Dream Daze

ENRIQUE WOKE IN A CLOUD. Not so much a cloud, more a mist. But it wasn’t a mist either. A blur would better describe it. He could hardly remember a time when he hadn’t woken into a blur. He knew he’d been dreaming, but not what he’d been dreaming. Even his dreams had become blurs. He couldn’t recall a single detail. Inma had read somewhere that interpreting dreams improved couples’ sex lives. So he’d promised to write them down the moment he woke. Yet, when it came to it, he couldn’t retain them long enough. She’d be sure to ask when she came round that evening. He’d have to invent one.

Reaching for the tobacco pouch he kept by his bedside, he rolled a cigarette. Today, he would get things done. It was time to do things. There were so many things to do. But first, he needed coffee, and a joint. Though he’d also promised Inma not to smoke dope before evening, one little spliff wouldn’t hurt. He’d be able to face his tasks all the better for it. She should be thankful that he didn’t drink. Yet women were rarely satisfied. No sooner had they ensnared their man than they wanted to mould him into someone else.

Enrique slipped from his bed and went over to the kitchen stove. He’d moved a bed downstairs for the nights Inma wasn’t staying. Apart from the extra warmth the stove provided there was the added luxury of being able to make coffee without having to tackle the stairs before he was properly awake.

Ever since she’d given up smoking dope Inma had taken to nagging at him to stop as well. Moreover, her sermons were developing a distinctly puritanical streak. There was nothing worse than the newly enlightened. Not satisfied with seeing the light herself, Inma saw it as her mission to convert Enrique. If it didn’t count as religion itself, it was almost as bad. To Enrique’s mind her dramatic Saul/Paul conversion only possessed a sinister side. Where she saw light he saw creeping shadows. More blurs. Smoking harmed nobody. He filled an enamel pot with water and lit the hob. People should mind their own business.

Feeling for the small box he kept behind a jam jar on the shelf above the sink he peered inside. A small crumb of blackish-brown. Used very sparingly there might be enough for a couple of days. If only he hadn’t used so much when he first bought it. Then he always did. He always loaded joints with the drug, thinking he would get even higher. But you couldn’t. It wasn’t like drinking; the more you smoked didn’t necessarily mean the higher you got. Sometimes, it had the opposite effect.

After carefully arranging large pinch of tobacco from his pouch along a cigarette paper lined up on the table, Enrique flicked his lighter several times to no avail. He flicked again. Guiding the fragile flame to the crumb of hash, he held gripped between thumb and forefinger, he passed it beneath a couple of times. The flame died. He cursed. Shaking the lighter, he flicked it again and again, cursing each time till a weary flame caught. That’s another thing he had to do; fill his lighter. The secret with hash was to warm it gently, teasing out a bit of smoke without allowing it to burn. Allow it to burn and you wasted it. But the piece he’d bought from an Argentinian he met in the pueblo was too oily; too sticky, it didn’t crumble. Removing the pinch of tobacco from the paper he lay it onto his palm. He would have to work the sticky mess into the tangled strands. Too much oil, that was definitely the problem; they wouldn’t mix properly. Enrique shook his head. He’d be lucky to get two smokes out of what was left, and he didn’t have money to buy more. He lay the mixture back onto the paper and took it up with both hands. After rolling, licking, and sticking, he set the completed joint on the bedside table, not wanting to light it before that first sip of coffee. It was his morning ritual; the way he always did it. Coffee and a joint; the same for years. He needed them just to get going. He licked his thumb and forefinger of the black stain the hash had left. No need to waste it. Most people didn’t know what they were doing when they bought drugs, yet all claimed to be experts. They thought the oilier the better, so the drug dealers added oil. Yet it wasn’t always the case. Different growing conditions imbued the cannabis plant with different qualities. It was a sin to interfere with its natural properties. It didn’t matter how strong the resultant resin was if it didn’t smoke properly, and that meant evenly.

The coffee pot having boiled he removed it from the hob. Man had been using drugs since time immemorial. He poured coffee into a mug followed by two heaped spoonfuls of sugar. For energy, he needed sugar for energy. Enrique sat down on his bed. He needed energy all right. He had only made a cup of coffee and rolled a joint yet already he felt tired enough to curl back beneath the sheets.

A quick sip of scalding coffee, and he lit the joint. The first toke, like warm milk soothing the delicate membranes. Inhaling deeply, he allowed the smoke to fill his lungs. Then he started to cough.

Enrique raised his feet onto the unmade bed and rested his head on the pillow. He had promised Inma he would . . . what had he promised? He had promised her that he would do something. It was the only way to stop her grumbling. He took a second, deeper deep drag. The smoke scorching his lungs he suffered a cough fit again and had to gob into the sink. Better out than in, by the look of it. It was always the same with those first few draws; his lungs waking up to a brand new day, he liked to tell his friends.

The drug began to wrap him in its warmth. It was a good feeling, like anaesthetic. He worked so much better for a smoke. Such a shame he had no work to go to, but there were plenty of other things to do. If only he could remember what they were. Thinking about it, not only did he work much better, but the world in general seemed a much better place for a smoke. All he lacked was the cash for his next deal. That was what he had to do. No sense in tearing about aimlessly all day long. You had to order your priorities first. Have some sort of plan. There were ways of getting things without money. He tried to think of all the remaining dealers with whom his credit was good. There weren’t so many; not that sprang to mind immediately. When it came to it, there were none. Not one. Dealers were so greedy wanting money all the time. It led to so many misunderstandings. They lacked flexibility. Without credit the international economy would collapse. Whole nations would disappear overnight. Extended loans were the oil of industry, they kept everything afloat. They were the one sure way of expanding markets. Even the World Bank was beginning to acknowledge that debts couldn’t go on accumulating forever; that there should be a time limit after which they were deemed to have expired. Everyone knew that, except the drug dealers. They seemed to think that they could go on demanding money until you were dead. And after.

But there was one. Pedro. There was always Pedro. Although his hash wasn’t very good, and expensive for the pathetic size of the deals, Pedro didn’t demand payment straightaway. Enrique tried to recollect if he’d paid him for the last deal. It was such a long time ago the debt must either have lapsed, or been forgotten in the way of things. Yet there was a chance Pedro might remember. The last thing Enrique needed was to be reminded of another debt; that was the sort of thing he smoked in order to forget. And Pedro possessed a violent streak.

He sighed a deep breath. Breathing, it was funny how you never forgot how to do it. Right from the very first breath you took. Without ever having to think about it, you breathed. Whether you were awake or sleeping, conscious or unconscious, in out, in out, all day long. Enrique breathed long breaths. But what would happen if you did forget? What if your mind stopped your lungs from breathing one day? All of a sudden they packed up, finally deciding it wasn’t worth the effort.

Enrique stopped breathing. Those first few seconds felt good, very good. He wondered how long he could keep it up. A few seconds more and it occurred he might not need oxygen at all. Perhaps he never had. Some strange genetic quirk, scientists discover new ones every day. He pictured the newspaper headlines. He would gain a certain celebrity. There would be breakfast TV appearances, world tours, things like that. They would sink him beneath the sea in airless chambers, and bury him alive for weeks. And there would be money, lots of money.

Then, all at once, he craved oxygen like he never craved it before. His lungs were starved of it. He would die if they didn’t get some straightaway. In a panic he gulped several short breaths in quick succession, each breath more deliberate than the one preceding it. He had to think about every single one in order to draw breath at all. In his vision of triumph he’d forgotten how to breathe without conscious thought. He told himself not to panic; everyone can breathe. The thing to do was get back to the stage where he didn’t have to think about the process. But then he might stop breathing altogether. It was a crisis. He’d lost the ability to breathe naturally. He sniffed to check that his nose was working. It was. Thank God for that! He laughed at his stupidity. At least he had a back-up. It was like an emergency generator kicking into action. With that one act he could almost breathe normally again. But trying to stop his mind thinking about breathing altogether only meant he thought about it even more. The word breathe interrupted all other thoughts. It stood impressed on his mind in large letters.

Enrique was still steeling his mind against thinking about breathing when his nose detected a nasty smell. He glanced around the room to see where it might be coming from. Beneath the kitchen sink a bin was overflowing. It wanted emptying. The sink itself stood piled with greasy pots and pans. They wanted washing. Discarded clothes lay strewn on furniture and floor. They wanted tidying. But all that could wait until tomorrow. There were more important issues at hand. If only he could remember what they were. He would have to see Pedro; that was certain. Even if he didn’t lay any dope on him there was always the chance of a puff or two. The thought of being without hashish was a worry to him. He could live without it, of course, that wasn’t the problem. After all, it wasn’t as if he was addicted to the stuff. You couldn’t get addicted to cannabis the same way you could to heroin and alcohol. Nevertheless, it was nice to know that you had some to wake up to each morning. And to help you sleep at night.

Pedro spent his nights floating around the bars of Santa Catalina selling underweight deals to those who didn’t know any better. He was rarely in bed before dawn, not rising until late afternoon. Enrique would have to wait until then. Why were dealers always so lazy? They never appeared to give a thought to the needs of their customers.

To recurring visions of Pedro, Enrique felt a rush of fear. His entire body tingled with it. What if he did owe Pedro money? Only that he’d once set about a reluctant debtor with a crowbar, that was all. “From time to time it pays to advertise you’re not running a charity,” Pedro had snarled at his critics, “The occasional broken leg hobbling round the pueblo is good publicity.” Pity it was the wrong man. Pedro had shrugged off the error claiming that it was a genuine case of mistaken identity, and there had been no malice intended on his part. Whatever, it encouraged the others.

Enrique tried to remember whether he’d paid the last time he’d scored from Pedro, but couldn’t. As far as he knew, they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. And then he seemed to recall seeing him only a few nights before. He tried to think what had happened. Pedro had been loitering outside a bar. He was handing over a little wrap to a German tourist. He hadn’t mentioned anything about money on that occasion. They’d nodded the silent recognition of co-conspirators. But Pedro’s memory was as erratic as Enrique’s: that he didn’t remember then didn’t mean that he wouldn’t remember now. Of course, chances were that he didn’t owe Pedro anything. If only Enrique could remember. It was best to think of something else. Perhaps he should think of work. But how could he think of work at a time like this? He didn’t have time for work.

