Old Miguel and the Circus

The Circus WP

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 New Year’s Drink

Alvarez supermarcado

“Best and funniest thing I’ve read all Christmas” commented Wendy Kate.

rangewriter said: “… Love this. I’ve shared it as a New Years greeting for some special friends.”

“I hate New Year,” Señor Alvarez grumbled, as he struggled to uncork yet another bottle of wine. “It’s always the same. People I haven’t seen since God was a boy waltz through the door making out they shop here all year round. They pick up a loaf, promise to pay me at the end of the month, and think that entitles them to a glass of free wine.”

The grocer’s grandfather had always marked the first day of each New Year by inviting customers to a tipple. His father’s blind adherence to the practise had made it a family tradition. An extravagant and wasteful family tradition its latest heir felt powerless to change.

“Half of them I don’t even recognise,” he said. “Who was that shifty-looking bloke with the creepy eyes who just came in?

“Which shifty-looking bloke?” his wife asked, “We’ve only had one customer all morning.”

“The shifty one, the old bloke with dewdrops in his moustache. He kept wiping his nose on his sleeve, grinning and slobbering like a deranged walrus on happy pills.”

“You know very well that was my Uncle Rodrigo. And he hasn’t got dewdrops in his moustache.” Rosa always defended her relations however demented their behaviour.

“Must’ve been raindrops then,” the grocer mumbled beneath his breath, peering out at the endless blue sky beyond the shop window. “Is it raining outside?” Hoping she hadn’t heard he turned his attention back to the job in hand.

Redoubling his efforts made it look as if Luis Alvarez was attempting to revenge himself on the cork. It just wouldn’t budge. He paused for breath. “I remember now, he’s the one with the wife nobody’s ever seen. Keeps her locked in the cupboard under the stairs, I heard.”

“You saw them both a week ago. We went to their house for Christmas Eve.”

“I thought that was your Uncle Paco,” the grocer said. “He looks different when he’s sober. Not that I’ve ever seen either of them completely sober.”

“He looks different when you’re sober, you mean. You were completely sloshed, out of your brain. An absolute disgrace.”

“Everybody has a drink on Christmas Eve.”

“Precisely, a drink. That means one drink. Not a dozen. And while you’re at it, everybody has a drink on New Year’s Day too. It’s only once a year, you old skinflint. I like it. It’s a fresh beginning. Besides, it’s not only us, all the shops in Santa Catalina do it.”

“It’s a load of superstitious nonsense.”

“New Year? What on earth is superstitious about New Year? You silly man.”

“It’s a pagan festival, for a start.”

“No, it’s not,” Rosa said, “it’s just New Year, that’s all.”

“New Year is pagan, you stupid woman!”

“Of course, it’s not. It’s the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. A harmless little celebration to give people something to look forward to.”

“A harmless, little celebration? You call hordes of drunks stumbling about the pueblo at midnight, singing their heads off, when they’re not projecting vomit all over the streets, a harmless, little celebration? I can’t think of anything more pagan than that. It’s a satanic festival, that’s what it is, a bacchanalian orgy for devil worshippers.”

“I don’t know how you can stand there and say it’s pagan when it comes during Christmas. That verges on sacrilege. People like you ought to be locked up for having such wicked thoughts.”

“Well, you can hardly call spewing your last meal of the year all over the cat Christian, can you?”

“And neither can you describe pouring out one measly glass of wine per customer as a bacchanalian orgy. It’s plain silly!”

“I call it pagan and bacchanalian because it is pagan and bacchanalian.”

Despite more than quarter of a century of marriage Rosa still hadn’t got used to her husband’s stingy nature. But she was having none of it today. New Year’s Day had always been a day of reflection and renewal. And that’s how it was going to remain. Certainly, while she had anything to do with it.

“It’s not as though they dance naked round rings of toadstools while swigging from flagons of hooch. If they did that, I could understand, but one measly glass of wine.” She shook her head in exasperation. “Giving is an act of Christian charity. It shows goodwill. Why do you always have to make yourself out to be a victim when there’s a chance to do something nice, once in a while?”

“Because I am a victim.”

“No, you’re not. Offering a glass of wine is a way of demonstrating to our customers how much we appreciate their custom. And I’m sure it brings good luck.”

“Good luck? Now, there’s a pagan concept if ever there was one. I’m a helpless victim of outdated, superstitious hocus-pocus and you call it good luck. It’ll be good luck the day they start bringing me glasses of wine to show how much they appreciate my groceries. That’s what I’d call good luck.”

“You’d be blind drunk by midday,” Rosa said.

“That’s not the point,” the grocer snapped back. “They don’t do it. Why do you have to get off the point all the time? I won’t get blind drunk because they won’t come in with the wine.”

“You would if they did, that’s the point.”

“But it won’t happen, I tell you, I won’t get drunk because they won’t come in with it.”

“You will tonight. You always get drunk at New Year.”

“Talking with you is like wading through treacle, we can’t finish one discussion before you start getting onto the next.” With a last, frustrated pull the cork fragmented. “Look what you’ve made me do now!” Señor Alvarez said. “That’s the third cork that’s come away in pieces with you rabbiting on all the time! Get me the screwdriver. It’s by the rat trap. I’ll ram the other corks in instead of all this messing about.” Nevertheless, his frustration didn’t prevent him from taking another bottle from the case on the counter to engage the corkscrew a fourth time. “No wonder I can’t sell the stuff.” The words were spoken in a whisper, intended only for himself. But Rosa’s sharp ears were not to be eluded.

“I told you not to buy it, but you wouldn’t listen, would you? You kept saying how cheap it was.”

“You think thirty euros for ten cases of vintage Rioja isn’t cheap?”

“Si, for vintage Rioja it’s very cheap. Suspiciously cheap. But it’s a bit pricey for stale, old vinegar.”

“It’s not stale, old vinegar, it’s just the corks. A couple have gone a bit dry, that’s all. It happens from time to time, even with the best Riojas. The odd bottle of good wine is bound to develop a dryish cork occasionally, stands to reason. You shove a cork into a bottle for a few years and you expect one or two to get a bit dry. Anyone knows that. Only you don’t normally get three in a row, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Not if they’re stored correctly.” Officer Lopez of the Guardia Civil had slipped into the shop as quiet as a shadow.

“On top of that,” the grocer continued to witter away, “you have to account for the extra time they’ve been in the storeroom. I’ve been saving them for a pagan festival like this. Can’t think why.” Belated recognition of the familiar tones had him glancing up to find the officer’s face leaning into his. “Uh? Happy ..uh … what was that?”

“I said not if it’s stored correctly.” Standing back, Officer Lopez removed his cap. “Happy New Year, Señor Alvarez. And Happy New Year to you as well, Rosa,” he added with a nod, clicking his heels.

“Happy New Year, Officer Lopez,” Rosa bubbled at the handsome young officer. Señor Alvarez grunted.

“And what would you know about it?”

“A good wine should be stored at the right angle,” the officer explained, “so the cork remains moist. The ensuing expansion caused by cork absorbing wine creates an airtight barrier preventing adulteration from exterior sources. Exposure to air leads to contamination by airborne microbes, which, in turn, can severely affect the chemical composition of the wine leading to metamorphosis from wine to vinegar.”

“Si, si, we know all about that,” Señor Alvarez said. “There’s no need to go into scientific detail. We’ve been professional purveyors of high-class victuals and fine libations since 1867. Haven’t you read the sign outside? The letters are big enough. Oh, no, of course you haven’t, reading’s not your speciality. It’s our job to know about these things. Anyway, I expect you’re here for your free grog. Doing the rounds of all the shops extracting hospitality at the point of a gun, no doubt.”

“Well, not really,” Lopez looked offended. “I’m on duty. A good police officer should never drink on duty.”

“Then there shouldn’t be any reason for you not to take a glass,” observed Señor Alvarez.

“If you’re still bitter about that incident over the tomatoes.”

“Tomatoes? What tomatoes?” The grocer feigned ignorance.

“The ones from Old Sanchez’s plot.”

“Oh, those tomatoes. I’d forgotten all about them till you just mentioned them.”

“He’s been going on about them ever since,” Rosa said.

“Haven’t you got something useful you should be doing, dear heart?” Señor Alvarez asked sweetly. “Like filing your talons or mucking out your bat cages.”

“And a Happy New Year to you too!” sang Pedro as he entered the shop.

“God! Why does his have to be one of the first faces I see at the start of each year without fail?” Señor Alvarez cried. “It’s a curse, I tell you! It’s a curse!” Having removed the fourth cork successfully, he began pacing the floor melodramatically, slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand.

“Happy New Year!” Rosa smiled at the fisherman, offering her cheek for a kiss. “Have a glass of wine, Pedro.”

“Don’t give him one!” Señor Alvarez railed. “He’s just the type of customer I’m trying to discourage.”

“Don’t be so mean,” Rosa said, “Pedro and his family have been coming here for generations.”

“And you still haven’t made the connection?” Señor Alvarez came to an abrupt halt before her. “That’s why we’re cursed,” he ranted,  “with all your superstitious claptrap hasn’t it clicked yet? They come in here bang on the first of January each year to renew it. The free glass of wine is part of the ritual. Once he’s got one free thing, he’s set the pattern for the rest of the year. It’s a spell, I tell you, an evil spell.”

“Take no notice,” said Rosa handing the fisherman a glass of wine, “he’s suffering from pain in the wallet. Here you are, Pedro.”

“Muchismas gracias.” Taking the glass, Pedro lifted it into the air.

“No, no, no! No need to toast,” Señor Alvarez waggled a finger. Pedro lowered the glass. “Please don’t,” the grocer said, “I beg you not to. It’ll only set the seal on the curse for the rest of the year. We’ll have twelve months of hobgoblins ransacking the shelves. Just knock it back, thank your lucky stars you got one, and go. Here you are, have a banana while you’re at it.” He ripped one from the bunch at his elbow. “Happy New Year! Adios.” Placing a hand on the small of Pedro’s back, he started steering him towards the door. Pedro resisted.

“Happy New Year!” he said, raising the banana to toast the assembly. Rosa nodded towards it. Recognising his error, he raised the hand with the glass.

Señor Alvarez had paused to catch his breath. Drawing a hand over his furrowed brow and down across his eyes, he watched Pedro take a mouthful. No sooner was the wine in, than it was out, as a spray across the shop.

“Ugh!” Pedro exclaimed, spitting red wine onto the floor. “My God! I can’t believe it, first day of the New Year and he’s already trying to poison me!”

“I told you not to serve that wine,” said Rosa, “but you wouldn’t listen, would you? You always know best.”

“It’s the finest Rioja there is, woman,” Señor Alvarez protested. “You don’t just spit it out like that without savouring it, you have to give it time. The man’s a peasant. He couldn’t tell good wine from horse piss. It’s a waste giving it to him. Give me some, I’ll show you it’s perfectly all right.” Pouring another glass his wife handed it over. Señor Alvarez held it up to the light. “Look at that colour!” he announced, “like fresh, dark cherries laced with morning dew.” He twirled the glass between his fingers and thumb. “Reminds me of the crimson of a new dawn spreading across a vast and timeless ocean.” The grocer expanded his nostrils slightly to pass them slowly over the wine’s surface, breathing in deeply. They twitched a touch, and he withdrew them swiftly. “It’s certainly got body,” he sniffed.

“I’ll go along with that,” Pedro said, coughing up the last bits of wine. “More like bodies.  Don’t just look at it, drink it.”

“There’s no need to rush,” Señor Alvarez said, fending the fisherman off with an elbow. “The buquet of a fine Rioja has to be relished before being drunk. The oakiness of the cask must be allowed to penetrate the delicate membranes of the nasal passages. Only you wouldn’t know that.”

“Drink it,” said Pedro. Señor Alvarez put the glass to his mouth.

“Mm,” he said, moistening his lips with the dark red liquid before removing them hurriedly. “Mm!” Considerably shorter than his first ‘Mm’ his second ‘Mm’ lacked conviction.

“Drink it,” Pedro ordered.

“What’s the rush? I need to take it slowly. Haven’t you ever seen wine buffs at a tasting in the city? I go to them all the time. We connoisseurs don’t just chuck it down our throats. The first mouthful needs to be rinsed round the gums for them to absorb the subtleties. And then we spit it out. Not before we’ve had a chance to savour the breadth of individual character, of course.” But the fisherman couldn’t wait.

“You’ll spit it out all right,” he said. Placing a hand at the back of the grocer’s head he enclosed his other round the fist holding the glass, and began drawing them together. “Drink it!” he demanded, forcing glass to lips. “Drink it!” His struggling to no avail, Señor Alvarez opened his mouth to protest. Seizing the opportunity, Pedro tipped the glass. Cheeks ballooned as wine filled them to bursting.

Red liquid was trickling down the grocer’s jowls by the time Pedro withdrew the glass. All gazes fixed in eager anticipation.

The grocer’s cheeks remained ballooned. His eyes bulged and watered. To the attendant throng, he appeared transfixed by the wine. His face turned as crimson as the vast and timeless ocean in a new dawn. Sweat leaked from his brow to mingle with tears and wine before running rivulets down his chin. The more he tried to keep it in, the more the wine seemed to want to get out. Eventually, his head looked big enough to burst, and his whole body started shuddering. Unable to contain the pressure of two conflicting forces, something had to give. Aware the climax of the tasting was imminent, the crowd stepped back gingerly. And something did indeed give. In one swift move the grocer bent forward, wine jetting from his mouth and nostrils as a geyser. The crowd gasped in awe. So this was how they did it in the city. It was proving to be quite some tasting. And, having been concluded with such evident success, the assembly stood in silent reverence, waiting for the verdict.

Yet, choking and coughing for air, Señor Alvarez seemed unable to deliver it. Obviously, the wine was beyond simple words.

“Well?” Pedro finally asked, once the coughing and sputtering had subsided. “How was it?”

“Water!” the grocer mouthed with hardly a sound. “Water, get me some water!” All eyes watched as he grabbed the edge of the counter with both hands to steady himself.

“Are you all right?” Officer Lopez enquired.

“Water,” Señor Alvarez croaked. “I need water.” Plucking a bottle from a shelf Rosa passed it to him. Señor Alvarez grabbed it, rushed to the door, and unscrewed the top. Everybody followed. They saw him take a large draught. Rinsing his mouth and gurgling, he spat the pinkish mixture into the street.

Several moments passed before he managed to compose himself. He straightened up.

“I have to admit it’s got quite a bite,” he said, breathing heavily.

“It’s poison,” Pedro exclaimed, “and luckily there’s an officer of the Guardia Civil as a witness. There can’t have been a clearer-cut case of attempted poisoning.”

“Hand me that bottle,” Officer Lopez commanded Rosa. “I might have to send it over to the laboratory in Cádiz for analysis.”

“Wait a minute,” Luis Alvarez pleaded huskily, “I’ll open another for them to analyse. A much better one. You often get a bad bottle in a case. Send the new one to the laboratory, let the lads have a good drink on me.”

“Si, but attempting to sell wine unfit for human consumption,” Lopez pondered.

“I wasn’t trying to sell it, I gave it to him. You saw me.”

“That might make matters even worse. Attempting to administer wine unfit for human consumption could be construed as a premeditated attempt at murder.”

“But you saw me drink it myself. I wouldn’t try to poison myself, would I?”

“One wouldn’t have thought so,” the policeman assented. But then realised he might have assented incorrectly, “I mean, you might.”

“I wouldn’t, nobody in their right mind would.”

“Exactly,” Pedro said, “you said it, nobody in their right mind would.”

“I am in my right mind,” Señor Alvarez protested.

“There goes your defence,” Pedro dismissed, turning towards Officer Lopez. “A definite case of premeditation. Have you put it in your notebook? That’s P, R, E …”

“I can spell,” the officer interrupted, “and I’ll thank you to mind your own business.”

“It is my business!” Pedro said, “he just tried to kill me, you saw it!”

“I know what I saw.”

“He knows what he saw,” Señor Alvarez took up, “and he doesn’t need you poking your nose in.”

Officer Lopez raised a hand in a warning gesture. “I’ll thank you both to keep your mouths shut. Now you,” he turned towards Señor Alvarez. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the case of Paco Mendoza?” he inquired, looking him straight in the eye. Señor Alvarez looked back blankly, and shook his head. “The mass poisoner of San Fernando?” Officer Lopez added. Now all faces looked blank. Lopez went on to explain: “Eighteen-hundred and fifty-six. It was all over the province.”

“Bit before my time.” Pedro said. The policemen ignored him.

“They found his wife stiff as a plank on the kitchen floor. Sudden death wasn’t unusual in those days. But then, all the Mendozas started dropping like flies over the next five months. All twelve of them. All, that is, except for Paco and little Juanita, his daughter. Anyway, after another few months of those two surviving, an officer of the local police, who happened to be my great grandfather, got suspicious, and started asking questions about the town. Turned out things hadn’t been so rosy between the Mendozas. What with more than a dozen of them cramped up in the same house they were at each other’s throats most of the time.

“So, my great grandfather, decided to pay Paco Mendoza another little visit. Little Juanita led him upstairs. And there he lay, stiff as a plank, in his bed. Been there five days, she said. Clutched in his fist was a note. Turned out to be a confession. Scarcely legible, even though he worked as a scrivener. He’d poisoned every single one of them, it said. He confessed he’d been putting tiny bits of arsenic in their fish soup for two years. A dozen victims was a record for those days. But as I said, little Juanita survived. She told great grandad it was because she didn’t like fish soup, and had been tipping hers into a chamber pot.” Lopez paused to look at his listeners. The colour had drained from Señor Alvarez’ face.

“Lucky little Juanita,” Rosa said.

“Well, that wasn’t quite the end of the story,” said Lopez, taking up the thread again. “Lucky, little Juanita went on to grow big and got married. Years later, her husband died. Coincidentally, he was discovered as stiff as a plank on the kitchen floor. By that time, great grandad had retired from the force and my grandad had joined. Remembering great grandad, he thought he’d nose round a bit and ask a few questions in the barrio. Turned out Juanita had been in the local chemist’s a couple of weeks before to get a tincture for a persistent cough. On her way out she suddenly said a rat had been creeping about the bedroom, so she might as well take a bottle of arsenic while she was at it.

“That was sufficient evidence to exhume the corpse. A post-mortem revealed there was enough arsenic in it to kill a platoon. Obviously, it couldn’t have been Paco Mendoza this time, he was long gone. Juanita broke down and confessed to all the murders. The note my great-grandad found was her childish scrawl; that’s why it was almost illegible.

“So, Señor Alvarez, things aren’t always as innocent as they might seem at first glance.” The grocer’s face had gone as white as a polar Christmas.

“Good thing you were here,” said Pedro, “otherwise, he might’ve got away with it.”

“What happened to little Juanita?” inquired Rosa.

“She was sentenced to life imprisonment,” the officer sighed. “But by that time she was eighty-four. Eleven days into her sentence she passed away. Poisoned by salmonella from a prison egg.”

“It’s a funny old life,” remarked Pedro. “Well, at least you’ve caught Alvarez before he could beat her record and poison the entire population of Santa Catalina.”

Alone amongst the gathering, the grocer was no longer listening.

“Look, Lopez, here’s a case of the finest Rioja I have,” he said, dumping a case onto the counter, “normally, it’s seven euros a bottle. I’ll open a couple of these instead. Can’t harm to try a sip. You can always say it was in the line of duty”

“I wouldn’t touch it if I were you,” Pedro advised the officer. “Not if you want to see another New Year in. Remember little Juanita. Don’t let him fool you. Get the cuffs out and run him down to the station. Imagine, your first arrest of the year. Could even get you a well-earned promotion.”

“Now, now, let’s not be too hasty,” said Officer Lopez, “after all, it is the first day of the New Year, and we can’t assume Señor Alvarez set out to poison the whole town based on the evidence of a couple of glasses of wine. I can see that he obviously wants to make amends for his little mistake, and I think we owe it to him to give him the chance.”

“Si, si, I want nothing more than that,” Señor Alvarez said. “Just one little chance is all I ask.” The three men stood looking one at the other.

“Well?” Officer Lopez asked, “what you waiting for?”

“Si, what are you waiting for?” Pedro echoed.

“Waiting? What am I waiting for?” Señor Alvarez looked puzzled.

“The wine,” the policeman prompted, “your one little chance. Get opening the finest bottles of wine.”

“Si, the wine, you fool,” Pedro said, “open the cases of good wine.” Señor Alvarez’ jaw fell.

“Both of them?” he asked.

“I could’ve been lying stiff as a plank on this floor right here, Officer Lopez,” Pedro said, “exactly like Paco Mendoza’s grandmother, and all twelve of the other Mendozas. Not to mention Juanita’s old man.” He was demonstrating precisely which bit of floor with a dramatic sweep of his arm when Officer Lopez stretched out a restraining arm of his own. Leaning forward and narrowing his eyes he stared the grocer in the face.

“But it’s my best Rioja,” Señor Alvarez protested.

“Then I think you’re going to have some very satisfied customers today,” Officer Lopez said. “Both cases. Better do it while I’m here to make sure it gets done. Why not go into the storeroom and make it four cases while you’re at it? Once news gets round, I can see quite a crowd heading this way.”

“Si,” said Pedro, “why not?”

“I can see why not,” Señor Alvarez muttered to himself as he went out back.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

For another Santa Catalina story click onto: Old Miguel and the Circus