The Naughty Toilet Mirror

 

ToiletMirror3:4viewPure chance or cunning bait — I’ll never know, but regardless of how it got there, the item I spotted in a secondhand junk store turned out to be a perfect example of something that used to be known in the antique trade as a ‘naughty*’ piece.
Although the store advertised itself as selling ‘antiques’, almost everything inside was simply cheap furniture from the nineteen-fifty’s, a few racks of secondhand clothes, the odd pile of long-playing records, assorted aluminum pots and pans, and a few old copies of Life magazine. But perched on a scratched and stained Danish Modern coffee table with one leg missing, was something that caught my eye — something that looked like the genuine article.
On closer inspection I discovered I was looking at what is properly known as a toilet mirror: a small tilting mirror mounted on a small case fitted with one or more drawers. Sometimes also called dressing glasses, but more often referred to not quite accurately as shaving mirrors, a toilet mirror is a small item of furniture that became popular in the eighteenth century. Such items continued to be made well into the nineteenth century when the ability to produce larger size mirrors made them obsolete.
Typically veneered with mahogany or walnut they range from plain rectangular boxes with a single drawer to cross-banded and stringed serpentine-fronted cases surmounted by a variety of different shaped mirrors, invariably tiltable. Like larger pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as bureaux, bookcases, and commodes, they are instantly recognizable as pieces from the golden age of cabinetmaking, and as such are easily classifiable as Queen Anne, Georgian, Chippendale, Sheraton, or Hepplewhite, etc.
Anything that old instantly engages my attention, and I was unable to resist picking it up for a closer look. The first thing I noticed was that the mirror, or at least its frame, had to be a subsequent addition, since it was supported on feet screwed to the top of the case between two small veneered patches. These patches were covering the mortises into which the original frame must have been tenoned. Undeterred by this anomaly, since the frame and stops looked equally as old as the case, I opened the drawers, looked underneath, and decided this was indeed the genuine article. The design, the patina, the rosewood crossbanding, the satinwood stringing, and — beneath a certain amount of grime — a spectacular flame walnut veneer all sang out to me.
It was at this point that the shop owner appeared. Tucking a grubby t-shirt into dirtier pants, and with a largely toothless grin, he allowed as ‘how rare it was to find a shaving stand with its mirror still intact’. I nodded, and thus encouraged he added that despite the fact that some of the stringing needed regluing it was a rare find.
I looked at the mirror which was in fact intact. A scattering of dark spots where the silvering was missing did little to obscure the wavy look of really old glass. Affecting only a mild interest I asked the price, and was given a figure that was surely higher than for anything else in the shop. But, realizing that even at a knowledgeable dealer’s auction this price would have been a bargain, I tried not to show my enthusiasm, shrugged, and asked if it were possible to do a little better. The grin disappeared, he grumbled and repeated how rare it was to find such a piece with its original glass — but dropped the price.
I bought it, and scarcely believing my luck took it back to my workshop, proud and excited to have found another piece of eighteenth-century furniture.
For the next few hours I carefully reglued loose sections of stringing and banding, and gently eased a couple of veneer bubbles back into place with a scraper that I had heated in hot water and then, protected by several sheets of blotting paper, pressed over the parts that had become separated. With some 0000 wire wool and a little beeswax I removed some small paint spatters, being careful not to remove too much of the two-hundred year old patina.
By the time I had finished I had made some startling discoveries. My toilet mirror, although undoubtedly old, was not exactly what I had initially thought it was.
The mirror’s oval frame, although veneered with cross-grain dark walnut and edged with satinwood stringing, and holding genuinely early thin glass — which I ascertained by placing the edge of a quarter on the surface and tilting it slightly in order to measure the distance between the edge of the coin and the beginning of its reflection — was definitely not eighteenth-century but more probably early Victorian, since the turnscrews holding the mirror’s frame in its supporting structure were finished in points rather than the flat domes found on eighteenth-century turnscrews. Not only that, but the supports that held the frame were also made of mahogany in contrast to the walnut veneer of the case — with feet of a lighter wood that had been stained to match — visible where a small scratch had cut through the stain.
The case was quite different. Veneered in flame-pattern walnut, with rosewood crossbanding and satinwood stringing around all edges, it had a serpentine front containing three drawers. It was a perfect compliment to several Sheraton bureaux I have pictures of, and I was reminded of the fact that these items were often kept on top of stylistically similar larger pieces. But the drawer handles were wrong. Instead of Sheraton-style drops, the two outside drawers had small ivory pulls. Although beautifully turned I could now see they were not original; not only did they not sit perfectly against the front of the drawers but there were also signs of missing finish where other knobs or pulls must once have been attached.
The wide central drawer — where the original owner probably kept valuable toiletry items such as expensive brushes and combs — had originally been fitted with a lock. The lock was missing, and so was the standard round-bottomed escutcheon that must have once protected the veneered surface from the key. More obvious was the fact that the drawer did not close flush with the front surface of the case. I pulled it out for closer inspection. Beautifully dovetailed thin oak sides and back with perfectly parallel saw marks still visible, plus a tapered piece of walnut veneer at the very front of the drawer bottom (to keep the drawer centered vertically when closed) formed a solidly rectangular whole — and yet while not warped or out of shape in the slightest degree, one side of the drawer remained almost a 1/4in. proud of the front of the case. The reason became obvious when I looked inside the case. New drawer stops had been clumsily glued to what I could now see was a replacement back. The outside of the back piece had not initially attracted my attention since it was more or less uniformly dark as if oxidized by age, but the inside was much lighter and clearly a relatively new piece of pine!
My final discovery came on turning the case upside down. Although I could see the bottom was original — there was the scribeline outlining the dovetails where the sides joined the bottom, and there were the small dark areas of more oxidization where tiny nails went through the bottom into the drawer partitions — the feet were crude replacements. Although they had been stained to match perfectly the colour of the rest of the case, they were little more than crude pieces nailed on, not even perfectly aligned with the sides of the case and mismatched in terms of height to boot — causing the case to rock slightly when placed on a flat surface. The original feet — which would at least have been nicely formed little brackets, if not a more complicated design in keeping with the sophistication of the rest of the elegant case — had been sawn off, as evidenced by saw marks on the corners of the bottom.
My toilet mirror consisted of mis-matched parts, crude replacements, and missing elements — all adding up to a ‘naughty’ piece designed to masquerade as a genuine fully integral eighteenth-century antique. Such salvage operations have been common since Victorian times as the supply of genuine pieces dried up and unscrupulous dealers have sought to satisfy modern demand. It has been estimated that out of a total population of twelve and a half million in eighteenth century England no more than two million families might have been able to afford high-quality cabinet pieces, and of these probably no more than a hundred and forty thousand might have had the need to do so, and yet there may be as many as two thousand pieces offered for sale every year now in antique shops and auctions — in addition to those already in museums and other authenticated collections. Obviously they can’t all be genuine.
I’ll never know if my attention had been drawn to the ‘rare original’ mirror in order to distract me from other disparate elements, but I now knew I was not the owner of a ‘genuine eighteenth-century shaving stand’! On the other hand, most of it is still very old and beautifully made, and gives me a lot of pleasure to look at and consider its long and colourful past, and wonder whose possessions it must once have held and whose reflections it once showed.

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 12

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RCJacketFrontfBPART TWO: RONDEAU
Chapter 12
Tin Pan Alley
Back in London our hero moves in with an unusual crowd and starts work as a song plugger — and becomes a father.

It was not until he left Victoria Station that it began to sink in that he was home again. Even after the boat had docked at Folkestone and he had boarded the train for London he still felt like a traveller in a strange land. But as he crossed the bus terminus, dodging the big red double-deckers and the swarming black taxicabs, and turned into a Victoria Street busy and alive with English voices, the reality that had been Spain began to evaporate with every step like a dream fading on awakening.

And then, no sooner had London and England begun to seem real, a new disquietude began to trouble his travel-tired spirit. Having grown used to the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign land he now felt oddly disturbed at the thought that no one around him was aware that he had just arrived from somewhere far away, and that here he was, back after six months in undreamt of places, being brushed up against as if he were merely another everyday commuter. He wanted to shout out: “Look at me! This time yesterday I was in Spain — in Barcelona — another world!”

But no one knew, and no one looked as if they would care anyway. The desire to tell someone, to validate his presence in this new reality became an imperative, and he mentally ran through a list of people he might call in order to announce his arrival. He thought first of Sarah, but winced and quickly passed on through various relations and acquaintances until he remembered Brian Coleham. He had shared a flat with Brian the previous year and it occurred to him that Brian would also be a good place to start the hunt for lodging — which was his next most important concern.

He stopped at a red phone box and hunted around in his bag for the little store of English money that he had kept since Sarah and he had first changed their meagre funds into francs and pesetas all that time ago. The coins had dulled, and they looked strangely large as he pulled them out. He pushed four copper pennies into the slot. It was not yet nine o’clock, and unless Brian had experienced a major conversion and radically changed his lifestyle to become one of the ‘employed canaille’ he so despised, he would still be in bed watching his automatic coffee machine prepare his morning plasma. Sure enough the phone rang only twice before it was picked up. Barely audible behind a trumpet in full blast he heard Brian’s languid tones.

“Speak to me, oh world, I am your sounding board!”

“You’ll be a bloody cracked sounding board if you don’t turn that music down. What is all that racket, it’s almost drowning you out?”

“Ah, the Philistine Coulter is among us again — you’re surely not ringing from the land of sun and señoritas are you?”

“No, I’m in Victoria Street. I’ve been travelling for two days and I need a place to sleep. Can I crash on your settee?”

“My dear Coulter, you may crash in the room of the lately departed and much missed MacCaig, whose lamentably unsympathetic pater has seen fit to recall him to the less libertine environs of Edinburgh — due, I might add, to certain unsatisfactory reports from the educational establishment at which he was pretending to improve himself.”

“Have you relet the room yet?”

“Numerous applications are about to be considered, my dear returning prodigal. Why, has expatriatism lost its charm?”

“Sort of. Get another key made, I’ll be right over.”

This was better than he had expected. A place to stay, which would undoubtedly be cheaper than any bedsitter he might have found and, apart from the occasional mayhem that occurred when the ever-changing cast of Brian’s sub-tenants got out of hand, would be in surroundings more entertaining and infinitely less lonely.

He was, however, forced to bribe Brian with the promise of a double deposit before the room became his. But considering that he managed to convince him to wait for both the first week’s rent and the deposit until he should be gainfully employed and in funds again, he felt it was worth it, especially since he knew that once he had started to pay rent he would probably be able to stall coughing up the deposit almost indefinitely.

As it turned out, one of the three other current occupants of the top floor of Alexandra Mansions was a Hungarian émigré called Lazlo, who found Roger a job immediately at the place where he worked himself, and Brian was so happy at receiving rent at the end of the first week of Roger’s residency that he pressed him only lightly for the deposit. The job was at a sheet music seller’s in Charing Cross Road, just round the corner from Denmark Street — the centre of the Popular Music Business — otherwise known as Tin Pan Alley. Although the firm was dickensian in every respect, and the actual job of seeking out music from the shop’s labyrinthine and dusty library to make up orders that were dispatched to other music shops all over the country was mind-numbingly boring, Roger was pleased to think himself part of the music business. As he took the tube down from Hampstead every day he felt sure that the decision made on the docks — was it really only five days ago? — had been the right one, and that the time would now be very short before he would be able to send for Carmen.

By the end of January, however, although life at Alexandra Mansions was convivial and diverting, and although Lazlo had become a good friend, frustration was growing upon Roger once again. The decision to leave Spain had been instantaneous, but on the long train ride home again there had been plenty of time to reconsider the bigger picture, and he had decided on a revised Grand Plan. The Castilian Suite for String Orchestra he now thought had been too adventurous a project; he was abashed at his own temerity. Spain had been an invaluable experience, and the work he had done on the Suite was useful — but hardly good enough. Carmen deserved more than a student work. Their entire future together demanded a more secure base. He would continue writing, but more importantly, he would recommence studying.

Lazlo, who had been an architecture student in Budapest before leaving after the 1957 uprising, and was now struggling to learn English so that he might resume his studies in Britain, had thus far been very supportive of Roger’s somewhat parallel Grand Plan. He had endeavoured to make time for Roger to study surreptitiously among the racks by collecting some of the more difficult-to-find pieces himself. Despite his still very inept command of English he had become amazingly adept at understanding the byzantine system by which the music was stored, and could locate any requested piece in a fraction of the time it took any one else to find it. In fact, he was faster even than Hodges, who headed the firm’s staff of collectors and who, having been with the firm for many years, could reputedly remember when much of the material had actually been delivered from the original publishers. Lazlo had masked his ability from the very first in order to utilize the saved time to study his English grammar texts, and the rate at which he appeared to collect his orders was now carefully slowed so as to create even more time for Roger.

The time thus made available to Roger had so far been spent preparing for the extra-mural examinations for entrance to the Royal College of Music; the idea being that by the end of the summer, if he passed, he would be able to attend and devote himself entirely to composition classes. Ignoring the fact that he was barely making enough money to support himself at present, let alone save any for supporting Carmen and the baby when it should arrive, how he was going to be able to keep things together when he was studying full-time remained a complete — and ignored — mystery. His fervent self-involvement had been sufficient to render this mystery irrelevant for the first few weeks, but now it was becoming apparent there was a terrible flaw in the Plan and he began to try to think of ways to improve the situation.

His frustration at this stage was further compounded by Hodges, who was beginning to be a problem. A small man in his late forties, with a pointed chin and wire-rimmed spectacles, he had been at the job since leaving school, and was full of the unctuous officiousness commonly seen in that class of clerks which has risen above the humblest but will never achieve any real authority.

“Not an easy piece to find, but I think if we look under ‘Chorales’ we might have some success, Mr Orolik,” he said one day, just as Lazlo was starting at the wrong end of a rack in order to justify the thirty minutes that he proposed taking for the search.

“Tsenk you, Hodges,” said Lazlo, staying where he was. “I look already in ‘Chorales’ but is not to find.”

“I think if you look more carefully you will find it there, Mr Orolik. Don’t you think so, Mr Harrison?” he added, more loudly, looking over his shoulder to the proprietor of the firm, who was standing at the main counter in the front of the shop.

“What’s that, Hodges?”

“I was suggesting that Mr Orolik look for Vita Pulchra in ‘Chorales’, Mr Harrison.”

“Quite right, quite right! Look in ‘Chorales’, Orolik. You’ll save a lot of time if you take Hodges’s advice.”

Hodges smiled smugly at Lazlo, who picked up the pile he had already collected and in squeezing past Hodges managed to drop it, and in so doing cause Hodges to drop his own pile as well. As Hodges bent down to retrieve the sheets, Lazlo somehow managed to knock two other open folders from the shelves, so that their contents also fell on top of the previous piles.

“Oh, let me help!” said Roger hurrying over, and in his rush tripping, so that reaching to save himself from falling he too managed to empty several more files of their contents onto the exasperated Hodges.

By the time order was restored and the three collectors were back at work, Hodges had had enough and was content to leave Lazlo and Roger to their own devices for the rest of the day. But day by day his persistent meddling increased, and more and more he managed to bring some deficiency of Roger’s or Lazlo’s to Harrison’s attention under the guise of well-intentioned obsequiousness. It was not long before Roger’s chief occupation had ceased to be trying to find some time in which to squeeze the odd fifteen minutes of studying, and instead was directed to dreaming up new ways to frustrate Hodges and land him in trouble with Harrison.

Although he normally found great difficulty in being punctual, he now went so far as to arrive a few minutes before Hodges each day and look at the list Hodges would be expected to fill, remove the contents from the appropriate folders, and hide them somewhere else. One day he had a better idea. He managed to switch the address labels on a couple of orders, one of which was particularly urgent and which Hodges had been specially assigned to fill, and sat back to enjoy the inevitable furor. Two days later, arriving at work expecting that on this day the orders would have been discovered to have been sent to the wrong addresses, he received an unpleasant surprise. Instead of a chagrined Hodges in hot water with Harrison he found himself on the mat. Hodges had realized what had been done and had gone immediately to Harrison to ‘apologize’ for Roger, saying that it was Roger who had written out the labels and whose inexperience had resulted in the switched addresses. Harrison, an irritable man at best, was beside himself.

“Mr Coulter, this firm is where it is today because our customers have learned over fifty years that they can rely on us. You are the last link between our reputation and the customer. Our entire library and stock counts for naught if it be misdelivered as a result of downright incompetence. You were given this position on the basis of your supposed familiarity with our stock in trade. I was led to believe that you were, in fact, a musician acquainted with the literature of the profession.” He spluttered on in this vein for a considerable time.

Roger pursed his lips and frowned, wondering what he was doing standing there listening to all this nonsense. What was the matter with the bloody fool? Who did he think he was, and who the hell cared anyway? Anyone would think this was all actually important. At last he simply turned and walked away, leaving Harrison continuing to splutter with increased indignation.

“Mr Coulter, where are you going?” — splutter, splutter — “I haven’t finished …” — splutter, splutter — “Come back! You may consider yourself relieved of your…”

But Roger had already reached the back of the shop where the coats were hung up. He turned and said: “Goodbye, Harrison, you really ought to watch your blood pressure, you know.”

As he opened the door to leave, Lazlo rushed after him.

“Vait for me. I come also!”

“Mr Orolik, if you leave with Mr Coulter you too may consider yourself sacked.”

But this remark was ignored as well, and they slammed the door and ran off laughing down Charing Cross Road. Harrison, who by this time was screaming at the top of his voice, was left alone with a terrified but triumphant Hodges.

“Now what do we do?” said Roger as they came to a stop at the corner of Denmark Street. He was wondering where to go until the pubs opened, since in his opinion their audacity demanded a suitable celebration. But Lazlo was thinking of his future, and an idea that Bart — the most recent arrival at the flat and a Spanish wine exporter’s son — had suggested to him.

“I tsink I take now big step into business. ‘Orolik Import Export’ is sound like wery good idea. I vill start vit champagne. Vill you be partner?”

“Lazlo, that’s a great idea. This is as good an opportunity as any to try your hand. But I don’t think I’ll be your partner, I’ve got to stick to my music.”

“So vot you try now — collectink for Moody and Bliss Poblishers?”

“No, I’m going to Grossner’s. I heard they’re looking for a junior plugger.”

“Plogger? Vot it is?”

“A plugger takes sheet music around and tries to get people to play it. If you get good you can get into the record business. Besides, you get to work your own hours, and I bet with any luck I could get a lot of studying done.”

“How you know from tzis?”

“Max over at Lilly and Hawkes was telling me about it at lunch yesterday. I was going to go over to Grossner’s tomorrow anyway. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t stop by now and see if I can arrange for an interview. Come with me and we can get a drink afterwards, all right?”

“To tzis,” agreed Lazlo grandly, “I vill trink champagne!”

 *

Over the next few weeks ‘Orolik Import Export’ gradually became a reality, and after Lazlo had talked Brian into backing the purchase of a fifteen-year old van, on the sides of which he had the firm’s logo — a champagne bottle emerging from a globe — emblazoned in black paint (the van having been painted by hand in a particularly virulent shade of blue), the venture gained a certain credibility. Lazlo and Bart spent a lot of time driving the ‘waan’ to the docks, bringing back ever more paperwork but no champagne. This seemed in no way to dampen their enthusiasm, and Roger continued to wish them luck.

In the meantime he had applied to Grossner Music Publishers, lying about the circumstances surrounding his departure from Harrison Music Distributors. To his relief his story was not checked, nor was he asked for references. The following Monday found him around the corner from his previous employer, basking in the glory of his elevated position. That very afternoon he took time off from familiarizing himself with Grossner’s catalogue to use the office typewriter to write to Carmen:

My Dearest Carmen,
We’re nearly there! As you can see by the letterhead I’m now a genuine part of the music business. I imagine that before very long I will have saved enough from this place to be able to afford to move out of Brian’s and look for a place for both of us. Hang on, it won’t be long, I promise — another couple of months at the most. Then we can get married and the baby’s birth can be taken care of on the National Health.
With all my love,
Ludwig van Coulter!

To a certain extent his optimism was justified. Life as a song plugger for Grossner Publishers was a great improvement over life as a collector for Harrison’s. He did not have to start work until nine a.m., and since there was no time-clock, arrival and departure times were quite flexible, depending mainly on who from the upstairs office was in the building. Lunch hours were considerably relaxed: he was free to leave whenever he felt like it, and by arranging an appointment immediately after the supposed lunch hour itself, it was often three in the afternoon before he reappeared in the office.

The job consisted mainly of sending copies of Grossner’s most recently published sheet music to various small-time performers in the hope that the pieces would be played and thereby stimulate sales. It had been a passive operation up to Roger’s arrival, his predecessor merely mailing out copies of each new song as it was published to a list of theatre organists, but Roger was quick to see that follow-up phone calls and personal visits were far more likely to produce results — as well as provide copious opportunities for some quiet study on park benches.

It was difficult to tell whether Roger’s new approach had any direct effect on sales since he shrewdly concentrated on distributing only those pieces of music which had been recorded already and which were consequently already in demand. But the list of plays in theatres, restaurants, and hotels grew impressively, and although the royalties received by the firm were by no means enormous — amounting only to fractions of a penny for each performance — the upstairs office was duly impressed, and after only a month took the unprecedented step of giving Roger a small rise.

Lunchtime society in the Alley also improved greatly for Roger. As a plugger he was now admitted into a more elite circle than he had been as a lowly collector, and he began to hear stories about the next level of the business — that concerned with recording. Several pluggers working for other publishers with whom he became friendly were actually assigned directly to looking for ‘covers’ — minor recording artists who might be cajoled into recording additional versions of songs already made into hits by the big names. Max, the stock manager for Lilly and Hawkes, whom Roger had met while still at Harrison’s, and who had encouraged him to ‘move up in the world, my son’ was a special source of inspiration.

“It’s like this, Roger me boy,” he announced one day with his thumbs stuck in the armholes of his striped waistcoat, “you’ve gotta be smoove. All these bleedin’ recordin’ artists think they’re Frank Sinatra, don’t they, and you’ve gotta treat them like they was — even though they ain’t and never will be.”

“Yes, I see.”

“No, you don’t, neither. What you need is a new suit, innit? Get rid of that bleedin’ corduroy jacket and get yourself kitted out with somethin’ smart.”

He took the advice, but the new suit ate a large chunk out of the savings account recently established for phase two of the Grand Plan. However, after a lot of soul-searching it was rationalized on the theory that it would lead to quicker and greater growth of the fund by increasing his efficiency, and maybe his chances of being promoted to Grossner’s record-plugging team. It was a vote of confidence in himself that did in fact lead to results in the form of increased responsibilities and commensurate opportunities, but somehow the results never quite made it into the savings account. He found himself being included in the sharper set of pluggers, and instead of lunching on two-and-sixpenny veal escallops in Maria’s — the little Italian café at the end of the Alley — he was now enjoying five-shilling luncheons in the Marquis of Granby’s plush-carpeted saloon bar.

Although the bank account was stagnating, his studies continued, spurred on by the daily contact with the manifest results of musical success. He was ever more determined to reach the point where it would be his music that someone else was plugging and his songs that someone else would be singing and recording. One day Gloria Laine appeared at the office. Accompanied by several record company artist-and-repertoire executives — commonly referred to as the A-and-R men — and her own manager, she was ushered upstairs into Lionel Grossner’s private office by Marilyn, Lionel’s personal secretary. The large limousine in which she had arrived filled up half the street, and soon pluggers, collectors, and casual passers-by were crowding outside waiting to get a glimpse of the celebrity — whoever it might be.

Roger knew she was expected. Marilyn had called down earlier in the day.

“Roger, make sure you’ve got every version of Singing To You on hand, including the orchestral reduction. Lionel’s managed to get the one-and-only Gloria Laine to promise to drop by this afternoon before she goes down to Leicester Square to do the matinée at the Copa. If she’ll do it at the Copa and they like it, there’s a chance she’ll include it on her live album.”

And now there he was, acting very casually, as if artists of the stature of Gloria Laine dropped in at Grossner’s every day of the week. The attitude was not only for the benefit of the audience outside. He was every bit as impressed and as excited as they were, but at the same time embarrassed with himself for it. It was one thing to work one’s way up while studying, but almost unbearable to be seen as a mere plugger by someone he hoped soon to be in a position to fraternize with, even condescend to.

The phone rang on his desk and it was Max — whose office on the other side of the street afforded him a grandstand view of practically all the comings and goings of the Alley.

“Well, my son, I can see you’ve got company over there. ’ow come you’re still at your desk downstairs and not bein’ suave with the stars up in the front office?”

“What stars? You mean Gloria what’s-her-name?”

“Gloria Laine, eh? So that’s ’oo it is. Well, I am impressed. By the size of the limo’ I thought it must be Elvis ’imself! Mind you give ’er your card before she leaves”

However, when the entourage descended and made its way through the autograph hunters jamming the space between the office door and the waiting limousine, Roger was nowhere to be seen, having just at that moment remembered something that needed to be brought up from the basement archives, and which proved exceedingly difficult to locate.

Although he fell into the habit of spending an hour every day after work at the Marquis of Granby — not just to socialize but to wait for the rush hour to subside and to get something to eat — evenings were spent in his room at Brian’s, and were devoted with monastic single-mindedness to the harmony and counterpoint texts required for the upcoming examinations. He wrote to Carmen now with regularity, unconsciously sublimating thereby any urge for female companionship, and she wrote back encouraging him in his studies but never complaining about their separation or the difficulties her pregnancy was causing for herself and her family. It was becoming increasingly apparent that he was going to be in no position to provide a flat for both of them, let alone for the baby, so long as he worked at Grossner’s, but since Carmen had now determined to have the baby in Madrid he felt justified in directing all his energies towards admission at the Royal College. The sooner he qualified, the sooner he could start work at something meaningful and sufficiently remunerative to make their lives together a practical reality.

Spring arrived and winter’s leaden skies lightened. London burst into leaf. As the temperature became warmer, Roger’s optimism increased and he felt ever surer of the outcome of June’s examination. At the same time his position at Grossner’s was improving. Gloria Laine had indeed recorded Singing To You, and new copies of the sheet music bearing her picture on the front were plastered all over the window of the offices in Denmark Street. It was easy to convince almost anyone to play the song, and consequently Roger’s play list had never been longer. Lionel Grossner had begun calling Roger by his first name, and was talking about hiring another plugger so that Roger might spend more time on recording artists. If this happened it was almost certain that another rise would accompany the event, and he would be a little closer to doing something about a flat of his own.

Back at Alexandra Mansions, Lazlo’s business had progressed so far that much of the flat was now filled with cases and crates bearing Spanish labels. Evenings were frequently occupied with much moving and removing of these things, and Brian, very put out by all the commercial activity, spent a lot of time locked in his room with his Miles Davis records playing at full blast. The effect was to make Roger’s studying less than optimal, but he bore it with good humour, buoyed with confidence in the way everything else was progressing.

On the sixth of June, the very day before the examination, he received a short letter from Carmen:

Madrid, June 2 1962
My Dearest Roger!
This morning our son was born. Come to see him so we can all be together. You can stay at my aunt’s house and my parents will receive you here when you come to see us. We miss you.
Your Carmen — and your son Juan-Miguel.

He sat the examination with almost religious fervour, conscious of answering the questions not just for himself, but for Carmen and his son and their whole future life together. Afterwards, he was so certain that he had done well, that he virtually emptied his savings account to buy a return ticket to Madrid. The money to bring them all together would surely be forthcoming when he was enrolled at the Royal College. This wasn’t exactly a logical deduction, but he couldn’t believe that having so faithfully kept to the Grand Plan fate would not somehow provide. He had done his part, and done it despite having had to do it alone, without Carmen. So far as Grossner’s was concerned, not having told them of the examination but simply having called in sick, he merely informed them his ‘influenza’ looked like being a week’s affair rather than the one-day event he had at first thought.

And so, after six months in London that had seemed twice as long until the moment he stepped off the train in Madrid’s Chamartín Station — at which moment it seemed as if he had never left — he found himself back in Spain.

 * * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a paperback at Blackburn Books.

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 11

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 11
Montezuma’s Revenge
Roger gets two jobs, two girlfriends, finds it all too much, and makes a new beginning

The decision to abandon the neo-Jean Genet lifestyle was, thanks to Ron’s fortuitous suggestion, almost immediately implemented. Despite a head-crunching hangover, he put on his clean shirt and presented himself at Oliveira’s Language School at ten o’clock the next morning. A brief interview, conducted in a confusing mish-mash of languages, was sufficient to establish that Señor Coulter was qualified to teach both English and German — the latter largely on the basis of Roger’s impressive recitation of the first verse of Heine’s Die Lorelei, which fragment comprised almost all Roger’s knowledge of that gritty language.

 The director of the school was a large, sweaty, and nervously harried man, who was eager to put Roger to work at once, but who grudgingly allowed him to begin with a class at two that afternoon, and who furthermore also advanced Roger a small portion of his weekly salary — which was to be computed according to the number — undisclosed — of classes that he would teach. The timetable would be worked out later, and Roger was to keep himself apprised of his obligations by constant attention to the notice board in the lobby, where the schedule of classes and teachers was posted daily.

It was not clear whether any classes he might be required to teach would interfere with his playing duties at the Gato Negro, so he decided not to say anything to Delgado for the moment. If he could manage both, then so much the better. If the classes prevented his playing, then presumably he would be earning enough to pay his rent entirely in cash, or even more optimistically find himself with enough cash to move out of the Gato Negro and into something more along the lines of Manfred’s superior neighbourhood in the hills. It seemed as if things might be getting better at last, and he began writing a letter to Carmen in his head as he walked away from the school, keeping an eye out for somewhere to buy hot chocolate and churros, his usual breakfast fare — especially good for hangovers — with the windfall advance.

He returned to the school a little before two, and was impressed to find his name already on the schedule, not only for the two o’clock class, but also for one at eight o’clock that evening. That meant he would be able to make an appearance at the club, and by leaving perhaps five minutes earlier than he ought, still be able to make it back in time for the eight o’clock class. The prospect of thus doubling his income was hugely exciting, and he found his way to the prescribed classroom bubbling over with enthusiasm and mentally calculating how many classes it would take before he could start looking for somewhere better to live and be able to send for Carmen.

Much of his enthusiasm evaporated the moment he opened the door. Up to this point he had not given much thought as to whom he might be teaching. He had more or less assumed it would include the average cross-section of bored housewives, young secretaries and clerks, enthusiastic salesmen, and middle-class retirees preparing for a foreign holiday. What greeted him instead was a most macabre collection of old ladies; some so old they needed propping up, others so out of it they appeared to be unsure where they were — or why. Those with faculties still intact fixed him with birdlike stares, and with much patting of elaborate hairdo’s — mostly grey, although there were a couple of garishly tinted ones in their midst — opened the books before them and picked up their gold-plated pens and pencils. Apart from the nervous rustling of those in danger of keeling over, the room became expectantly silent.

The class was about twenty strong, arranged around several large tables irregularly placed in a high-ceilinged room at the front of the building, overlooking the busy — and extremely noisy — Calle Agosto, several floors below. At the back of the room, facing the large street-side windows, was a smaller table in front of a blackboard fixed to the wall. This was obviously his command post. He walked over to the table, sat down, and then decided to stand up again. Like a certain more famous chain of language schools, the Oliveira Language School operated on the principle of native-speaking teachers speaking nothing but the language being taught. This was a German class, and all he knew was that they were beginners. Accordingly, he cleared his throat and said: “Guten Morgen!” since this was the only German greeting he knew, and although it was long past morning he had no idea what the German for ‘afternoon’ might be.

A hesitant chorus of ‘Guten Morgen’s came back at him, and then total silence descended again as fifteen or so pairs of beady eyes fixed on him. There was a gentle crash as one old lady fell off her chair, and several of the more senile students who seemed unaware of what was going on let out quiet titters.

He sat down again and opened the course book he had been given. The method was simple. The teacher pointed at something and repeated its name. After several repetitions he or she was supposed to then ask, in simple terms meant to be understood as a question by virtue of the tone in which it was uttered, what these various objects were. The students were expected to reply with the designated object’s name. This was to continue until all students could name all objects quickly and surely. Most of the words listed in the book were new to Roger, but sounding as confident as possible he made a start.

“Tisch,” he said, pointing at the table. Silence. “Tisch,” he said again, more loudly. Continued silence. He looked around encouragingly at the geriatric bafflement before him, and repeated the word a third time — even more loudly: “TISCH!”

Most of the old ladies flinched, and one actually said something suspiciously like ‘God bless you’, but they were obviously not getting the point about repeating this linguistic gem. He decided to adopt a different tack. Smiling kindly, he stood up and began walking about the room pointing at chairs, tables, the walls, the floor, and whatever else was listed in the first lesson, saying the words as slowly and as clearly as he could. and hoping his pronunciation was halfway correct. They seemed to like this, and two or three applauded him as he approached the window and said slowly: “Das Fenster…das Fenster!”

But as he walked back up the room again — without having opened the window — they looked disappointed, and fell as silent as the others.

It was like teaching a room full of hypnotized snakes. Two more old ladies fell off their chairs during the ensuing hour, but otherwise there was total silence as their beady eyes followed his every move. When the lesson was terminated by a clangorous bell, he felt as if he had been reciting some cabalistic incantation. But they all curtsied nicely as they left the room and he took comfort in the thought that unlike the sailors or his customers at the bullring they were unlikely to come looking for him later with revenge in their hearts.

He rushed back to the Gato Negro, played an increasingly quiet set, so that when he stopped earlier than he was supposed to the lack of piano would be less likely to be noticed, and then rushed back to the Oliveira Language School. The second lesson was all old men — but at least this time he was teaching English — and he spent a pleasant hour and a half talking to another sea of uncomprehending faces, regaling them with a monologue on the subject of topless bathing at Badalona and what they were missing by attempting to learn English instead of spending time at the beach. Several of the younger ones clapped politely when it was all over, but most of them remained sound asleep in their seats when the younger ones left, and he was forced to shake them all awake so that the next class might enter. He had an idea he might not last too long if it was discovered his students did better at sleeping than learning English.

The director shook his hand warmly when he went downstairs — which was a relief — and he was happy to discover that once again the schedule for the next day would permit him to put in an appearance at the Gato Negro — just. He felt very pleased with the way things were working out, and decided to celebrate by sharing a round of Fundadors with Kurt and Ron. He found them at the usual place, and they were more than ready to celebrate with him, although he did have to endure a half-hour’s lecture on political corruption, occasioned by the delayed arrival of Ron’s government pension.

They celebrated rather later than he had intended, and as dawn broke across the still largely sleeping city he found himself cold and once again hungover trying to drink fresh horchata at one of the white-tiled combination bakery–dairies whose opening doors were the first signs of daytime life. Kurt and Ron having decided at last to head for home and bed, he was finally left alone with barely enough time to change his shirt and fight the morning rush hour to be on time for his first class of the day. This was not good; more monosyllabic German at eight o’clock in the morning with no sleep and a wretched hangover. Mercifully, his next class was not until lunchtime, and he determined to snatch a couple of hours sleep.

Sleep was not on the cards, however, and the day was not a success. The morning class had been agony; the few hours’ sleep he had been counting on had been wrecked by construction noises in the Plaza. Consequently, he was late for the afternoon class, late for his gig at the Gato Negro, and late for the evening class at the school. This time the director did not shake his hand but pointed out that he was being paid by the hour — or portion thereof that he managed to be present for. He left the school at ten o’clock intending to go directly to bed, but when he got back to the Gato Negro Kurt and Ron were waiting for him, and insisted he join them for the last set of the evening since an up-and-coming local saxophone star was expected to make an appearance.

As a result of all this, the next day was not much better. Nor was the following day much of an improvement on that day. In fact, in little less than a week after he had started at the Oliveira Language School, he felt ready to die. The classes had devolved from strange to surreal. More than once he had come to with a start at his desk, realizing that he had actually nodded off, and had no idea of how long he had been unconscious. The old ladies stared beadily, expectantly, and he barked out another mouth-destroying German noun, at which they all flinched, although by now he had progressed so far as to get at least a few of them to whisper something back. But their efforts made him sorry for them. They sounded a lot like they were trying to throw up.

In an effort to stay awake he sometimes stood up and wrote things on the blackboard, but this was dangerous since he often found himself drawing strange diagrams he had no memory of beginning; several were distinctly sexual in character, and he worried lest an unexpected visit by the director were to put his future at the school in jeopardy. There could be little justification for teaching such old ladies the German for such youthful erotic preoccupations.

His constant drowsiness was even more of a problem with the old men, of whose number more and more fell asleep at every lesson. One particularly somnolent afternoon while walking up and down between the tables of snoring students in a desperate attempt not to nod off himself, he hit upon the idea of opening the windows. Perhaps a little fresh air would help, he had thought, and had thrown wide the large casement windows with a sudden clatter. This, plus the unexpected noise of the traffic outside, had so startled some of the more soundly snoozing grandfathers that he had feared group heart attacks were imminent, and he had been forced to shut the windows again in a hurry.

And then the main reason for this new and strenuous lifestyle that he had thought was making it all worthwhile — namely, an increased income — backfired just as it was achieved, and precipitated an even worse disaster than the potential infarctions he had nearly caused his old men.

It happened at the weekend, when for the first time he had no evening classes. Still hankering after another opportunity to spend more time in the company of the French beauty, whose topless image had occupied almost as much of his available fantasy time as his true love, Carmen, he had jumped at Kurt’s suggestion that he join ‘Mesdames and Messieurs’ for dinner. It had been longer than he could remember since he had been able to contemplate such an extravagance without the necessity of taking out a loan, and aside from his eagerness to meet the ineluctably delectable Anna Raspaud again, felt he deserved some luxury after the non-stop exhaustion he had endured running backwards and forwards between the Gato Negro and Oliveira’s Language School — not to mention the occasional trip to El Perico.

They met, dined, and danced at Los Caracoles d’Oro, and the evening was everything he could have hoped for. He sat next to Anna at table, positively wallowing in her radiance and perfume, and when, during a breathy, intimate interval in the dancing, she not only tolerated his taking her hand but rested her other one on his thigh, was sure the moment had arrived when he might suggest some solitary tryst — if not in the windowless cell above the Gato Negro, then perhaps in the quiet of the cathedral precincts or some convenient park. But he was still waffling on about the ‘impression she had made on him’ when the toll for his excesses was exacted.

The first sign was an embarrassing stomach rumble, which he pretended to ignore, although he was sure he detected a slight raising of one of her beautiful eyebrows, but almost immediately he felt an abdominal gurgling which he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt could not be ignored, even were he with a hundred Anna Raspauds, all ready to rip off their clothes and fall at his feet. Annoyed and humiliated at the same time, he jumped up and ran for the toilets. He was only partially successful. Too soiled to reenter polite society, he was forced to wait until Kurt came looking for him. He explained his mortifying predicament and left by the back entrance, making Kurt promise to invent some face-saving excuse — especially to Anna.

The cool night air precipitated another attack that put paid to any idea he might have had about taking a taxi home; he was now in too much of a mess. He was also feverish, and growing steadily worse by the minute. In fact, by the time he had dragged himself up the stairs and into his tiny room at the Gato Negro he felt so bad that he would not have cared if news of his condition, far from being discreetly withheld from Anna Raspaud, had been broadcast to the entire world.

The next thirty-six hours passed by like an agonizing nightmare of which he was only vaguely aware. Word of his distress filtered down to Delgado by noon the next day when the toilet at the end of Roger’s hall became unusable by anyone else. He sent up a janitor to see what was the matter and the janitor returned with news of the ‘Ingleses’s imminent demise’. Delgado seemed to think that so long as the Inglese was alive it was no great concern of his, but since it would be difficult to find a replacement pianist on short notice he condescended to send up one of the Moroccan waitresses to see if she could straighten him out sufficiently to sit on the piano bench.

He was later appalled to think what native cure Ouida, the Moroccan, might have subjected him to had she had a free hand, but as it was she met Kurt on her way upstairs, and Kurt promptly seized the opportunity to practise the results of his five years at medical school. At first, Roger was too weak and so barely conscious that Kurt was unable to do much. But by the second day he had filled the sink on the wall in Roger’s room with a cement-like mixture of bananas and oatmeal, which he encouraged Roger to eat every time he opened a weak and watery eye. He did not have the strength to object that he had been in the habit of using the sink as a urinal, and took tiny mouthfuls which he then spat out when Kurt was looking the other way. During the intervals when Kurt was absent Ouida was left to keep an eye on the patient, and she would look in from time to time and mutter guttural soothingnesses in Arabic. Short and dark, and habitually dressed in intricately flowery clothes, she took on the persona of Florence Nightingale and Anna Raspaud combined so far as the semi-delirious Roger was concerned, and he gradually became attached to her the way many a patient comes to rely on his nurse, or a captive on his jailor. By the third day he was able to sip a little of the acrid tea she brought him, but he was more interested in the warmth and mysteriousness of her voluminous dress. His feeble attempts to bury his head or at least his hands into her warm spots were met with patient but firm reproof.

“Tu me dégoûttes, tu me dégoûttes,” she repeated over and over, and he thought she was being coy, and encouraging him. If only he had a little more strength. It was a long time later that he learnt that what she had been saying — with a heavy Moroccan accent — was ‘You disgust me, you disgust me.’

At last Kurt gave up on the banana and oatmeal cure and helped a partially recovered Roger downstairs for the first time in four days and into the nearest farmacia. The pharmacist took one look at the pathetic figure before him, and barely paying any attention to Kurt’s lengthy medical diagnosis handed over some medicine that took effect almost at once. His only surprise came when he discovered how long Roger had been in Spain before succumbing to what in Mexico is jokingly referred to as ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’.

“It must be due to the fact that since your arrival you have eaten so poorly that your system had nothing to react against,” surmised Kurt, learnedly. “Only after you indulged in some genuine cuisine at Los Caracoles, could the inevitable take place. Now, no doubt, you will be fine.”

Feeling considerably chastened for his excesses, his lack of discipline — he had written almost nothing since meting Kurt — and his shameful hankerings after Anna Raspaud — who in any event he now learnt had indeed moved into Carlos Vargas’s flat — he resumed work at the Language School, presenting a doctor’s note provided by Kurt, written on the impressive Unicorn stationery. He so far prevailed on Delgado, who more than anything else was relieved that his plumbing was once again in working order, that in return for a modest increase in rent he kept not only his windowless cell but also his piano job at the club; both, he promised himself, only for the shortest possible while. The chief consideration in this deal had been the opportunity of using the piano during the mornings before the club opened — and then only provided he had no classes to teach.

Once again dedication and determination were the order of the day. But it was difficult. His good intentions were constantly undermined by his erratic and unpredictable teaching timetable; he never knew from day to day when he might have to teach. And to make matters worse, his classes were always awkwardly scheduled; he rarely had two consecutive classes. Most often there was a gap too short to get back to the club and do anything useful, but too long to be idled away in good conscience.

He thought of Jorge’s offer to play the piano at El Perico, but knew the distractions would be too great. As it was, it was only with the greatest difficulty that he suppressed periodic urges to visit Inés.

It was now close to Christmas, and he was becoming depressed by the apparent hopelessness of his struggle to better his situation as well as continue writing the Suite, when fate rewarded him for his doggedness.

He came home from the school one evening to hear the unusual strains of Dixieland jazz emanating from the Gato Negro. This was so unlike the usual avant-garde fare that the Gato Negro was known for that he at first thought it could not possibly be live music, but must be some especially loud record. As he pushed his way into the club, noticing a different clientele than was usual, he realized that, in fact, there was a live Dixieland band playing, and a Dutch one at that.

The music was irrepressibly festive, and instead of going directly upstairs to squeeze out a few more bars of the Suite he ordered a beer and decided to stick around for a while. He had hardly picked up the beer a scowling Jaime pushed at him when he heard a voice at his side.

“You’re English, aren’t you?”

He looked around and smiled at a pretty girl sitting at the bar with a stack of music before her. “Yes, I am. My name’s Roger. Who are you?”

“Anne Rasche. I’m with the band. They said there was an English musician living here when we came in. I guessed you must be him from your long hair and your accent.” She smiled again and continued: “Do you think you could buy me something to drink until my boyfriend finishes this set. This bartender won’t give me any credit, and says he can’t serve women anyway?”

“Which one’s your boyfriend?”

“The drummer.”

“Would you like a beer, or something else?”

“A beer would be great, thank you. How long have you lived here?”

“Seems like forever. How long are you going to be here?”

“Just until Christmas. Then we go over to Ibiza for two weeks. Frankly, I can’t wait to get home.”

“Where’s home?”

“Eindhoven. Do you know it?”

“No.”

She sipped her beer and he watched her over the top of his glass. Short blond hair, a square face with high cheekbones; she reminded him of Sarah with her hair cut. Funny she should be called Anne, with the last ‘e’ pronounced as a separate syllable; almost like Anna…Anna Raspaud. Yet how different. They were both beautiful, but where Anna Raspaud was sophisticated and seductively manipulative this Anne was open and guileless.

“What’s all the music?” he asked, indicating the pile in font of her.

“Oh, it’s arrangements Dirk is working on for the band. He plays drums but he really wants to be an arranger.”

Before very long they had become fast friends. She was so easy to talk to it was as if they had known each other for years. When the set was over she introduced Dirk and the rest of the band, and they all shared several rounds of beers before it was time to play again. There was something very unassumingly dedicated about this honest Dutch band, working their way around Europe. So much so that, mindful of his own resolve and inspired by his new friends, Roger said goodnight and went upstairs to work on the Suite in a much happier frame of mind than he’d been in when he’d arrived — but not before promising to get together the next day and show them around,

Happily he had no classes until late in the afternoon the following day, and after his habitual morning chocolate-and-churros, he found himself leading a mini-tour around the more colourful parts of the Barrio Chino. At lunchtime Dirk and a couple of the other band members who had been with them remarked that they had a rehearsal planned for the afternoon, and before he knew it Roger found himself alone with Anne headed for a cable-car ride up Montjuich.

The heights to the west of the city, which the cable car ascended slowly but often dramatically, afforded a bird’s-eye view of the entire basin. They were alone in the swaying car for the last half of the journey to El Cumbre — the summit — and the glass windows magnified the heat of the sun so that it was almost warmer in the car than outside during the middle of the summer. They had been quiet for a few moments, almost the first lull in their easy conversation all day, and Roger was suddenly aware of the perspiration breaking out on his brow. He took off his sunglasses, and was digging in his trousers’ pocket for his handkerchief, when Anne leant forward and wiped the beads of moisture away with a scarf from the handbag slung over her shoulder. The gesture was quite natural and unpremeditated, as if it had been a matter of a child in need of having its face wiped, but something passed between them as she finished, and she stopped, almost in mid-motion, her face very close to his. He put up his hand to her chin and held her for a second — and then they kissed.

The slowly climbing car rocked gently from side to side, and they remained face glued to face until neither of them could breathe anymore. Finally, with a gasp, they broke apart — and there were tears on Roger’s face.

“I’m sorry… I…”

“I won’t tell,” she said with a smile.

“No, it’s not that. I’m not…after you.”

“I know,” she said, now wiping his face again unconcernedly. “From what you’ve told me it sounds like you’ve been alone too long — from anyone who really understands.”

“I didn’t think I’d told you so much.”

“You’ve told me a lot. And it’s clear that you love this Carmen, but she is from a different world.”

It’s true, he thought. It was hard to imagine Carmen following him around Europe as Anne was following Dirk and the band.

Are you and Dirk…?”

“We’re engaged and going to be married in the spring, after the band makes its record.”

“I hope it all works out,” he said.

“And I hope it all works out for you,” she replied, and kissed him again, this time a polite, friendly kiss, as was appropriate for two friends wishing each other well.

 *

Anne and the band left a week later for their gig at the White Horse Club on Ibiza. Roger helped them get their equipment down to the ferry for the passage across to the Balearics, and found himself wishing very much he was going with them. They had all become fast friends, and he had begun to feel like one of the band, even sitting in for a few numbers every night. What she had hinted at was true: he had indeed grown very lonely for company with his own kind — whatever that was, although they seemed to fit the bill. When the ferry pulled away in the short dusk of the December night he found himself very alone and almost overwhelmed by the utter foreignness of his surroundings. By the time he had reached the dockyard gates it was completely night, and the cold wind from the Mediterranean made him hunch his shoulders into his jacket. The Gato Negro was waiting for him, as were Kurt and Manfred and Jürgen, as well as all his baffled old ladies and all his sleepy old men, but the feeling that his world was out there on the ferry, over there on Ibiza, and even farther away in England, suddenly became impossible to refute.

It was not exactly homesickness or loneliness. It was not that he still felt lost in an alien environment the way he had months before. He had friends, a job — several jobs. He knew his way around, he spoke the language, and most of all he had Carmen — albeit at a distance, he thought ruefully — and he had his purpose in life — the Suite. But suddenly it all felt wrong, as if it were the wrong scenery in a play. He didn’t need this anymore. He wanted to be where people spoke his language, and where the effort to write music and the attempt to provide a means whereby he and Carmen could be together was no longer such an exotic farce.

He turned to catch a last glimpse of the ferry’s twinkling lights, and blew a kiss to Anne. He thought of his stupid infatuation with Anna Raspaud. He thought of Carmen, halfway across the country, writing to him every day. He thought — and guiltily suppressed the thought immediately — of the long-haired beauty he had first come to this wretched place with.

As he walked back up the Ramblas with his hands stuffed in his pockets, past the noisy cafés and the blaring bars with their outlandish menus of fried sparrows, frogs legs, and squid, he suddenly knew it was over. His Iberian hegira was at an end.

* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a Paperback from Blackburn Books

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 10

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 10
Anna Raspaud, I Love You So
From the seedy side of town to a day at the beach and a new beginning

 The only problem at first with this new way of life was the irregularity of the visits by the US Navy. But somehow the rent got paid, and bar by bar the Suite continued to take shape. Carmen wrote twice, and sometimes three times a week, and Roger replied at length on Mondays, when the Gato Negro was closed and he could laze away most of the day and catch up on the annoying chores of a bachelor life. Her letters were both a stimulation and a support. Each one reminded him that he was a composer and had an obligation to his art as well as a responsibility to his future family. But he soon needed comfort as well as inspiration. Time spent with Inés — not to mention her protruding teeth and her prescient fingers — was far from frequent, and he began to feel increasingly demeaned by the need to prostrate himself — as he perceived it — before the ‘damn Yankees’.

On Jorge’s instigation he had developed an additional sideline peddling the occasional reefer at the Gato Negro, but he did this with as much fear of the demonically smiling Delgado as he did of the police and the Guardia Civil. He knew little of drugs apart from what he had read in books by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet, but felt obliged to avail himself of the opportunity to become familiar with this apparently essential part of the artistic experience. Accordingly, when Jorge suggested he offer to sell a couple of joints of marijuana to Jaime, the perpetually unshaven bartender at the Gato Negro — who would no doubt be able to sell them at a profit to whatever jazz musicians might be currently playing at the club — he nervously accepted the commission. On hearing what Jorge had to say about Delgado, however, simple nervousness turned to serious apprehension.

“Whatever chu do, don’t tell Jaime chu get the reefer from El Perico. Say chu get it from Yankee sailors. Don Delgado has arrangement with the autoridades to have all the reefer in thees barrio, but chu and I we do a leetle extra business, no?”

It was not until he finally tried it himself, and spent the most deliriously hilarious afternoon of his life following the curious Catalan bands — consisting mainly of oddly-shaped clarinets, oboes, and other strange reed instruments that appeared from time to time in the narrow streets around the cathedral — and experienced transports of undreamt-of auditory delight and enlightenment that he lost his terror of The Weed itself, and realized that though the risks of being caught were probably too high — and the penalties for being caught not even to be thought of — marijuana, like sex for sex’s sake, or just for friendship’s sake, was a much maligned victim of contemporary law and morality.

He was always uncomfortable with Jaime, and in the end tall Jürgen turned out to be his best customer. After a while, any reefer that Jorge put his way he ended up selling not at the Gato Negro but to the Germans. Manfred was always very enthusiastic whenever he mentioned that he might be getting a joint or two, but it was Jürgen who most often ended up taking it. Jürgen would bend his high-domed head, crowned with its wispy blond hair, close to Roger’s face and deprecate Manfred conspiratorially.

“You know, he always talks about the reefer but he never smokes it. It makes him impotent, ha! But me, I smoke and then I go with a dozen girls in one night.”

It was doubtful if Jürgen got close to a dozen girls a year — including the ones at El Perico he occasionally paid for — although, to give him credit, it was not for want of trying. He was Manfred’s inseparable companion — his stooge almost — and was always present when Manfred was partying, but at the end of the evening it was invariably Manfred who had scored, and Jürgen who was left to walk home alone. Roger often kept him company on these late-night walks across town, and he came to feel rather sorry for the tall Aryan aristocrat who was having such a hard time trying to be a rake. There was just no way Jürgen could ever compete with the earthier and more powerful presence of Manfred, and Roger suggested that perhaps he might have more luck with the ladies if he relied more on his own gentility rather than trying to emulate Manfred. He just did not have the coarseness or the directness that enabled Manfred simply to take whatever he wanted.

“Well, I tell you,” said Jürgen, “you sound just like my friend Kurt. He is always saying that Manfred is too much the bull and he and I are like the noble unicorn.”

Roger laughed. “Noble unicorns! Where’d he get that idea from?”

“Kurt is from a very old family, and they have as crest the unicorn. It is a gentle creature, but very fine.”

“I’d like to meet this noble unicorn friend of yours. Does he work at the shipping agency too?”

Ach, no. Kurt wants to be doctor, but his father wants that he takes the family business — they make factory machinery or something for four generations already — but Kurt has moral objections.”

“So what does he do?”

“He comes here to Barcelona after he finish medical school in Hamburg — his father allowed him medical school when he promise to go afterwards into the family business. Now he is hoping his father will alter his spirit — change his mind, I mean — but it is two years already. He lives with Ron Venables from Orange County in California. Ron Venables I don’t like. He is John Bircher — you know what it is?”

“You mean he belongs to the John Birch Society — that’s some kind of political group in America, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it all sounds like my father’s generation in Germany before the war. I don’t like him. He also works not. He has some kind of pension from the American government. They argue a lot — Kurt and Ron Venables — at a bar not far from here. Why don’t we stop for a night-hat and I introduce you?”

“You mean a nightcap!” said Roger, laughing. “Let’s. It sounds interesting.”

“One thing,” said Jürgen, growing conspiratorial again, “don’t let Ron Venables wash your brains!”

They found Kurt and Ron Venables as Jürgen had predicted, installed in a particularly grimy bar that seemed to function as some kind of club for variously dismembered veterans of the Civil War, but there was no argument in progress and no brain-washing was attempted. Ron Venables, a lanky, jut-jawed, intense-eyed mid-Westerner who looked like the traditional fire-and-brimstone preacher-man of the old West in modern clothing, was sprawled out across two chairs, his legs tripping everybody who came too close to the table. He was barely conscious and muttering inaudibly, but still punctuating his remarks with feeble slaps of the table. It looked as if a couple of hours earlier he might have been holding forth with energy, now, however. he appeared overwhelmed with alcohol and exhaustion. Kurt, also considerably inebriated, was nevertheless more in control of himself, and stumbled to his feet when Jürgen introduced Roger.

“Von Kemp!” he shouted, shutting his eyes and letting his head fall back as he put out his hand in the general direction of Roger. Roger took it, and immediately found himself struggling to keep Kurt from falling back into his chair and pulling him down on top of him.

“Dreadfully sorry,” said Kurt, “Something in Spanish beer. Feel better tomorrow. Go to beach. Get Vespa. You come, yes?”

“Love to,” said Roger, looking at Jürgen for help, not sure what to make of this precipitous invitation.

“Oh by all means go with him. He will be fine in the morning,” said Jürgen, turning round and tripping over Ron Venables, who, squinting vindictively out of one eye, had quietly moved his legs. “Damn! Now I lose my night-hat.”

 *

Roger met Kurt late the following morning outside the same bar — which looked as dismal in daylight as it had the previous night — and was astonished at the neatness and bearing of the Noble Unicorn who greeted him. He was even more astonished that Kurt recognized him, considering how drunk he had been so shortly before. Kurt welcomed him as warmly as if they had been intimate friends all their lives, and with a great deal of formality invited Roger to join him on the pillion seat of his tiny Italian motor scooter: the previously mentioned Vespa.

He climbed on, wondering whether this was safe, but with reassuring confidence Kurt revved up and pulled away into the traffic. As they wove smoothly through the manic mayhem that constituted the vehicular comings and goings of Barcelona, Roger began to see his surroundings in a new light. The scooter ride created quite a different effect from that produced from a pedestrian perspective, even from riding in taxis, for there was a kind of freedom and separateness he’d not dreamt of. Without realizing it, he’d accepted the one world — the world of the struggling, day-to-day pedestrian — as the complete reality, while all the time, for those privileged enough to perceive it and be a part of it, there was another world constituting a parallel Barcelona. Barcelona from the pillion seat of Kurt’s Vespa at thirty miles an hour was quite different from Barcelona on two tired feet. For one thing it instantly became a greatly expanded place. For another it seemed much more fun; girls waved as they zipped by, and the view changed so quickly that streets which previously had represented a daunting half-hour’s trudge on foot now became mere brief interludes in the otherwise colourful passing parade.

They were down the Ramblas in no time, past the statue of Columbus, through the docks, and out into reaches of the city Roger had never been to at all. The sun shone, the wind blew through his hair, he felt perfectly secure on the noisy scooter, and all in all he was very glad he had come; very glad, indeed, to be alive.

The old central part of the city, which he now understood for the first time was only one small part of the place called Barcelona (so myopic had been his perception of his surroundings) was soon left behind, and they rode on through a kind of no-man’s land which was neither city nor suburb: neither completely colonized by urban development nor yet totally relinquished by agricultural and rural interests.

“Where are we going?” he shouted.

“Direction Badalona,” came the shouted reply, and almost immediately they turned off the paved road and bumped down a gravelly, rutted track that skirted the backs of vacant garages and abandoned farm buildings, to emerge, startlingly, on a grassy eminence commanding an impressive view of a vast stretch of sandy beach. He had not known they had been so close to the ocean, and its sudden appearance was breathtaking — all the more so because its shining sandy beauty was in such contrast to the run-down, blighted landscape through which they had just been riding.

Kurt got off and waved his hand grandly across the view before them, as if this was his own private beach.

“So much more civilized to spent such days at the beach than in the stinking city. You like watermelon?”

“I think so, why?”

“We should take a couple down with us. Mademoiselle Raspaud is very fond of a little watermelon with her champagne. Why don’t you pick two out from that boy’s cart while I park the Vespa.”

Roger looked around, and saw a couple of teenagers sitting on the back of a wooden donkey-cart loaded with a great pyramid of green watermelons. The moment eye contact was made the elder boy began swinging a machete, offering to slice open any melon Roger might deign to favour, so that it might be sampled. He accepted a piece, and its sweet, watery coolness was enormously refreshing. He took another piece, and another. He finally managed to get away carrying three of the huge green melons — but only with great difficulty, since no matter how he held them one was always in danger of slipping out of his arms. Kurt laughed at his efforts and relieved him of the smallest before pointing down to the beach and saying: “I think I see Mesdames and Monsieur over there.”

With no idea whom they were to meet, Roger stumbled along in the sand beside Kurt, struggling to keep a grip on his melons, and at the same time appear as dignified as possible. As they came closer to the group Kurt had indicated he tried even harder, since the tanned figure in the bikini had noticed their approach and seemed to be laughing at them. Someone with a very hairy chest, wearing two gold chains and very little else, raised himself up on one elbow and also began to laugh. Finally, the third member of the group, also in a bikini, stood up and came forward to greet Kurt, throwing her arms around him forcefully so that he dropped the melon between them.

“Oh, you’ve dropped your damned melon on my foot,” she said with a good-natured screech.

“Kurt dropping his melons again, is he?” said the chained chap, still on one elbow.

“You should get those jockey things, Kurt,” said the first bikini, with a discernible French accent. “All the big-built athletes wear them.”

All four broke into laughter, while Roger laid his two melons carefully down at the edge of the large beach blanket.

“Your friend is more careful with his melons,” said the standing bikini. “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Kurt? We need someone around here who knows how to handle his melons properly.”

More laughter erupted, and with a flourish of his hand Kurt said: “Mesdames and Monsieur, Roger Coulter of Barcelona — the celebrated English composer.”

Roger smiled cautiously, trying to look both at ease and dignified, half suspecting he was being made fun of, and Kurt continued: “Roger, allow me to introduce Mademoiselle Anna Raspaud of Paris…” — the recumbent bikini smiled graciously — “…Mademoiselle Bernice Fleurat of Lyons…” — the standing bikini came close and offered Roger her cheek, which he in some confusion pecked at, muttering: “Enchanté.” “…and Monsieur Carlos Vargas of Andorra.”

Although he found it hard to keep his eyes off Anna Raspaud, whose tanned beauty drew his eyes relentlessly, he soon found himself quite at ease with this group of idle hedonists. Despite their rather silly banter and the especially puerile attempts at erotic suavity practiced by Carlos Vargas — a baby-faced Adonis whose astoundingly banal and clichéd utterances were apparently made in all seriousness, as if he expected everyone to credit him with their spontaneous creation — it was a refreshing relief to be in the company of people whose lives seemed not to be permanently constrained by the need for another john, another dupe, or next week’s rent.

The champagne was opened, the melons were split and drippingly consumed, the waves were splashed in, and at last, languorously and topless, the now supine sunworshipers passed a joint around under the afternoon sun.

There was something so innocently yet seductively perfect about the rise of Anna’s breast, just visible next to him if he squinted sideways without turning his head, that after a few minutes of basking on his back Roger discovered he was obliged to roll over on his stomach. She smiled at him as he did so and he knew she had seen the new and interesting bulge in his swimming trunks. Blushing, he wished they were alone, so he could tell her directly how she was affecting him. But not having the nerve for this in public he instead started up a conversation with the intent of at least discovering where she lived.

“I have offered Anna the use of my apartamiento overlooking the Plaza España,” said Carlos pre-empting her reply, “but she has yet to make up her mind. I can’t understand her hesitation; it has one of the best views in all Barcelona, and I am only home at nights, ha, ha!”

“You’re a bad boy, Carlos, and you know I don’t trust you,” said Anna, smiling curiously at Roger.

“I think she’s waiting for a better offer,” said Kurt.

“Well she’s not going to get one from you, that’s sure,” said Bernice, with a trace of bitterness in her voice.

“Perhaps if Bernice were to join her, she might reconsider, ha, ha!” said Carlos, winking at Roger. “Two birds with one stone, sort of thing, ha, ha!”

God! thought Roger, how does this fool think he’s going to get away with it? But Anna was stroking Carlos’s arm.

“Ooh Carlos, how can you say such a thing? You know how I value my privacy, even when it’s a question of dearest Bernice.”

“Well the offer still stands, Ma’mselle Privacy — whenever you’re ready.”

Anna was looking at Roger again, and he had the distinct impression she was waiting for him to offer his apartamiento, but he knew he wouldn’t even have the courage to tell her the address. Damn! Why was he so strapped? He deserved to have a room with a view — at the very least a flat with its own front door — somewhere he could bring someone like Anna. He could always emphasize the ascetic artist bit to explain away the lack of grandeur, but no amount of personal charm or explaining away could ever hope to entice someone like Anna to a windowless, cockroach-infested room in the Plaza Real.

He looked at her again as she pulled on a light silk blouse. They were all getting ready to leave, and he was thinking of inviting her — all of them — to come to the Gato Negro while he played that evening before the first set.

“Do you know the Gato Negro?” he asked.

“What, that awful place in the Plaza Real where they play jazz?” said Carlos.

“I detest jazz,” said Bernice, “it’s so tuneless.”

“Yes, I agree,” said Anna, “I much prefer Johnny Halliday.”

Right, thought Roger, so much for that. But he did manage to get her address as they were saying goodbye back at the cliff top.

“Call me in the mornings,” she said, taking his hand and lightly pressing one of his fingers to her pouting lips. “But not too early; I never get up before eleven. Desayuno at Federíco’s would be interesting …”

Very interesting, he thought to himself, thinking of the month’s worth of wages breakfast at such a chi-chi spot would cost.

“Don’t waste your time with Madamoiselle Raspaud,” said Kurt as they were riding back into town. “She has expensive tastes — and she doesn’t like jazz. Jürgen says you play at the Gato Negro every night; can we eat there together before you play?”

“Yes, but it’ll have to be quick. I’m supposed to be playing in half an hour.”

“Well, maybe you join me and Venables at our local dive after you finish then?”

 *

 Later that evening, as Roger walked slowly away from the Plaza Real on his way to meet Kurt and get better acquainted with Ron Venables, he made a decision. Dedicated though he was to the principle of becoming a composer and finishing the Suite — not to mention his commitment to Carmen — this was no way to live. The brief taste of a more sybaritic existence that he had enjoyed that day, with all its attendant delights, was not to be forgotten. He would have to find something better to do than play tea-music, ponce, and peddle reefer. There might not be any way he could compete with rich playboys like Carlos Vargas, but his own pride demanded that he at least be in a position to entertain the Anna Raspauds of this world, however modestly…not to mention getting it together for Carmen and his future child…

Curiously, when Kurt was asking him how he came to be in Barcelona, he made no mention of Carmen. Instead, he asked more questions about Anna, but Ron Venables was full of scorn for Kurt’s ‘amoral wastrel associates’, as he called them, and his questions went unanswered, the conversation turning to more practical matters such as when Kurt’s father was going to relent and improve Kurt’s allowance so that he could begin making useful contributions to the John Birch Society’s efforts in Spain.

He began to dislike the lanky, opinionated American, and found it hard to understand why he and Kurt were such good friends, but just when he thought he had nothing to say to Ron, and Ron had nothing to say to him, the American turned and remarked: “Why don’t you get yourself a job at the language school — you’d make a darn sight more money than you do at that jazz club? I teach two days a week at the American Institute, and it keeps me in fine style.”

He bought him a drink for that piece of information, and a little while later another. Considerably later, all three staggered out into the dark streets toasting one another, and as the Vespa disappeared noisily up an alley that unexpectedly turned into a short flight of steps — and bumped crazily onwards regardlessly, nearly spilling Ron off — he turned homewards and thought once again of the topless French gold-digger he had met at the beach. It was all a little confusing. He knew what he had to do — for himself, and for Carmen — but at the same time it was impossible to forget the tantalizing curve of the burnished breast that had filled his peripheral vision at the beach that afternoon.

“Oh, oh, oh,” he sang softly in the darkness, weaving a little from side to side, “Anna Raspaud, I love you so…”

 * * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a paperback from Blackburn Books

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 9

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RCJacketFrontfB

Chapter 9
Alone Again!
Carmen returns to Madrid
leaving Roger to meet the ladies from El Perico

He sat down on the edge of the iron bed in the windowless fourth floor room and stared at the chipped sink, twistedly hanging as if by its fingertips to the wall beneath a corroded mirror.

He had crept into the room guiltily, two hours later than he had said he would, after having allowed himself to be dragged off to a new night spot by Jürgen and Manfred to meet the great Chemongo — society’s poet of the moment — and had been looking forward to quietly insinuating himself against Carmen’s warm body. But from the moment he had entered the room its hollow emptiness had been all too obvious. For a moment he hoped she had been kept working downstairs past the end of her shift, but the club had been virtually deserted when he entered the building. The staircase to the floors above the club wound round an inner courtyard which provided an additional outside eating area for the Gato Negro. He was in the habit of looking down into this area as he climbed the stairs — in either direction — in order to get some idea of the time, since there was no clock in the room and his watch had long since become defunct. All had been silent, empty; the chairs piled on top of the tables, a hose dribbling in a corner, waiting for the morning janitor to wash everything down.

He had stood by the door, trying desperately to hear the sound of her breathing. But there was nothing. Even so, he winced at the sound the switch made as he clicked on the light. The bare bulb lit the room coldly, and the unusual tidiness was at once noticeable. Most of all, the faded red coverlet, stretched tautly over the sagging bed, jumped out at him. Slap in the middle of the bed lay a shocking white envelope — with his name written on it in a florid cursive hand.

The note was carefully written in almost perfect if rather stilted literary English. In essence it said that ‘this was not what she had had in mind. She would be proud to bear his child but it had to be done properly. Great though the wrath of her family would be when they learned why she had left Madrid, and terrible though the humiliation and shame she would have to bear might be when she sought their forgiveness, it was obvious that they — and not he — were the only people who could help her. She was returning to her family until he was able to provide something better than this — even if that took until after she had borne their child. She loved him, yes, she loved him with all her heart, and would continue to do so though the world might scorn her for her abandoned behaviour, but he would have to forgive her leaving him thus. She simply could not tolerate conditions such as life at the Gato Negro produced.’

At first he was convinced that she had gone simply because nothing more about marriage had been discussed. He could not believe that she had left for any other reason than that he had not asked her to marry him. But since she had, it meant that no matter how calamitous was her going, he was now saved from having to address this terrifying problem. The brief relief this realization afforded slowly gave way to confusion about what she had actually written. Surely conditions at the Gato Negro were not all that bad? They had their own place, they were both working, and best of all, the Suite was progressing wonderfully, now that he had a piano to work on. Everything had been going according to plan. They could tnot have asked for anything better. Of course, it was a little hard that she had to waitress temporarily. But she was sure to find a better job where her qualifications counted for something. You could not expect everything at once. The important thing was that they had somewhere to live and progress was being made on the Suite. No, it had to be the marriage thing. She was too proud to mention it — as he had been too scared to discuss it. That must be what it was. He should have known that underneath everything, she would see things through the eyes of her parents. And he had thought that they had something that transcended all that bourgeois stuff.

He opened the door of the room to let in some air. Across the narrow passage was an open window that looked down onto the central courtyard — the Gato Negro’s additional outside dining area — and up from somewhere out on the square, perhaps from one of the tiny flamenco bars that huddled in the narrow alleyways that led into the Plaza Real, the faint strains of a wailing singer wafted into the room, punctuated by bursts of fierce guitar and barely audible ‘olés’. The singer sounded desperately unhappy, but at the same time damned if he was going to crumble under the weight of his tragedy, whatever it was. Probably trouble with his girlfriend or his wife’s lover. It was the same thing, all the time. What was astonishing was how none of it was fatal. Everybody kept on keeping on. Even celebrating it.

Sitting there in the stillness of the crummy room — yes, he had to admit to himself that it was not exactly the Grand Hotel, it was not even Manfred’s bachelor flat; it really was quite a crummy room, even if it was over a jazz club in the heart of the Barrio Chino, the very place for a great and as yet undiscovered composer — sitting there in the quietness of the November night, he felt unnervingly in tune with all the rotting grief of this ancient city. So his girlfriend — his own, absolute Carmen, life and central light of his Spanish life — had packed her bags and gone home. Did she think that he would grind to a halt? No, of course she didn’t. And indeed he wouldn’t. It was going to be difficult. In fact he was certain that in the morning when he woke up to find her still gone it would be bloody awful, but right now, painful though it was, it somehow felt rather appropriate. Another passage, another experience, another level of becoming one with the fabric of this city, this country, the whole culture.

The loneliness of the room was unbearable. He got up and went out, down the stairs, across the Plaza in the moonlight, and towards the sound of the singing. The bar where the singing was coming from proved easy to find. It was just a little way down some steps, past a couple of small restaurants. He wandered in and ordered a Fundador doble and leant against the bar to stare morosely at the singer, a wrinkled-faced gypsy in a worn suit. This was no flamenco artist singing for the touristas, this was just some chap with nowhere better to go at three in the morning. His accompanist was much younger; a serious young man who had taken the trouble to comb his very black hair to Noel Coward-like perfection. He sat upright, playing with studied concentration, leaving a lot of space for the old man to wail on and on in endless cadenzas, and then exploding with fusillades of rasgueados and tremolos. The old man’s singing was a wholehearted outpouring. It was grieving, but not self-indulgent. It seemed to say ‘what more can anyone expect in this vale of tears?’ But at the same time, aided by the fiery, hammering guitar, it was also cocking a snook at the whole mess.

“Cuando yo me muera…” — “When I die…” sang the old man, “Barcelona will not weep for me, and I shall not weep for Barcelona!”

Just keep on keeping on.

Carmen knew this. She knew this for herself, he thought. She wants to be with me, but there are things she cannot compromise and so she tears herself away. First from her home and family, and then from me. She’s strong enough to make sacrifice after sacrifice for what she believes in. And so should I be! If she has to leave until I can…marry…her, then so be it. Meanwhile I have to write; I have to finish the Suite. What did she think trying to be a composer meant, after all? I never mentioned marriage. I only told her it seemed right, absolutely right, that we be together and that I have to write this music to prove that I exist apart from what England has made me, or what my parents want me to be, or what might have been with Sarah…

He raised his glass in solitary salute to the old singer, who had come to the end of his sorrowful Soleares and now sat down, resignedly and unheeded by anyone else in the bar. The old man shrugged and raised an empty glass in return. Roger ordered it — and his own — refilled, but made no move to join him. Nor did the old man seem to expect to be joined. Meanwhile, the guitarist’s girlfriend wrapped herself around the well-groomed accompanist, and here and there dispirited conversation started up again. Life in the little bar was winding down in the small hours, and no one seemed to care much about anything any more.

He allowed himself to sink into the almost comforting numbness afforded by several more brandies, and half an hour later wandered out of the bar much less steadily than he had wandered in, but resignedly at peace with the sadness Carmen’s departure had brought. It was all par for the course. Jusht what the doctor had ordered…bloody women. Always it came down to this…to being on one’s own. Couldn’t ask anyone else to do it for you anyway, hic!

*

He had been right. When he awoke much later that morning, he was no longer nearly as sanguine about Carmen’s decampment as he had been when he had left the bar. He felt pitiably sorry for himself and hard done by into the bargain. There was a cockroach in his shoe when he went to put it on, and for a moment he was sure it was the same one that had fallen on the table that time he and Royal-Dawson had been having their first good meal back in Madrid. But it couldn’t be. More likely just a close Catalonian cousin. He threw the shoe violently out into the hallway and shuddered in disgust. What did she mean, leaving him here alone to deal with all this?

Worse was to come. Delgado was waiting for him that afternoon when he showed up to play to the early diners. Roger waffled about Carmen’s absence, but Delgado was not interested in anything other than the fact that she was not on the job. Moreover, unless Roger wanted to do double shifts as pianist and waiter, Delgado would expect half the room’s rent in cash. It was due that Friday — “Thenk you. Meester Cowelterrr.”

He played a listless set, alternating between heartsick meanderings and bitter, angry pieces reflecting the way he felt about having been left to carry on alone with the now added burden of worrying about how to come up with actual rent money. This kind of playing was still new and uncomfortable to him. Apart from playing at parties and jamming with Rowlandson and Briggs at college, he had never had to play for sustained periods in public. Even if the public he was playing for did not seem particularly interested, it was still a strain. Up to now he had tried light medleys interspersed with sections of the Suite. But Delgado had already stopped him a couple of times in the middle of some of the denser passages with the admonition to “…remember you are in a jazz club, not a concert hall, Meester Cowelterrr!”

He left the club as soon as he could, avoiding the curious looks of the other waitresses, who seemed to know already of Carmen’s defection, and the gloating leer of the unshaven bartender, and made for El Perico — a little place near the cathedral where he hoped to find the Germans. It was not so much Manfred or Jürgen he wanted to see as their friends — the International Ladies. They had always been very solicitous to him in the past, and now he felt in great need of their particular brand of sympathetic commiseration. At the same time, since he also needed help again in finding some work, he intended to ask Manfred’s advice. He had decided that whatever it took, he was going to try and hang on at the Gato Negro for as long as was necessary to finish the Suite, and at the same time see if it might be possible to make a start with effecting some sort of provision for Carmen’s return.

Three of the International Ladies, laughing and making bawdy remarks at unwary tourists who had wandered into this seedy quarter, met him in the street on their way to begin their evening’s patrol.

“¿Que pasa, Rogito?” said Inés, always his favorite, since she seemed genuinely warm-hearted, and smiled with a mouthful of buck teeth made whiter than white by her crimson lipstick.

“Come with us tonight,” said Bárbara, wobbling on her high heels as she tried to liberate a fold of flesh trapped between her broad black shiny belt and her skintight skirt, “and we’ll show you how we treat the Yankees. A new boat just came to town.”

“He don’t look too happy, if you ask me,” said Rosa.

“We don’t ask you,” said Inés, “but you’re right. How come our composer looks like he’s not had a good time since he left his Mama’s milkbar?”

“¿Y la guapa Carmen, dónde está?” asked Inés, at which the other two looked at each other knowingly and started to wag their fingers in mock admonition.

“You send her away?” asked Bárbara.

“No, Manfredo take her to Germany,” said Rosa.

“Actually she’s gone back to Madrid. Until we can afford a better place to live,” said Roger, relieved to be able to tell someone, even if it was the Holy Trio — so called because they had all adopted saints’ names.

“And now you’re all alone?” asked Inés.

“Yes, and I have to come up with extra rent now that Carmen’s not waitressing for Delgado. The only thing I know how to do without a work permit is sell bullfight tickets.”

“Is hard to sell tickets to touristas when there’s not even a bullfight no more,” laughed Rosa. “So what you gonna do?”

“I don’t know. I was going to see if Manfred or Jürgen had any bright ideas.”

“¿Porqué no nos presentas a los Yanquis?” said Inés with a sly grin.

“That’s it!” said Rosa. “You can be our interpreter — and we give you a propina for each marinero you bring to El Perico. We tell Jorge you’re working for the club and he give you cards to give to the Americans.”

“Jorge will pay you well for every card that finds its way back to the club,” said Bárbara, now wrestling with painful looking snaps and catches under her skintight blouse.

“Y yo también, si los mandas a mi mismo,” added Inés, with an even bigger grin, her teeth threatening to fall right out of her face.

Roger blushed as Inés groped him affectionately, and realized the idea had merit. On the surface it might look like pimping, but in effect it was virtually the same as selling tickets. There was a service being offered, and he was in a position to bring the interested parties together. They were all such good friends, he would be doing them a turn. And getting paid for it — which was what he needed.

The arrangement worked out well with Jorge. He gave Roger a handful of business cards advertising the club — actually promising a discount if the bearer presented the card at the club in the company of one of the girls — and suggested Roger try his luck with the American sailors expected up the Ramblas. A US naval destroyer, part of the fleet cruising the Mediterranean, had arrived in port that very morning, and the sailors, hungry for land delights after two months at sea, were just beginning to come ashore. He felt a little odd about just going up to them and handing out cards like a common hustler, so he devised a little speech, similar to the kind he had used at the bullring in Madrid. Addressing them as a fellow English-speaking comrade in a foreign land, he made up a tale of some slight but sudden misfortune that had temporarily left him stranded — hungry and penniless, actually — until the British consulate opened in the morning. Perhaps, he suggested innocently, they might see their way clear to helping him out of his little difficulty…perhaps just the price of a meal…he would be happy to recommend an interesting bar in return…one of the advantages of his overlong stay in this quaint foreign port, wink-wink, nod-nod…he was sure they knew what he meant?

Many of the older sailors were hardened to this kind of ingenuous panhandling, even from Brits, and simply ignored him like they did all the hotel hustlers, shoeshine boys, and other desperate importuners that formed the gauntlet they were accustomed to run in foreign ports But even more frustratingly, others actually handed out candy bars and gum, and the few that did actually toss him any money gave him only small Spanish coins that they seemed to think were worth more than they really were, mixed in with what were for Roger even more useless coins: American quarters, dimes, nickels, and even cents. Nevertheless, biting his tongue, he thanked them all and handed out the cards, giving them directions as simply as he could — which was none too easy since El Perico was tucked away in the labyrinthine old quarter known as the Barrio Chino — the Chinese Quarter — hoping that at least a few would find their way there. He even offered to accompany personally those whom he felt most likely to visit the club, but no one wanted to leave the brightly lit and enticing Ramblas to dive into dark alleyways with a strange young Limey.

To his surprise, when he checked back at El Perico later that night after having distributed all of Jorge’s cards, and having gained almost nothing in return — certainly nothing that would be of any help in paying rent at the Gato Negro — he was handed a hundred peseta note by Jorge representing his ‘commission’.

“Chu do good, Roger. I tell chu every time Yankee ships come in, and chu become El Perico’s top agent. Then chu compose all chu want, eh? Maybe chu even come and play piano here, too!”

“Holá, Señor Roger,” cried Rosa, entering the bar with a sailor on her arm, “come and have a drink with us. Sailor Joe is paying.”

He thanked Jorge profusely and went over to a table already occupied by Bárbara, Inés, and a couple of the other girls. They made a place for him, and fussed over how tired he must be after walking up and down the Ramblas all night talking to ‘damn Yankees’. Rosa’s American grinned drunkenly, not understanding a word, since they were all talking Spanish, and Roger smiled at him and said: “Cheers!” but the American closed his eyes and rolled over on Rosa’s arm, pinning her to the wall. She poked him fiercely in the ribs, trying unsuccessfully to wake his now unconscious bulk.

“You’ll have to call his Admiral and three others to get him upstairs now,” said Bárbara, and the other girls shrieked with laughter.

In the meantime, he found himself sitting next to Inés, who had done particularly well, having scored a chief petty officer who had paid her double but who had passed out as soon as he lay down — fortunately upstairs, and after payimg. She was very pleased, and proved as good as her word. In the lull that followed the removal of Rosa’s drunken sailor, she snuggled up to Roger and said: “You wanna forget your Carmen for a little while — and let Inés make you feel good for what you done for her tonight?”

He hesitated for a second but Bárbara said: “Go on! One hand wash the other; take what you earn. We wanna see our Rogito smile again.”

They went upstairs, and he found himself in a surprisingly modern room, furnished warmly and even luxuriously. He had assumed the rooms would be bare, no-nonsense places with just a bed and a sink. But this room had carpet, a huge comfortable bed, and a view of the ocean just visible above the neighbouring rooftops.

He sat down on the edge of the bed. Inés slipped out of her dress, and pushed him gently backwards until he lay on his back, gazing up at their joint reflections in the mirrored ceiling. He watched as she pulled off his shoes, his socks, his trousers, his underwear, caressed his very erect penis, and then climbed forward onto the bed to slip off his shirt. He reached up to undo her bra. She laughed as he fumbled at her back for the catch, and showed him she had the new American kind that undid from the front, and quicker than he could catch them she tossed the bra and her panties to the foot of the bed and impaled herself on him, gently guiding him in with playful fingers that explored him, teased him, rubbed him, stroked him, pulled him, and brought him to the edge of ejaculation, and then, just as he was beginning to mutter to her that he was coming, she deftly squeezed the underside of his exploding penis — and instantly the impetus was extinguished.

“What happened? What did you do?” he asked in consternation, trying unsuccessfully to sit up.

“Is not how quickly you come, but how long you do it, no?” said Inés, smiling and pushing him down again. “Don’t stop now. You still hard, no? And it still feel good?

To his relief, since the unexpected curtailment of his expected ejaculation had left him feeling distinctly unmanned, he realized he was indeed still bone hard and ready to go. He relaxed, and she recommenced caressing him gently and then ran a finger up the crease between his buttocks so that he thrust involuntarily into her. In a few moments he again found himself on the very edge of release when, just as unexpectedly as before, she squeezed him with thumb and forefinger, and all desire to ejaculate once again disappeared, although he was left still tumescent and throbbing. She laughed this time at his surprise, and he laughed with her starting to enjoy the game. Now he became more circumspect about betraying his excitement as he approached orgasm, and thought to deceive her, but somehow she knew and once again he was prevented from enjoying the final pleasure. He grinned at her ruefully and started again, this time working more methodically to get to the point without allowing his breathing or the speed of his movements to vary and give him away. He worked steadily, holding her securely and moving in and out with firm even strokes until each inward thrust left him on the verge of trembling violently. But he forced himself to remain controlled, and gave no sign nor hint of the impending climax until in mid-stroke, while continuing to move, the jissom rushed out of him, and he finally relaxed and collapsed, laughing with pleasure and satisfaction.

Inés laughed triumphantly too, and he realized that this was exactly what she had intended to achieve. Instead of a quick poke, ending all too soon in a transient rush of unappreciated satisfaction, she had led him through a more extended period of pleasure than he had thought was possible. Because the experience had been uncomplicated by emotional burdens, — such as had formed the chief accompaniment to his lovemaking with Carmen or Sarah — he had discovered for the first time the pure joy of sex; an untrammelled carnality. Technique, he realized, could accomplish a pleasure as rewarding — if different — as emotion.

 *

They had lain on the bed for a long time afterwards, talking. Roger had attempted to express his gratitude, but Inés had brushed his efforts aside saying they were all basically in the same boat and had to look after one another. This was said with such casualness and matter-of-fact sincerity that he found himself believing her completely, even though until a few hours earlier he had thought himself essentially alone. True, he still had (he supposed) his friends and family in England, and even his friends and acquaintances in Madrid, not to mention Manfred and Jürgen in Barcelona, but with Carmen’s abrupt departure he had felt as abandoned and isolated as he had the morning he had woken up to find Sarah gone from Madrid. In Madrid, near panic had compounded the totally self-centered feeling of desolation and helplessness; but he had weathered that, and then with Carmen forged a relationship that was not quite so one-sided. When she left he was stricken and heartsick, but without the same sense of utter desertion, and was by no means left feeling so much at the mercy of the ineffable unknown.

For one thing Carmen had not abandoned the relationship — merely the temporary living arrangements. For another thing, he was now as committed to their life together — and their child — as he was to his own ambition — almost. And in any case, difficult though life might prove in this often amazingly strange and sometimes inhospitable country, abounding as it did in beggars and blood, he was no longer a total alien; he spoke the language and had become familiar with its streets, bodegas, and railways. In fact, he caught himself thinking with a twinge of smug guilt, he appeared to have found a rather enviable berth, even if it was in a somewhat disreputable ship.

Inés lifted the wine glass off his chest and licked away a drop of wine that had spilled onto him. Leaning on her elbows, she gazed out of the open window to the harbour and the glinting Mediterranean.

“You go home now, back to the Gato Negro. But bring Inés more dead Yankees, and we watch the sea another night.”

“I could stay here watching the ocean with you forever, you make it feel like home.”

“Is not home. Is where I work. I don’t have no customers, I don’t get to watch the sea.”

“You mean you don’t live here?”

She laughed. “Of course not. I live with my mother and three sisters in an apartamiento in Calle Burgos.”

He looked at her with sudden compassion and an added sense of brotherliness. “Then we both have good reason to do what we do. We are in the same boat.”

He walked home feeling buoyed up by the warmth and sense of family he had found at El Perico, but could not help wondering what this meant to his relationship with Carmen. There was no question that she would be deeply hurt if she knew that he had just spent several hours in bed with Inés — an unrepentant prostitute — and especially if she knew they had just exchanged what amounted to vows of friendship. But he was unable to convince himself that he had done anything wrong. In any case, in no way had his feelings or his devotion to Carmen changed.

Nevertheless, he still felt uncomfortable. It was not quite as clear cut as that. He caught himself half blaming Carmen for having left in the first place, and then realized guiltily he was relishing a very warm feeling of being quite pleased with himself. His new berth had possibilities. He chuckled at the memory of what Inés had done to him. Boy, that had felt good — and he had deserved it — earned it, even. But then, as he passed the bar where he had listened to the old singer the night before, he wondered as he had done then whether he would be thinking differently in the morning.

 * * *
The Castilian Suite is available in eBook and Paperback from Blackburn Books.

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 8

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RCJacketFrontfB

Chapter 8
Barcelona
Roger and Sarah arrive at Manfred’s and enjoy a honeymoon. The move to the Gato Negro and Roger becomes the club pianist!

The ride to Barcelona, although the distance was considerably shorter, took much longer than had the ride from Irun to Madrid. This train was certainly not the pride of the RENFE — the Spanish National Network of the Iron Rail — this was the milk train. A train that stopped at every station and hint of a station on the least excuse. It ground frequently to a halt for half an hour at a time, seldom for any visible reason. Time and time again Roger leant out of the window to see if they had actually arrived anywhere, but invariably there was nothing to be seen. Sometimes the single track had become two, and they had shunted onto the adjacent line to wait interminably until another train rushed past. But more often than not there was no other line; no apparent reason for the delay. He became convinced that either the engine driver was a chronic narcoleptic, or that the train was somehow lost in a twilight zone and had consequently to stop repeatedly in order not to reach its destination too soon.

If the night had been uncomfortable, the following day was agony. The tedium and slowness of their progress became progressively more intolerable. They were unable to converse, either with each other or with any of the other passengers. This was not the gay, colourful crowd of the first journey, made interesting and exciting by novelty. Roger’s increased familiarity with the land of Cervantes, its people and their customs, had eroded much of the exotic flavour with which a newly experienced environment is frequently imbued. Given time, most places will become depressingly familiar. All he saw now was downtrodden peasantry. A peasantry that kept itself apart from the foreigner and the señorita from the city, and that refused to be impressed or drawn into conversation by even his most cheerful and idiomatic Spanish.

Where Sarah had been mildly aloof, Carmen totally ignored these people’s very presence. He thought at first she was unnecessarily embarrassed because of her condition. But that was nonsense. No one could possibly know. They both looked eminently respectable. Slowly he realized she was doing her best to bear up in what were for her trying and humiliating circumstances. She was simply not accustomed to riding in milk trains.

It was now Roger’s turn to gaze, as had Sarah, balefully out of the window. He had not bargained on this. It was hard enough keeping up one’s own spirits without having to worry about someone else’s moody perceptions. Still, he thought, trying to cheer himself up, when they got to Barcelona Manfred should be able to set things straight. By all accounts he had a pretty nice flat in the hills. It would be fun to explore a new place.

But it was impossible to keep his thoughts centered on positive things; the endlessness of the train ride gnawed its way back to the front of his brain, and he gave himself up to a state of semi-conscious boredom. As day dimmed to evening he became ever more certain that they were lost and would never arrive anywhere, doomed to rattle slowly across the endless plain for all eternity, like some flying Iberian Dutchman. Was it possible they had taken a wrong turning somewhere — that someone had pulled the wrong switch at one of those empty, desolate junctions — and that they were on their way to León, Gallicia, or somewhere farther…extremely farther…Extremadura…?

It grew pitch black outside and emptier inside as the sullen passengers left by ones and twos. After a while, Roger and Carmen were alone in the compartment; sole passengers on the saddest train in the world. The flaking varnish of the wooden seats was littered with the pathetic debris of the poor: the tattered remains of a newspaper, a small pile of shells from someone’s bag of nuts, a piece of chewed chorizo, and innumerable cigarette ends. He slumped in his seat, greyness invading his limbs as well as his mind. But Carmen still seemed to think it important to maintain appearances, and remained erect, as if even to notice her surroundings was beneath her.

Sitting in the shabby gloom of the third-class compartment it occurred to him now that if indeed they were still headed towards Barcelona, and were not lost as he had supposed, it must be because their co-passengers had known something shameful about the city, and had not wanted to wait around for it. This disturbing thought began to change his ideas about Barcelona. He had imagined it as a bright, sophisticated place — it was on the Mediterranean, after all, and not far from France — but now he started to have visions of some deeper, darker form of specially Spanish form of Hell. He had heard that the Catalans did not really consider themselves Spanish, that they spoke a separate language, despite General Franco’s efforts to suppress it. On the other hand, he had also heard that the bullring was large, that the city was the home of Pablo Casals and Antonio Gaudi, and that there were palm trees. Any place with palm trees could hardly be a total washout. Besides, Manfred lived there. What on earth was he thinking about?

An eternity later, they arrived. Not with banging and shouting, bright lights and clouds of steam, but with a slow, exhausted hissing from the engine as they trickled into an almost completely deserted industrial wasteland of empty platforms and abandoned carriages. There was no announcement, no rush of exiting passengers, no shouting guards or hustling porters, just the unremarked finality of the train’s last stop. The absolute end of the line. They crept out of the carriage onto the dimly lit platform, and stumbled tiredly, almost guiltily, a very long way to the gate at the end. As they passed through the gate, he noticed with dismay that there was not even a ticket collector. No one seemed to care whether they had arrived or not. And worse, there was no sign of Manfred.

He was not totally surprised at this. He had written to Manfred that they expected to arrive on this particular train, but since their actual arrival had very little in common with the published arrival time, it was not really to be expected that anyone would be there to meet them. They stood in the middle of the almost empty station, just the sound of a few cleaners and sweepers echoing in odd corners, the train they had arrived on now totally dead and silent, and felt wretched and abandoned.

Carmen looked expressionlessly at Roger. He winced internally, and gathered himself together.

“I suppose I’d better try and give Manfred a ring,” he said, attempting to sound brisk, “do you think there’s a phone around here somewhere?”

She looked at him with what he felt was a disdainful pity, and he said: “Right, then. I’ll have a look.”

But there was no phone around anywhere. Slowly losing hope, they dragged themselves and their luggage from one end of the vast station to the other, peering into gloomy corridors and alcoves, but found nothing. Depression was joined by its half-brother despondency, with cousin panic from the asylum shadowing them closely.

They left the station, hoping to discover a hotel, but instead of finding themselves in any kind of busy thoroughfare, emerged onto an even emptier side street. They walked to the nearest corner and found only closed warehouses and dead factories. They then walked the length of the next street and found that they must be near the waterfront, for tall dockyard cranes reared up behind grimy walls hiding buildings alternating with littered vacant lots, fenced off from the street with rusted chainlink. Then at last, just as he was sure the whole thing was a terrible and disastrous mistake, they found a little bar, cheerfully lit and bravely sporting a pair of chequered-cloth covered tables on the pavement outside the front door.

At one of the tables sat a rosy cheeked, rotund old lady — dressed all in black, as all old ladies seemed to be — bouncing a little girl on her lap. The little girl shrieked with delight every time the old lady pretended to spill her off, whereupon the old lady chuckled and bounced her the harder. Above the door to the bar was a hand-painted sign reading ‘Teléfono’. Roger pointed at it with relief.

“I’ll try Manfred. Why don’t you sit down here. I’ll order some coffee.”

He disappeared inside, leaving Carmen to make the acquaintance of the old lady and the little girl. By the time he reemerged the little girl was on Carmen’s lap, and Carmen was smiling.

He gave a secret sigh of relief and said: “Coffee’s coming right out. Manfred should be here in half an hour. What do you think of that?”

“Sinko vat,” said the little girl, laughing at her cleverness.

“I think I am very looking forward to meeting your friend,” said Carmen.

“Mi tin yo fren,” echoed the little girl.

“Ssssss!” said the old lady, putting a hand in front of her mouth in mock shock.

“I’m sure you’ll like him — he’s a real ladykiller,” said Roger with a grin.

Carmen narrowed her eyes. “Ladykiller?”

“Yes, you know, a real charmer. Terribly polite and very gallant. He’s supposed to have lots of girlfriends.”

“I see. Well as long as he has room for us tonight I do not care how many girlfriends he has,” and she bounced the little girl up and down harder than the old lady had done, growing suddenly morose again. “I wonder,” she said after a while, “if this little girl has a mother and a father.”

Roger looked at the old lady dressed all in black, and asked in his best Spanish after the little girl’s parents. The old lady’s face relaxed its happy, scrunched-up smile, became long, and then positively drooped, mournfully. Mumbling something unintelligible, her hands falling to her side, she glanced heavenwards. He looked at Carmen for clarification.

“Her father is dead. Her mother, who never married him, works in this bar.”

Having explained this, Carmen asked the old lady something else, and from her reply Roger pieced together bits about the unwed mother not being able to take care of the daughter…the owner of the bar wanting to marry her — but not wanting to take in the daughter…the mother unwilling to give up her daughter…the old lady being the dead father’s mother and wanting the little girl…but her son not having been married it was difficult for her to claim the girl…the mother not being able to stop working — unless she married the bar owner — but not wanting to give up the little girl to the old lady…if only they had been married…but what was anyone to do?

It was altogether a sad and confused story. He was about to make a remark on the foolishness of people and the sad plight of the little girl caught in the middle of it all when something in Carmen’s expression stopped him.

“We will do better than that, Roger. You and I?”

“Oh yes, of course. I mean we’ll never let things get so out of hand. We’ll…”

“We will get married before our little one arrives. Yes?”

He went white and suddenly felt amazingly leaden and light-headed at the same time. Married!? There was something shatteringly threatening in the idea. It was as if he had been told he had cancer. It was a concept that seemed to drain all the colour out of the world. As if he had walked into a room full of partying beautiful-people, and they had all instantly been transformed into a collection of diseased, geriatric mourners. As if he had been told he was going to be locked up for life. And yet his reaction had nothing to do with the way he felt for Carmen. Despite the trauma of the last few weeks, Carmen was still the illuminated centre of his existence; the spark that kept him motivated and alive. She was his passion and his infatuation, and despite everything he viewed their wearisome journey to Barcelona as an incredible stroke of good fortune. Something that was going to make possible their living together. But marriage! This was not something he had ever thought of in the same breath as Carmen. Marriage was what happened to older people, to his parent’s generation, to people who settled down and led boring, predictable, pedestrian lives. Not to people like him and Carmen. Not to composers and movers and groovers.

He was saved from having to answer directly by Manfred’s noisy arrival in a yellow Volkswagen. A broad ruddy face and a shock of Teutonically perfect blond hair exploded out of the tiny car, larger than life and twice as noisily.

“Coulter! Velcome to Barcelona! And this must be the schöne Carmen. Velcome, velcome!””

The handsome German scooped them up and magically fitted them and their luggage into a space seemingly much too small even for him, said something to the old woman that brought a smile back to her face, and before they knew it was careering off down the cobbled street talking a mile a minute.

The journey seemed a long one, possibly because they were so cramped. Carmen sat in the front, her knees under her chin. Roger was twisted sideways in the back, almost buried by their bags and cases, only one of which had been able to fit in the ridiculous boot at the front of the car. He looked past Manfred’s ear as they whizzed out of the dark neighbourhood between the docks and the railway station and burst into the Ramblas — a broad avenue lined with open-air cafés, bars, newsstands, and large, ornate art-deco kiosks reminiscent of Parisian metro stations, papered with every kind of advertisement. The yellow vw fought its way through the suicidal traffic and riotous crowds with much help from its abrasive hooter, and eventually they found themselves careening wildly around the spacious but still densely trafficked Plaza España. Some time later, having progressed through an ever quietening series of streets that became narrower as they climbed into the hilly residential district where houses were newer and the streets were cleaner, they stopped outside a building freshly plastered, workmen’s tools still littering the unfinished courtyard and part of the street.

The sight of tubs full of flowers on either side of the elegant doorway — not to mention a baby palm tree in the entranceway — washed all Roger’s fears and anxieties away. The memory of the scabrous train ride and his ensuing depression was forgotten completely as he stepped into Manfred’s living room and gazed out of the balcony window across the lights of nighttime Barcelona far below, abruptly bordered by an inky black Mediterranean beyond.

*

The next few days were the best Roger had experienced since he and Sarah had left the French border four months earlier. It was like a honeymoon. Manfred treated them as if they had been a recognized couple from way back; there was no hint of censure. And since this was a new city for both of them there was absolutely no need to hide or worry that they might be unexpectedly met by family members or other disapproving acquaintances. The flat itself was even nicer in the daytime than it had appeared on their arrival. The view was magnificent, with all Barcelona spread out before them, the palm-fringed Mediterranean glinting in the distance. The furnishings were positively sybaritic compared to the traditional severity of Carmen’s parents’ house, and seemed from a different planet altogether compared to the Gomez’s pension.

Manfred had brought them coffee the morning after they arrived, before he left for the shipping company’s offices on the Ramblas. After a lazy few hours on the balcony, they gathered themselves together and decided to explore the city, all thoughts of problems present and future blithely forgotten.

The next few days were a time for getting to know each other all over again. Since she no longer had to show up at the Prado each morning, Carmen felt as if she was on holiday. They played, they lazed, they made love, and they dreamed aloud together in the sun. On the balcony, on the carpet in Manfred’s spacious living room, with the indigo sky and azure sea as backdrop, on the beach, and even as they rode the underground around Barcelona, they talked, explained the world, described their future, and laughed at everything they saw. In the evenings they met Manfred after work, and they all ate together in cafés, restaurants, bars — colourful meeting places filled with people Manfred knew, who said hello, shouted invitations, and exchanged gossip. It was all very urbane, exciting, cosmopolitan.

Roger preened, and began to feel it was all due to him. This was how he had imagined things would be, how they ought to be. Carmen became convinced she had indeed escaped over the high convent wall that had kept her in Madrid, and was now in the ‘real’ world at last, where Roger’s claim to be a musician was no longer a preposterous absurdity. As Manfred introduced them to one crazy poet after another crazier painter, and to one aspiring model after another ambitious photographer, she felt sure she had finally emerged into society, and with one of its potentially greater luminaries to boot.

It was on the afternoon of the fourth day that a slow leak developed in their bubble of happiness. They passed a kiosk plastered with bullfight placards, and Roger stopped to read the announcement of the last ‘Grand Corrida de Toros’ of the season, featuring the controversial El Cordobés. Royal-Dawson’s lectures had left their mark on Roger, and he had automatically adopted his more knowledgeable friend’s attitudes and opinions with regard to the current state of bullfighting. There was a lot of discussion at present about what was considered high style and what was regarded as pure commercialism, all directed towards the unsophisticated tourist public. El Cordobés, the reigning king of the latter form of bullfighting, was held in low esteem by the purists, but there were those who maintained the Fiesta Brava might well benefit from some new blood, so to speak. El Cordobés was certainly an iconoclast; a showier, flashier, more crowd-pleasing matador did not exist. He was the veritable Mick Jagger of the bullring. Royal-Dawson had been pitiless in his denigration, but now that Roger was on his own, far from Royal-Dawson’s immediate influence, he felt the desire to make his own judgements. He suggested they attend the fight on the following day — and the bubble began to leak.

“We will sit behind the barrera in the shade,” said Carmen, who had been used to the best seats in the arena since her father had become the preferred physician of a long line of matadors and their teams.

“Well unless I can resell a couple of tickets at a smart profit — enough to afford something in the shade, we’ll be lucky to make it into the tendidos in the sun.”

“That is wrong what you do in Madrid,” said Carmen, “here we must do better.”

“We don’t have much choice, do we?” said Roger, a little pained. We’re not exactly here on a government grant. My money’s almost gone as it is. Manfred’s nightlife, with all those damned taxi rides I seem to end up paying for, has been pretty expensive.”

She looked at him but said nothing. It was not exactly a look of recrimination in her eyes, but he felt the criticism. It was this new feeling of responsibility that he kept forgetting about. He had never been in this position before, and it was taking some getting used to. The idea that far from being able to expect other people to provide for him he was now being held accountable for someone else’s welfare was unreal. And he was accountable not only for Carmen, whom he had wrested away from family and job, but for his unborn child. What a thought! He still had difficulty taking the idea seriously. It was fine on an academic level — when they discussed their future in general idealized terms — but trying to imagine that it was actually true, here and now, that he was soon to be a father, was too much. It bore little relation to what he thought he was doing or who he thought he was. What was most disturbing, and unnerving to the point of being scary, was that Carmen seemed to take it completely for granted, as if they had been in this position for ever. Her silence was full of her previous demand for marriage.

This was one subject they had so far skirted since their arrival. But he had not been able to forget it. It had been there in the back of his mind, and he had known that he was going to have to come to terms with it. He knew that it was all of a piece with what she expected him to do — for her, for him, for the child, for all of them. But exactly what he was going to do, he had no idea. The bubble leaked a little more as he realized it was time to finish with the honeymoon and see about a job.

“I’ll talk to Manfred this evening,” he said. But she had no idea what had been going through his mind, and assumed that he intended to ask for a loan.

“No. Tomorrow I will look for a position. We will do better here.”

“Yes, of course we will,” he replied. But the old depression was squeezing the sunlight out of the afternoon even as he said it.

*

As it turned out, their welcome was wearing a bit thin with Manfred, and he brought up the subject of Roger’s employment that very evening. He was quite happy to accommodate a pair of lovebirds for a couple of days, but they were beginning to cramp his style. He had been forced to put Lola off two nights in a row now, and she was threatening to make a date with his colleague at the shipping line, tall Jürgen. Tall Jürgen generally came in second with the ladies he and Manfred met during their nightly forays into Barcelona’s demi-monde, but now he at least had the advantage of a free flat. Manfred had his reputation to think of. Of course, his appearance with Carmen and Roger the Composer had been a plus at first with everybody on the scene — Carmen was quite spectacular in everyone’s eyes, not just Roger’s — and Manfred had been able to bask in a large amount of reflected glory on this account. Carmen had the great asset of genuine class. Furthermore, she didn’t realize that she had it, and so didn’t flaunt it. She was naïve but perfectly poised. Nevertheless, it would soon become apparent to everyone that Carmen belonged to Roger, and was not some new conquest of Manfred’s. And while Roger’s Englishness was also an initial plus for Manfred in the eyes of his café friends, he was beginning to be embarrassed by what he thought of as Roger’s wimpishness. He would be unable to get away with explaining some of Roger’s more ingenuous remarks about certain of the International Ladies (as Manfred like to think of them) as a Composer’s Sensibilities for much longer.

Both parties jumped at the subject on their minds with an awkward suddenness the moment Carmen left the room to get ready for the evening’s outing.

“Roger, about some vork for you…”

“Manfred, I’ve got to find a job…”

They both laughed, Manfred relieved that Roger was not the sponger he was beginning to take him for, and Roger that admitting his straightened circumstances was not going to be embarrassing. What Manfred suggested next, however, took Roger by surprise.

“Listen, you are a composer — a musician — so how about you make some music? There is a jazz club in the Barrio Chino — the only jazz club in all Barcelona, in fact — where I know the dueño. He likes to have a house rhythm-section for visiting musicians, since he can’t afford to hire the whole band. Right now he needs a drummer. You must be able to play the drums, yes?”

Play the drums!? Roger thought back to the time he played a side drum in the school pageant, and half the cast had almost marched off the front of the stage. What a disaster — but they said he had talent! He remembered the jam sessions at college when he had bashed away at Rowlandson’s drumkit to everyone’s delight. Of course, when not deafened by their own enthusiasm, everybody had been drunk most of the time. Nevertheless, he knew the difference between snare, tom-tom, and bass. And he knew how to hold the sticks…brushes, too. Then he thought about the intricacies of modern jazz tempi. He laughed. The idea was ludicrous. But he nodded cautiously.

“Well, yes. I suppose…”

It was all the confirmation Manfred needed.

“Goot! I take you there tomorrow.”

“Take us where tomorrow?” asked Carmen, who had just rejoined them.

“To the Gato Negro. Roger will be the new drummer, and you will both have your own place upstairs.”

Carmen smiled, admiration and relief apparent. Roger began to stutter that he didn’t know how good a drummer he was, but Manfred brushed aside his objections saying: “Nu’ ja, of course you vill have an audition. But a composer so good as you are can surely play some simple rhythm. Not to be a star, just to be the backup. I vill arrange it all tomorrow, and ve vill go to the Gato Negro — the Black Cat — before the club opens. You can play the first set with Tete Monteliú.”

Roger gasped. The idea was even more preposterous than he had first thought. Tete Monteliú, the blind pianist, was Spain’s most famous jazz musician. He couldn’t possibly accompany someone of that stature — even if he could play the drums — which he couldn’t! But Carmen was delighted by the idea, and when later that evening at the bar Manfred had announced the fact that Roger was to accompany Tete Monteliú tomorrow he became the centre of attention.

Dismayed embarrassment began to abate as someone bought him a drink, and someone else clapped him on the back and toasted the ‘English Genius!’ He swallowed the drink and thought perhaps he might pull it off at that. How hard could it be? He certainly had a thorough grasp of the rhythmic structure of basic jazz — why, it was nearly all straight fours — just a little syncopation now and then. Besides, everyone would be listening to the pianist. Sure, he could do it. Plus, he’d have access to a piano, and be able to run through those passages of the Suite he was still uncertain of. And he and Carmen would have their own place to live as well — above a jazz club. How very hip! It was perfect.

The next morning he was no longer quite so sure. He dug out a few of Manfred’s jazz records and tried to listen to what the drummers were doing. Ignoring the solo passages, he played along on the backs of chairs, and decided that at the very least he could keep time. Maybe he could do it. At least he would give it a try. Encouraged, he began talking about how wonderful it would be finally to have their own place, and Carmen smiled in secret anticipation of what she hoped would be an important formalization of their relationship. She even tried out the sound of ‘Señora Coulter’ to herself. She prepared an omelette for lunch and opened a bottle of Manfred’s best wine (meaning to pay him back from Roger’s first week’s salary) and set it down proudly in front of her future husband. The unwitting future husband immediately drank half the bottle, omitting to offer his future wife a glass — who in any case was abstaining because of the baby — unaware of what was the real reason for this unexpected feast, thinking only that a little Dutch courage — or creative relaxation — might be good for the audition to come.

After the meal, both of them silently celebrating their separate fantasies, they made love on the balcony, and then gazed dreamily out at the Mediterranean, thinking how wonderful life was. Their reverie lasted for what seemed like a demi-eternity, for it was siesta time, and the workers in the street below had all disappeared into the shadows somewhere, leaving their wooden barrows and long-handled shovels scattered carelessly over the quiet street, secure in the knowledge that no self-respecting Spaniard would be abroad at this hour.

Later in the afternoon they decided to walk to the club. By the time they reached the Plaza España end of the Ramblas they were tired, and they stopped for something to drink at an outdoor café where Roger allowed the smallest shoeshine boy he had ever seen to develop a brilliant shine on his oldest pair of grey suede shoes, and Carmen allowed her palm to be read by a gypsy notable for being one of the few old women Roger had so far seen who was not dressed entirely in black. Roger had now convinced himself he could pull it off. In any case, he had little to lose and would look a terrible coward if he attempted to back out of it. Manfred was right, he was a musician, after all. And he owed it to Carmen — and the baby. He would give it a shot.

Towards six o’clock they emerged from a narrow passage into the antique regularity of the Plaza Real. The centre of the square consisted of a wide cobbled area, expansively empty at this hour — pedestrians, tourists, loiterers, lottery sellers, and stray children were all keeping to the shaded arcades that ran around the perimeter. Not until nightfall would life spill out into the open. The absence of traffic heightened the illusion that they had reentered the eighteenth century, except for the fact that in one corner of the square a bright neon sign in the shape of a cat announced the intrusion of the twentieth century in the form of Barcelona’s only jazz club.

Like many other establishments, the entire front consisted of doors that were folded back completely when the bar was open, exposing a gaping hole in the stonework of the square’s facade, but under the shadowed arcade it was impossible to see more than a few feet into the dark room. All that was visible was just the beginnings of a long bar, almost deserted at this early hour, and a large blackboard on an easel proclaiming in coloured chalk a performance by ‘El Maestro de Jazz Español: Tete Monteliú’. The unshaven bartender ignored Roger but leered at Carmen, and Roger suddenly forgot how to order a plain gassy seltzer for Carmen. He was still struggling to formulate the correct idiom when Manfred appeared from the depths of the club with a small, greasy man in a three-piece suit and a pinched, suspicious face.

“Roger, meet Señor Delgado!”

“Mucho gusto, Señor,” said Roger.

“Welcome to thee Bleck Ket, Señor Cowelterr,” said Delgado with a twisted smile resembling a grimace of pain so frightful that Roger jerked back reflexively as he shook the club owner’s thin hand.

Manfred proceeded to extol Roger’s consummate musicianship. Delgado’s smile became indistinguishable from a sneer and then imperceptibly turned back into a smile. By the time Manfred had finished his pitch it was hard to tell what the expression was. Roger shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, aware that behind him Carmen was waiting to be introduced, be invited to sit down, offered some refreshment, or at least to be acknowledged. Delgado motioned curtly to the bartender, who in turn sent a waiter to usher them to a table. Roger held a chair for Carmen and was about to sit down himself when Delgado said: “You play, Rogerrr Cowelterr, please!” and pointed past the bar into the depths of the room to where Roger now saw a small stage with a battered piano and a set of drums.

He can’t want me to play the drums on my own, thought Roger with sudden apprehension. He had imagined that at worst he would be able to mask his questionable competence behind someone else’s playing. To be asked to play solo was more than he had bargained for. But this seemed to be precisely what was expected of him. Everyone was waiting. Carmen smiled encouragingly, but what did she know? Manfred was beaming as if he was about to pull off the greatest promotional coup of the year. And Delgado simply sat there with his expressionless smile — or was it a sneer? — like a lizard waiting for its prey in the sun.

Roger walked to the stage, and then turned around as if to say something, but thought better of it and closed his mouth, and quickly sat down — at the piano. He played the opening bars of Beethoven’s Apassionata, then switched to a straightforward rendition of several Gerschwin tunes, and had already segued into part of the Castilian Suite before Delgado had sprung to life and come windmilling down the room talking like a machine gun, the word ‘batería’ being featured every three seconds.

“I only play the drums to accompany someone else,” said Roger with as much dignity as he could muster, and stood up to leave. But Delgado motioned him to stay, and shouted into the farther depths of the club. An unlikely looking character trotted out, smiled at everybody and bowed to Roger before sitting down at the piano and playing the worst imitation jazz Roger had ever heard. Unfortunately, the eager pianist had absolutely no sense of time, and it was impossible for Roger either to follow him with any kind of regular rhythm or impose any of his own on the chaotic cacophony that was being punched out from the abused piano. Deciding that it was hopeless, he shut his ears to the riotous and arrhythmic discordancy, and tried to play a simple four-four beat. He actually managed to get the high-hat crisply ringing on the off-beat, and inject an occasional rimshot on the side of the snare, but the effect was ludicrous. At last, losing patience with the absurdity of the situation, he abandoned any attempt at appearing either meaningful or competent and started bashing wildly at every part of the drumkit he could reach. He beat a short tattoo on the tenor drum, thumped the bass at random with one foot while the other came unhinged from the high-hat’s pedal, smashed at the rivet cymbal, rattled the cowhorn, and attacked the snaredrum with a paroxysm of paradiddles that eventually caused the pianist to stop playing and look up in astonishment at the demonic drummer behind him.

Delgado waited until Roger had stopped playing, looked at him icily, but somehow still with the frightful smile on his face, and said: “For afternoon and before jazz in evening you play piano. Concert batería no good! And the señorita, she waitress. Paco will show you room.”

Paco stood up from the piano, looked warily at Roger, and with a nervous smile nodded at Delgado. Not sure whether he was relieved, embarrassed, had been found out, or had been saved, Roger decided that he would opt for the latter, and looked over to Carmen and said as positively as he knew how: “Well, it looks like we’ve landed on our feet. Let’s go and inspect our quarters.”

* * *

The Castilian Suite is available in eBook and paperback from Blackburn Books

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 7

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 7
Across the Ebro
The affair develops — a double confirmation. Tragedy at the bullring and an unexpected announcement lead to a flight across the Ebro.

The ride to Barcelona, although the distance was considerably shorter, took much longer than had the ride from Irun to Madrid. This train was certainly not the pride of the renfe — the Spanish National Network of the Iron Rail — this was the milk train. A train that stopped at every station and hint of a station on the least excuse. It ground frequently to a halt for half an hour at a time, seldom for any visible reason. Time and time again Roger leant out of the window to see if they had actually arrived anywhere, but invariably there was nothing to be seen. Sometimes the single track had become two, and they had shunted onto the adjacent line to wait interminably until another train rushed past. But more often than not there was no other line; no apparent reason for the delay. He became convinced that either the engine driver was a chronic narcoleptic, or that the train was somehow lost in a twilight zone and had consequently to stop repeatedly in order not to reach its destination too soon.

If the night had been uncomfortable, the following day was agony. The tedium and slowness of their progress became progressively more intolerable. They were unable to converse, either with each other or with any of the other passengers. This was not the gay, colourful crowd of the first journey, made interesting and exciting by novelty. Roger’s increased familiarity with the land of Cervantes, its people and their customs, had eroded much of the exotic flavour with which a newly experienced environment is frequently imbued. Given time, most places will become depressingly familiar. All he saw now was downtrodden peasantry. A peasantry that kept itself apart from the foreigner and the señorita from the city, and that refused to be impressed or drawn into conversation by even his most cheerful and idiomatic Spanish.

Where Sarah had been mildly aloof, Carmen totally ignored these people’s very presence. He thought at first she was unnecessarily embarrassed because of her condition. But that was nonsense. No one could possibly know. They both looked eminently respectable. Slowly he realized she was doing her best to bear up in what were for her trying and humiliating circumstances. She was simply not accustomed to riding in milk trains.

It was now Roger’s turn to gaze, as had Sarah, balefully out of the window. He had not bargained on this. It was hard enough keeping up one’s own spirits without having to worry about someone else’s moody perceptions. Still, he thought, trying to cheer himself up, when they got to Barcelona Manfred should be able to set things straight. By all accounts he had a pretty nice flat in the hills. It would be fun to explore a new place.

But it was impossible to keep his thoughts centered on positive things; the endlessness of the train ride gnawed its way back to the front of his brain, and he gave himself up to a state of semi-conscious boredom. As day dimmed to evening he became ever more certain that they were lost and would never arrive anywhere, doomed to rattle slowly across the endless plain for all eternity, like some flying Iberian Dutchman. Was it possible they had taken a wrong turning somewhere — that someone had pulled the wrong switch at one of those empty, desolate junctions — and that they were on their way to León, Gallicia, or somewhere farther…extremely farther…Extremadura…?

It grew pitch black outside and emptier inside as the sullen passengers left by ones and twos. After a while, Roger and Carmen were alone in the compartment; sole passengers on the saddest train in the world. The flaking varnish of the wooden seats was littered with the pathetic debris of the poor: the tattered remains of a newspaper, a small pile of shells from someone’s bag of nuts, a piece of chewed chorizo, and innumerable cigarette ends. He slumped in his seat, greyness invading his limbs as well as his mind. But Carmen still seemed to think it important to maintain appearances, and remained erect, as if even to notice her surroundings was beneath her.

Sitting in the shabby gloom of the third-class compartment it occurred to him now that if indeed they were still headed towards Barcelona, and were not lost as he had supposed, it must be because their co-passengers had known something shameful about the city, and had not wanted to wait around for it. This disturbing thought began to change his ideas about Barcelona. He had imagined it as a bright, sophisticated place — it was on the Mediterranean, after all, and not far from France — but now he started to have visions of some deeper, darker form of specially Spanish form of Hell. He had heard that the Catalans did not really consider themselves Spanish, that they spoke a separate language, despite General Franco’s efforts to suppress it. On the other hand, he had also heard that the bullring was large, that the city was the home of Pablo Casals and Antonio Gaudi, and that there were palm trees. Any place with palm trees could hardly be a total washout. Besides, Manfred lived there. What on earth was he thinking about?

An eternity later, they arrived. Not with banging and shouting, bright lights and clouds of steam, but with a slow, exhausted hissing from the engine as they trickled into an almost completely deserted industrial wasteland of empty platforms and abandoned carriages. There was no announcement, no rush of exiting passengers, no shouting guards or hustling porters, just the unremarked finality of the train’s last stop. The absolute end of the line. They crept out of the carriage onto the dimly lit platform, and stumbled tiredly, almost guiltily, a very long way to the gate at the end. As they passed through the gate, he noticed with dismay that there was not even a ticket collector. No one seemed to care whether they had arrived or not. And worse, there was no sign of Manfred.

He was not totally surprised at this. He had written to Manfred that they expected to arrive on this particular train, but since their actual arrival had very little in common with the published arrival time, it was not really to be expected that anyone would be there to meet them. They stood in the middle of the almost empty station, just the sound of a few cleaners and sweepers echoing in odd corners, the train they had arrived on now totally dead and silent, and felt wretched and abandoned.

Carmen looked expressionlessly at Roger. He winced internally, and gathered himself together.

“I suppose I’d better try and give Manfred a ring,” he said, attempting to sound brisk, “do you think there’s a phone around here somewhere?”

She looked at him with what he felt was a disdainful pity, and he said: “Right, then. I’ll have a look.”

But there was no phone around anywhere. Slowly losing hope, they dragged themselves and their luggage from one end of the vast station to the other, peering into gloomy corridors and alcoves, but found nothing. Depression was joined by its half-brother despondency, with cousin panic from the asylum shadowing them closely.

They left the station, hoping to discover a hotel, but instead of finding themselves in any kind of busy thoroughfare, emerged onto an even emptier side street. They walked to the nearest corner and found only closed warehouses and dead factories. They then walked the length of the next street and found that they must be near the waterfront, for tall dockyard cranes reared up behind grimy walls hiding buildings alternating with littered vacant lots, fenced off from the street with rusted chainlink. Then at last, just as he was sure the whole thing was a terrible and disastrous mistake, they found a little bar, cheerfully lit and bravely sporting a pair of chequered-cloth covered tables on the pavement outside the front door.

At one of the tables sat a rosy cheeked, rotund old lady — dressed all in black, as all old ladies seemed to be — bouncing a little girl on her lap. The little girl shrieked with delight every time the old lady pretended to spill her off, whereupon the old lady chuckled and bounced her the harder. Above the door to the bar was a hand-painted sign reading ‘Teléfono’. Roger pointed at it with relief.

“I’ll try Manfred. Why don’t you sit down here. I’ll order some coffee.”

He disappeared inside, leaving Carmen to make the acquaintance of the old lady and the little girl. By the time he reemerged the little girl was on Carmen’s lap, and Carmen was smiling.

He gave a secret sigh of relief and said: “Coffee’s coming right out. Manfred should be here in half an hour. What do you think of that?”

“Sinko vat,” said the little girl, laughing at her cleverness.

“I think I am very looking forward to meeting your friend,” said Carmen.

“Mi tin yo fren,” echoed the little girl.

“Ssssss!” said the old lady, putting a hand in front of her mouth in mock shock.

“I’m sure you’ll like him — he’s a real ladykiller,” said Roger with a grin.

Carmen narrowed her eyes. “Ladykiller?”

“Yes, you know, a real charmer. Terribly polite and very gallant. He’s supposed to have lots of girlfriends.”

“I see. Well as long as he has room for us tonight I do not care how many girlfriends he has,” and she bounced the little girl up and down harder than the old lady had done, growing suddenly morose again. “I wonder,” she said after a while, “if this little girl has a mother and a father.”

Roger looked at the old lady dressed all in black, and asked in his best Spanish after the little girl’s parents. The old lady’s face relaxed its happy, scrunched-up smile, became long, and then positively drooped, mournfully. Mumbling something unintelligible, her hands falling to her side, she glanced heavenwards. He looked at Carmen for clarification.

“Her father is dead. Her mother, who never married him, works in this bar.”

Having explained this, Carmen asked the old lady something else, and from her reply Roger pieced together bits about the unwed mother not being able to take care of the daughter…the owner of the bar wanting to marry her — but not wanting to take in the daughter…the mother unwilling to give up her daughter…the old lady being the dead father’s mother and wanting the little girl…but her son not having been married it was difficult for her to claim the girl…the mother not being able to stop working — unless she married the bar owner — but not wanting to give up the little girl to the old lady…if only they had been married…but what was anyone to do?

It was altogether a sad and confused story. He was about to make a remark on the foolishness of people and the sad plight of the little girl caught in the middle of it all when something in Carmen’s expression stopped him.

“We will do better than that, Roger. You and I?”

“Oh yes, of course. I mean we’ll never let things get so out of hand. We’ll…”

“We will get married before our little one arrives. Yes?”

He went white and suddenly felt amazingly leaden and light-headed at the same time. Married!? There was something shatteringly threatening in the idea. It was as if he had been told he had cancer. It was a concept that seemed to drain all the colour out of the world. As if he had walked into a room full of partying beautiful-people, and they had all instantly been transformed into a collection of diseased, geriatric mourners. As if he had been told he was going to be locked up for life. And yet his reaction had nothing to do with the way he felt for Carmen. Despite the trauma of the last few weeks, Carmen was still the illuminated centre of his existence; the spark that kept him motivated and alive. She was his passion and his infatuation, and despite everything he viewed their wearisome journey to Barcelona as an incredible stroke of good fortune. Something that was going to make possible their living together. But marriage! This was not something he had ever thought of in the same breath as Carmen. Marriage was what happened to older people, to his parent’s generation, to people who settled down and led boring, predictable, pedestrian lives. Not to people like him and Carmen. Not to composers and movers and groovers.

He was saved from having to answer directly by Manfred’s noisy arrival in a yellow Volkswagen. A broad ruddy face and a shock of Teutonically perfect blond hair exploded out of the tiny car, larger than life and twice as noisily.

“Coulter! Velcome to Barcelona! And this must be the schöne Carmen. Velcome, velcome!””

The handsome German scooped them up and magically fitted them and their luggage into a space seemingly much too small even for him, said something to the old woman that brought a smile back to her face, and before they knew it was careering off down the cobbled street talking a mile a minute.

The journey seemed a long one, possibly because they were so cramped. Carmen sat in the front, her knees under her chin. Roger was twisted sideways in the back, almost buried by their bags and cases, only one of which had been able to fit in the ridiculous boot at the front of the car. He looked past Manfred’s ear as they whizzed out of the dark neighbourhood between the docks and the railway station and burst into the Ramblas — a broad avenue lined with open-air cafés, bars, newsstands, and large, ornate art-deco kiosks reminiscent of Parisian metro stations, papered with every kind of advertisement. The yellow vw fought its way through the suicidal traffic and riotous crowds with much help from its abrasive hooter, and eventually they found themselves careening wildly around the spacious but still densely trafficked Plaza España. Some time later, having progressed through an ever quietening series of streets that became narrower as they climbed into the hilly residential district where houses were newer and the streets were cleaner, they stopped outside a building freshly plastered, workmen’s tools still littering the unfinished courtyard and part of the street.

The sight of tubs full of flowers on either side of the elegant doorway — not to mention a baby palm tree in the entranceway — washed all Roger’s fears and anxieties away. The memory of the scabrous train ride and his ensuing depression was forgotten completely as he stepped into Manfred’s living room and gazed out of the balcony window across the lights of nighttime Barcelona far below, abruptly bordered by an inky black Mediterranean beyond.

 *

 The next few days were the best Roger had experienced since he and Sarah had left the French border four months earlier. It was like a honeymoon. Manfred treated them as if they had been a recognized couple from way back; there was no hint of censure. And since this was a new city for both of them there was absolutely no need to hide or worry that they might be unexpectedly met by family members or other disapproving acquaintances. The flat itself was even nicer in the daytime than it had appeared on their arrival. The view was magnificent, with all Barcelona spread out before them, the palm-fringed Mediterranean glinting in the distance. The furnishings were positively sybaritic compared to the traditional severity of Carmen’s parents’ house, and seemed from a different planet altogether compared to the Gomez’s pension.

Manfred had brought them coffee the morning after they arrived, before he left for the shipping company’s offices on the Ramblas. After a lazy few hours on the balcony, they gathered themselves together and decided to explore the city, all thoughts of problems present and future blithely forgotten.

The next few days were a time for getting to know each other all over again. Since she no longer had to show up at the Prado each morning, Carmen felt as if she was on holiday. They played, they lazed, they made love, and they dreamed aloud together in the sun. On the balcony, on the carpet in Manfred’s spacious living room, with the indigo sky and azure sea as backdrop, on the beach, and even as they rode the underground around Barcelona, they talked, explained the world, described their future, and laughed at everything they saw. In the evenings they met Manfred after work, and they all ate together in cafés, restaurants, bars — colourful meeting places filled with people Manfred knew, who said hello, shouted invitations, and exchanged gossip. It was all very urbane, exciting, cosmopolitan.

Roger preened, and began to feel it was all due to him. This was how he had imagined things would be, how they ought to be. Carmen became convinced she had indeed escaped over the high convent wall that had kept her in Madrid, and was now in the ‘real’ world at last, where Roger’s claim to be a musician was no longer a preposterous absurdity. As Manfred introduced them to one crazy poet after another crazier painter, and to one aspiring model after another ambitious photographer, she felt sure she had finally emerged into society, and with one of its potentially greater luminaries to boot.

It was on the afternoon of the fourth day that a slow leak developed in their bubble of happiness. They passed a kiosk plastered with bullfight placards, and Roger stopped to read the announcement of the last ‘Grand Corrida de Toros’ of the season, featuring the controversial El Cordobés. Royal-Dawson’s lectures had left their mark on Roger, and he had automatically adopted his more knowledgeable friend’s attitudes and opinions with regard to the current state of bullfighting. There was a lot of discussion at present about what was considered high style and what was regarded as pure commercialism, all directed towards the unsophisticated tourist public. El Cordobés, the reigning king of the latter form of bullfighting, was held in low esteem by the purists, but there were those who maintained the Fiesta Brava might well benefit from some new blood, so to speak. El Cordobés was certainly an iconoclast; a showier, flashier, more crowd-pleasing matador did not exist. He was the veritable Mick Jagger of the bullring. Royal-Dawson had been pitiless in his denigration, but now that Roger was on his own, far from Royal-Dawson’s immediate influence, he felt the desire to make his own judgements. He suggested they attend the fight on the following day — and the bubble began to leak.

“We will sit behind the barrera in the shade,” said Carmen, who had been used to the best seats in the arena since her father had become the preferred physician of a long line of matadors and their teams.

“Well unless I can resell a couple of tickets at a smart profit — enough to afford something in the shade, we’ll be lucky to make it into the tendidos in the sun.”

“That is wrong what you do in Madrid,” said Carmen, “here we must do better.”

“We don’t have much choice, do we?” said Roger, a little pained. We’re not exactly here on a government grant. My money’s almost gone as it is. Manfred’s nightlife, with all those damned taxi rides I seem to end up paying for, has been pretty expensive.”

She looked at him but said nothing. It was not exactly a look of recrimination in her eyes, but he felt the criticism. It was this new feeling of responsibility that he kept forgetting about. He had never been in this position before, and it was taking some getting used to. The idea that far from being able to expect other people to provide for him he was now being held accountable for someone else’s welfare was unreal. And he was accountable not only for Carmen, whom he had wrested away from family and job, but for his unborn child. What a thought! He still had difficulty taking the idea seriously. It was fine on an academic level — when they discussed their future in general idealized terms — but trying to imagine that it was actually true, here and now, that he was soon to be a father, was too much. It bore little relation to what he thought he was doing or who he thought he was. What was most disturbing, and unnerving to the point of being scary, was that Carmen seemed to take it completely for granted, as if they had been in this position for ever. Her silence was full of her previous demand for marriage.

This was one subject they had so far skirted since their arrival. But he had not been able to forget it. It had been there in the back of his mind, and he had known that he was going to have to come to terms with it. He knew that it was all of a piece with what she expected him to do — for her, for him, for the child, for all of them. But exactly what he was going to do, he had no idea. The bubble leaked a little more as he realized it was time to finish with the honeymoon and see about a job.

“I’ll talk to Manfred this evening,” he said. But she had no idea what had been going through his mind, and assumed that he intended to ask for a loan.

“No. Tomorrow I will look for a position. We will do better here.”

“Yes, of course we will,” he replied. But the old depression was squeezing the sunlight out of the afternoon even as he said it.

 *

As it turned out, their welcome was wearing a bit thin with Manfred, and he brought up the subject of Roger’s employment that very evening. He was quite happy to accommodate a pair of lovebirds for a couple of days, but they were beginning to cramp his style. He had been forced to put Lola off two nights in a row now, and she was threatening to make a date with his colleague at the shipping line, tall Jürgen. Tall Jürgen generally came in second with the ladies he and Manfred met during their nightly forays into Barcelona’s demi-monde, but now he at least had the advantage of a free flat. Manfred had his reputation to think of. Of course, his appearance with Carmen and Roger the Composer had been a plus at first with everybody on the scene — Carmen was quite spectacular in everyone’s eyes, not just Roger’s — and Manfred had been able to bask in a large amount of reflected glory on this account. Carmen had the great asset of genuine class. Furthermore, she didn’t realize that she had it, and so didn’t flaunt it. She was naïve but perfectly poised. Nevertheless, it would soon become apparent to everyone that Carmen belonged to Roger, and was not some new conquest of Manfred’s. And while Roger’s Englishness was also an initial plus for Manfred in the eyes of his café friends, he was beginning to be embarrassed by what he thought of as Roger’s wimpishness. He would be unable to get away with explaining some of Roger’s more ingenuous remarks about certain of the International Ladies (as Manfred like to think of them) as a Composer’s Sensibilities for much longer.

Both parties jumped at the subject on their minds with an awkward suddenness the moment Carmen left the room to get ready for the evening’s outing.

“Roger, about some vork for you…”

“Manfred, I’ve got to find a job…”

They both laughed, Manfred relieved that Roger was not the sponger he was beginning to take him for, and Roger that admitting his straightened circumstances was not going to be embarrassing. What Manfred suggested next, however, took Roger by surprise.

“Listen, you are a composer — a musician — so how about you make some music? There is a jazz club in the Barrio Chino — the only jazz club in all Barcelona, in fact — where I know the dueño. He likes to have a house rhythm-section for visiting musicians, since he can’t afford to hire the whole band. Right now he needs a drummer. You must be able to play the drums, yes?”

Play the drums!? Roger thought back to the time he played a side drum in the school pageant, and half the cast had almost marched off the front of the stage. What a disaster — but they said he had talent! He remembered the jam sessions at college when he had bashed away at Rowlandson’s drumkit to everyone’s delight. Of course, when not deafened by their own enthusiasm, everybody had been drunk most of the time. Nevertheless, he knew the difference between snare, tom-tom, and bass. And he knew how to hold the sticks…brushes, too. Then he thought about the intricacies of modern jazz tempi. He laughed. The idea was ludicrous. But he nodded cautiously.

“Well, yes. I suppose…”

It was all the confirmation Manfred needed.

“Goot! I take you there tomorrow.”

“Take us where tomorrow?” asked Carmen, who had just rejoined them.

“To the Gato Negro. Roger will be the new drummer, and you will both have your own place upstairs.”

Carmen smiled, admiration and relief apparent. Roger began to stutter that he didn’t know how good a drummer he was, but Manfred brushed aside his objections saying: “Nu’ ja, of course you vill have an audition. But a composer so good as you are can surely play some simple rhythm. Not to be a star, just to be the backup. I vill arrange it all tomorrow, and ve vill go to the Gato Negro — the Black Cat — before the club opens. You can play the first set with Tete Monteliú.”

Roger gasped. The idea was even more preposterous than he had first thought. Tete Monteliú, the blind pianist, was Spain’s most famous jazz musician. He couldn’t possibly accompany someone of that stature — even if he could play the drums — which he couldn’t! But Carmen was delighted by the idea, and when later that evening at the bar Manfred had announced the fact that Roger was to accompany Tete Monteliú tomorrow he became the centre of attention.

Dismayed embarrassment began to abate as someone bought him a drink, and someone else clapped him on the back and toasted the ‘English Genius!’ He swallowed the drink and thought perhaps he might pull it off at that. How hard could it be? He certainly had a thorough grasp of the rhythmic structure of basic jazz — why, it was nearly all straight fours — just a little syncopation now and then. Besides, everyone would be listening to the pianist. Sure, he could do it. Plus, he’d have access to a piano, and be able to run through those passages of the Suite he was still uncertain of. And he and Carmen would have their own place to live as well — above a jazz club. How very hip! It was perfect.

The next morning he was no longer quite so sure. He dug out a few of Manfred’s jazz records and tried to listen to what the drummers were doing. Ignoring the solo passages, he played along on the backs of chairs, and decided that at the very least he could keep time. Maybe he could do it. At least he would give it a try. Encouraged, he began talking about how wonderful it would be finally to have their own place, and Carmen smiled in secret anticipation of what she hoped would be an important formalization of their relationship. She even tried out the sound of ‘Señora Coulter’ to herself. She prepared an omelette for lunch and opened a bottle of Manfred’s best wine (meaning to pay him back from Roger’s first week’s salary) and set it down proudly in front of her future husband. The unwitting future husband immediately drank half the bottle, omitting to offer his future wife a glass — who in any case was abstaining because of the baby — unaware of what was the real reason for this unexpected feast, thinking only that a little Dutch courage — or creative relaxation — might be good for the audition to come.

After the meal, both of them silently celebrating their separate fantasies, they made love on the balcony, and then gazed dreamily out at the Mediterranean, thinking how wonderful life was. Their reverie lasted for what seemed like a demi-eternity, for it was siesta time, and the workers in the street below had all disappeared into the shadows somewhere, leaving their wooden barrows and long-handled shovels scattered carelessly over the quiet street, secure in the knowledge that no self-respecting Spaniard would be abroad at this hour.

Later in the afternoon they decided to walk to the club. By the time they reached the Plaza España end of the Ramblas they were tired, and they stopped for something to drink at an outdoor café where Roger allowed the smallest shoeshine boy he had ever seen to develop a brilliant shine on his oldest pair of grey suede shoes, and Carmen allowed her palm to be read by a gypsy notable for being one of the few old women Roger had so far seen who was not dressed entirely in black. Roger had now convinced himself he could pull it off. In any case, he had little to lose and would look a terrible coward if he attempted to back out of it. Manfred was right, he was a musician, after all. And he owed it to Carmen — and the baby. He would give it a shot.

Towards six o’clock they emerged from a narrow passage into the antique regularity of the Plaza Real. The centre of the square consisted of a wide cobbled area, expansively empty at this hour — pedestrians, tourists, loiterers, lottery sellers, and stray children were all keeping to the shaded arcades that ran around the perimeter. Not until nightfall would life spill out into the open. The absence of traffic heightened the illusion that they had reentered the eighteenth century, except for the fact that in one corner of the square a bright neon sign in the shape of a cat announced the intrusion of the twentieth century in the form of Barcelona’s only jazz club.

Like many other establishments, the entire front consisted of doors that were folded back completely when the bar was open, exposing a gaping hole in the stonework of the square’s facade, but under the shadowed arcade it was impossible to see more than a few feet into the dark room. All that was visible was just the beginnings of a long bar, almost deserted at this early hour, and a large blackboard on an easel proclaiming in coloured chalk a performance by ‘El Maestro de Jazz Español: Tete Monteliú’. The unshaven bartender ignored Roger but leered at Carmen, and Roger suddenly forgot how to order a plain gassy seltzer for Carmen. He was still struggling to formulate the correct idiom when Manfred appeared from the depths of the club with a small, greasy man in a three-piece suit and a pinched, suspicious face.

“Roger, meet Señor Delgado!”

“Mucho gusto, Señor,” said Roger.

“Welcome to thee Bleck Ket, Señor Cowelterr,” said Delgado with a twisted smile resembling a grimace of pain so frightful that Roger jerked back reflexively as he shook the club owner’s thin hand.

Manfred proceeded to extol Roger’s consummate musicianship. Delgado’s smile became indistinguishable from a sneer and then imperceptibly turned back into a smile. By the time Manfred had finished his pitch it was hard to tell what the expression was. Roger shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, aware that behind him Carmen was waiting to be introduced, be invited to sit down, offered some refreshment, or at least to be acknowledged. Delgado motioned curtly to the bartender, who in turn sent a waiter to usher them to a table. Roger held a chair for Carmen and was about to sit down himself when Delgado said: “You play, Rogerrr Cowelterr, please!” and pointed past the bar into the depths of the room to where Roger now saw a small stage with a battered piano and a set of drums.

He can’t want me to play the drums on my own, thought Roger with sudden apprehension. He had imagined that at worst he would be able to mask his questionable competence behind someone else’s playing. To be asked to play solo was more than he had bargained for. But this seemed to be precisely what was expected of him. Everyone was waiting. Carmen smiled encouragingly, but what did she know? Manfred was beaming as if he was about to pull off the greatest promotional coup of the year. And Delgado simply sat there with his expressionless smile — or was it a sneer? — like a lizard waiting for its prey in the sun.

Roger walked to the stage, and then turned around as if to say something, but thought better of it and closed his mouth, and quickly sat down — at the piano. He played the opening bars of Beethoven’s Apassionata, then switched to a straightforward rendition of several Gerschwin tunes, and had already segued into part of the Castilian Suite before Delgado had sprung to life and come windmilling down the room talking like a machine gun, the word ‘batería’ being featured every three seconds.

“I only play the drums to accompany someone else,” said Roger with as much dignity as he could muster, and stood up to leave. But Delgado motioned him to stay, and shouted into the farther depths of the club. An unlikely looking character trotted out, smiled at everybody and bowed to Roger before sitting down at the piano and playing the worst imitation jazz Roger had ever heard. Unfortunately, the eager pianist had absolutely no sense of time, and it was impossible for Roger either to follow him with any kind of regular rhythm or impose any of his own on the chaotic cacophony that was being punched out from the abused piano. Deciding that it was hopeless, he shut his ears to the riotous and arrhythmic discordancy, and tried to play a simple four-four beat. He actually managed to get the high-hat crisply ringing on the off-beat, and inject an occasional rimshot on the side of the snare, but the effect was ludicrous. At last, losing patience with the absurdity of the situation, he abandoned any attempt at appearing either meaningful or competent and started bashing wildly at every part of the drumkit he could reach. He beat a short tattoo on the tenor drum, thumped the bass at random with one foot while the other came unhinged from the high-hat’s pedal, smashed at the rivet cymbal, rattled the cowhorn, and attacked the snaredrum with a paroxysm of paradiddles that eventually caused the pianist to stop playing and look up in astonishment at the demonic drummer behind him.

Delgado waited until Roger had stopped playing, looked at him icily, but somehow still with the frightful smile on his face, and said: “For afternoon and before jazz in evening you play piano. Concert batería no good! And the señorita, she waitress. Paco will show you room.”

Paco stood up from the piano, looked warily at Roger, and with a nervous smile nodded at Delgado. Not sure whether he was relieved, embarrassed, had been found out, or had been saved, Roger decided that he would opt for the latter, and looked over to Carmen and said as positively as he knew how: “Well, it looks like we’ve landed on our feet. Let’s go and inspect our quarters.”

 * * *

The Castilian Suite is available as eBook or Paperback from Blackburn Books

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 6

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 6
Carmen
From Las Ventas to the Prado — escaping the anger of duped tourists, our hero runs into an unexpected angel…

The ride to Barcelona, although the distance was considerably shorter, took much longer than had the ride from Irun to Madrid. This train was certainly not the pride of the renfe — the Spanish National Network of the Iron Rail — this was the milk train. A train that stopped at every station and hint of a station on the least excuse. It ground frequently to a halt for half an hour at a time, seldom for any visible reason. Time and time again Roger leant out of the window to see if they had actually arrived anywhere, but invariably there was nothing to be seen. Sometimes the single track had become two, and they had shunted onto the adjacent line to wait interminably until another train rushed past. But more often than not there was no other line; no apparent reason for the delay. He became convinced that either the engine driver was a chronic narcoleptic, or that the train was somehow lost in a twilight zone and had consequently to stop repeatedly in order not to reach its destination too soon.

If the night had been uncomfortable, the following day was agony. The tedium and slowness of their progress became progressively more intolerable. They were unable to converse, either with each other or with any of the other passengers. This was not the gay, colourful crowd of the first journey, made interesting and exciting by novelty. Roger’s increased familiarity with the land of Cervantes, its people and their customs, had eroded much of the exotic flavour with which a newly experienced environment is frequently imbued. Given time, most places will become depressingly familiar. All he saw now was downtrodden peasantry. A peasantry that kept itself apart from the foreigner and the señorita from the city, and that refused to be impressed or drawn into conversation by even his most cheerful and idiomatic Spanish.

Where Sarah had been mildly aloof, Carmen totally ignored these people’s very presence. He thought at first she was unnecessarily embarrassed because of her condition. But that was nonsense. No one could possibly know. They both looked eminently respectable. Slowly he realized she was doing her best to bear up in what were for her trying and humiliating circumstances. She was simply not accustomed to riding in milk trains.

It was now Roger’s turn to gaze, as had Sarah, balefully out of the window. He had not bargained on this. It was hard enough keeping up one’s own spirits without having to worry about someone else’s moody perceptions. Still, he thought, trying to cheer himself up, when they got to Barcelona Manfred should be able to set things straight. By all accounts he had a pretty nice flat in the hills. It would be fun to explore a new place.

But it was impossible to keep his thoughts centered on positive things; the endlessness of the train ride gnawed its way back to the front of his brain, and he gave himself up to a state of semi-conscious boredom. As day dimmed to evening he became ever more certain that they were lost and would never arrive anywhere, doomed to rattle slowly across the endless plain for all eternity, like some flying Iberian Dutchman. Was it possible they had taken a wrong turning somewhere — that someone had pulled the wrong switch at one of those empty, desolate junctions — and that they were on their way to León, Gallicia, or somewhere farther…extremely farther…Extremadura…?

It grew pitch black outside and emptier inside as the sullen passengers left by ones and twos. After a while, Roger and Carmen were alone in the compartment; sole passengers on the saddest train in the world. The flaking varnish of the wooden seats was littered with the pathetic debris of the poor: the tattered remains of a newspaper, a small pile of shells from someone’s bag of nuts, a piece of chewed chorizo, and innumerable cigarette ends. He slumped in his seat, greyness invading his limbs as well as his mind. But Carmen still seemed to think it important to maintain appearances, and remained erect, as if even to notice her surroundings was beneath her.

Sitting in the shabby gloom of the third-class compartment it occurred to him now that if indeed they were still headed towards Barcelona, and were not lost as he had supposed, it must be because their co-passengers had known something shameful about the city, and had not wanted to wait around for it. This disturbing thought began to change his ideas about Barcelona. He had imagined it as a bright, sophisticated place — it was on the Mediterranean, after all, and not far from France — but now he started to have visions of some deeper, darker form of specially Spanish form of Hell. He had heard that the Catalans did not really consider themselves Spanish, that they spoke a separate language, despite General Franco’s efforts to suppress it. On the other hand, he had also heard that the bullring was large, that the city was the home of Pablo Casals and Antonio Gaudi, and that there were palm trees. Any place with palm trees could hardly be a total washout. Besides, Manfred lived there. What on earth was he thinking about?

An eternity later, they arrived. Not with banging and shouting, bright lights and clouds of steam, but with a slow, exhausted hissing from the engine as they trickled into an almost completely deserted industrial wasteland of empty platforms and abandoned carriages. There was no announcement, no rush of exiting passengers, no shouting guards or hustling porters, just the unremarked finality of the train’s last stop. The absolute end of the line. They crept out of the carriage onto the dimly lit platform, and stumbled tiredly, almost guiltily, a very long way to the gate at the end. As they passed through the gate, he noticed with dismay that there was not even a ticket collector. No one seemed to care whether they had arrived or not. And worse, there was no sign of Manfred.

He was not totally surprised at this. He had written to Manfred that they expected to arrive on this particular train, but since their actual arrival had very little in common with the published arrival time, it was not really to be expected that anyone would be there to meet them. They stood in the middle of the almost empty station, just the sound of a few cleaners and sweepers echoing in odd corners, the train they had arrived on now totally dead and silent, and felt wretched and abandoned.

Carmen looked expressionlessly at Roger. He winced internally, and gathered himself together.

“I suppose I’d better try and give Manfred a ring,” he said, attempting to sound brisk, “do you think there’s a phone around here somewhere?”

She looked at him with what he felt was a disdainful pity, and he said: “Right, then. I’ll have a look.”

But there was no phone around anywhere. Slowly losing hope, they dragged themselves and their luggage from one end of the vast station to the other, peering into gloomy corridors and alcoves, but found nothing. Depression was joined by its half-brother despondency, with cousin panic from the asylum shadowing them closely.

They left the station, hoping to discover a hotel, but instead of finding themselves in any kind of busy thoroughfare, emerged onto an even emptier side street. They walked to the nearest corner and found only closed warehouses and dead factories. They then walked the length of the next street and found that they must be near the waterfront, for tall dockyard cranes reared up behind grimy walls hiding buildings alternating with littered vacant lots, fenced off from the street with rusted chainlink. Then at last, just as he was sure the whole thing was a terrible and disastrous mistake, they found a little bar, cheerfully lit and bravely sporting a pair of chequered-cloth covered tables on the pavement outside the front door.

At one of the tables sat a rosy cheeked, rotund old lady — dressed all in black, as all old ladies seemed to be — bouncing a little girl on her lap. The little girl shrieked with delight every time the old lady pretended to spill her off, whereupon the old lady chuckled and bounced her the harder. Above the door to the bar was a hand-painted sign reading ‘Teléfono’. Roger pointed at it with relief.

“I’ll try Manfred. Why don’t you sit down here. I’ll order some coffee.”

He disappeared inside, leaving Carmen to make the acquaintance of the old lady and the little girl. By the time he reemerged the little girl was on Carmen’s lap, and Carmen was smiling.

He gave a secret sigh of relief and said: “Coffee’s coming right out. Manfred should be here in half an hour. What do you think of that?”

“Sinko vat,” said the little girl, laughing at her cleverness.

“I think I am very looking forward to meeting your friend,” said Carmen.

“Mi tin yo fren,” echoed the little girl.

“Ssssss!” said the old lady, putting a hand in front of her mouth in mock shock.

“I’m sure you’ll like him — he’s a real ladykiller,” said Roger with a grin.

Carmen narrowed her eyes. “Ladykiller?”

“Yes, you know, a real charmer. Terribly polite and very gallant. He’s supposed to have lots of girlfriends.”

“I see. Well as long as he has room for us tonight I do not care how many girlfriends he has,” and she bounced the little girl up and down harder than the old lady had done, growing suddenly morose again. “I wonder,” she said after a while, “if this little girl has a mother and a father.”

Roger looked at the old lady dressed all in black, and asked in his best Spanish after the little girl’s parents. The old lady’s face relaxed its happy, scrunched-up smile, became long, and then positively drooped, mournfully. Mumbling something unintelligible, her hands falling to her side, she glanced heavenwards. He looked at Carmen for clarification.

“Her father is dead. Her mother, who never married him, works in this bar.”

Having explained this, Carmen asked the old lady something else, and from her reply Roger pieced together bits about the unwed mother not being able to take care of the daughter…the owner of the bar wanting to marry her — but not wanting to take in the daughter…the mother unwilling to give up her daughter…the old lady being the dead father’s mother and wanting the little girl…but her son not having been married it was difficult for her to claim the girl…the mother not being able to stop working — unless she married the bar owner — but not wanting to give up the little girl to the old lady…if only they had been married…but what was anyone to do?

It was altogether a sad and confused story. He was about to make a remark on the foolishness of people and the sad plight of the little girl caught in the middle of it all when something in Carmen’s expression stopped him.

“We will do better than that, Roger. You and I?”

“Oh yes, of course. I mean we’ll never let things get so out of hand. We’ll…”

“We will get married before our little one arrives. Yes?”

He went white and suddenly felt amazingly leaden and light-headed at the same time. Married!? There was something shatteringly threatening in the idea. It was as if he had been told he had cancer. It was a concept that seemed to drain all the colour out of the world. As if he had walked into a room full of partying beautiful-people, and they had all instantly been transformed into a collection of diseased, geriatric mourners. As if he had been told he was going to be locked up for life. And yet his reaction had nothing to do with the way he felt for Carmen. Despite the trauma of the last few weeks, Carmen was still the illuminated centre of his existence; the spark that kept him motivated and alive. She was his passion and his infatuation, and despite everything he viewed their wearisome journey to Barcelona as an incredible stroke of good fortune. Something that was going to make possible their living together. But marriage! This was not something he had ever thought of in the same breath as Carmen. Marriage was what happened to older people, to his parent’s generation, to people who settled down and led boring, predictable, pedestrian lives. Not to people like him and Carmen. Not to composers and movers and groovers.

He was saved from having to answer directly by Manfred’s noisy arrival in a yellow Volkswagen. A broad ruddy face and a shock of Teutonically perfect blond hair exploded out of the tiny car, larger than life and twice as noisily.

“Coulter! Velcome to Barcelona! And this must be the schöne Carmen. Velcome, velcome!””

The handsome German scooped them up and magically fitted them and their luggage into a space seemingly much too small even for him, said something to the old woman that brought a smile back to her face, and before they knew it was careering off down the cobbled street talking a mile a minute.

The journey seemed a long one, possibly because they were so cramped. Carmen sat in the front, her knees under her chin. Roger was twisted sideways in the back, almost buried by their bags and cases, only one of which had been able to fit in the ridiculous boot at the front of the car. He looked past Manfred’s ear as they whizzed out of the dark neighbourhood between the docks and the railway station and burst into the Ramblas — a broad avenue lined with open-air cafés, bars, newsstands, and large, ornate art-deco kiosks reminiscent of Parisian metro stations, papered with every kind of advertisement. The yellow vw fought its way through the suicidal traffic and riotous crowds with much help from its abrasive hooter, and eventually they found themselves careening wildly around the spacious but still densely trafficked Plaza España. Some time later, having progressed through an ever quietening series of streets that became narrower as they climbed into the hilly residential district where houses were newer and the streets were cleaner, they stopped outside a building freshly plastered, workmen’s tools still littering the unfinished courtyard and part of the street.

The sight of tubs full of flowers on either side of the elegant doorway — not to mention a baby palm tree in the entranceway — washed all Roger’s fears and anxieties away. The memory of the scabrous train ride and his ensuing depression was forgotten completely as he stepped into Manfred’s living room and gazed out of the balcony window across the lights of nighttime Barcelona far below, abruptly bordered by an inky black Mediterranean beyond.

*

The next few days were the best Roger had experienced since he and Sarah had left the French border four months earlier. It was like a honeymoon. Manfred treated them as if they had been a recognized couple from way back; there was no hint of censure. And since this was a new city for both of them there was absolutely no need to hide or worry that they might be unexpectedly met by family members or other disapproving acquaintances. The flat itself was even nicer in the daytime than it had appeared on their arrival. The view was magnificent, with all Barcelona spread out before them, the palm-fringed Mediterranean glinting in the distance. The furnishings were positively sybaritic compared to the traditional severity of Carmen’s parents’ house, and seemed from a different planet altogether compared to the Gomez’s pension.

Manfred had brought them coffee the morning after they arrived, before he left for the shipping company’s offices on the Ramblas. After a lazy few hours on the balcony, they gathered themselves together and decided to explore the city, all thoughts of problems present and future blithely forgotten.

The next few days were a time for getting to know each other all over again. Since she no longer had to show up at the Prado each morning, Carmen felt as if she was on holiday. They played, they lazed, they made love, and they dreamed aloud together in the sun. On the balcony, on the carpet in Manfred’s spacious living room, with the indigo sky and azure sea as backdrop, on the beach, and even as they rode the underground around Barcelona, they talked, explained the world, described their future, and laughed at everything they saw. In the evenings they met Manfred after work, and they all ate together in cafés, restaurants, bars — colourful meeting places filled with people Manfred knew, who said hello, shouted invitations, and exchanged gossip. It was all very urbane, exciting, cosmopolitan.

Roger preened, and began to feel it was all due to him. This was how he had imagined things would be, how they ought to be. Carmen became convinced she had indeed escaped over the high convent wall that had kept her in Madrid, and was now in the ‘real’ world at last, where Roger’s claim to be a musician was no longer a preposterous absurdity. As Manfred introduced them to one crazy poet after another crazier painter, and to one aspiring model after another ambitious photographer, she felt sure she had finally emerged into society, and with one of its potentially greater luminaries to boot.

It was on the afternoon of the fourth day that a slow leak developed in their bubble of happiness. They passed a kiosk plastered with bullfight placards, and Roger stopped to read the announcement of the last ‘Grand Corrida de Toros’ of the season, featuring the controversial El Cordobés. Royal-Dawson’s lectures had left their mark on Roger, and he had automatically adopted his more knowledgeable friend’s attitudes and opinions with regard to the current state of bullfighting. There was a lot of discussion at present about what was considered high style and what was regarded as pure commercialism, all directed towards the unsophisticated tourist public. El Cordobés, the reigning king of the latter form of bullfighting, was held in low esteem by the purists, but there were those who maintained the Fiesta Brava might well benefit from some new blood, so to speak. El Cordobés was certainly an iconoclast; a showier, flashier, more crowd-pleasing matador did not exist. He was the veritable Mick Jagger of the bullring. Royal-Dawson had been pitiless in his denigration, but now that Roger was on his own, far from Royal-Dawson’s immediate influence, he felt the desire to make his own judgements. He suggested they attend the fight on the following day — and the bubble began to leak.

“We will sit behind the barrera in the shade,” said Carmen, who had been used to the best seats in the arena since her father had become the preferred physician of a long line of matadors and their teams.

“Well unless I can resell a couple of tickets at a smart profit — enough to afford something in the shade, we’ll be lucky to make it into the tendidos in the sun.”

“That is wrong what you do in Madrid,” said Carmen, “here we must do better.”

“We don’t have much choice, do we?” said Roger, a little pained. We’re not exactly here on a government grant. My money’s almost gone as it is. Manfred’s nightlife, with all those damned taxi rides I seem to end up paying for, has been pretty expensive.”

She looked at him but said nothing. It was not exactly a look of recrimination in her eyes, but he felt the criticism. It was this new feeling of responsibility that he kept forgetting about. He had never been in this position before, and it was taking some getting used to. The idea that far from being able to expect other people to provide for him he was now being held accountable for someone else’s welfare was unreal. And he was accountable not only for Carmen, whom he had wrested away from family and job, but for his unborn child. What a thought! He still had difficulty taking the idea seriously. It was fine on an academic level — when they discussed their future in general idealized terms — but trying to imagine that it was actually true, here and now, that he was soon to be a father, was too much. It bore little relation to what he thought he was doing or who he thought he was. What was most disturbing, and unnerving to the point of being scary, was that Carmen seemed to take it completely for granted, as if they had been in this position for ever. Her silence was full of her previous demand for marriage.

This was one subject they had so far skirted since their arrival. But he had not been able to forget it. It had been there in the back of his mind, and he had known that he was going to have to come to terms with it. He knew that it was all of a piece with what she expected him to do — for her, for him, for the child, for all of them. But exactly what he was going to do, he had no idea. The bubble leaked a little more as he realized it was time to finish with the honeymoon and see about a job.

“I’ll talk to Manfred this evening,” he said. But she had no idea what had been going through his mind, and assumed that he intended to ask for a loan.

“No. Tomorrow I will look for a position. We will do better here.”

“Yes, of course we will,” he replied. But the old depression was squeezing the sunlight out of the afternoon even as he said it.

 *

As it turned out, their welcome was wearing a bit thin with Manfred, and he brought up the subject of Roger’s employment that very evening. He was quite happy to accommodate a pair of lovebirds for a couple of days, but they were beginning to cramp his style. He had been forced to put Lola off two nights in a row now, and she was threatening to make a date with his colleague at the shipping line, tall Jürgen. Tall Jürgen generally came in second with the ladies he and Manfred met during their nightly forays into Barcelona’s demi-monde, but now he at least had the advantage of a free flat. Manfred had his reputation to think of. Of course, his appearance with Carmen and Roger the Composer had been a plus at first with everybody on the scene — Carmen was quite spectacular in everyone’s eyes, not just Roger’s — and Manfred had been able to bask in a large amount of reflected glory on this account. Carmen had the great asset of genuine class. Furthermore, she didn’t realize that she had it, and so didn’t flaunt it. She was naïve but perfectly poised. Nevertheless, it would soon become apparent to everyone that Carmen belonged to Roger, and was not some new conquest of Manfred’s. And while Roger’s Englishness was also an initial plus for Manfred in the eyes of his café friends, he was beginning to be embarrassed by what he thought of as Roger’s wimpishness. He would be unable to get away with explaining some of Roger’s more ingenuous remarks about certain of the International Ladies (as Manfred like to think of them) as a Composer’s Sensibilities for much longer.

Both parties jumped at the subject on their minds with an awkward suddenness the moment Carmen left the room to get ready for the evening’s outing.

“Roger, about some vork for you…”

“Manfred, I’ve got to find a job…”

They both laughed, Manfred relieved that Roger was not the sponger he was beginning to take him for, and Roger that admitting his straightened circumstances was not going to be embarrassing. What Manfred suggested next, however, took Roger by surprise.

“Listen, you are a composer — a musician — so how about you make some music? There is a jazz club in the Barrio Chino — the only jazz club in all Barcelona, in fact — where I know the dueño. He likes to have a house rhythm-section for visiting musicians, since he can’t afford to hire the whole band. Right now he needs a drummer. You must be able to play the drums, yes?”

Play the drums!? Roger thought back to the time he played a side drum in the school pageant, and half the cast had almost marched off the front of the stage. What a disaster — but they said he had talent! He remembered the jam sessions at college when he had bashed away at Rowlandson’s drumkit to everyone’s delight. Of course, when not deafened by their own enthusiasm, everybody had been drunk most of the time. Nevertheless, he knew the difference between snare, tom-tom, and bass. And he knew how to hold the sticks…brushes, too. Then he thought about the intricacies of modern jazz tempi. He laughed. The idea was ludicrous. But he nodded cautiously.

“Well, yes. I suppose…”

It was all the confirmation Manfred needed.

“Goot! I take you there tomorrow.”

“Take us where tomorrow?” asked Carmen, who had just rejoined them.

“To the Gato Negro. Roger will be the new drummer, and you will both have your own place upstairs.”

Carmen smiled, admiration and relief apparent. Roger began to stutter that he didn’t know how good a drummer he was, but Manfred brushed aside his objections saying: “Nu’ ja, of course you vill have an audition. But a composer so good as you are can surely play some simple rhythm. Not to be a star, just to be the backup. I vill arrange it all tomorrow, and ve vill go to the Gato Negro — the Black Cat — before the club opens. You can play the first set with Tete Monteliú.”

Roger gasped. The idea was even more preposterous than he had first thought. Tete Monteliú, the blind pianist, was Spain’s most famous jazz musician. He couldn’t possibly accompany someone of that stature — even if he could play the drums — which he couldn’t! But Carmen was delighted by the idea, and when later that evening at the bar Manfred had announced the fact that Roger was to accompany Tete Monteliú tomorrow he became the centre of attention.

Dismayed embarrassment began to abate as someone bought him a drink, and someone else clapped him on the back and toasted the ‘English Genius!’ He swallowed the drink and thought perhaps he might pull it off at that. How hard could it be? He certainly had a thorough grasp of the rhythmic structure of basic jazz — why, it was nearly all straight fours — just a little syncopation now and then. Besides, everyone would be listening to the pianist. Sure, he could do it. Plus, he’d have access to a piano, and be able to run through those passages of the Suite he was still uncertain of. And he and Carmen would have their own place to live as well — above a jazz club. How very hip! It was perfect.

The next morning he was no longer quite so sure. He dug out a few of Manfred’s jazz records and tried to listen to what the drummers were doing. Ignoring the solo passages, he played along on the backs of chairs, and decided that at the very least he could keep time. Maybe he could do it. At least he would give it a try. Encouraged, he began talking about how wonderful it would be finally to have their own place, and Carmen smiled in secret anticipation of what she hoped would be an important formalization of their relationship. She even tried out the sound of ‘Señora Coulter’ to herself. She prepared an omelette for lunch and opened a bottle of Manfred’s best wine (meaning to pay him back from Roger’s first week’s salary) and set it down proudly in front of her future husband. The unwitting future husband immediately drank half the bottle, omitting to offer his future wife a glass — who in any case was abstaining because of the baby — unaware of what was the real reason for this unexpected feast, thinking only that a little Dutch courage — or creative relaxation — might be good for the audition to come.

After the meal, both of them silently celebrating their separate fantasies, they made love on the balcony, and then gazed dreamily out at the Mediterranean, thinking how wonderful life was. Their reverie lasted for what seemed like a demi-eternity, for it was siesta time, and the workers in the street below had all disappeared into the shadows somewhere, leaving their wooden barrows and long-handled shovels scattered carelessly over the quiet street, secure in the knowledge that no self-respecting Spaniard would be abroad at this hour.

Later in the afternoon they decided to walk to the club. By the time they reached the Plaza España end of the Ramblas they were tired, and they stopped for something to drink at an outdoor café where Roger allowed the smallest shoeshine boy he had ever seen to develop a brilliant shine on his oldest pair of grey suede shoes, and Carmen allowed her palm to be read by a gypsy notable for being one of the few old women Roger had so far seen who was not dressed entirely in black. Roger had now convinced himself he could pull it off. In any case, he had little to lose and would look a terrible coward if he attempted to back out of it. Manfred was right, he was a musician, after all. And he owed it to Carmen — and the baby. He would give it a shot.

Towards six o’clock they emerged from a narrow passage into the antique regularity of the Plaza Real. The centre of the square consisted of a wide cobbled area, expansively empty at this hour — pedestrians, tourists, loiterers, lottery sellers, and stray children were all keeping to the shaded arcades that ran around the perimeter. Not until nightfall would life spill out into the open. The absence of traffic heightened the illusion that they had reentered the eighteenth century, except for the fact that in one corner of the square a bright neon sign in the shape of a cat announced the intrusion of the twentieth century in the form of Barcelona’s only jazz club.

Like many other establishments, the entire front consisted of doors that were folded back completely when the bar was open, exposing a gaping hole in the stonework of the square’s facade, but under the shadowed arcade it was impossible to see more than a few feet into the dark room. All that was visible was just the beginnings of a long bar, almost deserted at this early hour, and a large blackboard on an easel proclaiming in coloured chalk a performance by ‘El Maestro de Jazz Español: Tete Monteliú’. The unshaven bartender ignored Roger but leered at Carmen, and Roger suddenly forgot how to order a plain gassy seltzer for Carmen. He was still struggling to formulate the correct idiom when Manfred appeared from the depths of the club with a small, greasy man in a three-piece suit and a pinched, suspicious face.

“Roger, meet Señor Delgado!”

“Mucho gusto, Señor,” said Roger.

“Welcome to thee Bleck Ket, Señor Cowelterr,” said Delgado with a twisted smile resembling a grimace of pain so frightful that Roger jerked back reflexively as he shook the club owner’s thin hand.

Manfred proceeded to extol Roger’s consummate musicianship. Delgado’s smile became indistinguishable from a sneer and then imperceptibly turned back into a smile. By the time Manfred had finished his pitch it was hard to tell what the expression was. Roger shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, aware that behind him Carmen was waiting to be introduced, be invited to sit down, offered some refreshment, or at least to be acknowledged. Delgado motioned curtly to the bartender, who in turn sent a waiter to usher them to a table. Roger held a chair for Carmen and was about to sit down himself when Delgado said: “You play, Rogerrr Cowelterr, please!” and pointed past the bar into the depths of the room to where Roger now saw a small stage with a battered piano and a set of drums.

He can’t want me to play the drums on my own, thought Roger with sudden apprehension. He had imagined that at worst he would be able to mask his questionable competence behind someone else’s playing. To be asked to play solo was more than he had bargained for. But this seemed to be precisely what was expected of him. Everyone was waiting. Carmen smiled encouragingly, but what did she know? Manfred was beaming as if he was about to pull off the greatest promotional coup of the year. And Delgado simply sat there with his expressionless smile — or was it a sneer? — like a lizard waiting for its prey in the sun.

Roger walked to the stage, and then turned around as if to say something, but thought better of it and closed his mouth, and quickly sat down — at the piano. He played the opening bars of Beethoven’s Apassionata, then switched to a straightforward rendition of several Gerschwin tunes, and had already segued into part of the Castilian Suite before Delgado had sprung to life and come windmilling down the room talking like a machine gun, the word ‘batería’ being featured every three seconds.

“I only play the drums to accompany someone else,” said Roger with as much dignity as he could muster, and stood up to leave. But Delgado motioned him to stay, and shouted into the farther depths of the club. An unlikely looking character trotted out, smiled at everybody and bowed to Roger before sitting down at the piano and playing the worst imitation jazz Roger had ever heard. Unfortunately, the eager pianist had absolutely no sense of time, and it was impossible for Roger either to follow him with any kind of regular rhythm or impose any of his own on the chaotic cacophony that was being punched out from the abused piano. Deciding that it was hopeless, he shut his ears to the riotous and arrhythmic discordancy, and tried to play a simple four-four beat. He actually managed to get the high-hat crisply ringing on the off-beat, and inject an occasional rimshot on the side of the snare, but the effect was ludicrous. At last, losing patience with the absurdity of the situation, he abandoned any attempt at appearing either meaningful or competent and started bashing wildly at every part of the drumkit he could reach. He beat a short tattoo on the tenor drum, thumped the bass at random with one foot while the other came unhinged from the high-hat’s pedal, smashed at the rivet cymbal, rattled the cowhorn, and attacked the snaredrum with a paroxysm of paradiddles that eventually caused the pianist to stop playing and look up in astonishment at the demonic drummer behind him.

Delgado waited until Roger had stopped playing, looked at him icily, but somehow still with the frightful smile on his face, and said: “For afternoon and before jazz in evening you play piano. Concert batería no good! And the señorita, she waitress. Paco will show you room.”

Paco stood up from the piano, looked warily at Roger, and with a nervous smile nodded at Delgado. Not sure whether he was relieved, embarrassed, had been found out, or had been saved, Roger decided that he would opt for the latter, and looked over to Carmen and said as positively as he knew how: “Well, it looks like we’ve landed on our feet. Let’s go and inspect our quarters.”

 * * *
The Castilian Suite is available as eBook or Paperback from Blackburn Books

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 5

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 5
Wimbledon
Sarah goes home to wait for a letter that never comes…

The long hot month that Roger had suffered, endured, and finally begun begrudgingly to accept had been no happier a time for Sarah. For her it had been bleak, bitter, and just as for Roger, exceedingly painful and loveless.

The trip back had nearly proved the undoing of her resolve to return to what she saw as her filial responsibility. It had been difficult enough to leave Roger, drunk and insensitive though he had been. She had wept quietly, from exhaustion as much as pain, as she boarded the train, thinking how he would awake to find her gone, not understanding at first, and then coming painfully — she could feel his pain, his astonished, indignant, deceived, abandoned pain — to the realization of what she had done. Hopefully that fool Ignacio would show up as he had promised and be of some help. Although on reflection she could not be sure that he had understood what it was she had tried so hard to explain to him.

“Sí, sí. Entiendo,” he had repeated, staggering backwards and forwards as she tried to place the envelope in his hands, “a Rrrocha le mostraré el camino hacía el pensión. ¿Usted volverá mañana, verdad?”

‘Rrrocha’ she understood. It was something to do with Roger, but the rest of the first burst made no sense. Then ‘volverá’ sounded disturbingly like ‘return’, and she knew for sure that ‘Usted’ meant ‘you’. So she repeated over and over: “I go to the station. Yo a mi casa — a Inglaterra.” But he smiled condescendingly, even in his drunkenness seeming to treat her like a child, and swayed away, shouting: “Mañana,” over his shoulder.

Equally hard had been the actual train ride itself. Without Roger by her side she felt as if she was regarded with disapproval and suspicion by everyone. Fool though he sometimes was, he had at least prided himself on his competency when it came to things such as finding the right train and addressing guards and porters in foreign tongues. He very often got the details wrong, but at least they made progress, even if only because people were always coming to his aid. He never noticed that he was cutting a ridiculous figure, and surprisingly, most people did not seem to mind. They came to his aid anyway. She had sometimes thought, with a certain guilty superiority, that they did it out of pity for her — his helpless victim. But now, without him, no one came to her aid. It almost seemed as if they were purposefully ignoring her, refusing even to acknowledge her existence, as if they all knew what she was doing. Not only was she so shamelessly travelling on her own, but she had also deserted her protector. It served her right if she became lost or worse.

She ignored them all in return, and spent the better part of a day hungry and uncomfortable, unwilling to attempt the now seemingly impossible task of asking where food or drink might be obtained. She had not wanted to participate in the revelry that had surrounded them when Roger was attempting to play the seasoned traveller, but realized now that at least it had kept her fed and unthirsty. She ended by regarding her present hunger as a form of penance.

When the time came to change trains at the French border she very nearly gave in and returned to Madrid. What she had done to Roger now seemed as egregious as what she had done to her father. Caught thus between two equally powerful feelings of guilt she had actually stopped and put her suitcase down on the long platform that led from the Spanish side to the French side of the station, exhausted and confused, when she was unexpectedly addressed by a stranger.

“Con permiso, Señorita, ¡dejame ayudarle!”

A grey-haired gentleman, a head taller than Sarah, despite a slight stoop, was pointing to her case and smiling kindly.

“Oh, thank you — gracias. It’s not heavy, I was just tired.”

“Ah! You are English?” he asked, with an unmistakable French accent.

“Yes.”

“Then allow me anyway. It is still a long walk to the other side.”

Something about his polite consideration, his grey hair, so like her father’s, and the phrase ‘a long walk to the other side’ was all it took to drain away the last of her resistance. She had no more strength to wrestle with the problem of what to do. Whatever she did would be wrong, would be painful, would leave her feeling just as guilty. She simply could not think about it any more. Two large tears came quietly to her eyes and she murmured: “Thank you,” and continued on her way towards the French side, barely able to see where she was going. The elderly Frenchman picked up her suitcase with one hand and, with the other holding her lightly by the shoulder, steered her through the crowd.

 *

“You have been very kind,” she said, hours later, sipping the last of her coffee in the dining compartment as they rode comfortably and efficiently through the orderly countryside of Poitou and Touraine. “I oughtn’t to have bothered you with my troubles.”

“Nonsense, my dear. You ’ave ’ad a difficult decision to make. And I ’ave enjoyed your company. An old man does not so often ’ave the opportunity to dine with such a nice young lady. I ’ope your father will be as reconnaissant as ’e should. I am only sorry for your young man.”

“He’ll forget me.”

“But not you ’im, I think.”

No, she thought. I shan’t forget him.

 *

Tired, but calmer and filled with fresh resolve, she had arrived back in Wimbledon to be greeted by a terrible scene that nearly made her doubt her decision again. It was too soon after having read the letter that she had left for him for her father’s initial shock and anger to have abated. Far from being glad that she had changed her mind and given up the unbelievable folly she had described in her letter, he was still outraged that she had even considered such a scheme in the first place. What had she been thinking of? What could possibly have got into her? Had she completely taken leave of her senses? Who did she think she was — some mindless trollop from Wandsworth? It was scarcely to be believed that despite such utter recklessness he had been spared the humiliation of the disgrace and scandal that must surely have fallen on him had it become common knowledge that his daughter had gone abroad — absconded — with a disreputable wretch of a would-be musician whose family were rumoured to have been little better than tradesmen.

She endured the remarks concerning her own lack of commonsense and propriety, feeling that although her father was hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch regarding what was or was not acceptable behaviour in this day and age, she had indeed been foolish in thinking she could take off like a bohemian into the wild blue yonder without incurring a certain amount of opprobrium, but bridled and rose to Roger’s defence when he came under attack.

“Roger’s a serious composer, and it’s not fair to blame him for his family. He’s no more disreputable than you are.”

“Bah! You’re too young to understand. Even if he were a ‘serious composer as you maintain, that would by definition prove his disrepute. I should have thought you would have known better.”

She attempted to explain that she had returned for her father’s sake rather than because she had realized the foolishness of sacrificing her life to ‘that so-called musician’, but Norman Walsingham junior would have none of it, and continued to berate her for her shamelessness. She suffered most of his abuse in silence, trying mutely to convince herself that she was glad she had got back before her absence had begun to cause him the pain that would have followed the anger.

She was too old for him to punish her by restricting her movements or denying her support or the wherewithal to continue her studies, but punish her he did by making her aware of the embarrassment and disgrace she had so narrowly missed bringing down on him — ten times over. He wore her down so far that she no longer felt able to consider writing to Roger in good conscience. He made her realize that she had narrowly escaped irretrievable shame and disaster by putting herself into the hands of someone who was totally unable to provide for himself — let alone for her as well. She had to admit it was true that it was unlikely that Roger would have been able to support them both unaided. For the moment she felt too exhausted to consider setting out on her own, and for the time being decided to try and think less about herself and devote more time to providing her father with what he needed. It would come straight after a while. He couldn’t see that he was only asking so much from her because he was still feeling the loss of his wife.

In the meantime perhaps Roger would indeed write something and come back with sufficient achievement to earn some respect from her father. For her part she was in no state or position to help him further herself. She would write to him in a month — or what was more likely, he would write to her, sooner. But as the weeks passed and there was no word, she felt less and less able to write to him. He had obviously not cared as much as he had said he had cared, and she began to think that so long as she was not able to be by his side, supporting him, he had no time for her.

The more time that went by the more she missed him and also, sadly, the more she became convinced that he had not really loved her. It was a terrible price to have paid for doing what she thought was correct with regard to her father, but since it seemed to prove that she had been right she had to take comfort from the knowledge that if she had stayed with Roger not only would her father have suffered but she too would have ultimately suffered when Roger tired of her sufficiently to be no longer capable of pretending to love her.

Wimbledon tennis matches came and went, and summer faded. In the autumn she began to clerk for her father, unofficially at first, but after a while she went back to school and took some legal secretarial courses, abandoning her history degree, and returned as his permanent secretary. She thought no less of Roger, but had now become completely unable to consider writing to him. It had all been a foolish mistake. It was just that for a while it had held out such promise she had almost believed it. She would never again believe anything else, even if she were to have the chance. As time passed she began to think even this was unlikely; she was committed to her father now, for as long as he needed her. Her father, irascible and rancorous as ever, ceased mentioning Roger, and the shameful episode of that early summer became, by unspoken mutual agreement, another one of those things never referred to in polite families. Sarah’s brief adventure, a brave but short-lived dash for freedom, seemed to have ended, and Norman Walsingham junior continued his bitter rise to prosperity.

But the Frenchman had been right: she did not forget…

 * * *
The Castilian Suite is available as Book or Paperback from Blackburn Books

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