Suddenly, he had a bright idea: why not work for Pedro? It was brilliant. It would solve everything. Now the tourist season had started there were far too many places for Pedro to be in all at once. To maximise business he would need someone to help. Enrique was his man. It made sense. He knew the drugs scene inside out. He’d been smoking hash since he was twelve. Even Pedro would see it made sense. Once they’d sorted out the issue of any outstanding debt Enrique could begin selling for him on a regular basis. In no time at all he’d be into profit. There were fringe benefits for both parties; Pedro would have someone he could trust, and Enrique would always have something to smoke. Dealers never ran out; they always kept a secret stash for their personal use. Everybody would be happy. As soon as Pedro realised what a good worker he was he would ask him to go into business as a partner. There was a tempting thought.

Yet the more he considered it, the less the prospect appealed. Just how much was Pedro prepared to put on the table? Without adequate reward it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Enrique had debts and commitments to take into consideration. Pay peanuts and you get monkeys. If that’s what Pedro wanted. He’d have to speak to him. Besides, did he really want Pedro as a partner? No point in rushing into things. He’d have to mull it over. First off, he’d say that it might take a couple of weeks to make a final decision. If Pedro didn’t like it, he could stuff it. After all, he wasn’t the only dealer in town. No need to jump into partnership with any fly by night. Anyhow, after all was said and done, Pedro was small fry. Enrique was the man to put him straight on that. He’d emphasise just how small a fry he was by holding out a finger and thumb with the tiniest of spaces between. He’d explain how Pedro operated at the bottom of the heap, while the big profits were at the top. You had to get organised nowadays; the days of the street corner pusher were fast drawing to a close. Fierce competition was seeing to that. People bought drugs like they bought anything else: they wanted quality and dependability at a reasonable price. You had to streamline and cut costs to a minimum just in order to survive. Plus Pedro didn’t work hard enough. Enrique would have to mention that. He didn’t put the hours in. In the final analysis, Enrique wanted something better than Pedro was able to offer.

The best thing with dope was to grow your own. It was easy. All the ingredients were on your doorstep in Santa Catalina. The climate was perfect: plenty of sunshine all year round. There was hardly a month you couldn’t grow it. The soil was rich in nutrients. Beyond the pueblo there were pine trees in  almost every direction. Dense forests where nobody ventured save ignorant goatherds and their goats. All you had to do was find a clearing. You planted the seeds, sat back, and watched them grow. If Pedro was too stupid to realise how it was done that was his lookout. Enrique would lay his hands on the finest skunk seeds, all the way from Holland. In no time at all he would have the best grass in town. Word would soon get round. It wouldn’t take long to save enough money from the marijuana to invest in a kilo or two of the finest Ketama from Morocco. People were prepared to pay the earth for the genuine stuff. It was like gold dust. If he confined himself to supplying only the richest clients he wouldn’t have to work so hard. He wouldn’t allow them to buy piddling little bits; they would need to buy thirty of forty grammes at a time to make it worth his while. A coded message to his phone would alert him. He could deliver by motorbike. He would need a a motorbike. And a phone.

Back to Pedro. He might have to begin by working for him after all. Enrique tried to calculate how much time it might take him to be able to afford a mobile phone and a motorbike. If he worked for Pedro. There were so many unknown factors to consider. Those aside, however long was far too long, so he gave up. Even if he could he cream a couple of euros from the top of each deal it would still take years. Better to cut Pedro out of things altogether. The man was too greedy. Far too greedy. He wanted all the profits for himself. How could anyone be expected to survive on the pittance he paid? He’d never be able to start up on his own working for such a slavedriver. Enrique began to feel hatred towards Pedro. If he begged him on bended knee he wouldn’t work for him. He would set up on his own straightaway in competition with Pedro. That would be favourite. For that he would need capital. He racked his brain, always coming back to the same solution.

Out of all the people he knew there was only one who possessed the necessary cash. Inma had a savings account at the bank. He could borrow money from her. If she knew he was going to use it set up in business she couldn’t possibly refuse. Wasn’t she constantly on at him to do something? He would be doing her a favour into the bargain. It was the answer to all their problems. Yet it raised a problem of its own at the same time. It could prove tricky telling her what sort of business it was. The best path to take would be to keep things a bit vague at first. Make it into a bit of a surprise; a mystery. Inma liked mysteries. Once she knew how much money he was making he could tell her. She’d realise what a good idea it was and praise him for his cleverness. He’d take her on holiday to Rio de Janeiro. She’d always wanted to go there. They’d stay in the swankiest hotels. Without so much as a word, he’d book first class airline seats, then toss the tickets onto her bed, casually. That would be a good time to tell her.

Enrique felt very pleased with himself. Time to celebrate with another joint. Rising up from his bed he took his little box from the shelf. Not much left. He would have to see Pedro that afternoon. Maybe he would start off working for him, after all. But what if he owed him money? Why was there some much greed in the world? All people thought about was money. It was a good thing that he had hashish to keep his mind off things. He yawned. His head so full of things he had to do he needed a nap. Best to make a fresh start next morning when his brain was clear.

Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming

At the End of Tobago Street


Click here for At the End of Tobago Street, chapter one

GAIL WOULD NEVER FORGET the moment she first saw Howard. Something about him insisted itself on her consciousness in a way she’d never known. Without needing so much as an introduction she sensed him destined to be a pivotal force in her life. No one had ever had that effect on her before. And she knew no one would ever have it again. The first few weeks at Westbourne University had been a nerve-wracking experience. She’d never been good at making new friends, and loathed studying. Now, in a single glance, she felt she’d been thrown a lifebelt.

An Indian summer had lingered long into October. Stubborn, green leaves clung to trees all over campus, refusing to turn yellow or brown, as though the seasons had revolted. Windows that had remained shut tight since their last coat of paint had to be forced open to gain relief from the antiquated university heating system. Fired up during the first week of October, and not designed to pander to the perversities inherent in the English climate, the ancient boiler took no notice of the stifling heat. Neither did the ancient head caretaker. Both gave Gail and all the other freshers something to grumble quietly among themselves about. Far too new, and far too intimidated by the unfamiliarity of their surroundings to dream of complaining out loud, they sweated through lectures without so much as a whisper of dissent. Eventually, mounting protests from seasoned students coaxed a cringing letter to the bursar’s office out of a group of lecturers. After keeping everyone waiting for an appropriate length of time, the bursar stirred into action. Weeks of Victorian pipes clanking and clanging succeeded one the other, as a gang of recalcitrant plumbers struggled to reassert dominion. Serious study became virtually impossible. It was one of those shared experiences first-time students joke about in the years to follow. One of many events that would bind them together for the rest of their time as undergraduates; some of them well beyond.

He didn’t have to do anything to capture her attention. Walking across the university playing fields one late afternoon, she pulled up short, the sound of nearby cheering having yanked her out of a daydream. A small knot of male students stood watching a game of rugby from the far side of a pitch. She cupped a hand over her eyes against the glare of a late afternoon sun. Her interest was caught by a lone figure at the group’s fringe. From that distance, he appeared as much blue-grey silhouette, as three-dimensional form. While not near enough to convey a sense of real belonging to the other spectators, neither was he far enough away not to be considered a member of their party. Not that he seemed particularly interested in the rugby. Perhaps, that was the difference that grabbed her attention. His hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, his head inclined towards the earth, as one foot slowly traced circles in the grass. Stalled in one of those long seconds that briefly defy the theory of time, she stood transfixed, unable to drag her eyes away. He didn’t fit.

She didn’t mean to stare so long. She wasn’t even sure how long it had been. She hadn’t meant to stare at all. His invisible aura had locked her gaze in his direction.

A haze of azure-tinged cigarette smoke billowed up from the group before wafting his way on a breath of tardy autumn air. Winter was coming. Closing her eyes, she inhaled; the scent of mulching leaves and garden bonfires filling her nostrils. She set off again with a sense of renewal. As she approached the group, finer details began to establish themselves.

He was a lot slimmer in those days, the remnants of a summer tan still discernible on his lean face. Clothes draped the narrow form like flags on a windless day. The logo of some band or other had all but disappeared into the fabric of a shabby, faded T-shirt, while a pair of washed-out jeans showed rips at the knees. A touch on the large side, they slopped over a pair of dog-eared espadrilles on sockless feet, before brushing the earth with their frayed cuffs. His hair was uncut, rather than long, hanging over his face in the oily corkscrews that would always make it look as though he had just been for a swim.

As though sensing her gaze pierce the aura she had devined, he raised his head to look straight through the scrum, right at her. She liked to think of it as the moment they fell in love, despite the fact his eyes didn’t dwell on her for more than a couple of seconds before moving on.

From then on she would spot him from time to time in the way such things become inevitable at schools and universities. Their paths would cross between lectures, at the canteen, or in the Union coffee bar. Occasionally, they would exchange, what appeared to Gail as tentative glances. But they were too far away, and she couldn’t be sure. It was as far as contact went in those first few weeks.

It wasn’t until about a month later she was returning from an errand in town when she literally bumped into him. She thought it a timely coincidence; coming at a moment she was thinking she hadn’t seen him in quite a few days.

If summer had lasted well into autumn, winter came early that year. A grey, November afternoon, with the scent of snow on the air, icy blasts blew piles of dead leaves from here to there. Occasionally spiralling them into the air it dumped them in doorways, round ankles, in gutters, and along roadsides. Where, some would be crushed by the flow of traffic into rotting, fibrous pulp, heavily scented of the earth they were destined to become in the eternal cycle that would one day make them leaves again.

Gail’s English tutor had been raving about D.M Thomas’ The White Hotel and Yerevan, which she’d never heard of. Flipping through a few pages at W. H. Smiths in the town centre, she wasn’t impressed, but bought the book anyway. Carrying it round might win her a few more points in whatever race she was supposed to be competing. Now she was hurrying to get back into the warmth of the Union Building for a cup of coffee. A bright, red wool scarf wrapped round her neck reached right up to her nose. As she arrived at the main door a hand shot out to open it for her. She looked up. It was him; his grey eyes smiling down into hers. She returned his smile, forgetting half of her face was concealed by the scarf and he wouldn’t see it. Realising in the same moment, she offered her thanks before laughing at her muffled voice. Once inside, he helped her unwind the scarf, and she thanked him again. And then again, and again. Too many times, but she could not, for the life of her, think of anything else to say in the excitement of that first contact. Neither did she want it to end there; feeling she had to fill the vacuum with something. She became hot and flustered. For his part, Howard hardly spoke a word, his gentle eyes smiling with amusement. Finally, he asked her to join him for a cup of coffee.

“That’s just what I was about to do,” she said.

“Then I’ll join you instead,” he said. Noting she had The White Hotel sticking from her bag he plucked it out and leafed through its pages. When he said how amazing it was the book shot to the top of her list for best books of all time.

Never again did he tell her as much about himself as on that first occasion. She learned that he and an elder sister had been brought up by their mother in a large, old, Victorian house in the Yorkshire Dales. His parents had divorced whilst he was still a baby, his father returning to his native Canada, where his side of the family owned several large paper mills. Howard couldn’t even remember what he looked like. His sister and he only ever heard from him at Christmas and birthdays, when envelopes bearing Canadian stamps would arrive with cards and cheques.

His mother hardly spoke of her ex-husband, and Howard learned early on in life not to bring the subject up. It was as if he never had a father at all. Except for the fact he’d made sure school fees always arrived on time, that the mortgage was paid, and the family never had to worry about money.

At the same time, it was obvious to Gail he resented his father’s absence from his life. Which parent he blamed most, it was hard to fathom. Though she got the distinct impression he held his mother responsible, she felt uncomfortable about saying so.

He went on to tell her how he had only managed to scrape into university by the skin of his teeth. Had it been left up to him he most likely wouldn’t have bothered. His mother insisted on him studying for a degree, as she claimed to have left Oxford with a first, which he doubted. His true love was his guitar, and he wanted to record in a studio as soon as he could get enough money to hire one for a few days. That wasn’t going to happen stuck in a small room on campus in a seaside resort full of holiday flats and old people’s residential homes. He was trying to pluck up courage to ask his father for money. Only he’d have to do that without his mother knowing.

Gail’s eyes roamed his face. He had the faintly, ruddy complexion and pale blue eyes of a Celt. He spoke softly, in a breathy sort of way. Almost as though someone close by was fast asleep. He smoked continually; one after the other. Puffing each as though it was his last, he snatched a few short, sharp intakes as they reached the filter, before stubbing them out by grinding them into the ashtray till all signs of glow and smoke had disappeared. Then he ground them some more to make sure. He would soon light another. When he wasn’t staring intently at the table top, he smiled a lot; his eyes crinkling and sparkling, spreading joy outwards. His face creased making his young cheeks round and fleshy like a baby’s.

One coffee had led to another, then on to bed. Simple as that. Nothing like it had happened to her before. It seemed the most natural progression of events she’d ever experienced. She’d been looking for him all her life without knowing it till the moment of his arrival. His body fitted hers to become the one as life had intended them to be. Yet, with this realisation came the shocking insight to the pain parting would bring. The prospect of being half of what was finally made whole was already too terrifying. Life without him would be unbearable. They had only met hours beforehand, yet she knew this as much as she had known they would come together once their eyes had traded glances across a playing field.

So it had been; and so did it become. Time and time again during their relationship he strayed. Time and time again she forgave him. Not that the pain lessened any the more he deceived her. If anything his mounting infidelities increased the aches that bored into her heart and soul with their growing frequency. The days of uncertainty gnawing at her stomach and plaguing her mind threatened her sanity. There was no turning back, things had reached the stage where it became impossible to imagine a time he’d not been part of her life. It was as if the past without him had never existed. Life before Howard had dissolved into dream.

The first time he went off with another girl she really believed she would die. She never felt so miserable in all her life. There was no point to living. She couldn’t sleep at night. Her insides became so knotted she forgot about eating. Every waking minute she imagined what Howard might be doing without her. Without him the future became such an impossible notion her mind no longer considered it, dwelling only in the past; their short past. The few months they had spent together. It only made things worse. Nights she would pace up and down her tiny room in the hall of residence, talking aloud to herself; going through the same events over and over in the forlorn hope she might find some divine logic to it that would make her feel better.

For three days and three nights she never left the confines of her room. She attended no lectures; read no books; saw no one. There no longer being point to any of it. In the short time they had known each other Howard had become as much a part of her as her most vital organs. Without him she could not function. In her mind, they had become indivisible. The fact he might see it any other way was completely and utterly beyond her.

When he finally called at her door she fell upon him weeping as she had never wept before. And then they were back together again, just as if nothing had happened. She was too happy at having him back to feel or show any anger. As for Howard, he seemed incapable of showing remorse. Both behaved as though he had never strayed. Neither of them mentioned that first time ever again. They simply and conveniently forgot about it.

Too many times to forget had passed since then, each time longer; each interval between, shorter. And still she couldn’t get used to them; each one more painful, and as unexpected, as the last. Each feeding on her; driving her to the brink of madness. They impelled her to phone his number late at night, just to hear his voice; to know he was there; that he existed. But she would replace the receiver as soon as someone picked up the other end. In the event, she was too afraid to listen. The thought she might hear a strange female voice asking who it was over and over again was unbearable. The vicarious thrill the power of anonymity gave was all too swiftly supplanted by paranoia, depression and self-disgust.

There were the trips to places she thought she might see him. The endless waiting; always punctuated by too many cigarettes. The poisonous taste of nicotine they left in her mouth; her empty stomach feeling even emptier. The disappointment; the disbelief when he failed to show, the endless pain it caused.

And then, each time he finally did return, the feeling that yet another piece of her had gone; another piece of him. Soon there would be nothing left.

He was gradually withdrawing into himself; becoming perceptibly more distant. Not just more distant from her; more distant from everybody; more distant from everything. He became distracted far more easily. His powers of concentration waned. He drank more, smoked more, and experimented with more drugs. And yet, she still loved him. No more, for that would’ve been impossible, but no less than she had done from that very first day; that Indian summer. The day of youth so far behind them. So out of reach. Though she realised things were never going to go as she had first believed they would, not for one moment did it occur they might get even worse.

Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming

Chapter four to follow soon.

At The End of Tobago Street


Chapter One

HE NEEDED TO SEE HER. Desperately. Yes, he did remember they’d promised not to get in touch, but this was different. They were following him again … Of course, he was sure. There was a man standing at the corner of the street. He could see him from the phone box. The man was pretending to read a newspaper, but kept glancing up the road towards him … Was she calling him a liar? … No, it wasn’t the same man as last time. He hadn’t seen this one before. He would tell her more when she came …. He had to be quick, they were closing in on him … She should write the address down before his change ran out … Tobago Street number forty-seven … The tall house at the end. It was easy to get to … the other side of the river, New Cross. She could be there in less than half an hour … Okay, okay, it could wait till she finished work that evening. But she would have to promise … No, promise.

Howard’s voice strained painfully through the earpiece. Pitched slightly higher than Gail remembered, his confused ramblings threatened to break down into tears at any moment. He begged her to come. She weakened. She felt her heart wring out for him. She would try to be there, but she couldn’t promise. Though chain-smoking had lent his tones a throaty edge, the same melodramatic degree of paranoia she’d heard so often remained, demanding she see him straightaway… She had to be there. It was them. Of course he was fucking sure it was them. Different man, maybe, but it was the same outfit … How could he not be sure? … Who the fuck else could it be? Hadn’t she been listening? How many times did he have to tell her? He was watching one of them from the phone box as he was speaking. Why did she think he was lying all the time?

Still the unending accusatory questions, forcing her on the defence. No, he wasn’t messing her about. They’d managed to find out where he lived again. Who could’ve told them? … How could he know how they found out? Someone must’ve told them; that’s how … No, he wasn’t blaming her, but it had to be someone … Yes, he was absolutely sure he’d told her his new address. Why wouldn’t he?

Yes, he did remember something about agreeing not to phone, why did she keep having to remind him? He hadn’t got time for all that now. Besides, she said if it was really important he should ring. If this wasn’t really important, what was? … Yes, he knew he’d said the last time had been really important too, but he managed to deal with that himself without any of her fucking help. This time was different … No, he couldn’t tell her over the phone, all sorts of people could listen in to phone calls. He couldn’t say anymore, the man was folding his paper and looking like he might head his way. He would see her back at the house. The phone went dead.

Her misgivings strengthened the moment she replaced the receiver. She cursed herself for giving in so easily after all the time it had taken to come to terms with breaking up. How could she let herself throw it all away in the space of one phone call? Running back to him at the drop of a hat.

Beaten into submsission by his continuous harrassment she’d surrendered once more. He had cajoled, he had threatened and he had begged her to come. And she had weakened. Against all the warning sirens in her head, she’d heard herself promise to go over and see him as soon as she closed the gallery that evening.

Now, she began to feel anger. It wasn’t fair, calling her just as she was beginning to get used to life without him. She resolved not to go, then changed her mind in the same instant. She couldn’t leave him like that. Say he was telling the truth this time and someone was watching him. Say something dreadful happened. If anything bad happened to him she’d never be able to forgive herself. She’d have to go and see him whatever the cost.

Gail went over the seven months that had passed since she’d last seen him. Seven months of torture. For the first few weeks she’d hardly slept. In the wild imaginings of night she’d pictured him with other women. She’d torn away the hand that strayed towards the telephone. She’d steered herself from the places she knew they might run into one another. Often going miles out of her way simply to avoid the memories they held. She thought she’d never be able to get over it.

But gradually, as time expanded the rift between them, she resigned herself to lives apart. And now, he had to go and phone her again, the sound of his voice ripping open wounds she thought healed. How could he do such a thing? Evidently, the years of his infidelities had toughened her much less than she’d supposed.

Yet, as the reality of seeing him again percolated her being, she couldn’t help her stomach from churning excitedly at the prospect. She began to think of all the times they’d spent together. Her heart started to race and she found herself willing the day away to six o’ clock.

Chapter Two

A FEARFUL WAILING cut through the birdsong, quelling it as abruptly as the keen sweep of a conductor’s baton might. Gail swivelled her head slightly to pinpoint its source before hurrying across the fresh-mown lawn to a shrubbery at the far end. The ghoulish aria continued for some moments longer. Suspended on the barely moving air, it was almost as if the gently quivering telegraph wires in the adjoining field were acting as a score. The next instant, the wailing subsided. Right on cue the birds took up their refrain once more.

Screened by a tangle of shrubs, her father stood transfixed beneath a lilac tree. His face in his hands, he was blubbing softly to himself. A soil-encrusted trowel lay awkwardly at his feet. A few inches further away, the twitching body of a dying crow. Jet plumage flashed myriad tiny rainbows in gently dappling sunlight. Out of a black bill oozed a globule of startling crimson. Limp, black claws let life slip from their clutch as a vacant bead stared up at the skies that had forsaken it.

Taking him gently by the crook of his arm, Gail led him slowly back across the lawn towards the limestone cottage huddled against the hillside. Once inside, she sat him down in one of a pair of chintz-covered winged armchairs either side of a black kitchen range.

“Mummy!” she called, hardly betraying the suppressed impatience gnawing inside. “There’s another crow down by the lilac.”

His face back in his hands, her father rocked back and forth, moaning softly to himself, till eventually his moans ebbed away. Peering through gaps his fingers made, he groaned before saying in a muffled voice:

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s just…”

“Sh, sh, it’s all right, Daddy, it’s all right.” Patting a shoulder, Gail slipped her arms round his neck. “You mustn’t think about it. It’s all right.” And yet, something about her eyes said that it wasn’t all right, that even after so many years, her father’s strange behaviour towards death still disturbed her.

Gail’s mother, a small package of a woman, whose soft, white curls permanently fell out of perm about her soft, pink face, bustled into the room wiping her hands on the starched apron she’d just removed. Without sparing her husband so much as a glance, she strode across to a window overlooking the garden.

“I’ll see to it,” she said in a businesslike manner. “Where is it?”

“Behind the shrubbery at the bottom of the lawn,” Gail told her, “under the lilac tree.” There was something of the well-rehearsed military manoeuvre in the exchange.

“It’s that damned dog from next door!” Gail’s mother threw her apron onto the unoccupied armchair. “I swear it is. The little devil gets through that gap in the hedge. You can see where it is; he’s squashed all my seedlings. He’s nothing but a damned nuisance. Really, he should be put down. I wouldn’t mind so much if he was our dog.”

“You can’t blame the dog, dear.” Gail’s father breathed wearily. “He’s only doing what comes naturally. It’s me. It’s my fault. If only I didn’t make such a fuss all the time.”

“It’s not you who squashes my seedlings.”

“No, but…”

“Shush, Daddy, you’ll only upset yourself even more.”

Against the yielding pressure of his daughter’s restraining arms, Mr Southerne heaved himself up and out of the armchair.

“I think I could do with a drink,” he said. “Anybody else fancy one?” Gail and her mother traded anxious glances of reproof.

“It’s only half past ten, Daddy,” said Gail, taking her cue.

But Mr Southerne was quite aware of what time it was; he’d just been having a silent dispute with himself about it. “It’s only half an hour before I usually have one,” he said, giving voice to the excuse he’d been rehearsing in his head. “I nearly always have a small one at eleven on a Sunday.” He’d already reached the dark oak dresser where the drinks tray stood. “Besides, I could do with one,” he said, as much to himself as anyone. Unscrewing the top from a bottle of Gordon’s gin, he proceeded to pour himself a large one, totally oblivious to the emphatic silence boring into the back of his neck.

“Any ice, Win?” he asked.

Ignoring the request completely, Mrs Southerne composed herself in a stiff breath, before stomping off into the garden to dispose of the dead bird, taking inordinate care not to slam the door behind her.

Mr Southerne raised his eyebrows. After watching his wife stride angrily across the lawn, he turned to his daughter.

“Sure you won’t have one?” he said.

Mindful her mother was out of hearing Gail relented.

“Oh, all right then.” She made it sound as though she was being coerced. It was an act her father understood only too well. “If you’re going to get pissed on my last day I might as well join you.”

It was the last day of spring half-term. Early next morning she would take the train back to Westbourne. After a week at home she was in two minds whether she wanted to go back to university at all. There had been an argument with Howard. As usual, it had stemmed from him going off with some girl he’d picked up at a party just before the break started. Gail had ended up getting very drunk with a friend of his. Next morning, she’d woken to find they’d slept together.

Since then, she’d tried to phone Howard every day. She kept on getting his mother, a frosty woman who maintained she didn’t know where he was, or when he was expected back.

Gail was sipping the drink her father had mixed for her when her mother came back into the house. Mother and daughter paused for a moment. Even though she couldn’t see the eyes of the silhouette framed by the doorway, Gail could feel them brand her traitor as the shadowy head turned from issue to spouse sensing conspiracy. The ensuing guilt she felt swiftly turned to anger with both her parents and, to a lesser extent, herself, for having let one get at the other through her. In mitigation she protested,

“Daddy asked me if I wanted one.” But it sounded feeble and spoilt. She glowered at her father over her glass.

For her part, Mrs Southerne didn’t say a word. To have done so would’ve ruined the effect. Picking up the apron she’d discarded earlier she pressed on into the kitchen, where she’d been preparing lunch. Then, remembering Gail was going back to university the next day, she forgave her.

“Would you like some of my homemade strawberry jam to take back with you, darling?” she called. “There’s plenty in the larder.”

Strawberry jam was the furthest thing from Gail’s mind. The last jar her mother had made her take back had broken in her suitcase on the train, covering a couple of library books, which she’d ended up having to pay for. It would’ve been cheaper had she bought jam in Brighton.

“I’ve still got loads left from last term, Mummy,” she lied. Her mother made a mental note to slip a jar into her case before she left.

There came a dull and lazy ring from the hall. The antiquated phone her parents insisted on keeping. Gail rushed to answer it.

“I’ll get it!” she shouted, believing it to be Howard, as she’d believed every phone call that week to be Howard. But she hadn’t reckoned for the speed of her mother, who liked to answer her own phone herself. Gail just managed to stop herself from glaring at her crossly, mouthing noiselessly instead, “Who is it?” as soon as she caught her mother’s eye.

Averting the gaze with a downward flick of her eyelids, Mrs Southerne waved away the unwanted distraction. She began nodding somewhat pointlessly while making the odd murmuring sound of agreement that gave no clue to the identity of the caller. Gail waited until she replaced the receiver.

“Who was it, Mummy?” she said in a whine, her hopes still faintly alight.

“It was your Aunty Peggy. She wants your father to try on a pullover she’s knitting for him,” Mrs Southerne answered, despite a building resentment at being drilled about every phone call that came into the house. The thought that her mother might have a private life never seemed to occur to Gail. But then the young always were far too wrapped up in their own lives to worry about those of others.

“Oh,” Gail said. Her air was vaguely dismissive. With that she walked slowly back into the breakfast room, just in time to catch her father in the act of screwing the top back on the gin bottle.

“Who was that?” he said, not really interested, but hoping to deflect attention from what he was doing. He needn’t have bothered, for even had Gail noticed she was too preoccupied to say anything.

“Oh, only Aunty Peggy going on about some flipping jumper or other,” Gail said. She flapped a hand. It was almost as if her father might also be waiting for Howard to ring.

“She’s finished it then?” her father went on, feeling obliged to continue the sham.

“How would I know?” Gail said. “Ask Mummy, she’s the one who answers the phone all the time.” It was as though her mother had somehow managed to metamorphose Howard into Aunty Peggy simply by answering the phone.

Her father plucked a newspaper from the canterbury by the television and dumped himself back into his armchair with a weary sigh. Shaking the paper open he settled down to read it. Gail’s eyes stalked his every move transferring all the resentment she felt onto him.

“Why do you always have to get The Telegraph?” she said. It sounded spiteful. “It’s so right-wing.”

“What’s that, dear?” her father said in the familiar sing-song that meant he was busy, and annoyed his daughter so much.

“Nothing,” Gail droned.

“We’ve always taken The Telegraph.” So he had heard after all, “Haven’t we, dear?” he called out to the kitchen.

“What’s that, dear?”

The Telegraph.

“In the magazine rack by the television. I put it there this morning. Unless somebody moved it.”

“I know that, I’m reading it.”

“I can’t help it if somebody else has moved it. I have to tidy up. Nobody else in this house will.”

“It’s all right, I’ve got the paper.”

“Then why on earth do you keep on asking me for it?”

“I wasn’t. I was just telling Gail how we’ve always taken it, that’s all.”

“I can’t worry where the paper has got to each time one of you puts it down. I’ve got lunch to worry about. I haven’t even had time to put the potatoes on yet.”

“Oh, do shut up about the fucking Telegraph!” Gail said sharply. It came out nastier than she’d intended. There followed a significant silence, and so she added, with what she thought to be a fetching giggle, “You two are getting more and more like a couple of old fogies every day.” But the remark had rather more truth in it than was funny.

Mr Southerne folded his paper thoughtfully, leaned forward, and placed it carefully back in the canterbury.

