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.