What followed next was a series of events such as can only happen abroad. Such coincidences, such suggestions, and such agreements are never met with at home, where a kind of protective reserve seems to inhibit — indeed prohibit — what would there be regarded as wanton, profligate, downright dangerous behaviour.
Seeking only a hole to hide in while he absorbed the full enormity of his situation, Roger was at first dismayed to find himself rejected out of hand. The little man with the neat mustache and thinning hair who opened the door seemed adamant in his refusal to let Roger in. Divining somehow that Roger was English, he repeated over and over: “No have room. No have room.”
Roger produced Ignacio’s card and did his best to insist, although his insistence consisted of little more than repeating: “¡Por favor, Señor, por favor!”
This less than inspired conversation might have gone on indefinitely had it not been for the arrival of a third person at the point when feet were being brought into play against an attempt to shut the door. The third person — seeking to get out into the street from behind the neat little man whose temper was now anything but neat — also began to add his voice to the chorus, saying: “Come on, Gomez, be a good chap. Do let a fellow pass.”
It took a moment for Roger to recognize another English voice, but when he did so he ceased his pathetic if determined entreaties to the neat Gomez, and appealed to the owner of the English voice: “I say, could you just tell this man I’m here on Ignacio de Mijares’ recommendation? All I need is somewhere to stay — if only for a day.”
“Do you have any money?”
“Well, yes, I suppose I have enough for a room.”
“Manna from heaven! Whom did you say sent you?”
“Never mind, never mind. Just leave it to me.”
The English voice said something to Gomez in what even Roger could tell was horrible Spanish, and the door eased away from his foot. Gomez glowered at Roger and said: “Chu pay now, heh!”
Roger nodded vigorously and reached for his wallet. Now the door opened even more to disclose the owner of the English voice: a short young man in his early twenties with very wavy hair and a cigarette holder elegantly held in one hand.
“David Royal-Dawson,” he said, holding out his free hand. “I’ve just arranged it so we can share my suite. Gomez is a little short on rooms just now and I’m temporarily a bit strapped for cash. So it seemed like a bright idea, what do you think?”
He smiled winningly, and Roger, exhausted from wandering around, readily agreed. “Well, if you’re sure you have room I’d be very grateful. But I wouldn’t want to put you out,” he added for form’s sake.
“Think nothing of it. You’ll be doing me a favour.”
Roger introduced himself, paid off the taxicab driver, who all this time had been hovering nervously on the pavement behind him, gave Gomez a fifty peseta note, and a short time later found himself installed in David Royal-Dawson’s ‘suite’: a single, uncarpeted room, which although it possessed little else besides an enormous iron-framed bed and a somewhat broken down settee did at least have a window looking out upon the outside world, unlike the room he had woken up in earlier.
And so it was that in a most un-British turn of events Roger became resident at Pensión Montañesa, on the Plaza de la Marina Española — a large name for a small triangular ‘square’ a few streets away from the Royal Palace and just down the hill from the Avenida de José Antonio, a broad thoroughfare leading to the bustling centre of Madrid. His unexpected benefactor proved to be an aspiring expatriate English writer, who apart from insisting on being addressed only by his surname, insisted on little else and proved very easy to get along with. It was, indeed, this very relaxed attitude to life that accounted for his being on the verge of eviction, not having paid any rent to Señor Gomez, the much put-upon dueño of the establishment, for quite some time. Roger was never quite sure how the longer-term arrangements had been arrived at, but by the time the dust had settled he found himself sharing Royal-Dawson’s room for a most reasonable amount of pesetas. It had also helped that Roger had been personally referred by Ignacio, who apparently counted for something with Señor Gomez after all.
A greater amount of dust requiring longer to settle was that surrounding the confused state of Roger’s emotions. After the immediate shock of realizing he was now on his own, he had discovered he was genuinely wounded. It was not just that his ego had been assaulted, that the brilliant picture of Coulter the composer with blond beauty in tow had been shattered — that was chagrinning enough — but behind this image-deflating blow there existed a deeper pain. Over the previous months, he had, almost without realizing it, fallen seriously in love with Sarah.
It was a surprise to discover how utterly abandoned he felt. Up to this point the relationship had been all on his terms. Sarah was beautiful and initially unobtainable but he had obtained her. She had been the one who appeared to need convincing, reassuring, and being led. He had woven his dreams around her, including her in the picture, thinking he was doing it largely for her benefit, flattered that he had found someone so undeniably superior yet who appeared to need him. And now she had left him to his dreams for reasons of her own. How could she do such a thing? He felt betrayed. But more than anything else he felt a sense of loss. And surprisingly, the loss of her love and companionship was far greater than the loss of her day-to-day commonsense support, which he now had to admit had been what had given reality to this absurd dream of composing in Spain. It was bad enough finding himself in a position of total helplessness, shamefacedly having to admit to himself that he had about as much chance of becoming a composer in Spain as he had of becoming the King of England, but worst of all was the shattering, echoing loneliness that gripped him as he woke up each day and remembered where he was.
For a while he was angry, and thought of revenging himself on Ignacio, whom he blamed for having let him get so drunk. Ignacio, however, had left town and was back on the road again, this time to Seville, and when Roger showed up at Ignacio’s address he met only his mother, a tiny toothless lady who understood nothing he said except that he was staying at the Gomez’s pension. He ended up shaking her fragile hand politely and leaving his best regards for Ignacio. So much for anger. The next stage was depression.
He told Royal-Dawson enough to explain his unwillingness to do little except sleep and spend a lot of time in nearby bars subsisting off tinto and the free tapas that came with the second and subsequent drinks, but was unable to discuss the affair in detail, since when he started to talk about it he couldn’t separate the feeling of loss from the conviction that he was cutting a stupidly pathetic figure. Royal-Dawson told him it was all for the best and would make a man of him, but he suspected that Royal-Dawson was considering the situation rather more from his own point of view. It had certainly worked out for the best as far as Royal-Dawson was concerned.
Day after day he waited for a letter from Sarah, but nothing came. At first this confused him; he felt there should have been a torrent of letters after what she had done. Then he became bitter and decided she felt bad and was waiting for him to write first. Well he wouldn’t. What good would it do anyway? He didn’t think he could change her mind at this distance.
Two weeks later, on a glitteringly bright Thursday afternoon, he found himself sitting gloomily outside a café not far from the pension wishing it were six o’clock instead of only half-past four. Royal-Dawson would have been at the bullring for over half an hour now, but already Roger was impatient with his enforced solitude. He was sitting at a table in a roped-off area of pavement outside the popular meeting place of locals and tired tourists. From his particular vantage point he could gaze past the potted palms and across the wide Calle de Bailén to the low stone wall that bounded the sunken Sabatini Gardens in front of the Royal Palace. He had originally intended to pass the afternoon in the gardens, strolling up and down the gravel walks, resting occasionally on the wooden benches, studying his guide book and working at his Spanish grammar, but the heat had been too much and the distractions too great. While learning Spanish was undeniably important in his Grand Scheme, it was also somewhat of an escape. It was a comfort to immerse himself in something that reminded him of his student days, a time when all that was needed to get through the day was to follow instructions and not have to be constantly worrying about the future, or taking risks and dealing with new confusion at every step. But more important was some on-site research. He was going to have to amass more than a superficial familiarity with the city’s sights and their history if he was to inspire confidence in the British and American tourists that Royal-Dawson and he hoped to attract. He fingered the business card they had ordered from a small, back-street printer, and looked at it again, as if to convince himself of the reality of their scheme:
Roger Coulter (musician)
Personal Introduction to Madrid & Environs,
telephone: 247 84 54
The whole scheme had actually been Royal-Dawson’s idea. His parents, while on holiday in Athens the previous year, had taken in a young American painter in return for his services as interpreter, chauffeur, and guide. If such an arrangement had worked in Greece, why not in Spain? So together Royal-Dawson and Roger had scavenged sight-seeing brochures from travel agencies and hotel foyers and had divided up the sights to be familiarized between them. It was a reasonably equitable arrangement, although since he was an avid aficionado of the Fiesta Brava most of Royal-Dawson’s sights seemed to take him to the bullring, leaving Roger with the palaces and churches.
Bloody palaces, he thought, waste of time looking at things from the outside. What we need are some personal introductions ourselves — to society, nightlife, real people. By ‘real people’ Roger meant cultured citizens of the moneyed classes who might be induced to take a young composer under their wing. But even Roger’s youthful myopic enthusiasm could not obscure the fact that such an event was unlikely until he could produce something to command the attention of potential patrons. Meanwhile he would have to nurse his café con leche carefully until Royal-Dawson returned with some funds.
He was getting tired of the bloody poverty. It was bad enough that Sarah had left and plunged him into his first real bath of emotional despair, but she had taken her list of contacts with her: the very people who might have proved useful or supportive. Now that she was gone he found himself doubly destitute. And so, unwilling and indeed, after a few days of getting to know more of Madrid’s bars and tascas under the guiding hand of Royal-Dawson, financially unable to return to London and admit the course he had charted for musical renown had been hare-brained to say the least, he had reluctantly agreed to the Personal Introduction scheme.
This scheme had developed from a conversation he had had with Royal-Dawson about the chances of seeking employment. Royal-Dawson had not been very encouraging at first.
“You see, Roger, it’s hopeless to look for legitimate work. Firstly, you don’t have any of the proper papers, and secondly, even if you found some kind of job, these Spanish chappies don’t pay anything you could actually live on.”
“Well what have you been doing? Didn’t you say you’ve been here six months now?”
“Oh, the odd begging letter back home. Did actually sell a story a month ago to a newspaper in Brighton. But mainly it’s a question of appealing to the sympathies of fellow Britons. Find a lot of them up at the bullring looking lost. One offers some help, and when they want to express their gratitude, one simply mentions one’s slight predicament. Some of them can be quite generous!”
“Maybe I should come with you next time — I can speak a bit of French and German, it would broaden the field. Perhaps I might even offer to show them around a bit. Who knows, we might even get taken along to a decent restaurant? I could stand to eat something other than bloody anchovies once in a while.”
“You know, you might be right. Could put the thing on a regular footing. Offer a real service instead of just waiting for the odd opportunities.”
And from this, encouraged by the memory of what his parents had done in Athens, Royal-Dawson had devised the whole plan of attack. First they typed up small advertisements on Royal-Dawson’s portable Olympia, and then they distributed them in hotel lobbies. They even had cards printed with the last of Roger’s cash. Finally, they set about becoming expert guides to the places they imagined the tourists would be eager to visit under their experienced guidance.
So far, however, their appointment book was still wide open.
Undiscouraged, Royal-Dawson had insisted they continue boning up on the local sights. Accordingly, Roger found himself daily wandering around the exotically grubby streets of central Madrid trying to read historical markers and remember the location of various convents, churches, and residencies of everyone who was, or who had been, anyone — from Lope de Vega to Ramón Bienvenida. It was not the most congenial of occupations. The streets were hot, and gave new meaning to the word ‘stench’ — as in warm rotting meat, old fish, and mouldy vegetables. It struck him as bizarre that in these littered, stained surroundings, Madrileños could be found sitting elegantly in the fetid atmosphere sipping aperitifs and wine served by long-aproned waiters.
On the other hand, most of Royal-Dawson’s time seemed to be spent centred around the Calle Victoria, where tickets to the bullfights were sold, and Las Ventas, where the Plaza de Toros Monumental — the bullring itself — was located. Both of these places were surrounded by a far better selection of bars than those next to convents and churches. This seemed a little unfair to Roger, but Royal-Dawson pointed out he was already familiar with this area and it would make no sense for both of them to cover the same ground.
By six-thirty the small residue of coffee left in Roger’s cup had become cold and skinned-over. Just as he was considering the best moment to slip away unnoticed by the waiter, who by this time had given up expecting to be paid anyway, Royal-Dawson showed up. Sitting down at Roger’s table, he clapped his hands to attract the waiter’s attention.
“A bottle of your best rioja, por favor!” he said, as soon as the waiter approached, and then turning to Roger with a smug smile he added: “Feeling peckish, matey? Let’s see what they’ve got to eat.”
“You don’t mean to say we’ve got a client?”
“Well actually we’ve got — or rather, had — several. Paid up and gone away now. New line of business. Tell you all about it on Sunday.”
“You’ll bloody well tell me now! You’ve kept me waiting here long enough as it is.”
“Well there’s nothing much to tell you until Sunday.”
“Why Sunday? Today’s only Thursday; I’m not waiting till Sunday!”
“Well you see, dear boy, the next corrida is not until Sunday. Can’t sell tickets to the bullfight until we have ’em ourselves. And the ticket offices don’t open until the morning of the fight.”
“Sell bullfight tickets! You mean scalping? That’s illegal — we’ll get arrested by the Guardia Civil!”
“It’s not the Guardia Civil you’ve got to worry about, matey. Local chappies who’ve got the market rationed out amongst themselves are the ones to watch out for. All taken care of now, though. With your language skills we’ll be part of the team. Anyway, time for questions on Sunday — hungry now; where’s the menu?”
With which he lost himself in rapt contemplation of gustatory delights to come.
Hunger also stayed Roger’s questions and misgivings, and it was not until they were both wandering unsteadily back up the hill to the Pensión Montañesa in the dark that he thought to ask again about this new ticket caper. Royal-Dawson waved a hand breezily.
“It was Mánolo, Gomez’s son, who told me. Told me to beware of buying tickets from anyone but at the taquilla itself.”
“Whaddya mean…whatsa ‘tag-ia’?”
“The taquilla is where you get official tickets — sort of box-office at the bullring. At all the other places there’s a commission added on.”
“So lotsa chaps buy from the taquilla and then sell to tourists, adding their own commission.”
They arrived at the big door with the silver-painted knockers only to find that it had been locked for the night. Knocking would have been useless since the doors merely opened onto a large inner courtyard. It was not until one gained access to this courtyard that it was possible to take the stairway to the fourth-floor pension, which had its own front door. Instead, they wandered back into the middle of the street and clapped as loudly as they could for the sereno, who was supposedly patrolling nearby with the keys to all the main doors in the neighbourhood.
“Problem is,” continued Royal-Dawson, “local chaps extremely protective of own beat. Don’t take kindly to interlopers.”
“So how did you manage coupla ‘clients’?”
“Spot of clever chat. Offered to share spoils from sales only English-speaking chap could make. When I mentioned French- and German-speaking colleague, deal was clinched!”
Roger swayed back into the center of the street and was about to clap again when a jingling was heard and the sereno appeared trotting around the corner, bunches of keys swinging from the wide leather belt fastened around his long greatcoat. He opened the door, took the proffered coins, and with a mumbled “¡Muy buenas!” trotted off again before Roger and Royal-Dawson had stumbled past one another into the darkened courtyard.
The following evening Roger and Royal-Dawson were sitting in the Gomez’s kitchen trying to watch news reports of the previous day’s corridas in other parts of the country on the flickering black and white television that was the pride of the pension. Reception was poor; the sound came and went, and the picture kept dissolving into snow at all the critical moments. This mattered more to Royal-Dawson than to Roger, whose command of everyday Spanish was poor enough, but whose comprehension of the arcane tauromachian terms with which the reports were larded was almost non-existent.
During one of the breaks in reception, old Mrs Gomez looked up from the big black stove at the back of the room where she was preparing the evening meal, and with deliberation, so that they might better understand her, addressed Roger and Royal-Dawson in Spanish.
“What have you been to see today?”
“Nada,” replied Royal-Dawson, and continued in his own brand of atrophied Spanish to explain that they had abandoned the proposed Guide Service in favour of a Ticket Service at the bullring.
“That’s not a good idea at all,” said Mánolo Gomez. “That business is all tightly controlled by local scalpers. If they don’t deal with you themselves, they’ll see that the Guardia Civil pick you up. Very bad.”
“No, no, matey,” said Royal-Dawson, “they’re the ones who’ll supply us with the tickets. They think we’ll be working for them, dealing with people they can’t talk to directly because they don’t speak English and French and German like we do.”
“But you will be working for them — that’s also very dangerous. These men are thieves. You can’t trust them. If there’s any trouble with the law they will see to it that you’re the ones that get caught.”
“Not to worry, Mánolo. We shall be careful to remain innocent tourists merely attempting to seek help from fellow expatriates.”
“And exactly how are we going to do that?” put in Roger, who was still largely in the dark.
“Why, by asking said expatriates if they might possibly disembarrass a couple of benighted Englishmen of tickets they suddenly find themselves unable to use. Wife unexpectedly ill, urgent phone call from home, that sort of thing.”
“And if they say yes?”
“One of us quickly runs over to the taquilla and orders up the requisite tickets from our contact.”
“But why should the tourists buy from us rather than going to the taquilla themselves?”
“Because, oh worry wart, they will think they are helping us out — and because we will be offering them a discount for doing us the favour.”
“Well, where’s the profit in that?”
“Trust me, Coulter, there will be plenty of profit. You’ll see.”
“The profit, if there is any, will cost you dearly if you get involved with those types,” repeated Mánolo. His mother, frowning into her pots, started to expand on the same theme, but the picture came back on the television and Mánolo shushed her in order to hear what had happened in Málaga the previous afternoon.
On Saturday, Roger woke up determined to raise more objections to this sudden and dangerous alternative to what he had seen as their only hope of avoiding eviction and starvation. But to his surprise, Royal-Dawson had already risen and left the pension. Gone to a tienta with Mánolo, his mother explained when Roger wandered into the family kitchen for his morning coffee and churros. Tienta, eh? he thought. Another of those practice bullfights somewhere in the country. Well, I hope the bloody fool gets gored for his trouble.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as ebook or Paperback from Blackburn Books