“I suppose we are,” he said, his face betraying a touch of sadlness. Draining his glass, he rose from the chair and straightened his back with a groan. “I suppose this right-wing old fogey ought to see if he can’t get a few more seedlings in before lunch,” he grunted. “Call me when it’s ready, will you, old girl?” And putting his empty glass on the dresser, he went back out into the garden. Gail felt her nostrils prickle and her eyes mist over. Nobody understood her; her parents least of all.

It was late afternoon by the time the phone rang again. Lunch was long over, and Gail was upstairs in her bedroom searching for a dress she wanted to take back with her. She swore under her breath and carried on looking. If it was Howard, he could bloody well wait for a change. He’d kept her waiting long enough. Anyhow, doubtless her mother would answer it like she usually did. But the dull rings went on, four times, five times, six times. Gail was seized by a sudden panic.

“Will somebody get the fucking phone, for chrissakes!” she shouted. It was only the second time she’d used the ‘f’ word on her parents. Both times on the same day. Throwing the jeans she was holding down to the floor, she rushed out onto the landing. The ringing stopped and she could hear the measured tones her mother used when speaking on the phone to strangers, or those of whom she didn’t approve. Against all the forces pulling her in that direction, Gail turned and walked slowly back into the bedroom. She flung herself onto the unmade bed and buried her face into the pillows. With her heart thumping against her ribcage, she called his name over and over again into the pillows, where she knew it would go no further.

An age seem to pass before she heard her name being called.

“Gail!” her mother cried, “Gail! It’s for you.” But Gail was out on the landing before the summons had finished. Thumping, almost tumbling down the stairs and into the hall, a broad grin stretched across her face.

“Who is it?” she said in a loud whisper, her hands and fingers fidgeting impatiently, waiting to snatch the receiver as soon as it was offered. Mrs Southerne hated her in that moment.

“It’s some boy,” she said, barely able to conceal her disdain. “He’s in a kiosk.” She handed her daughter the phone, “at a station by the sounds of it. It’s not a very good line.” For a moment, she stood watching her daughter, as if waiting to be dismissed. Gail had turned her back on her without realising it.

“Howard!” she said, “You rat! Where have you been? Did you get my messages? I’ve been ringing and ringing. Though the voice on the other end was indistinct, the south London inflections were unmistakable.

“Gay-ooh,” it crackled, “’ow you doin’, girl?” Her whole world sank to the pit of her stomach, and she felt the colour rise in her cheeks. Recoiling with inward revulsion at her daughter’s familiarity with this boy she didn’t know, and knew she would never want to meet, Mrs Southerne slid off into the kitchen. Such outward displays of emotion towards the opposite sex dismayed her. It would never have done in her day.

“It’s Phil,” the voice crackled on, “remember?” the crackle became a cackle. “’Course, you do. What a party, eh? You weren’t arf pissed, girl. Mind you, I weren’t much better meself. Thought I’d give you a bell to see ’ow you’re goin’…’ello. You still there?” Gail could hardly speak, her mouth had dried. Then, as swiftly as she had felt hurt and pain, she felt anger.

“What do you want?” she said. No amount of distortion on the line could have masked her contempt.

“’Ave I rang at a bad time? You expecting somebody?” His voice seemed to get even further away.

“What do you want, Phil? I’m in the middle of packing. Is it something important?”

“Oh, I geddit, you’re old lady’s listening in, ain’t she? Just say, yes, or no.”

“Don’t be so stupid! Of course, she isn’t. It wouldn’t matter even if she was.”

“If it’s a bad time, I can always ring back later.” No, she didn’t want that; Howard might be trying to get through.

“No, don’t do that,” she said too hurriedly, adding in a modified tone, “Just tell me why you rang, so I can finish packing.”

“All right.” But he was suspicious now. “It’s just that there’s this party tomorrow night. I wondered if you fancied it?” A party she fancied, Phil she didn’t. On the other hand she couldn’t allow Howard to think she spent all her time waiting for him to call. It was all too confusing.

“’Ello, you still there?” She was miles away.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Oh, I dunno, five, ’arf past. I ain’t got a watch.”

“The party, you idiot! What time is the party?” If Phil knew of a party, then Howard was certain to. How could she be seen with Phil and keep her options open at the same time? “Only, if it starts too late, I won’t be able to go. I’ve got an early tutorial on Tuesday. I daren’t be late for that.”

“Look, I ain’t got anymore change. I’ll see you in the canteen tomorrow. I’ll buy you dinner.”

“Wait a minute…” but it was no use, he was gone. She hadn’t been allowed to say she didn’t want to have lunch with him; that it was the worse thing she could think of. She felt cheated; the device had conspired to commit her to a date she’d had no intention of agreeing to. Well, she would just not turn up, that was all.

“Who was that, darling?” her mother asked on her way through the hall again. Gail was holding the phone against her chin and staring emptily into space.

“Nobody,” she said quietly setting the phone back on its cradle. “Nobody,” and climbed slowly back up the stairs. Nobody.

Mrs Southerne slipped two jars of strawberry jam into a suitcase by the door.

Copyright 2015 Bryan Hemming

Click here for: chapter three

Old Miguel and the Circus

The Circus WP
Illustration – Angelica Westerhoff

A lazy eucalyptus shimmies its leaves in half-hearted response to the faintest sigh of a hot and sluggish summer breeze. While stucco walls decay at pointless leisure, pantile roofs float in syrupy waves of shimmering heat, thick enough to ladle. Santa Catalina drowses. Apart from the occasional snore straying through slatted wooden blinds, barely so much as a squeak ruptures the calm. Nothing, barring a sizeable tectonic shift, could disturb the little pueblo from its daily siesta.

So quiet appears the ancient, Moorish quarter, it might have been abandoned. And none, but the keenest ear could detect the feeble sound of water sprinkling against baked flagstones in the old courtyard where Marlene keeps her gallery. Pausing from the labour of slaking her parched, potted plants’ thirsts, the Swiss gallerista straightens her back and groans softly. Raising her head, she glances about. Nothing stirs save for a listless kitten squeezing further out of a blistering sun into the miserly shadow afforded by an old urn. But Marlene is sure she heard something. Someone striving for breath. Her pale blue eyes scout the dimness at the foot of the staircase. In the slightly cooler, and precious shadow, she spots the bent silhouette of Old Miguel fusing into the rails. Placing her watering can down on the flagstones, she walks across to see if anything’s the matter.

“Are you all right?” she asks. The nonogenarian veteran of Franco’s civil war lifts his stick in greeting and smiles.

“It’s those stairs,” he wheezes. “At my age they’re getting too much for me.” Miguel inhabits a sizeable room on the top floor of the four-storey medieval building.

“Perhaps, you should move somewhere that doesn’t have so many stairs,” Marlene tells him.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Miguel says, “I like the view too much. I’ve always been fond of heights.”

“Si, but there comes a day when we all have to realise our limitations.” Marlene takes his arm. “Come and sit down,” she says. She still feels guilty about the rusty old bike of his she donated to the town museum the previous Christmas. To her growing annoyance, it’d been cluttering up the courtyard for ages. She never thought he’d notice it gone. He hadn’t rode it for years. But he did, and she lied, saying it had been stolen.

“Did you know,” Miguel puffs, as he lowers himself carefully into a wicker chair, “Working with heights was part of my job once.”

“Was it, now? What did you do? Were you a scaffolder?”

“I was the high-wire act of a circus.”

“A tightrope walker?” Marlene says, almost aghast. “You?”

“I had to give it up.”

“But a tightrope walker in a circus?”

“I haven’t always been this old. Even I was young once, though it was an awful, long time ago.”

“Of course, you were.” Bending over, she puts a hand on his. “I’m sorry, but it isn’t every day one discovers one’s neighbour was anything so exotic as a tightrope walker. What made you give it up? Did it get too much for you?”

“There were several reasons, actually. I say, could you spare a glass of water?”

“Why, of course.”

“You don’t happen to have any wine?”

“I haven’t got any here, but I can fetch you a glass from Juani’s Bar.”

“Could you make that a small glass of brandy? I’ll tell you all about it when you get back.” Marlene hurries out of the courtyard.

Moments later she returns with a glass of brandy. Handing it to Miguel, he takes a large slug.

“You were in the middle of telling me about the circus,” she says.

“Ah, si. Where was I?”

“You were about to tell me what made you give it up.”

“That’s right, that’s right, I had to give it up. There were several reasons, actually. The civil war being one of them. Mostly it was on account of the accident.”

“You had an accident?”

“I fell into the ring.”

“How terrible! But you were saved by the net?”

“There wasn’t a net.”

“Oh my God! Why on earth not? Had they forgotten to put it up? It’s a wonder you weren’t killed.”

“If it hadn’t have been for the lion I certainly would’ve been.”

“The lion? You were saved from death by a lion? How?”

“Not saved exactly. At least, not in the sense you mean. We were playing in a small town near Toledo. I can’t remember the name. We were always moving to so many different places. We were a circus, after all. My act came on just before the lions. While the audience’s attention was drawn upwards by the limelights shining on me, a cage was erected round the ring. Nobody worked with safety nets in those days. People wouldn’t bother turning up unless there was a sense of real danger. The chance of someone getting hurt.”

“It’s unbelievable! How could people be so horrible!”

“We never thought about it like that. It was part of the job. It’s what people came to see. It wouldn’t have been the same without the possibility of seeing a few broken bones. The chance of a bit of blood being spilled. Watching a good mauling from one of the animals was well worth the price of a ticket. But it was the prospect of witnessing a mortality that really drew the crowds.”

“That’s disgusting!”

“Nowadays, perhaps. People forget the circus has its roots in the old Roman amphitheatre. It has traditions. The risk of injury and death has always played a major part in the attraction.”

“So what happened?”

“Where was I?”

“You were telling me you were saved by a lion.”

“So I was. There isn’t a drop more of this brandy left, by any chance, is there? Helps clear my throat.”

“I’ll go and get some.” Taking his glass Marelene hurries back to Juani’s Bar. This time she returns with half a bottle.


“So there I was, in this little town north of Granada.”

“I thought you said it was north of Toledo?”

“So I did. Those little towns, they all look so alike. Where was I?”

“In a small town north of Toledo.”

“I meant, where was I in the story?”

“I think you were saying something about the Romans.”

“No, no, that wasn’t it. Ah, si, I remember, it was the lions. There I was in a small town north of Toledo, halfway across the wire, in the middle of my act. By the way, you haven’t seen that old bike of mine, have you? Kept it over there.” He pointed to a corner. “I used to use it in my act. Took the tyres off so the wheel rims fitted onto the cable. Back then I was the only act that could ride across the wire, without holding the handlebars. I’d twirl a paper Chinese parasol in one hand whilst juggling a pair of Indian clubs in the other. Had a stick in my mouth with a rubber ball balanced on it at the same time to boot. Hard to believe, isn’t it? You haven’t seen it have you?”

A look of guilt flashes across Marlene’s face.

“The stick? Or the paper Chinese parasol? Or do you mean the rubber ball?”

“No, the bike.”

“Someone left an umbrella once, but I don’t remember a bike,” she says, putting a finger to her fibbing lips. “Go on with the story you were telling me. It’s fascinating. Tell me more.”

“Dark green it was, with a black leather saddle. Kept it over there, under the awning.”

“The story, I mean, what happened in the story, you were telling me?”

“Where was I?”

“In the middle of your act, halfway across the tightrope in a small town north of Toledo.”

“That’s right. By God, you’ve got a good memory. You weren’t there by any chance, were you?”

“I hardly think so, I’m barely past thirty-five,” Marlene fibs a second time.

“Of course, you weren’t. North of Granada, we were.”


“Ah, si, Toledo. Halfway across the wire, I was. Right in the middle of the act. That’s the bit where I would balance one leg of a chair on the wire, and climb to the top. Then I’d flip over to do a handstand with one hand on the chair rail, and the other holding a glass of water. From there I’d proceed to drink from the glass, upside down. It was the climax. I couldn’t always attempt it. For it to be successful, I required absolute silence. Usually, I could hear a pin drop. But on this occasion, I had just put the glass to my upper lip when I suddenly heard a huge roar. Glancing down, I saw some fool had let the lions out early. In that second, I lost my balance and fell fifteen metres down into the ring. Head first. Straight into the gaping jaws of a lion.”

“Oh my God!” Marlene exclaims, covering her mouth with her hands. “You’re lucky to be alive! What did the lion do?”

“As you can imagine, it came as much of a shock to him, as it did to me. It wasn’t used to humans raining from heaven, straight into its mouth, and liked it far less than it might’ve supposed. For as well as breaking my fall, the lion’s jaw was broken. Lucky for me.

“At the sight of a fresh pair of human legs sticking out of its mouth, while it sported a glass on one ear, and had a chair sprouting from its back, all the other lions began running amok. Fearful of what else might come tumbling out of the sky, they tried escaping through the iron bars of the cage. Clambering on top of one another’s backs, they started roaring fiercely, and making a terrible din of a racket in general. Little wonder the spectators thought they were trying to get at them. The bars were rattling like crazy. A panic ensued, as they all got up from their seats in a rush to get out of the Big Top. Four small children were trampled to death that night in the pandemonium. It was the moment I vowed never to breathe the air of the ring again.”

“Poor little children! That’s one of the most terrible stories I ever heard. But you survived.”

“I wouldn’t be here telling you the story if I hadn’t, would I? Took half the Jerez fire brigade to pull me out.”

“Toledo,” Marlene corrects.


“You said Jerez Fire Brigade, but you were in a town north of Toledo.”

“When was that?”

“In the circus. In your story.”

“So it was. They rushed me to hospital. Spent four days there.”

“Only four? It’s incredible. And that’s when you left the circus?”

“Well, not quite.” Miguel eyes his empty glass. “I couldn’t leave exactly then.” Picking the bottle up from the flagstones, Marlene fills it for him. “My neck had been broken in the fall, and I’d dislocated a shoulder. There were teeth and claw marks all over my chest.” He puts a hand to his waistcoat buttons. “I can show you the scars if you like.” Marlene places a restraining hand on his.

“Really, there’s no need,” she says, and Miguel continues.

“After being discharged from hospital, I had to wait for my wounds to heal. The next few weeks were spent lying on my back in my wagon, unable to move. All the time racking my brains, thinking of what to do next. Despite my vow, I was extremely reluctant to leave the circus completely. By that time the sawdust was in my veins. You have to remember, I was a young man from a small fishing community, and the circus was seen as something rather glamorous in those days.”

“So you decided to do something less dangerous, like become a clown, for instance?”

“Oh, God, no! I wouldn’t have wanted to be a clown, heaven forbid! Besides, it would’ve entailed entering the ring I had vowed not to. It would’ve been unseemly.

“The unwritten rules of the circus are far stricter than any trade union’s. They’re based on the ancient caste system of India. The high-wire walker is the most feared and respected member of the circus, higher even than the trapeze artist. For a tightrope walker to become a clown would be like a Brahmin deciding to become an untouchable. Unthinkable.

“Clowns are just one step above circus animals. Some would say they’re one step below. That the lowest circus animal is higher than the highest clown. They’d say clowns live in unimaginable filth and practise rituals of a perverse nature I wouldn’t stoop to describe in front of a woman, let alone a lady such as yourself. If you’d been a circus performer and suggested such a thing, I would be obliged to kill you on the spot. It would be demanded to preserve the honour of high wire walkers everywhere. But you are unaware of the laws of the circus, so I can forgive you.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was so strict.”

“That’s all right, we circus performers learn to live with the ways of ordinary folk, we have to. As I was saying, in the heat of the moment, I had vowed never to step into the ring again. And once a circus performer has made a vow, the vow can never be broken. Unless he’s a clown, of course. Clowns are a law unto themselves, and if ever a clown makes a vow he would consider it his duty to break it.”

“I never realised circus life was so complicated, and that clowns were, were… well, were so very evil.”

“Clowns have been making fools of us for years,” Miguel sighs.

“But there are other jobs in the circus, aren’t there? Jobs without danger, like hosing down the elephants and feeding the monkeys.”

“Danger didn’t come into it. Despite the accident, I was too young and foolish to think of death. The close shave I had with it only served to reinforce my youthful delusions of immortality.” He begins toying with his glass, miraculously empty again. Unsure of whether she had replenished it, Marlene pours him another.

“And then there was talk of civil war floating about,” Miguel goes on, “it wasn’t even certain the circus would be allowed to travel on much longer. It might’ve had to shut down completely. Having lain in my caravan for almost a month, turning these things over in my mind, I realised if war did break out, sooner or later, the call to arms would follow. And as my vow committed me to never being able to step into the ring again – as to do so would involve breathing its air – I was left with little choice. I certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cleaning dung out of cages, so I made the decision to leave the circus forever and go to war.”

“Just like that?”

“Certainly, soon as I was fit enough, I packed my bags and left. I had no idea what the war was about, of course. Politics meant nothing to me. War was war, as far as my young brain was concerned, and by that time I was itching to fight. Being so young and hot-blooded, I desperately wanted to take revenge on the world for my misfortune. So I went straight to the nearest army recruitment office and signed up.”

At the sight of Pedro entering the courtyard, old Miguel knocks back his brandy hurriedly. “Which happened to be Republican,” he adds. “Or was it Nationalist?” With that he hauls himself to his feet. Planting his stick firmly to the ground, he raises his beret. “Good day to you, Señora. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s a rare moment to find someone who will take the time to listen to an old warrior like me these days, let alone a beautiful lady. Buenas tardes, Pedro.”

“Buenas tardes.”

“The pleasure has been all mine,” Marlene says. And old Miguel ambles out of the courtyard with a slightly jaunty air.

Pedro casts a practised eye at the empty glass and bottle.

“What’s he been telling you?” he asks.

“About his days in the circus,” Marlene says. “Very interesting it was too. Did you know he was once a tightrope walker?”

“How many glasses did it take?” Pedro asks.

“What do you mean? How many glasses did it take?”

“How many glasses of brandy?”

Marlene looks puzzled, before glancing down to see the empty bottle.


Copyright © 2013, 2o14  Bryan Hemming


A Lawyer’s Lament

Illustration – Bryan Hemming

“Lamentably, I am instructed to inform you, you have lost your case, Señora Moreno.”

Don Jorge Francisco Domingo Ramirez Ramirez assumed a long and mournful countenance. Tipping his head, his slack jowls and double chin melted into his neck. Sad, grey eyes peered over gold spectacle rims. In fifteen years of practice the advocate had transmitted the same verdict more times than he cared to remember. Lamenting came as second nature. A large dollop of solemnity, garnished with a pinch of sorrow, had honed his delivery to perfection. Not so much as a hint of recognition for his lamentable role in the judicial process, which had given so many clients such great cause to lament, remained. Juani Moreno found herself in a state of serious lamentation.

“But surely it was you who lost the case on my behalf,” the bar proprietor said, barely able to contain her tears.

“That’s as maybe,” Don Ramirez Ramirez said in a way he thought accorded with his client’s unwarranted insinuation graciously. But, at the same time, in a way could not be construed as admitting legal responsibility for the lamentable outcome of the eviction hearing. “Nevertheless, the result is the same, and we all have just cause to lament.” Having had so much experience, lamenting had become part of the legal procedure for Don Ramirez Ramirez. A part he had learned to cherish. “The verdict came as a complete surprise to me,” he further lamented. “It appears a grave error might have been committed under the jurisdiction of the presiding justiciary, which I’m sure an appeal tribunal could seek to redress.” Juani’s face brightened.

“You think I should appeal?”

“Naturally, a client must always appeal if he, or she, stands a good chance of winning.”

“So, in your opinion, I stand a good chance?”

But the lawyer felt there was still serious lamenting to be done. He shook his head slowly from side to side towards that end.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” he lamented, “after all, the other party stands a good chance of the appeal being dismissed.”

“A better chance than I do?”

“Better? Are you asking me to give odds? This isn’t a bookmaker’s turf and neither am I a bookie. How can I quantify better? Or how much of a chance is chance? Not having the good fortune to be a tipster, better is not a term I would readily apply to the particular state of affairs in which you find yourself. Let us not forget I am but a simple lawyer.

“Though not so speculative as a lottery,” he explained, “neither is there such a thing as a racing certainty in the eyes of the law. Not that anyone, least of all I, should appear so impertinent as to compare the Palace of Justice to a lowly gambling den.” He looked a little cross. Not for the first time Juani felt humbled by his presence. Somehow, he’d got the impression she was accusing him of being nothing more than a racing pundit. But Ramirez’ face softened into a philosophical gaze as he turned his eyes to the ceiling and got into flow once more. “Yet, were I a bookmaker,” he mused, “the odds of winning have to be offset by the odds against it. At the end of the race, we are all in the hands of fate, and the odds-on favourite can just as easily fall at the first jump as win by a furlong.” Don Ramirez Ramirez stopped short his train of thought. “For the kind of confident prediction you so evidently crave, and the modest means at your disposal, you might consider consulting a fairground clairvoyant. Though I doubt very much, even if a certain amount of short-lived comfort might be derived from a positive divination, whether such a consultation could guarantee sure success any more than I can.”

“I don’t quite understand,” Juani frowned, “do you think I’ll win, or do you think I’ll lose?”

“In all honesty, that is exactly what I think.”

“What exactly do you think?”

“You will win, or you will lose.”

“That doesn’t inspire me with confidence.”

“Perhaps, but in a life full of uncertainty we can only be certain of one thing.”

“And what’s that?”

“You certainly won’t win if you don’t appeal.”

Juani remained confused.

“So, what would you do in my place?”

“Ah, that’s quite some question.” Leaning back in his chair, Don Ramirez Ramirez let his jacket fall open to reveal a generous paunch. “Primarily,” he expounded, “please forgive me for saying it, but I wouldn’t be in your place in the first instance. Yet, if I were in your place, to employ your phrase, you would be in my place. Therefore: you would be my legal representative, and I would be your client. Having established that, perhaps, as my legal representative, you should ask yourself the same question.”

“But do I have reasonable grounds to appeal?” Juani asked. The lawyer’s eyes opened wide, and his eyebrows arched.

“Reasonable grounds to appeal?” He lay heavy emphasis lay on the first word. Pregnant with commitment, reasonable was a qualification too far. “Whether your grounds are reasonable must be left up to the appeal court. The very purpose of the appeal is to surmise whether grounds are reasonable, or whether they are not reasonable. The tribunal will consider and decide what constitutes reasonable grounds, in your specific case, on the basis of the evidence afforded, and will reach their verdict accordingly. Should they opine your grounds are unreasonable, the original verdict will be upheld and the appeal dismissed as not reasonable. On the other hand, should they judge the grounds on which the appeal is based as reasonable, taking into consideration all due circumstances, they might well be minded to overrule the decision of the lower court and the verdict would be reversed.” Juani was looking increasingly perplexed.

“I’m at a total loss here. What am I supposed to do? What form are you suggesting the appeal should take?”

“The court stipulates for it to be presented in written form.”

“Señor Ramirez, before we go on, can you just clear up one small point, are you saying I should appeal or I shouldn’t?”

“As a practising advocate, who cannot claim not to have a subjective financial interest in the prosecution of the law, it could be held, to a certain degree, I would be failing my profession in advising you not to appeal. Nevertheless, it is the duty of a certified practitioner of the said law to rise above such self-seeking aspirations. Ergo, it would be selfish of me to allow my own fiscal requirements to override those of my client. So, laying aside all personal considerations, and taking all points into deliberation, it would be foolish not to appeal if there was a good chance of winning. Nevertheless, the chance of losing cannot be disregarded altogether, as justice can be a fickle mistress at the best of times.”

“I’m still not quite sure whether you’re saying we’ll win or we’ll lose.”

“Whatever you lose, don’t lose heart, for of one thing we can be absolutely sure, he who never ventures never gains. Though, to be politically correct, as is the current mode, and bearing in mind present company, I suppose I should say ‘one’ who never ventures.”

“So you’re advising me to appeal?”

“You could take it that way, but I would be failing in my duty not to advise clients of the risks inherent in pursuing legal action of any sort. It’s a lawyer’s responsibility to ensure the process of law is explained fully in a way his client can properly understand, and all the possibilities that could ensue from embarking on any course of litigation. Notwithstanding, the legal process is an extremely complicated business and, bearing in mind all clients must trust their lawyers implicitly.”

“But what’s there to trust when I don’t understand what you’re saying?”

“I hope you do understand that failure of confidence on the client’s part is an affront and an insult to the whole profession. It seriously undermines counsel’s ability to pursue a case with the diligence required for the task.”

“I have no confidence in you?”

“There you’ve said it.”

“Said what?”

“You have no confidence in me.”

“I never said I had no confidence in you, it was a question.”

“And neither have you said you have no confidence in the courts, but it’s quite obvious you do not agree with the verdict that has been handed down, otherwise you wouldn’t consider appealing. You certainly haven’t said you do have confidence in me. Or the courts, for that matter.”

“But the verdict was wrong. You yourself said the judge committed a grave error.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did, I heard you.”

“I fear you misunderstood. I may have ventured it appears a grave error might’ve been committed under the authority of the presiding judge. But to accuse his worship of committing a grave error could be construed as defamatory and considered as contempt for his office.”

“Are you saying the verdict was right?”

“It isn’t for me to comment on individual verdicts in that manner, let’s just say, lamentably, there may have been an oversight on the judge’s behalf.”

“That’s good enough grounds for an appeal?”

“That’s what I like to see, confidence. What would’ve have happened at Cape Trafalgar if the courageous admirals of the combined French and Spanish fleets had not been so supremely confident of victory.”

“They lost, didn’t they?”

“Lamentably, but valiantly.” There becoming a few too many ‘lamentablys’ even for the ample stomach of Ramirez, he decided he would have to refrain from further use of them. Lamentably. “Uncommon to many minor skirmishes, great battles always have winners and losers,” he continued. “But that isn’t the point, even though Admiral Villeneuve’s faith was severely misplaced in this particular example, without such overwhelming confidence the splendid encounter would never have taken place, and history would’ve been all the poorer for it.

“Imagine had events had taken a different course, and our brave lads had routed the English interlopers. What a glorious victory for Spain that would’ve been. And remember, had those intrepid warriors not sailed out of Cádiz with stout hearts and boundless conviction that fateful October day in 1805, they would’ve forsaken any chance of achieving glory, however small. For even defeat in glory is far better than cowardly retreat.” Don Ramirez Ramirez stifled the desire to pull out a handkerchief and dab his eyes in the knowledge the gesture might seem a touch too melodramatic. Though slightly lost in his discourse, he could only sail on. “And, though to the eternal shame of Napoleon Bonaparte, let us not forget, were it not for the fact those bold and courageous mariners did sail out, so full of hope, Lord Horatio Nelson would’ve have been deprived of distinguished triumph in what has become known as the greatest sea battle in naval history.”

“I’m not so sure it’s such a good example.” Juani fiddled with her rosary earnestly.

“Perhaps not,” Ramirez reluctantly conceded, though his own valiant defeats in court were sources of great pride to him. “But if you want me to surrender the battle without putting up a fight, I will bow to your wishes, and we will leave the prospect of magnificent victory to mere conjecture.”

“Of course, I don’t.”

“So I can take it from that you have made the decision for me to go ahead with lodging an appeal?”

“I suppose so.”

“Thank you for your belated vote of confidence. Leave the details up to me and I’ll file an appeal by the end of the week.” Don Ramirez Ramirez stood up from his chair swiftly and, putting his hand to his mouth, affected a cough. Juani looked up. Ramirez coughed again.

“Oh,” Juani said, “we’ve finished?” and raised herself from her chair. The lawyer offered her the same hand he’d used to stifle his coughs. Glancing at the floor Juani declined to take it. In the manner of a prospective suitor, the hand was withdrawn hesitantly, almost as though it had never been offered. “I don’t want to take up too much more of your time,” he said, “but there is the little question of my fee.” With the second part of his utterance Ramirez Ramirez leaned so closely into her face she almost fell backwards.

“Won’t that come after the appeal?” she appealed.

“After, after,” the lawyer exhaled, “laden with promise and expectation. But rather too short on deliverance in my experience. As you may recall, our agreement was for you to ‘pay me as we went along’, to use your quaint little phrase. And along we have gone through foul and fair. But, most of all, we have gone along much of a way as we went without you paying me so much as a bean.

“Señora, good legal representation requires occasional rekindling in order to re-ignite the fire a man’s belly needs for such convoluted cases. A dispirited and hungry advocate can conjure up an image of humble wretchedness before the bench. His mind can wander, he can lose his way; his words can lack conviction.” Juani didn’t need reminding. “To summarise: being landed with one or two unpaid instalments can be put down as an occupational hazard in a profession where one has to accustom oneself to dealing with clients, how can I put it?” He coughed again, “Clients who cycle precariously on an outer orbit of the law.” Juani wondered if he regarded her as cycling precariously on an outer orbit of the law. “But any more than one or two defaulted payments and my beloved spouse would question my sanity. Added to that, in all my long years as a lawyer, I have noticed an unfortunate reluctance on behalf of the most honest of my clients to settle their accounts promptly once a satisfactory conclusion has been achieved. So perhaps you could see your way to providing me with some encouragement?”

“I’ll put some kindling in the post tomorrow,” Juani said, at the same time worrying how she could get enough cash to cover a cheque. “But I don’t know whether I would go so far as to call the present conclusion satisfactory.”

“No, seen solely from your perspective, I can sympathise to an extent. In fact, a more unworldly and ungrateful client might merit it some dissatisfaction. But, as putting up a good fight is ample reward in itself, that would be to take a rather too narrow and subjective stance. It would discount the views and opinions of all the other parties involved. By way of example, I don’t doubt your adversaries might find the current verdict very satisfying indeed. And, among others, his eminence, the judge, will be satisfied justice has been seen to be done. Nor must we forget all the ushers, clerks and countless other court dependants. By definition, as salaried servants of the courts they too have a stake in seeing justice being done.”

“But justice hasn’t been done.”

“Nor did I say it had, merely it had been seen to be done. Rather similar to the way a fresh convert to religion might declare he had seen the light. He would be referring to the metaphorical light of faith. I was referring to justice in a metaphorical sense, so to speak. Merely by having a judicial process, win or lose, justice is being seen to be done.

“Metaphorical justice?”

“Precisely.” Without enlightening her further, he put a hand to the small of Juani’s back. “Remember, the satisfied parties in legal cases always outnumber the dissatisfied, and that’s something to be cheerful about.” He looked at his watch. “Ah! Is that the time? You must have a lot to be getting on with, so I won’t keep you. And, speaking of the old slave driver, I have a court session to attend in twenty minutes. Sentence is being reviewed today on one of my more unfortunate clients. Lamentably, having lost his appeal, I fear he is condemned to a lifetime of penal servitude,” the lawyer lamented. “It’s been a pleasure. I look forward to our next meeting,” he said, guiding Juani to the door by her elbow. “And don’t forget to pop some kindling in the post.” Ramirez Ramirez called out, before shutting the door. Juani left under a fog of bemusement.

No sooner had she departed than Don Jorge Francisco Domingo Ramirez Ramirez put his feet up on his desk. Taking a cigar from a pocket, he bit off the end and spat it into a wastepaper basket with the sort of accuracy only years of experience can bring. Whatever the verdict, lawyers always win, he thought contentedly. Though he lamented the many occasions his clients lost their cases, they only had themselves to blame for getting involved with criminals in the first place.

As a lawyer he had no choice but to be involved with criminals. It was part of the job. Crime was the business of the courts. Far from regarding rising crime figures with the air of dismay affected by prominent politicians and policemen, in the eyes of Don Ramirez Ramirez they were an indication of expanding business. Like mounting figures on a company sales chart, more crime meant more business. And, in the same way crime paid, so did criminals. Not only were they prepared to pay their own lawyers, but they were also prepared to pay the lawyers of their adversaries to help secure favourable verdicts. In the provincial courts of Andalucia, there were judges who showed unmitigated understanding when alerted to the generous nature of those rich and powerful enough to fulfil their desire to cycle freely well beyond the outermost orbit of the law unhindered.

From the start, it looked as though the barkeeper couldn’t possibly lose her eviction case. She had a watertight contract and always paid the rent on time. Her youth and beauty could have saved her from the gallows in former days. But the little bar she kept was far too valuable a property to be wasted. Set in the prettiest square in Santa Catalina, next to a larger bar owned by a local entrepreneur, it was ripe for development. He had plans to knock the two buildings into one and create a discotheque on the ground floor with two luxury holiday apartments above. Only one thing stood in his way: Juani’s tenure had two more years to run.

Bit by bit, Ramirez alone turned her healthy state of affairs around so she couldn’t possibly win. He mislaid her contract, and several months’ receipts for payment of rent. At the hearing he fumbled with papers, dropping them to the floor twice, gathering them clumsily up in both arms only for more to fly around the courtroom. He stammered nervously in such hushed tones the judge asked him to speak up several times.

Yet when he called Juani to testify on her own behalf, he asked all the wrong questions in a very stern voice. Nothing like the way he’d briefed her. He cast doubt on her moral rectitude simply by making more than one ambiguous reference to the fact her husband, or ‘progenitor of her children’, as he called him, lived and worked most of the time in ‘faraway’ Barcelona. ‘Faraway’ Barcelona. Like it was on the other side of China. He didn’t even attempt to challenge the outrageous allegation she was running a house of disrepute. Quite the opposite, he repeated it wherever he could. He even refused to call any of the witnesses willing to testify against the vile accusation, reasoning, as most were regular visitors to the bar, the judge would regard them as unreliable alcoholics. He went on to argue they ran the danger of being deemed disreputable solely for the reason they frequented an establishment with such a bad reputation. When she questioned these tactics in a whisper, Don Ramirez Ramirez assured her the judge would view these little difficulties with the greatest sympathy. His strategy of declaring her responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the contract and rent receipts would highlight her female vulnerability. He insisted his brusque cross-examination only served to demonstrate the problems a woman running a rough bar in a bad neighbourhood faced. When she disputed the description, he said it paid to exaggerate a little. It would convert the judge into an ally. The day before the hearing he had advised to wear a short skirt, a lot of make-up, and try to flirt with him.

Behind her back, he personally organised the inconvenient infestation of rats and then made the anonymous phone call reporting it the Health Department. So confident was he of losing, he even went to the trouble of greasing a couple of palms in the Town Hall planning offices so work on the discotheque could commence as soon as the verdict was reached. Nobody could lose a case like he could, and that’s why he could demand such a fee.

Don Ramirez Ramirez was smiling at his own tireless ingenuity when the phone on his desk rang. Leaning forward, he tipped it from its cradle with a deft flick of his left hand to grab it with his right.


“Si, this is Don Ramirez Ramirez speaking,” he said.

“It’s all off. We’ve decided to pull out of the deal.”

“What?” Ramirez sat up quickly.

“We’ve decided to wait till her contract runs out. If we go ahead at all.”

“Why wait? It’s in the bag.”

“Are you listening, you fat, little arsehole? We don’t want her evicted.”

“But I’ve lost the case for you, and I’m just preparing to lose the appeal,” Don Ramirez Ramirez protested.

“Forget it, weasel. Word’s out some snot-nosed little newshound’s been sniffing round, and it looks as the local rag’s going to do a demolition job if we don’t pull out now. The boss can’t afford the flak of bad publicity. We don’t want the heavy mob from the anti-corruption squad breathing down our necks, there are too many other deals at stake.”

“What about all the work I’ve done for you? What about my fee?” But Don Jorge Francisco Domingo Ramirez Ramirez might as well have been talking to thin air. The line went dead.

Copyright © 2012 Bryan Hemming

Juicy Red Tomatoes

Peñon Street WP
Illustration – Angelica Westerhoff

“That’ll tempt them,” Señor Alvarez said to nobody in particular, as nobody in particular was there to hear him. “They won’t be able to resist that lot.” Placing a box brimming with juicy red tomatoes by the shop door he pronounced: “They’ll be gone in no time.”

The store empty, he carried on talking out loud to himself, as he so often did.

“They must be the biggest, reddest and ripest tomatoes in Santa Catalina. So juicy.” He began to arrange them delicately, so as not to bruise them, putting their best sides to the top. Then, straightening his back, before resting his palms on his weary haunches, he stood back to admire them.

“What a useless, old mug Sanchez is. A complete waste of space.” The words slipped out with such exuberant malevolence even to catch him by surprise. He sneaked a quick look to make sure no-one had overheard. Of course, they hadn’t. Blowing out a breath of relief, he revelled in the knowledge he was alone. No need to feign shame. No need to grovel.

Freed from needless self-censorship, the grocer continued his derogatory monologue to himself, but a lttle more under his breath. Just in case. “Comes in here, thinking he can pull the wool over my eyes. Stupid idiot has the brain of half a donkey.”

After spending some moments polishing and arranging each tomato to its best advantage, he gazed out the door and into the world beyond his emporium. What a beautiful day. Sun shining, skies as blue as blue. The simplest pleasures are always the best.

Sniffing the clear bright air, he let escape a breath of sheer contentment and rubbed his hands. Life was good, very good. Didn’t know what he had, Old Sanchez, drunken old blockhead. Must be getting senile. Nobody could resist tomatoes like those. Especially when they were the first things they saw coming into the shop. There were few more exquisite feelings than getting the better of an old fool. Still as sharp as a tack, he had the pensioner over a barrel, telling him there was no demand for tomatoes with a face as straight as metal rule. No demand? People were crying out for them. Knowing Sanchez was only looking for enough to get sozzled, the grocer bought the lot for a pittance. You had to get up early to catch Señor Alvarez out. He smiled, allowing himself a moment to savour his accomplishment.

In such triumphant frame of mind he was glancing up the street, when his countenance darkened somewhat. His eye had been caught by two familiar silhouettes on the brow of the hill. One sauntering, the other scampering, they appeared not to have a care between them. Señor Alvarez’s eyes narrowed to slits as he grinned maliciously. Second snare of the morning. It was going 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 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 walked straight past the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes without sparing them so much as a glance. Señor Alvarez’s mouth gaped open, ready to say something. He cleared his throat noisily instead.


“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?”

“No doubt about it,” Pedro said.


“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 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 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. 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.

“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.”

“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 shining brass buttons on his tunic. And the fact he had yet to develop a deaf ear. Let alone 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 remarked. Bending down, he picked one out to examine. “More than fine, I’d say. They must be the biggest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina, by the look of them. So red. And so juicy.”

“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 a 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 on the policeman. “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 by specially 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 with an air of perplexity.

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

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

“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 suspiciously 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 explained helpfully. “You know what breaking the law is, don’t you?”

“Of course I know what breaking the law is!” Señor Alvarez shouted.

“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 all 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 I think you owe this gentleman an apology.”

“An apology?”

“An apology,” Pedro said. “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 interrupted. “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 only be doing 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 after a few seconds cogitation.


“Lopez only went and dragged Alvarez down to the station after that.” Pedro told Antolin in Juani’s bar later that afternoon. “Banged him up in a cell for a couple of hours of to cool off. You should’ve heard the language,” he laughed. “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.”

“Nor do I. It’s just something my uncle used to say.”

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming