The little pueblo Franco forgot

Santa Catalina iglesia
Illustration – Angelica Westerhoff

While little changes in Santa Catalina, little changes to the world outside don’t go completely unnoticed. The global financial crisis for a start, which has left the pueblo very short of the little change we need.

It’s left poor Pedro with even less  small change than he lost through the hole he claimed to have in his trouser pocket for over a year. He didn’t get it fixed because he said he couldn’t afford to. It’s something to do with balance sheets, and making tax claims for net losses, I gather. That gave him cause to remind us, yet again, how he lost one of his nets while out at sea. Along with an entire catch. Biggest of the year, it would’ve been. I don’t know, nearly all his explanations have gaping holes in them, or have something to do with things that have holes in them. I usually stop listening after the third beer.

But now the global financial crisis was hitting us all hard for the second time that week, we were more than annoyed. And as it was only Tuesday, there seemed little point living out the rest of it. Imagine how you’d feel sitting outside Juani’s Bar one hot, sunny, and very thirsty afternoon with three very empty glasses on a table in front of you. There was little or no change to be had in the whole of Santa Catalina. With no change, even on the distant horizon, you can start to see clouds in the clearest of skies. Certainly not enough change for three more beers, anyhow. To tell the truth, we could’ve done with a bit of a downpour just to brighten things up a bit. It was no good asking Juani to chalk up yet another round on the slate, as there wasn’t enough slate left to chalk on. She baulked at Pedro’s suggestion she rub a few off to make room. Anyway, she claimed to have lost her piece of chalk more than a week ago, and wasn’t going to buy another piece until she got paid what she was due.

Reluctant to move, despite the fact even the froth on the sides of our beer glasses had dried through extensive over-emptiness, our thoughts turned even more to the global economic crisis, and how it was to blame for our predicament.

How could anyone mislay a few trillion dollars? Antolin had asked. Surely, these bankers don’t go round with that much stuffed in the back pockets of their trousers all the time. And if they did, they ought to be more careful about where they left their trousers. Somebody must know where it is. If only Antolin and I knew where the bastard was we’d strangle every breath from his body. Pedro said he wouldn’t mind finding those trousers, even without the cash. At least the pockets wouldn’t have holes in. Antolin was about to question how on earth he possibly could know that, as that’s probably how the money got lost, when he decided it wasn’t worth the bother.

But that didn’t stop Pedro from being as contrary as ever. He said that everyone was allowed to make one little mistake in life. And before we could contradict him, he began telling the tale of the tiny, little mistake his great aunt had once made. A tiny, little mistake, which had brought shame on her head, financial ruin to a whole community, and had ended with her being chased out of the pueblo her family had lived in for generations. All over twenty miserly centimos.

Throughout her life Pedro’s great aunt never strayed far from the isolated pueblo where she was born. Tucked away in a remote valley in a mountain range most people had forgotten the name of,  hardly a stranger had set foot there in years. The villagers only got news the civil war had started three years after it had finished. Nevertheless, news of a war starting, without news of it finishing, had the entire pueblo making preparations for an expected wartime siege.

Despite being as good as cut of from the rest of Spain already, the village took a vote. The result had them deciding to have nothing to do with the world beyond the pueblo’s boundaries until news arrived of the end of the war. It took a long time coming.

Realising they would have to work out some sort of trading system, to keep things going, they decided to pool their entire wealth to set up a village bank. That entire wealth amounted to one twenty centimo coin a small boy had found in the horse trough outside the Town Hall, which had to be wrested from his tiny fist by the mayor while several men held the reluctant little tyke down.

And thus the entire population survived thirty years of Franco’s dictatorship without being noticed. Somehow, by using a combination of peasant shrewdness and instinctive thrift they managed to live on that one twenty centimo coin throughout a war that had finished twenty-seven years before. It took quite some doing, Pedro assured us.

The way Pedro remembered his great aunt telling, a typical week went something like this. On Monday, his great aunt took in the baker’s washing, for which she received the twenty centimo coin to spend as she wished. If there was coffee in the larder, she went to the butcher to buy meat, if there was meat, she went to the greengrocer to buy vegetables. Depending on which, she would buy twenty centimos worth of  coffee, vegetables or meat. On receiving the twenty centimos, the butcher, grocer or greengrocer, would spend it with the fishmonger, who would go to the grocery shop, to stock up on coffee or flour. On Tuesday, the grocer had his delivery bike repaired at the blacksmiths for twenty centimos, and the blacksmith paid the farmer twenty centimos he owed him some wood. In the evening the farmer’s wife nipped up to the chandler for twenty centimos worth of candles.

Next day, the chandler sent his son out for twenty centimo’s worth of cloth from the drapery for his wife to run up some curtains for the teacher. The draper used the money to pay his rent, and his landlord drank it away at the village taverna. Thursday, the tavern keeper spent twenty centimos on ointment for his gout at the chemists. And the chemist went to the Friday morning market to buy cheese. The rest of the day the twenty centimos passed from stall to stall before ending up in the purse of the shepherd’s daughter. Each Saturday she went up to the baker for a loaf of bread. Saturday night, Pedro’s great aunt mopped out the bakery, for which the baker gave her the twenty centimo coin again. On Sunday morning she popped the money into the church collection, which the curate spent on an hour with the village prostitute that evening. By this method the villagers managed to cater for most of their basic needs.

I was trying to think of the inevitable flaw to the system, when I found there was no need. Pedro told us of the pueblo’s own, terrible Black Monday, when the whole precarious economic structure collapsed.

That terrible day began with a peddlar happening to come across the village while lost on his way Seville. Ominously, the first door he knocked on belonged to Pedro’s great aunt, who, having just hung out the bakers’s washing to dry, had the entire wealth of the village in the pouch of her pinafore. The peddlar’s keenly-trained ear could hear the twenty centimo coin, rattling around with a key and some pegs.

As soon as Pedro’s great aunt cast her eyes on the glittering, lucky brass horseshoe he took from his backpack, she was hooked. The fact it was only twenty centimos made it irrestitible. The exchange was made in a jiff. As the intinerant peddlar whistled his way down the mountain track flicking the entire financial resources of the pueblo in the air as he went, Pedro’s great aunt was already nailing the glittering, lucky brass horseshoe above her front door.

Turned out the glittering lucky brass horseshoe wasn’t so lucky after all. As soon as the pueblo found out what she had done, Pedro’s great aunt was chased out of the pueblo never to return. And that’s how that side of the family ended up in Santa Catalina.

“Come on, that must be worth a round of beers,” Antolin shouted to Juani. But she pretended not to hear.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming