faces once more. “Thought not. By the way, if you really want to know, old Miguel spent the entire civil war selling contraband tobacco to Chinese gold miners in Peru. He was nowhere near Catalonia. I know that because my great grandfather Felipe was with him. I’ve even got a photo of them standing at the railway station in Lima.”

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming