El Levante

The original version of El Levante was first appeared in an analogy of short stories published by Bewrite Books in 2004 uner the title Creature in The Rose. This version has been re-edited.

El Levante imageA SCORCHING WIND ripples the desert sands of the Maghreb. It tears through nomad tents, batters palms and upsets market stalls, sending pariah dogs even further into the shade. Plastic bags skitter along oasis lanes and alleys while wooden shutters bang. Searing across the dunes the wind swirls great clouds of fine dust high into the atmosphere. Then, sucked out of the old continent in a rush, it roars across the Mediterranean towards the coast of Andalucia.

***

Caught by a shaft of light escaping through an open door spilling merriment, a newspaper page flaps its way along a blustery street when a sudden gust bears it up with all the clumsiness of an albatross taking off in an Arctic storm. As the wind whisks yesterday’s news into tomorrow the door slams shut for shadow and muted voices to reign once more.

“Marrr-tin, you write some poetry to me?” The barmaid smiles, putting a hand to her breast and lowering her head in a theatrical gesture that betrays her Italian origins. She moves the hand to touch his arm. “Nobody is writing some poetry to me before.” Her green eyes sparkle with unconcealed pleasure. “It never ’appen to me like this. Is exciting.” Lifting a tray of drinks high above her head, she swishes between tables, setting glasses down here and there. He is perched on a stool, his eyes stalking her every move. “For you, I am no’ getting my policeman!” she scolds affectionately from a distance.

It was the week before, when the little taverna hadn’t been quite so busy, she had told him about her policeman. Leaning across the bar, her face almost in his, she’d confided that sometimes, when she feels a little unhappy, she wonders how life might’ve turned out had she followed a different path. She imagines what it could’ve been like had she married a policeman back in Naples. Nothing big or fancy, he would’ve been an ordinary officer, directing traffic perhaps. They would live in an ordinary house in the suburbs. And it would have a little garden full of flowers, with a garage for their Fiat. They would have a little boy, and she would dress him in light blue shorts. His name would be Luigi. All her days would be spent looking after Luigi, doing the housework, and going shopping. Life would be the same every day, except for Christmas and holidays. There would be nothing to worry about. And then she had sighed.

For twenty-three years Martin had scraped by on the meagre income writing a gardening column for a provincial newspaper group. Silly really, apart from the neglected patch of scrub at the back of his Bradford semi, which was overgrown with weeds, he’d never had a garden. He’d never wanted one. Truth was, he hated gardening. He’d blundered into the world of horticultural journalism in the same way he blundered through the rest of life.

A correspondence course had asked him for four hundred words on the topic. His aversion to it resulted in him leaving things until the very last moment. When pressed for time, he copied out a passage on the asparagus trench from an obscure Edwardian gardening book he’d found in a charity shop, altering sentences here and there to bring it up to date.

The course tutors were so impressed they suggested he submit it to a local newspaper. It was published and he was paid. The newspaper asked for a follow-up, so he copied out another. After a third, they offered him a weekly column, and he knew he’d have to find a way of writing them himself.

He started to collect as many gardening books as he could find, and pored over countless newspaper and magazine articles on the subject. In no time at all ‘Before I Grow’ was being carried by all six of the group’s titles. There followed the occasional commission from gardening periodicals. And before long, he found himself immersed in a world he despised.

He quickly discovered that by lifting a paragraph from an article in one magazine and grafting it carefully onto one from another he could create a hybrid, which he could sell on to a third. The beauty of it was he could do it from the confines of his study. Without soiling his hands, so to speak. Literally, if not metaphorically, at least. It was sending him completely round the twist.

Every Tuesday he would ride the bus into town with a fresh article and hand it in at the newspaper offices, where it would be subbed and pasted before being printed in that week’s editions. Nobody ever questioned what he wrote, and he wasn’t entirely convinced that anybody read it. But the cheques came in on a regular basis.

Then one Tuesday the editor called him into his office to tell him that they were ‘letting him go’. As though he had begged to be released. Advertising revenues had fallen off sharply and the newspaper group’s proprietor had called for economies. The editor had convened an emergency staff meeting. Due to what was later put down as ‘a bit of a mix-up’, Martin was the only journalist not to be summoned. In his unfortunate absence, a democratic show of hands from his trusty colleagues resulted in the unanimous decision that his column should be the first to be axed. And so Martin blundered out of the world of horticultural journalism in similar fashion to the way he’d blundered in.

He went home and cleared his shelves of all the books and scrapbooks he’d acquired and compiled over the years. Carrying them into the kitchen, he forced open the back door to the patch of scrub he hadn’t set foot in for years. After building a huge pile, he doused it with petrol and lit a match.

Next morning he packed a rucksack with a few things, locked his front door, and took off for Spain to become the poet he’d always dreamed of being.

He’d been living in the Andalucian resort of Santa Catalina for barely a month when he stumbled into the backstreet bar. It was late. He was almost drunk having got into the habit of drinking himself to sleep each evening. After ordering a beer he was getting his bearings when he felt a pair of hands alight on his waist. Swivelling about, his glassy eyes trying to focus, he found himself looking into the most wonderful cleavage, and then up, into a pair of shining green eyes. A barmaid was shifting him gently aside so she could get back behind the bar.

From that moment he couldn’t take his gaze off her. He watched as she greeted customers. Such a beautiful smile. Once or twice he thought he caught her glancing in his direction, but couldn’t be sure, the bar was so packed. He overheard someone call her by name, Gina. At closing, he vowed to return the following evening.

Martin had never felt particularly comfortable with women. He never knew what to say. At least, not whilst in their company. Afterwards, he could run countless witty and interesting conversations through his head. By that time it was too late.

His few sexual encounters had occurred after bouts of heavy drinking. Grubbing, fumbling episodes that filled him with self-loathing and remorse next morning. He’d made half-hearted attempts at going to brothels on a couple of occasions, always turning away from the door at the very last moment. When it came down to it, he didn’t even know how to engage a prostitute.

With Gina he is determined that things will be different.

Glugging down a glass of wine he stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, as he rehearses how to begin a conversation. To demonstrate his assertiveness he should initiate with a question, he reasons. That’s the way other men did it.

“How’s your day been, then?” he enquires of his reflection. It’s a bit too stiff, too much assertiveness. He tries again. This time smiling cheerily. “How’s your day been?” but his mouth smirks back suggestively. “How’s your day been?” Too dull. “How’s your day been?” The more he says it the worse it gets. “How’s your day been?” That’s better, no hidden meanings. Straight to the point, she’ll have to answer.

She might say, “Fine.” What next?

Taking another slug of wine he tries again. “Do you know of any interesting restaurants round here?”

“No.”

“Have you see the latest Tarantino film?”

“Yes.”

He’s getting nowhere. His reflection tilts its head defiantly. He doesn’t seem able to get it to go any further. Tipping yet another dollop of wine into his glass, he grins at himself. “Nice weather for the time of year,” he leers, “but better keep your eye out for tits. I always do.” He is blundering down a well-trodden path. “Well, any birds, really. They love getting at your cherries. Well, tits don’t. Not your cherries. They prefer getting at my nuts. How is your cherry, by the way? Blackbirds, they’re the ones for cherries. And watch out for thrush – thrushes. There’s this lovely black bird with big tits comes down our street sometimes.” He giggles foolishly at himself, and then gives a reprimanding look. It’s no good. His thoughts always fly off at the same tangent. It all comes down to one thing, sex. He never gets enough of it. He never gets any of it. But it won’t do; not for Gina it won’t. He’ll just have to act naturally. Why not say the first thing that comes into his head, for God’s sake? Hope for the best, and take it from there.

Wearing the cleanest shirt he can dig out, he sits on a stool at the bar trying to stop his conversation with the mirror floating through his mind. But it keeps coming back. It won’t go away. He keeps grinning foolishly to himself. It was the last glass of wine that did it. He should never have finished off the bottle.

Each time Gina passes, he makes to say something, but then stops himself at the last moment, just in case. “There’s this lovely black bird with big tits comes down our street sometimes,” insinuates itself somewhere.

Suddenly she is by his side, an empty tray in her hands.

“Si?” she says, paving the way for him.

“Uh?”

“H-you wan’ say something?”

“Uh, no. I mean, yes. There’s … there’s … do you know any, any, em, any? Have you seen, have you seen? Have you seen my cigarettes? I think I left them on the bar.”

“H-your cigarette is looking in h-your face.” He isn’t getting anywhere.

***

Across the courtyard a door slams, caught by a sudden gust. Martin drops his glass of wine. It shatters on the kitchen floor. A touch too much local brew the previous evening had ragged his nerves. He swears out loud. But not for long, seeing the bottle empty he has his excuse to head to the taverna, towards Gina.

Almost as soon as he orders his drink, an off-duty Spanish waiter from the restaurant next door decides to practice his English on him. Martin hardly listens, his eyes tracking Gina wherever she goes. Once or twice, he can swear she flashes a smile at him – that beautiful smile. But then there are always so many other people at the bar it could be for any one of them.

Becoming aware of an unnaturally long pause in the monologue droning on beside him, he suddenly realises there has been a question. He turns. The Spanish waiter repeats his inquiry as to whether Martin has a wife or girlfriend. Shaking his head Martin stares across the bar at Gina. The words drool from his mouth so dreamily, he hardly knows it is himself talking.

“No.” He sighs. “I want to marry Gina.” The instant he grasps what he said he regrets it. Though it wasn’t loud, he can see by her reaction she heard him. Cocking her head to one side and tucking her chin into her neck, she throws him a strange, reproving look. And then she grins before swiftly turning away. They don’t even know each other, yet already she’s poking fun at him. He tries to make light of the faux pas, hoping she might hear that as well. Blustering and stammering, he tells the waiter in a loud voice that he was only joking, and then emits the most unconvincing bray of laughter. Even to his own ears it sounds that of a half-wit. And when he hears the waiter say that he thinks Gina has a lover, it is as though he is speaking from another room. Martin’s stomach falls and the dull ache of longing crushes his heart in its palm. The bar becomes incredibly hot and he starts sweating profusely. He shouldn’t have said it, he shouldn’t. Now, he’ll never be able to come back for the shame he feels, never be able to face her again. He can’t. He’s never heard himself say anything so stupid before. He can’t think what possessed him. Glaring angrily into his drink, he ignores the Spaniard completely, as though blaming him for the indiscretion.

“H-what your name?” He looks up. She is standing right next to him.

“M-martin,” he replies weakly.

“Marr-tin,” she repeats. That beautiful smile; those shining green eyes. “Marr-tin Shooselwit.”

“No, no, Martin Parker.” He gazes at her with incomprehension for a moment. “Oh, I see what you mean, Martin Chuzzlewit.”

“Marr-tin, please to meet you. My name, Gina.” And somehow, he never quite knows, he has broken the ice.

From that moment, she seems to make a point of talking to him whenever he enters the bar. If she does have a lover, he never appears to be around, and she certainly never mentions him. She jokes, and sometimes says the weirdest things. He doesn’t know whether to laugh or not.

“Marr-tin,” she says. “H-if I am with Prince Charrle, ’ow I say, ‘No thank you’, when ’e h-ask me h-what I will drink?”

Not sure whether to take her seriously, Martin says: “You would say something like, ‘No, thank you, Your Highness. I’ve had quite sufficient’.”

“No thank, h-yourr ’ighness,” she stumbles. “I ’ad quite souficien? Souficien? What is that? Please write it for me, Marr-tin. My friend in Roma, he know Prince Charrle.” Martin smiles. “You no’ believe me, iss true. One day I meet him.” She passes him the notepad and pen she keeps behind the counter. He writes, ‘No, thanks, Charlie, I’m already pissed,’ and passes them back. Her forehead creases in concentration as she tries to make out his tipsy scribble, and then her face breaks into that beautiful smile again. She laughs her laugh of summer strawberries.

“Marr-tin,” she says, rattling those ‘R’s’ like a pea in a whistle while waggling a finger at him. “You arrre bad boy.” His knees turn to jelly.

And then he has to go and spoil things. He tells her rather condescendingly, that she doesn’t look the type of girl to work in a bar. Whatever that means. As though there is a type. Her pained expression makes him see it for the middle class presumption it is.

“’Ow barmaid look?” she asks huffily. He doesn’t know. “H-I am surrfer, I worrk in bar to surrf. And what you do in h-Englan’, Marr-tin?” she fires back, a spark of hurt anger igniting her eyes. Caught off guard by her Latin temperament, he doesn’t know what to answer. He cannot bring himself to say that he is an unemployed garden columnist. Unemployed or not, it sounds so … so ordinary.

The words seem to blurt out by themselves. “I’m a poet.” He sees the spark turn to pleasure. “I write poetry.” A harmless little deception, so tiny you could hardly notice.

“You poet? H-I never meet poet before. H-you wan’ see me surrf?”

***

He stands on a dusty track above the seashore, his trousers flapping about his ankles in the parched breeze. With his hands shielding the bright sunlight from his eyes he scans the ocean till the tiny group of surfers comes into view. Clad in black rubber wetsuits, they could be a school of seals from that distance. For a moment, he can’t make her out. And then he catches sight of the blonde bob slicked back with seawater. Alerted by some animal instinct, or in expectation of his arrival, she spots him at the same time and waves. He waves back. She is floating astride her board, scouting the sea. He stays where he is for the time being, enjoying their distance all the more because now she knows he’s there.

The first to spot a big roller, her arms plough lesser waves aside as she glides swiftly towards it. He watches her wheel the board about in one slick manoeuvre. She flattens her stomach against it, straining her torso in a gentle arc for her head and shoulders to rise above it, like a horse being reined in. As the wave approaches, she paddles furiously before it till both board and she are taken up by its momentum. He sees her snap from lying position, to knees, to feet, her hands clutching the prow of the board firmly. There is a moment of hesitancy where all could be lost. Then, at the point the wave surges up into an elegant curve crowned with frothing spume, at that point where it seems suspended in supreme defiance of gravity, her hands surrender their grip. Borne up on its crest, in one fleeting movement, she is standing, her legs apart, one in front of the other, knees slightly bent and arms outstretched. Cautiously swaying from side to side she gradually gains equilibrium, and the chase to shore is on. She races inches in front of the breaker, as it tries to tumble her from its crest. At each advance, just as it appears to have her in the curving fingers of its grasp, she scythes down into it to increase her lead once more. Again and again she scythes. In its vain efforts to reach her, the wave impels her forward all the faster. To Martin’s watching eyes, it is like a blade being sharpened; the furious spray streaming from her surfboard like sparks from a grindstone. Over and over, until the wave drives her right up to the shore, where, as though in angry defeat the roller crashes, disintegrating into a tumult of boiling, foaming rage. He watches her topple only to be swallowed by the shallows. And then there is only the bobbing board. For a moment too long he doesn’t see her, and a frisson of fear runs through him. Then she bursts from the water like a cork, dripping sunlight and sea. Seeing her board slipping away, she flicks it back with the rubber cord attached to her wrist like she might a recalcitrant setter.

It has been a small moment in time, perhaps a minute, probably much less, yet filled with tension, it seemed much longer. She looks up at him. Even from that distance, he can see she is grinning in sheer delight. Though he smiles back, he cannot help but feel a strange envy for the sea. And as if sensing his tangled emotions, she blows a kiss, her tanned face beaming refracted sunlight. Next moment, she is paddling away from him once more. Clambering down from the track, he goes to the shoreline to stand at the water’s edge and watch her catch another wave. After a few moments, he walks slowly back up the beach where the sand is dry and sits down to be her sole spectator.

Almost an hour goes by before Gina wades out of the surf, her surfboard tucked beneath her arm. Flushed with adrenaline she tries running impossibly against the receding tide. Another surfer follows in her wake. In her excitement she is yelling her part of a conversation to him above the din of wind and sea. As they near Martin, she breaks off. Her green eyes crinkle and sparkle. She smiles that beautiful smile and rushes towards him.

“Marr-tin,” she cries, as she approaches, “h-you see me surrf, no? What you think?” And before he has time to answer, she turns to introduce the young man behind her. “I wan’ that you meet ’ank. H-is American surrfer. With ’im you can talk h-English.”

***

Martin mounts the stairs to the rooftop terrace, Hank trailing behind. As he opens the door to the roof a scorching draught blasts their faces. Blinding sunbeams flood the stairwell. Lines of washing flap and flutter.

After introducing them, Gina decided that she disliked the young American intensely for some reason. Having made her decision she bequeathed him to Martin in a seamless transaction in which he had no recall of playing part. She even took to referring to Hank as ‘h-yourr fren’’. The transference had been so absolute that Hank felt familiar enough to invite himself to stay at Martin’s flat for a few days while waiting to take up his own.

***

As he climbs through the doorway Martin bangs his head against a low beam and emits a cry of pain.

“That’s one of the advantages of being short,” Hank says, swiftly switching subjects in his endless prattle, as they fight their way through lines of whipping laundry. “I don’t get that problem.” And you get to lick arse standing, Martin thinks, but says nothing. He is tiring of the diminutive lecturer in Spanish from Kentucky State University, or ‘KSU’ as Hank calls it, assuming that everyone has heard the term. He is weary of the way Hank interrogates him on Donne or Rabelais or some obscure poet that Martin has never read, or even heard of, as though trying to catch him out, which he more often than not does. He is fed-up with the way he constantly offers advice on everything from poetry to pasta. To Martin’s ears it sounds as though he regards him as an old man incapable of looking after himself properly. Perhaps he is in Hank’s youthful eyes

“What’s up with Gina?” Hank probes, switching subjects one more time. A dripping tea towel slaps Martin in the face. He peels it away. Martin doesn’t want to discuss her with him. She is too precious to waste in idle banter. So he doesn’t tell him that he is infatuated with her. Instead, he casually drops that he met her at the bar.

“We ran into each other a couple of weeks ago,” he says, as though she could’ve been the plumber he was looking for. He knows his words are not enough for Hank to understand that he’d better keep his filthy little pecker, or whatever they call it at KSU, in his trousers, but doesn’t know how to put that without revealing himself.

“I got the feeling she’s a dyke,” Hank says, out of the blue. “She doesn’t like guys, that’s for sure.” Martin’s spine makes him sharply aware of its existence. Hank doesn’t have the imagination to think that she might hate his guts. As far as he’s concerned any woman that doesn’t show a sexual interest in him must be gay. They gaze across the rooftops towards the sea. “Her and that other barmaid, Manuella. I figure they got a scene going.” Ho! Gina will love that one when Martin tells her. And he will. She spent the best part of a couple of hours yesterday telling him how much she despises Hank.

“H-all my life!” she ranted. “H-all my life, I try keep away from peoples like this one! I ’ate him! If ’e don’ leave me h-alone I will make ’im pay! H-I will smash ’is face.” Martin didn’t quite get what happened between them to bring about the change in her attitude towards him. He wonders if the little squirt might have tried to make a pass at her.

“I don’t think so,” he says, leaving Hank’s suggestion unresolved. And then he panics inside. Why hadn’t it occurred to him before when it’s so obvious: Gina’s a lesbian! She and Manuella are having an affair! “No, she’s definitely not a lesbian,” he says casually, so as not to give himself away. But he has to think of all the angles. He has to be careful, every possibility has to be considered. “She could be, I suppose,” he detracts, as much to himself as Hank, praying to God that she isn’t.

Cupping a hand over his eyes he squints at a billowing sail caught by a rush of wind speeding towards the horizon. “Anyhow, you get a fantastic view of the beach from up here.”

***

The sun has yet to dip beneath the ocean waves. A scorching breeze bickers with the slatted blinds. There is no relief in the shifting air. It ships in panloads of dust and paper from the street and scatters them inside. Martin watches a cigarette butt bounce across the floor before coming to rest against the bar. Gina clicks her tongue against her teeth in admonishment. The butt takes no notice.

She blows out a heavy breath. “Is ’ot, no?”

Martin nods his head. It is early. The taverna isn’t busy, and she is drawing him one of her little maps of Santa Catalina. Wherever he wants to go, the cinema, the Post Office, or tourist information, she always insists he have one of her little maps. Though he can make neither head nor tail of them, neither can he bring himself to tell her.

He studies the way the pink, wet tip of her tongue pokes to one side between her teeth as she concentrates. His eyes become transfixed by the slender fingers with painted nails lurching across the page leaving an untidy, childish scrawl in their wake. Capital letters intermingle with lowercase indiscriminately, jerking out at disparate angles from the spidery lines she assures him are streets. Drawn by anyone else this careless jumble might affront his innate sense of order, yet drawn by Gina each mark is a little work of art.

Back at his flat he has a growing mountain of these scraps of paper. More maps, recipes, book titles, the names of films. He can’t bear to throw a single one away. If she stubbed the burning end of her cigarette in the palm of his hand he wouldn’t cry out, just enclose it with his fingers and take it away to store in a little box. Glancing up from her endeavours unexpectedly, she leans across the bar and looks deep into his eyes as though searching for him there. “Wrrrite poem to me, Marr-tin,” she entreats.

That slight untruth, a harmless enough deception. So tiny you could hardly notice. That one second in which he believed she might think he wasn’t good enough for her. The beautiful lie. So easy at the time. But to actually write a poem; to write a poem for her. He is struck dumb by the apparent enormity of the task. The muse has asked her poet to write a poem.

A stray whisper of wind catches her sheet of paper, and sends it flying. Snapping thin air, their pairs of hands scuttle round each other to catch it.

***

“Want some yoghurt?” Hank asks. Martin stares up from his newspaper across the breakfast table. He shakes his head. Even if he did want yoghurt, he wouldn’t take it from him, the slimy little squirt. He can’t get over what he said about Gina. Leaving aside the further betrayal acceptance of the yoghurt would entail, he senses that it might make him eternally indebted to the American. “It’s good for the digestive tract.” Why does he have to be is so clinical about everything? Even eating has to be reduced to science. It’s enough to put anybody off.

Martin isn’t speaking to Hank as punishment for making him suspect Gina of being a lesbian. He is holding a four-day-old copy of The Times in front of his face as a helpful prop, and resumes pretending to read from it. Ashamed of himself for stooping so low as to believe Hank, he is restricting all communication between them to nods and shakes. But Hank is made of sterner stuff. If he has noticed that Martin hasn’t spoken a word to him in two days, he isn’t letting on.

“Boy, that Gina sure is some fast worker,” he says. And has him hook, line and sinker. Martin has to know more.

“What’s that?” he drawls, lowering his paper as though only faintly interested.

“Gina, the eye-talian barmaid. As soon as she drops one guy she moves straight on to the next. You godda watch those eye-talians. You shoulda seen the way she hustled in on some young guy from Malaga.” With half a whistle, half a blow, he shakes his hand as though he has just burned it. “Don’t think he knew what’d hit him.” Transforming the hand into a fist, he pumps his arm vigorously from the elbow. “She’s one hot babe!”

Recoiling with revulsion, Martin shakes his paper. “Y-es, well, it’s in their blood.” He hates himself for saying it, being forced into betraying her yet again. But he hates Hank even more for making him. First, he says she’s a lesbian, now he has the gall to insinuate she’s a nymphomaniac. Hank is in his stride.

“There the poor guy was, just sitting by his board on the beach minding his own, when she walks right up, sets herself down, cool as ice, and starts rapping. Quicker ’an you can bat an eyelid, I look over and they’re gone.” Leaning right across the table, Hank breathes the last two words out loudly, his eyebrows raised, a lewd grin stretched across his face. And just in case Martin doesn’t know how gone they are he stretches his arm out, fingers splayed. Then, lolling back in his chair, he begins chuckling suggestively. The sound reminds Martin of a contented piglet. “Whew, you godda hand it to her, when she sees what she wants she goes right up and gets it.”

“Do you mind? I’m trying to read my paper.”

Hank sits up abruptly. “Hey, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you got the hots for her.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Gina, I didn’t know that you liked her.”

“What do you mean ‘like her’? Of course I like her, what’s there to dislike?”

“Okay, have it your own way. Nothing to get all riled up about.”

“I’m not getting all riled up. I’m just not one for tittle-tattle.”

“Tiddle-taddle, I like that, sounds kinda English.”

“Yes, well, it is English. A bit old-fashioned, but then I am when it comes to talking about women. I say, Hank, isn’t your flat coming up soon?”

“You mean my apartment? Sure, in a few days. Say, Martin, if you need some space, I can always move out. Just gimme the word.”

“No, no, of course not. Whatever made you think that?”

And that is an end to it. Yet it is not an end to the growing agony he feels gnawing inside.

Days pass and Hank moves into his new flat. The strong breeze that has been blustering about for nearly a week blows up into a gale overnight, moaning and wailing outside Martin’s window as it clamours to get in. Another morning dawns. Despite two bottles of wine Martin couldn’t sleep. He spent half the night searching for a shutter that kept banging each time he was about to drop off. Getting out of bed over and over again, running up and down stairs, securing and bolting shutters, windows, wardrobes and doors, ramming bits of tightly-folded paper into cracks. It was two hours before he worked out that it was coming from a flat across the courtyard. In between bangs, he lay awake listening to the roar of gigantic Atlantic rollers crashing onto the beach.

The first shaft of morning sunlight finds him curled motionless on rumpled sheets, eyes shut, trying to get some sleep. A hiatus in the storm has caused the wind to drop a touch. He almost dozes off when the shutter across the courtyard bangs yet again, jarring his shattered nerves. He turns to stare at the ceiling through the veil of last night’s hangover, Hank’s comments over the breakfast table flooding back to haunt him. They painfully recall the observation made by the Spanish waiter. Gina has a lover. Even if she didn’t then, she has a lover now. The recurring vision of a young Malagan surfer lends the suggestion more substance. That Gina had gone off with him, poses an all-devouring uncertainty. The shutter bangs twice in quick succession. He gets up to secure it before realising he can’t. The way Hank told it left no doubt as to what they’d gone off for. The crude grin on his face said it all. Crudity, so detrimental to the digestive tract. But he couldn’t have known for sure. It was just as likely they had gone for a coffee, more likely, in fact. Yet no matter how hard he tells himself, he can’t make himself believe it. Images of two naked bodies entwined superimpose themselves over a fully clothed couple innocently sipping cappuccinos. Hank possesses the knack of locating his weak spots, and a cruel enough streak to exploit them. Mercilessly. Having got up, he is unable to go back to bed. Dressing himself, he puts on a straw hat and heads towards the beach.

Hank is packing away his surfboard making ready to leave. Martin hasn’t seen him since he moved out of the flat. Hank smiles up at him, or is it a smirk? “Hi, Mart! How you doin’?” he asks.

“Not so bad, not so bad.”

“Look as though you had yourself quite some party last night.” New-found independence seems only to have increased Hank’s desire to antagonise him. Martin ignores the remark. His tired eyes scan the wind-ripped waves for Gina. They spot her out on her board amongst the other surfers.

“You lookin’ for Gina? She’s out there someplace.”

“No,” Martin lies. “I’m just out for a walk.” But his eyes won’t let go of her. She doesn’t see him. Half of him doesn’t want her to. It’s an opportunity to see if she is with the Malagan. Yet, however irrational he knows it to be, the other half struggles not to feel disappointment that something hasn’t alerted her to his arrival, the way it did before.

“Been out an hour or more. Guess she’ll be there most the day.” Glancing across at the Englishman Hank zips up his bag.

“Yeah, well, way the wind is, maybe not. Look, I godda go. Be seein’ ya.”

“Yes, of course, I expect I’ll be seeing you too. Bye.”

Removing a towel from the Marks & Spencer plastic bag he is carrying Martin tries to lay it on the sand. The wind almost snapping it from his hands he can’t get it to stay down. He manages to spread it out by sitting on one end and stretching out towards the other. His eyes strain seawards once more, to catch sight of Gina paddling away from the rest of the school of surfers, as she looks for waves alone. He begins to relax a little. What a fool he is. A stupid, old fool at that. What would it matter had she gone off with a young Malagan? It’s nothing to lose sleep over. She’s a lusty young woman for chrissakes! And he’s a middle-aged man. It’s no concern of his what she does with her own life.

He believes he can watch her for all eternity. But after ten minutes he realises he can’t, and goes off in search of shells, struggling to suppress the turmoil of contradictory emotions raking his mind.

By the time the surfers come up from the sea two long hours have passed. Hearing Gina’s laughter, Martin pretends not to notice her return. Long since tired of his shell hunt, he is back lying on his towel, his straw hat tipped over his eyes. As she approaches he sees her face fill the narrow slat of light between its brim and his cheeks. That beautiful smile tinged with a mixture of exhilaration and tiredness. Her bronzed cheeks flushed with excitement; bejewelled with droplets of sea. When she sees him, her seaweed green eyes light up. She bends down to flick his hat gently back.

“Marr-tin! I not know you are ’ere. H-why you no call me?”

“You looked as though you were enjoying yourself so much I didn’t want to spoil things,” he grunts, and sits up to rest on his elbows. Rolling a towel out next to his she dumps herself down.

“H-you see yourr fren’? The stupid American. ’E think ’e is best surrfer. Today we show ’im. Is no ’is bich, is h-our bich. ’E go way quickly,” she smiles. The other surfers gather round her. Martin wonders if one of them might be the young Malagan, and examines each of their faces fleetingly, almost as though expecting to see ‘Made in Malaga’ tattooed across a forehead. Soon they are chatting excitedly in Spanish. He can’t tell whether they are talking about him or Hank. From time to time Gina laughs. Then, mindful he might feel left out, she turns towards him. “Sorry, Marr-tin we speak Spanish. The stupid Spanish boys they not know ’ow to speak h-English. We talk about surrf. H-you is boring?” Martin’s eyes widen.

“Boring? Me? Sorry. Oh, oh, I see what you mean. Am I bored? No, no, it’s fascinating. I just popped out for a stroll, you carry on.” He wants to leave right there and then. He is far too old for her. Yet, the desperate churning inside makes it impossible to tear himself away.

Finally, unable to stand the strain of indecision any longer, he gets to his feet and slowly folds his towel. He tells her in the most ordinary voice he can muster: “I think I’d better start making my way back.” But it comes out like a schoolboy’s nasal whine filled with the very hurt it is trying to conceal.

“Marr-tin, ’ave I done h-everything wrong?” she asks.

There is something in the way she says it that makes the hairs stand up on his arms. He wants to banish the uncomprehending expression on her face with a thousand kisses. But he can’t retreat now.

“No,” he says. “No, no, of course, not.” He stuffs his towel into the Marks & Spencer bag.

“Ciao,” she says, a little sadly.

“Ciao,” he says. Without looking back he trundles off, and it feels as though they have said goodbye forever.

***

Santa Catalina rattles and clatters like a rickety old barn door. Empty cans skittle down empty streets. Shop signs squeak and groan. Plant pots heave over, smashing to the ground. Windows slam and panes shatter. A pair of dirty socks and a few tubs of yoghurt are all that remain to tell that Hank was ever there. Martin keeps putting off throwing them out, in case he come round to claim them. At the same time he resists a deep urge to do just that. Not only does the yoghurt remind him of Hank’s digestive tract, but it also reminds him of his ‘tiddle-taddle’. And there’s his gleeful tale of Gina and the Malagan. His decision to put all thoughts of the Malagan from his mind is made impossible by the plastic tubs staring him in the face each time he opens the fridge door. He tries pushing them to the back of the shelf, but hasn’t enough things to hide them behind.

In a fit of pique, he throws both socks and yoghurt into the rubbish. But then fishes them out an hour later just in case Hank does call by. Another hour and he throws them in the bin again; once and for all this time. He removes the bag and taking it out to the container in the street, so he can’t fish them out. Much later, under of cover of darkness, he goes to retrieve them. But other people have thrown their rubbish on top by then. So he buys some more yoghurt. Bugger the socks.

After another day spent drinking Martin needs a drink. As he enters the small taverna Hank is leaving. The American seems unusually preoccupied. In the manner of recently parted flatmates the men swap distant nods of recognition. For a change the American doesn’t spout forth one his sarcastic remarks. The wind seems to have even got through his thick hide.

“Why ’e come ’ere?” Gina asks crossly as soon as he is out of the door, as if Martin should furnish her with an answer, “H-I ’ate ’im. Stupid Americans! H-I ’ate them all! If ’e come ’ere again h-I will smash ’is face!” Then she turns on Martin, demanding curtly, “H-you wan’ beer?” He nods.

Slopping beer from a pump into a glass she slams it onto the bar where it swills over the rim. Then she broods angrily out of the window and onto the gusty street. Martin knows when to keep quiet. He had wanted to storm in and catch her off-guard with the anger he’d been feeling all day. The drink inside him make him want to say something to shock her. Always one step ahead, she has subdued him with her anger instead.

After a while, her temper somewhat doused, she begins talking to the window.

“This crazy wind, h-is nerrrving, no?” Her moods change so swiftly.

“Unnerving, yes,” Martin replies for the window.

“H-I was singer, h-once,” she says wistfully in way of nothing in particular. “At the h-opera. No’ very good, you understand, but one day I sing at La Scala in Milano. In chorus,” she pronounces the ‘c’ as in chop. “Is so beautiful essperience.” And she turns back into the bar, “H-I no’ sing now, h-I no’ good enough. H-I want to be best singer in h-world. H-I want to be genius, but I know this will neverr be, so h-I am waitress, and surrfer.” She giggles. “No good waitress too.” He laughs. She cocks her head to one side in that manner of hers, her face taking on a hurt expression. “Marr-tin,” she says coolly, as if to demonstrate the swiftness of her mood swings, “H-why you laugh? Is no’ funny. H-you think I am no’ good waitress?”

“I think you’re the best waitress in the world,” he says.

“Marr-tin, when you say such thing h-you must mean it. Don’t tell me h-I am good waitress when you no’ mean it.”

“I mean it, I really do. I’ve never met a waitress like you before.”

“And h-you, Marr-tin, you are good poet? H-you write good poem to me?”

“Well,” he signals Manuela for another beer. He’d meant to start her poem that morning, but postponed it when he woke after another storm-tossed night with yet another hangover; “It’s early days yet.”

“What you mean, is h-earrrly days? You is no h-young man, Marr-tin. Is no h-earrly days forrr you. H-I want you write good poem to me.” His head awash with alcohol, he promises he will, and tries for Manuela’s attention again. “Marr-tin, you h-already ’ave your beer. H-is looking in h-your face. I serve it you.”

When he goes to the lavatory he looks at his wrinkled forehead in the mirror, the bags under his eyes, and his receding hairline. Gina is right. “Is no h-early days for you,” he whispers at his reflection. He must start on his poem tomorrow. But glancing at his wristwatch it is already tomorrow, and he is still in the bar drinking.

***

Such a harmless little deception. Unemployed journalist one moment, poet the next. It’s so easy.

He hasn’t slept since he can’t remember when. The damned wind won’t let up. If anything, it seems to be getting worse. However hard he tries to shut it out, it always manages to squeeze in somewhere or other. In his flat there are chinks and cracks everywhere. The windows don’t fit properly and the doors hang loose. There are more gaping keyholes than locks and keys to fit them.

Martin hasn’t been to the taverna for two nights. He’s sitting at the kitchen table trying to write a poem for Gina. A half-empty bottle and a full glass of wine, stand by his elbow. He’s drinking more and more. The table is strewn with sheets of paper; the floor littered with screwed up balls. He must write a poem. He must. One hand on the blank page before him, he sucks at a pen. He has to write something. Scribbling down her name, he whispers it to himself. Gina, that’ll be its title. He’s already come up with the same title countless times before. Her name is a poem all of its own. He writes it again and again, Gina, Gina, Gina, and then sucks his pen. He gets no further than that. There’s a poem somewhere in her surfing, but he can’t find words for it. They aren’t needed; her surfing is a living, wordless poetry in itself.

Over and over his weary thoughts play, one supplanting the other, till he ends up knowing nothing, except that speculation is useless, and action is everything. And then he goes on to speculate what action he should take.

He scribbles down some more words and stares at them for a few moments before snatching up the sheet, screwing it into a ball and chucking it onto the floor. Picking up the bottle and glass he storms out of the kitchen and up the stairs. A kitchen is no place to write. As he slams the door a sharp draught scatters the papers everywhere.

In the bedroom there are even more sheets of paper. They sit on chairs, lay on tables, and sprawl all over the bed. Martin dumps himself among them, pen in mouth once more.

“What rhymes with surf?” he asks himself out loud. Smurf is the only thing that comes to mind. And then, turf. It’s hopeless. Getting up from the bed he knocks back the glass of wine and pours another, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. “I don’t want to love her! I don’t want to! I don’t want to! I don’t want to!” pacing up and down the bedroom floor. Yet however much he says it, he knows it isn’t true. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK! Why the fuck did I fucking have to go and fucking well tell her I was a fucking poet? For fuck’s sake!” But he cannot bring himself to tell her he is not a fucking poet. Not now, it’s too fucking late. He has to write a fucking poem. He hears a fucking knock on the fucking door. “Fuck.” He rushes downstairs to answer it in the faint hope it might be Gina. The door opens a couple of inches. it’s too late. Fucking Hank is standing there, the fucking wind whipping his fucking hair across his fucking face. Fuck. Martin almost slams it shut.

“Did I leave a pair of socks here?”

“No.”

Martin closes the door a touch. But Hank leans in towards it, his foot ready to block it.

“Are you sure? Sorta purple with a kinda stripy pattern.”

“No, but you did leave some yoghurt.” Martin opens the door slightly. “Wait here, and I’ll go and get it.”

“Oh that, it’s past its sell-by date, so I figured it might not be good for my digestive tract.” He looks inquisitorially into Martin’s face. “You didn’t eat any did ya?” Martin shakes his head. “You can throw it in the trash.”

“Yes, thank you,” Martin tries to close the door again.

“You sure you didn’t eat any? You know, you ain’t looking so good lately, Martin.”

“It’s this fucking wind, Levante, or whatever they call it. Kept me up half the fucking night.”

“Yeah, well, you take care, huh?”

“I will.”

“And if you do find a pair of socks, well I’d appreciate it. Mom gave them me last fall.”

As he finally shuts the door Martin mouths: “Mom gave them me last fall,” before hissing: “Fucking slimy little squirt!” He goes back into the bedroom, picks up an empty piece of paper lying on the bed, screws it up and throws it at the ceiling lamp. “It shouldn’t rhyme, no poems rhyme these days.”

“Fuck.”

***

Unable to stand the sensation of eternal waiting longer, as the church bell tolls midnight, he grabs a jacket. Stepping from the front door he’s almost blown off his feet. The streets are deserted. He fights to put one foot in front of the other as he is forced to incline steeply into the oncoming wind.

He hears a muffled cry. Across the road, the unwelcome sight of Hank hoves into view yet again. Twice in one day. Fuck. Bowled along by El Levante, the American can hardly prevent himself from breaking into a run. His hands are cupped to his mouth and he is shouting. His words are drowned by the howling wind. Probably worried about his fucking socks. Sorta purple with a kinda stripy pattern. Martin has other things on his mind. He doesn’t want to talk to the persistent little fucker about his fucking purple socks with their fucking stripes. He doesn’t want to hear about his fucking delicate digestive tract. Grinning maniacally, he nods in frantic agreement to whatever Hank is saying. Slimy fucking little squirt. Hank keeps shouting, but Martin keeps moving, not wanting to know. Throwing his hands into the air, Hank gives up.

Surprisingly, the little taverna is busy. On an evening he was sure it must be his turn, Gina is fucking angry again, for some fucking reason he can’t fathom. The fucking wind is getting to every fucker. And he fucking can’t stop fucking swearing to himself.

“Men!” Gina curses, “H-I ’ate them! H-all of them!” And then she glares at him with that injured look. “H-why you no come to barr last night?” she asks. “H-an night beforre. Ave I done h-everything wrong?”

“Something wrong,” he corrects.

“What is something h-I done wrong?”

“No, no, you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s not everything, it’s something.”

“What something is? Tell me, I wan’ know.”

“No, you still don’t understand, you haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Then h-why you say I done something wrong?”

“I didn’t.”

“Marr-tin, you don’ lie me, I ’ear you say h-I done something wrong.”

“I didn’t mean it,” he relents.

“Then h-why I no’ see you for three ’ole days?” she persists. “H-why you no’ come to barr?” He could say anything, that he had a headache, or that he’d eaten some yoghurt that didn’t agree with his digestive tract, and she might never mention it again. But he can no longer help himself.

“I had to work on some poetry,” he mutters.

“Heh?”

“For you,” he adds for good measure.

“Forr me? Marr-tin, you write some poetry to me?”

That’s when she says it. The thing about not getting her policeman. Picking up her tray and moving about the bar, she shouts it across for everyone to hear. And everything is all right all of a sudden. He can’t think what all the fuss has been for.

As the bar is closing she takes both his hands in hers. “Nobody is writing some poetry to me before,” she says again, softly this time, her eyes misting over.

“You asked me to.”

“Was only joke, Marr-tin.”

“I wanted to.”

She kisses his cheeks. “You come an’ see Gina tomorrow. H-you promise. No more stay h-away.”

“I have to work on my poem.”

“Is my poem!” she exclaims.

“Your poem.”

“Of courrse, is your poem too, but h-you write it to me, yes?”

“Yes.” At least now I’ll have to write the poem, he thinks.

***

Beyond his bedroom window El Levante rages on. Able only to snatch a couple of hours’ sleep before sunrise, still he can get no further than the title of his poem. He is absolutely exhausted. He remembers the previous evening. The way her face had lit up. Her hand on his arm. Her seaweed eyes sparkling with unconcealed delight.

In the cold light of dawn he knows he will never be able to write her a poem. He isn’t a poet. It was just a foolish dream he’d had all the time life was passing him by. And that is how it is destined to remain. He must tell her that he was only joking. After all hadn’t she said she’d been joking when she asked him to write a poem? But that seems different somehow. He can’t say joking, because it isn’t exactly funny. Fibbing. He was just fibbing. That doesn’t sound right either. Makes him sound untrustworthy. There must be some other way of telling her. Yet he doesn’t know it. She’ll only feel cheated, as though he was trying to make a fool of her in some way. She’ll think that he’s a liar. He is a liar. There’s no turning back.

Garden columnist transformed to poet. How easy the metamorphosis, at the time: caterpillar to butterfly. The beautiful lie. And once emerged, how beautiful in its exquisite deception. With its wings inflated and outstretched, who would even try to tempt the butterfly back in the face of those shining green eyes and that beautiful smile?

“Forr you, I am no’ getting my policeman,” he says slowly to himself lying on his back looking up at the bedroom ceiling. At least he has that to occupy his thoughts. Nobody can take those words away from him. Nobody. “Forr you, I am no’ getting my policeman.” Their warmth suffuses him in its cocoon. Those were her very words. He runs them through his head till they become a mantra, “Forr you, I am no’ getting my policeman. Forr you, I am no’ getting my policeman.” And then a nagging doubt starts to creep in. Repeating the words so often they begin to lose all meaning. Whatever meaning they ever might have had. He tries again. This time without an Italian accent. “For you, I am no getting my policeman.” The policeman in Naples, surely? The one she told him about. But the English accent robs all magic. Was it, “Forr you, I am no’ getting my policeman” or, “Forr you I am now getting my policeman”? Now. That throws a completely different light on things. But what difference does it actually make? All the difference in the world, that’s all. The first means that she has abandoned her imaginary Neapolitan policeman for him, the second that she is getting her friend in the police force onto him. But that’s ridiculous. They’re both equally ridiculous. Neither of them makes any sense at all in English.

His obsession is taking him to within a whisker of insanity. He has to let go. He has to tell her. She has to know. After all, it’s no big deal. If she really loves him it’ll make no difference. And it isn’t so far from the truth. He did come to Spain intending to write poetry, it’s just that he hasn’t got round to it yet. As soon as he does, it won’t be a lie. It’s just a matter of timing. A premature ejaculation of truth. Lots of men suffer exactly the same problem. The shutter across the courtyard bangs and he makes up his mind to tell her that evening.

***

Evening comes so much quicker when you don’t want it to. It’s evening. He is trudging towards the bar. It’s stiflingly hot. Must be almost forty degrees. Like walking through a baker’s oven. Perspiration runs rivulets down his face. His T-shirt clings to his back. It almost tore him apart to make it, but the decision is made. Everything is so quiet with the heat. He’s going to tell her. He feels so incredibly different. Santa Catalina is so very still. Maybe it’s just the relief. Nothing stirs. Not even a leaf. And then it dawns. Not a breath of wind. It’s dropped. For the first time in over a fortnight, El Levante has gone.

Gina is slicing lemons. He hasn’t told her yet. He needs time; he’s only just arrived. Pausing for a moment, she leans across the bar. “Tell me h-what you write in your poem to me, Marr-tin?” The moment has come, he must tell her now. Tell her about the pieces of paper with her name scrawled across their tops and nothing else. About the sleepless nights pacing up and down his rooms. He can tell her about the poem that he was trying to write for her. Say, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t get any further than the title. But when it comes to it, he can’t. His mouth forms different words.

“I’ll show you when I’ve finished,” he says. Another little lie. He has to tell the truth. He has to. To say he’s not a poet. “Look Gina, there’s something I have to tell you,” he blurts. He wants to tell her that he was never sure if he was sad because he was trying to write her poem, or he was trying to write her poem because he was sad. There are just too many things he wants to say, and only one he must.

“Iss exciting, I can’ wait to see it,” she says, her eyes sparkling with joy,

“It’s very important. There’s something I want you to know.”

“Nobody is writing poem to me before,” she goes on. “It never ’appen to me like this.” Taking her hand from the lemon he draws it towards him.

“Don’t, please don’t,” he pleads. He must go on. He can’t stop now.

“Don’ h-what, Marr-tin? H-what I do? I do h-everything wrong?”

“Don’t say that. It drives me crazy the way you say that. I get goose pimples running up and down my arms.” He has to finish. “No, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time, but I’ve been so stupid.”

“H-what h-you wan’ tell me, Marr-tin?” Her green eyes shine into his.

“I want to tell you, I want to tell you.”

Something catching her attention, she unlocks her gaze, and glances out of the window.

“Oh,” she cries, swiftly pulling her hand from his and putting to her mouth. “Is ’ank, is comin’ ’ere. H-what I do?”

“Don’t let him in!” Martin says. “Don’t let him in! Lock the door!” And she hurries from behind the counter towards it.

The annoying little runt is heading straight their way. Why does he always have to turn up at the wrong time? Can’t the slimy little squirt see she despises him? Doesn’t he know what’s going on? He’s messing about with their lives!

“Tell him to fuck off!” he yells. “Tell him not to come round here bothering you all the time. If you can’t do it, I’ll do it for you.” He starts to get up from his stool.

Before Gina can reach the door, Hank bursts through. The knife still in her hand she charges towards him, her arms raised. Martin can’t believe it. He never thought she meant her threats. The worst thing is; if things get too nasty, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to beat the younger man. She’s going to smash his face. She’s going to stab him. Bracing himself, Martin covers his eyes and turns away. He couldn’t have dreamed she felt that bad. He cringes in anticipation of Hank’s screams. Seconds stretch in complete silence. Martin can’t bring himself to even peek. He dreads the vision of Hank’s shocked face as he glances down at the knife handle sticking out of his chest. Blood spurting from the gash. Not even time to issue a scream.

What seems an age passes before Martin accepts he’ll have to act sooner or later. Someone will have to call the police. And an ambulance. With any luck he might not be quite dead. He peeks between his fingers.

Hank’s arms drape lifelessly over Gina’s shoulders. She stands almost buckling beneath the weight of his inert form. Martin’s feet are glued to the floor; his hands slip slowly down his face. It was all Hank’s fault. He provoked her. Not able to come to terms with the fact that she hated him, the little runt began spreading vile rumours. He accused her of being a lesbian and a nymphomaniac. What with that and the bloody wind it was enough to drive any woman crazy, let alone a woman as sensitive as Gina. If he’d been nearer, he might’ve been able to stop her. But it all happened too quickly. She was in such a blind rage. Nothing could’ve stopped her. She needn’t worry; he’ll be waiting at the prison gates, however long the sentence.

He sees the tips of Hank’s fingers move, curling slightly as his nails claw into Gina’s buttocks. A sex fiend to the end. His torso jerks back. His head flops to one side, revealing death’s cruel smile across the face. Then his head tips forward again. He, he, he kisses Gina. She locks her hands behind his neck. He moves his arms to enclose her waist and their hips sway in perfect harmony as they gaze into each other’s eyes.

“You arre bad boy,” she admonishes him. “H-why you no come to barr to see me? Marr-tin come. ’E write poem to me. I think I marry Marr-tin, ’e will marry me.” Peering over her shoulder towards Martin, Hank raises a hand.

“Hi, Mart. How you doin’?”

© Bryan Hemming 2004, 2016

 

Juicy Red Tomatoes

Peñon Street WP
Illustration – Angelica Westerhoff

SEÑOR ALVAREZ HEAVED a box brimming with juicy red tomatoes up from the floor with a grunt. “This lot will have them through the door quicker than a gang of armed vampires raiding a blood bank,” he said to nobody in particular, as nobody in particular was there to hear. Humping it towards the front of the shop he dumped it on an upended crate by the door. “They won’t be able to resist these.” The grocer blew a sigh of satisfaction. “They’ll be gone in next to no time.”

His mini-supermarket bereft of customers, Señor Alvarez carried on wittering to himself, as he so often did when alone, which he so often was.

“They must be the biggest, reddest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina. So juicy.” Picking one up he examined it for blemishes, taking care not to bruise it before sorting out the best to put on top. “And they’re all mine.” He placed it back among the others. “Not for long though. Not these.”

Having spent some time polishing and arranging each tomato to its best advantage, he straightened his back and rested his palms on his haunches. “Not bad at all, not bad at all.” With that he went back into the shop.

“What a prize chump that Sanchez is,” he said, “thinking he can get the better of an old hand like me. Take more than a half-baked nincompoop for that. We’ll see who the biggest idiot is when this lot starts flying out.” But something about his voice suggested he wasn’t quite so sure of himself as he was trying to make out. The tomatoes had been cheap. Suspiciously cheap. Sanchez had folded far too willingly in accepting the very first offer the grocer made. Normally, he’d quibble over every centimo.

“I don’t like it; I don’t like it at all.” Taken aback by the loudness of his own voice, Luis Alvarez glanced over his shoulder to make sure nobody had slipped in through the door to hear him. Of course, they hadn’t. He sighed with relief, secure in the knowledge he was alone.

He felt the sudden urge to scurry to the door and take another look at the tomatoes, as though half-expecting them to have perished. Once there, they looked just as good as before, if not better. Yet, magnificent as they were, something niggled. He couldn’t help thinking they were too good to be true.

In an effort to moving his musings away from his growing doubts about the tomatoes, he gazed out the door and into the world beyond his little emporium. A cheerful sun shone out of skies blue as blue. What a beautiful day. The simplest pleasures are always the best.

Sniffing the clear bright air, Señor Alvarez let escape a breath of contentment. Life was good, in the main, very good. Fact was, Sanchez didn’t know what he’d got. The old fool must be getting senile. Nobody could resist tomatoes like those. Especially when they were the first things they saw on entering the shop. There were few more exquisite feelings than getting the better of someone less intelligent than oneself. Still as sharp as a tack, and with a face as hard and straight as a metal rule, the grocer had told the pensioner there was no demand for tomatoes. The market was as flat as a pancake. No demand? People were crying out for them, yet the grocer had snaffled the lot for a pittance. You had to get up early to catch Señor Alvarez out. He smiled, allowing himself a few moments more to savour his accomplishment.

In this chirpy frame of mind he glanced up the street to the brow of the hill, when the skies appeared to darken all of a sudden. His eyes narrowed to slits. On the horizon he spied two familiar silhouettes heading his way. One sauntering, the other scampering, they appeared not to share a care between them. There being no time to shutter the windows and lock the doors, a grimace took hold of the grocer’s face. As the silhouettes approached even closer he raised an eyebrow. If he could best old Sanchez, he could best anybody. Gradually his grimace was displaced by a grin; this could be his chance to turn a bad omen into a golden opportunity. Clapping his hands he rubbed them together. It promised to be a very good day indeed.

Hands in pockets, straw hat tipped back, Pedro was whistling his way towards the grocer’s shop, his scruffy dog in tow. Señor Alvarez looked down at his delicious red fruits and pondered. Though the fisherman couldn’t fail to be transported by the sight of such juicy red tomatoes he still owed him for four slices of ham and a loaf. Probably thought the grocer had forgotten all about them. Well, he hadn’t. But Pedro never had any money with him. And even if he had, getting him to part with it was an entirely different matter.

Still, Señor Alvarez would have to look on the bright side. See it as a challenge. Life was full of challenges. There was always the chance Pedro could’ve come into a packet. He might have won the lottery. Señor Alvarez swiftly banished the ridiculous fancy with a shake of his head. Not a chance in hell. Yet he had to think positive. He steeled his mind with positivity. It would take the skill of a brain surgeon to prise a few coins from Pedro’s pocket. He had that skill. He had it. He pictured the fisherman being drawn inexorably towards the tomatoes. Like an innocent fawn caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, the instant their splendour caught his eye he would freeze in his tracks. Held in their trance, he would extend a hand to pluck one up and put it to his mouth. That’s when Señor Alvarez would pounce.

“Hola,” Pedro greeted cheerfully, raising the brim of his battered straw hat. Through the door and into the shop, he strolled straight past the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes without sparing them as much as a glance. Señor Alvarez’s mouth gaped open, ready to say something. He cleared his throat noisily instead.

“Ahem!”

“What’s up with you?” asked Pedro. “I already said Hola, do you want me to say Buenos Dias too? Buenos Dias.” Señor Alvarez cleared his throat again.

“Ahem!” he said, tapping a foot on the floor. “I can’t believe you haven’t noticed my tomatoes. Don’t you think they’re the biggest and ripest in town?”

“Not a doubt about it,” Pedro said.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, I bet you’d like to try one.”

“How much would you like to bet?”

“Not bet like that, I mean you can have one. On the house. Gratis. For free. Just to try.”

“I wouldn’t take so much as a free lick of those tomatoes. Even if you paid me.”

Señor Alvarez stared in disbelief.

“Are you sick?” he inquired.

“No, and I don’t want to be sick,” Pedro answered.

Señor Alvarez waggled a doubting finger in his left ear. He couldn’t have heard right. It was impossible.

“Then you must’ve developed an allergy to tomatoes,” he said.

“Not that either. I love them. I eat them all the time. I had some for breakfast this morning. Though not half as good as yours look.”

“Fresh-picked at dawn. They’re home-grown.” Senor Alvarez said.

“I can see that.”

“Perfect soil. They’re organic.”

“Very organic.”

“No chemical fertilisers. Natural, organic fertiliser. Everything natural as natural can be.”

“And very rich in nutrients, I shouldn’t wonder,” Pedro threw that one in for nothing. “As well as other stuff.”

“Absolutely. They’re chock full of vitamins and minerals,” Señor Alvarez added. “Nature’s very best.” He liked this sort of talk. Eyes darting from fisherman to juicy red tomatoes, he flicked his head sideways towards the brimming box. Twice he flicked it. “Go on, take one,” he nodded in invitation, “You know you want to.” Señor Alvarez flicked again. “Go on.”

“Have you got an affliction?” Pedro asked. The grocer ignored him.

“And don’t forget the natural organic fertiliser when you’re taking that first bite,” the grocer reminded him. “Makes them really tasty.”

“You already mentioned how organic they are. A couple of times,” said Pedro.

“It can’t be mentioned enough.”

“True, very true. Neither can used toilet paper. That’s very organic in its own special way.”

“Used toilet paper? What’s used toilet paper got to do with it?”

“The used toilet paper that comes along with the natural organic fertiliser spilling out that broken drain next to old Sanchez’s garden. It’s a sewage pipe.”

“But you’re not supposed to throw toilet paper down toilets. It causes blockages. ”

“And you’re not supposed to grow vegetables in raw sewage either, but that doesn’t stop some people doing it. And it doesn’t stop other people selling them.”

“What are you saying?”

“He’s saying people shouldn’t sell farm produce contaminated with human waste,” Officer Lopez announced. His arrival unnoticed by either man, neither could know exactly how long he’d been there. That he was new to the Santa Catalina Guardia Civil was made blatantly obvious by the glistening buttons on his tunic. Emphasised by the fact he had yet to develop the deaf ear years of practice brought to veteran officers. Let alone the ability to cock one. “Surely, you must agree with that?” he said, directly into Señor Alvarez’s face. Señor Alvarez winced.

“Si,” he said. “Of course, I do.” The two men held each other’s gaze momentarily before Señor Alvarez jerked an index finger out towards the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “Take these tomatoes, for instance. There’s something about them I don’t like. Something not quite right. So I’ve put them by the door to throw away. In fact I was just about to take them down to the rubbish container when you walked in.” Officer Lopez glanced down at the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes.

“They seem fine enough to me,” he said. Bending down, he picked out a prize specimen to examine. “More than fine, I’d say.” He rolled it between fingers and thumb. “They must be the biggest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina, by the look of them. So red. And so juicy looking.”

“They may seem fine to you,” Señor Alvarez said, “But you don’t possess the practised eye of a professional purveyor of comestibles. Trust me, you have to look closer.” The policeman drew the tomato so near it almost touched his nose. He sniffed.

“What fragrance. Fresh off the vine as far as I can smell. I can’t see anything wrong with them.”

“Exactly my point. It’s what you can’t see I’m talking about. You’re guardia civil, you should know about that. A bit too innocent-looking, eh? A bit too good to be true, don’t you think?” Señor Alvarez leaned an eager face towards him.

“The best I’ve ever seen,” Officer Lopez said. And was just about to bite a chunk when Señor Alvarez snatched it from his hand.

“They’re not for sale,” he said, putting it back in the box.

“You must be joking. Weigh me up a couple of kilos,” Lopez said.

“Not at any price,” the grocer insisted. And with all the might of all his teeth, he forced a friendly smile. “No amount of money in the world could buy those tomatoes. And I certainly wouldn’t take any from you. Come back this afternoon, and I promise I’ll have some even better ones. I’ll keep some by, especially for you,” he said. Officer Lopez smiled back.

“I hope you’re not trying to bribe me,” he said with a wink. Señor Alvarez’s eyebrows jumped.

“Bribe you?” he asked aghast.

“You know what a bribe is, don’t you?” Pedro said.

“Of course, I know what a bribe is!” the grocer snapped.

“He says he’s familiar with bribery, officer.”

“I’m not familiar with it. Not in that way. I just know what the word means.”

“Come on,” Officer Lopez said. “I know they must be expensive. First class tomatoes always are. But I want to pay the going rate. I don’t expect any favours, and I don’t give any.” He stared at the grocer’s sweating brow. “I hope I’ve not got you wrong here, Señor Alvarez. Because I’d come down on you like a ton of bricks if I thought you were breaking the law by refusing to sell me some of your best tomatoes just because I’m a member of the guardia civil.”

“Breaking the law?” Señor Alvarez exclaimed.

“The law,” Pedro said. “You know the law is, don’t you?”

“Of course I know what the law is!” Señor Alvarez shouted. “And there’s no need to explain what breaking it is either.”

“He knows all about breaking the law, officer.”

“For chrissakes! Shut up! Will you?” Alvarez said to Pedro.

“Now, now, there’s no need to raise your voice,” Officer Lopez said. “The gentleman is only trying to help.” Then turning to Pedro: “It’s all right, señor, I can handle things on my own. Thank you, very much.”

“He’s not trying to help. Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s mixing you up. And what things are you talking about? There are no things to handle.”

Officer Lopez took the grocer gently by the crook of his arm.

“Let me be the judge of that. As I said, Señor Alvarez, the gentleman was just trying to help. I’m quite sure you know what breaking the law is, but there’s no need to lose your temper. It can only provoke people unnecessarily. Just tell me how much your tomatoes are, weigh some out, and I think we’ll all agree no further action need be taken. The matter will be at a close, and we’ll all be on our way. I think you owe the gentleman here an apology.”

“An apology?”

“An apology,” said Pedro. “You know what an apology is, don’t you?”

“Of course I know what an apology is!” Señor Alvarez yelled at the fisherman.

“I’ve had to warn you once about that nasty temper of yours,” Officer Lopez said. “I don’t want to have to do it again.”

“But it’s him! It’s him you want to be warning and arresting and stuff. He’s saying things deliberately!”

“I never said anything about arresting anyone,” Officer Lopez said. “But I will do my duty if I have to.”

“I’m a witness to that,” Pedro said, “The officer didn’t say anything about arresting anybody. But he’ll be more than willing to do his duty if he has to.”

“For what?” Señor Alvarez asked pitifully. Pedro turned to Officer Lopez.

“For what?” he asked.

“For what?” Officer Lopez repeated slowly, and looked to the ceiling for assistance. “For causing a public disturbance,” he pronounced.

***

“He only went and dragged Alvarez down to headquarters,” Pedro told Antolin   over a beer in Juani’s bar later in the afternoon. “Banged him up in a cell for a couple of hours of to cool off. You should’ve heard the language.” The fisherman laughed. “When I saw old skinflint’s eyes peering through bars, it was all I could do to keep a straight face.”

“Well, he can’t complain,” Antolin chuckled. “He’s lucky it’s the only thing he was arrested for. If you paint your grandmother’s donkey before trying to sell it back to her, you ought to keep an eye out for rain.”

“I don’t get your drift.”

“Neither do I, I’ve been trying to puzzle that one out for the past forty years. It’s something my uncle used to say.”

Copyright © 2016 Bryan Hemming