“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