“If only hope were beer instead of beer being hope,” said Antolin.
“Si,” said Pedro, “I’d much rather be completely hopeless than completely beerless.”
“Seems to me you’re gifted with both in equal measure,” Juani muttered, while wiping tables. But nobody took the slightest notice. There was too much wisdom floating about.
“If hope were beer, I’d have more than enough to open a string of bars.” Antolin said. We all nodded in agreement. It’s what we’d all do if hope were beer. At least we hoped we would.
Little changes in Santa Catalina, and little enough as change may be, a little change in your pocket is far better than no change at all. Especially on yet another of those endless, steaming afternoons when all folk of sound mind are snoring away the siesta. That left Antolin, Pedro and I the last of the hopeless straddlers in Juani’s bar once again. But if we didn’t have much hope at least we still clung onto the last remnants of our diminishing supply of obstinate determination.
Without enough for another drink between us we were left with the hope of being visitated by a minor miracle. One of the sort that were commonplace in days gone by. But time was not with us, having almost whittled our lives away so much as to run dry of pointless conversation. But not quite.
Juani’s boys had gone to stay with their father for a couple of weeks. Stuck between a pair of fishermen fresh from a fishing trip, the only breath of sweet air about came from her continual, impatient sighing. Having wiped her last table, she’d taken to leaning her hip against the bar, in that way of hers, toying idly with strands of long, black hair, far too listless and filled with straying thoughts of her family, to think of closing. It was Pedro who punctured the contemplative lull with one of his less sensitive observations. If not exactly a refreshing pearl of wisdom, at least it was different.
“The amount of time cats spend licking themselves is enough to make you think they taste real good” he said, slouching against the other side of the bar. I wasn’t quite sure if he was keeping it up, or it was keeping him up. Both looked as though they might collapse at any moment. Following the fisherman’s gaze my eyes came to rest on Juani’s tortoiseshell cat stretched out on top of the fridge, licking his generously proportioned testicles. So loud and tortured was each lick you might think his tongue got so painfully glued to the things he had to rip them away. Which conjured up another scenario. If Pedro wasn’t going to raise it, neither was I.
It took some time for Antolin to pick up the thread left hanging so temptingly in the air. Slumped on a stool, his elbows on the bar, he was picking his teeth with a matchstick, pausing occasionally to examine the scant harvest. If he didn’t eat something soon, they’d be nothing left to pick.
“They don’t,” he finally said.
“What don’t what?” said Pedro, having already forgotten what he’d been saying.
“Cats don’t what?”
“Cats don’t taste good.”
Pedro stirred to attention.
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Take my word for it; you don’t want to know.” And immediately, Pedro desperately wanted to know.
Having sucked a fleck of dental detritus from the matchstick back onto the end of his own tongue, Antolin glanced up to make sure Juani wasn’t looking before lightly spitting it onto the floor. Then, shifting his weight from one buttock to the other, he eyed Pedro without so much as a blink. He wasn’t giving anything away.
Pedro’s face screwed up. An unwholesome vision was beginning to take hold.
“You don’t mean to say you’ve licked one?” he asked. “How disgusting!”
“Of course, I haven’t,” Antolin said. “It was old Miguel.”
“You licked old Miguel?” Pedro said. “That’s unhygenic.”
Antolin sighed the sigh of a man weary of explaining the obvious.
“And licking cats isn’t? Of course I haven’t licked old Miguel. Or a cat. We’re talking about him, not me.”
“Let me get this straight, you’re saying old Miguel once licked a cat?”
“Not licked one. You couldn’t know how one tasted just by licking it. He ate one.”
“A cat? He ate a cat?” The concept was so unimaginable Pedro needed to keep repeating it. “Miguel ate a real cat?”
“It was back in the civil war. There wasn’t much else about to eat.”
“But he ate a cat?”
“Not a whole one. He couldn’t do that.”
“I’m not surprised, it must’ve tasted awful.”
“No, that wasn’t the reason. If he’d been given half a chance, he’d have wolfed it down, tail and all. But he had to share it with the others. That’s what he told my father. He and his men had run out of rations. They were up north in fighting Franco in Catalonia when they got stranded behind enemy lines. He once showed me his medal.” The explanation confused Pedro further.
“He got a medal for eating a cat?”
“Not for eating the cat, stupid, for his brave exploits. You don’t get medals for what you eat, even if it is a cat. They were starving, according to my Dad. It was the company cat.” That was too much even for my ears.
“You’re not trying to tell us the Spanish Republican Army issued company cats as emergency rations?”
“Well, maybe not the company one, any old cat. It doesn’t matter, who the cat belonged to, he and his men ate it.”
“It might not matter to you, but what about its owner?” Pedro pointed out, “It might’ve have been the only companion to some poor, lonely old widow with no surviving relatives, who put a few tit-bits out for it each evening. She might’ve have been calling for it most of the night. and even gone out searching in her nightie. All to no avail. She could’ve thought it had fallen down the well, and then fell in after it, trying to get it out.”
“I think she’d have heard it mewling if it fell into a well,” I said helpfully.
“Not if it lost consciouness,” Pedro said.
“True enough,” I said. “But then if it fell in a well it most likely would’ve drowned.”
“Not if the well had run dry.” You had to hand it to Pedro, he thought of everything. “Besides, even if it hadn’t run dry, cats can swim when they have to.”
“Do you want me to finish the story or not?” Antolin asked.
“Sorry, go on.”
“After Miguel and a few others got separated from the rest of their company, they found themselves surrounded by a huge band of Franco’s rebels. It was the middle of winter, and had been snowing for almost a week without stop. Completely cut off, with no way of receiving supplies, or making their escape, they had nothing else to eat, so they ate the cat.”
“The well could’ve iced over, if it was the middle of winter,” said Pedro, but nobody was listening by that time.
“Let me get this right, you’re saying they kept a pet cat in the middle of a battlefield?” I asked.
“And a hamster too, I suppose,” added Pedro. He was doing it on purpose. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist joining.
“Perhaps they were keeping a canary for a Christmas feast,” I popped in for good measure
“It’s not funny,” said Antolin, “I’m trying to answer your infantile questions. They were starving. Maybe the cat just happened to be wandering by.”
“Wandering by? Through a battlefield, in a snowstorm?” Having had his own hypothesis, about the widow and the well, dismissed so readily, Pedro was not going to let Antolin off the hook just like that. “And you think my story about the poor, old widow was stretching things a bit far. You know, sometimes your coldness towards poor old widows is chilling in itself.”
“Perhaps it’d stopped snowing for a bit,” Antolin snapped, “I don’t know, do I? I’m only telling you what Miguel told my father. Why do you have to keep asking so many questions all the time? It’s far too hot.” Pedro fell into thoughtful silence. But not for long.
“What about all the bullets flying about? Surely the cat would’ve run away?”
“They might’ve had it on a lead,” I said in an attempt to be helpful by restoring both fishermen’s pride and dignity under increasingly difficult circumstances. But, thinking I was still travelling the same cruel road as he, Pedro had different ideas.
“Or they could’ve kept it in a basket,” he teased. “One of those that people use to take cats to the vet in. They’ve got a little door on the front, so you can get them in and out. They could’ve snacked on it whenever they felt peckish.” With a finger and thumb, he began demonstrating how the little door of his imaginary cat basket would’ve opened and closed, and how Miguel and his men would’ve bitten off a piece of cat from time to time. When he turned to look at Antolin once more. he saw his lips were drawn tight. Pedro cleared his throat. “Did they cook it?” he asked, his brow furrowing with affected curiosity.
“Of course, they cooked it. They wouldn’t eat it raw, would they? I mean who in their right mind would eat a raw cat”
“But the fire would’ve given their position away to the enemy,” Pedro announced victoriously.
“The enemy didn’t know they were there,” Antolin countered.
“That’s what I mean, as soon as they lit the fire, they would’ve known exactly where they were.”
“Yes, but they wouldn’t have known it was them, would they? All fires look the same. You don’t have enemy fires and friendly fires, do you? Everybody would’ve used fires to cook on.”
“Now you’re stretching things a bit too far,” Pedro said, “there can’t have been that many stray cats wandering about a battlefield in a snowstorm. Certainly not enough to feed an army.”
“I didn’t say they were all eating cats, did I? Just Miguel and his men. The others might’ve had spit-roasted oxen with all the trimmings, for all I know.”
“Or barbecued lamb chops,” I suggested.
“They might even have had salchichas, come to that,” said Pedro. “There’s nothing better than a couple of fried salchichas on a cold winter’s day.”
“Or a hot summer’s day, for that matter,” sighed Antolin, with not a morsel left between his teeth to pick. “Imagine them, sizzling away on a hot plate, filling the winter air with their delicious fumes. Ooh, I could murder a salchicha right now.”
“Salchichas, beer, and crusty bread,” said Pedro, “I can almost smell them.” He sniffed the air. “Juani, you haven’t by chance got half a dozen salchichas doing nothing in that fridge of yours, have you? I’ll pay you next week. Promise I will.”
“Funny you say that,” Juani said, “No, I haven’t. But I could lend you the frying pan to cook up the cat if you’re that hungry. You can take both with you on your way out. That’s if you can catch the cat without getting clawed to death.” Looking deep into our eyes, there were obviously no takers. “Any of you want anything else before I lock up?” She asked, sweeping across our our expressionless faces once more. “Thought not. By the way, if you really want to know, old Miguel spent the entire civil war selling contraband tobacco to Chinese gold miners in Peru. He was nowhere near Catalonia. I know that because my great grandfather Felipe was with him. I’ve even got a photo of them standing at the railway station in Lima.”
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming