Mánolo Gomez looked much older than Roger and even Royal-Dawson, who was now in his mid-twenties. Slight of figure, intense and grave beyond his twenty years, he had been determined to become a matador ever since he had seen his first bullfight at the age of four. Distressing though this was to his mother, who had lost two brothers in the Civil War and felt it unfair that she should have to run the risk of losing her only son because he was mad to become a fighter, he had so far won her, and his father’s, respect that they now felt bound to support him to the best of their meagre abilities. This meant that unlike many other young bullfighting aspirantes he was able to devote as much of his time as was necessary to training, following his favourite fighters, and attending as many tientas at breeding farms — where young cows and bulls were fought in order to determine their potential — as he could get to. In return he worked at the pension for little more than pocket money. It was a business that had been in the family for two generations, but one that provided little more than the bare necessities of life. Since Señor Gomez had left one of his legs behind in the Civil War, Mánolo was everything but chambermaid.
David Royal-Dawson’s background was completely different. Brought up in a sheltered, privileged environment of private schools and a comfortable home, he had little in common with this poor working-class Spaniard, and yet the two had become inseparable companions as a result of their shared afición — an almost fanatic interest in bullfighting. When Mánolo was not sweeping stairs, carrying bags, or otherwise engaged in the unending round of chores demanded by the pension, his time was fairly monopolized by Royal-Dawson, hungry for anything connected with bulls. On Saturday they had hitch-hiked to a small village not far from Madrid in the hope that Mánolo might get the chance of practising a few passes with some promising young bulls, while Royal-Dawson might get a closer look at a local ganadería — where fighting bulls were raised. But, as was often the case, they had been turned away, and had duly hitch-hiked back through the dusty countryside, talking bulls the whole way. Royal-Dawson had not, contrary to Roger’s wish, come even close to being gored.
On Sunday, however, Mánolo was nowhere to be found when it was time to go to Las Ventas. He and Royal-Dawson had previously been in the habit, whenever a corrida was scheduled, of walking up the Calle de Alcalá together to be joined at the Plaza de la Cibeles by more of Mánolo’s friends. It had become a habit to gather by the big fountain, under the statue of the goddess Cybele, before proceeding in riotous confusion towards the arena. He had said no more to Royal-Dawson about selling tickets, but they both understood his almost superstitious reluctance to having anything to do with such a questionable aspect of the Fiesta Brava. Consequently, Roger and Royal-Dawson set off alone. Neither did they meet anybody they knew as they passed Cibeles, and Roger felt as if the Great Mother Goddess herself was frowning at them from her chariot on top of the fountain.
The crowds grew denser as they trudged up the broad avenue towards Las Ventas. Students in black capes and flowing ribbons serenaded the passers-by, lottery sellers were out in force, and all manner of beggars and colourful opportunists interrupted their progress in the hot sun at almost every step.
Roger knew little about bullfighting, despite what he had led Sarah to believe, and since arriving in Madrid he had been to only two actual corridas. Being so totally absorbed in his own misery he had paid little attention to the spectacle, and it had washed over him without making much impression. But Royal-Dawson, carried away as much by his own enthusiasm as by the desire to alleviate Roger’s depression, had lectured him constantly, and he had come to think of Madrid, and indeed of all Spain, as existing primarily because of and for the bullfight. Certainly as one of the main characteristics of the country that he was bound to familiarize himself with — both as proper background for the Castilian Suite as well as for the now abandoned Personal Introduction scheme — the bullfight was unarguably essential. When they were not discussing money — or the lack of it — the conversation was of little else at Pensión Montañesa. Today, everyone seemed to be headed towards the bullring, and there was no question but that this was the main concern of the entire observable world around him. He resolved, therefore, to pay more attention this time, especially since, he thought with apprehension, he was about to become more a part of this world than he had bargained for.
Although there was still more than an hour to go before the first bull would be let out, the wide area in front of the arena, as well as most of the surrounding streets, was jammed with humanity. They allowed themselves to be jostled this way and that, trying to avoid the souvenir vendors and the iced-drink sellers, when suddenly Royal-Dawson grabbed Roger by the arm.
“There he is! That’s our chappie. Better introduce you so you don’t get mistaken for an interloper.”
They edged their way over to a man with very shiny black hair, wearing a very white, short-sleeved shirt. “Don Diego, con su permiso, allow me to present my friend, Roger Coulter.”
Don Diego flashed a toothy grin, in which gold figured prominently. The effect was chilling rather than friendly. “You speak francés, alemán — eh?”
Roger retreated a step from Don Diego’s close inspection, and smiling himself none too convincingly, replied: “Sí, French, German, and un poco español.”
“Hmm, un poco español. Está bien,” and then to Royal-Dawson he added: “You remember how to signal me?”
“Not to worry, Don Diego. I think we can manage.”
“Bueno, we see what you do.” And abruptly he turned his back on them to rejoin four seedy companions who had gathered to watch the conversation. The smallest, who had a nasty scar running from the corner of his mouth, nodded leeringly at Royal-Dawson.
“And now what on earth are we supposed to do?” asked Roger, more worried than ever.
“Follow me and watch!”
Royal-Dawson sauntered away from the front of the arena towards the street, where taxis were disgorging people who had not found it necessary to walk in the hot sun. They were for the most part tourists, easy to spot, better dressed than the crowd around them, and taller and broader of face. Many of them were smiling, but all seemed somewhat dazed at the same time. None of them was alone; they were all in groups of at least two, usually more. Old couples with rimless glasses and white hair, younger couples with children tugging at them, and a few groups of charter tourists: secretaries and junior clerks come to view the natives at their colourful national pastime before heading for flamenco bars and the capital nightlife.
Royal-Dawson approached a family of four, the father of whom was visibly concerned about the safety of his wife and brood.
“Oh, I say, excuse me, I wonder if you could help me?”
The father’s equilibrium seemed to stabilize dramatically as he heard himself appealed to in the midst of the mêlée. Who was this British chap who was asking him for help? He reinflated his hunched, defensive posture to see what he could do for someone else in trouble. “Why, sure. What’s the problem, sir?”
That was a good start, thought Royal-Dawson to himself, get an American to call you ‘sir’ and you’d have no trouble with any line you wanted to give him. He launched into a story of how sudden, urgent business had made it impossible to attend the afternoon’s bullfight and how he was now stuck with all these expensive tickets, which he was eager to unload — at a bargain rate, of course — just to cut his losses. Was there any chance he could help a fellow out, take them off his hands? They were excellent seats, all in the shade, and of course they were all together. He’d be terribly grateful. Perhaps they could meet later for a drink, and he could tell him what he’d missed?
He had hit his mark dead centre the first time. The harassed head of the family was so relieved not to have to figure out the ticketing procedure for himself — convinced that he would be taken by some grasping Spaniard who believed that all Americans were millionaires — that he almost fell over himself trying to assure Royal-Dawson that he would be only too pleased to help him out of his difficulty, and of course he would pay him full price — maybe he could even give him a little extra for his trouble.
Before he had completely taken this all in, Roger found himself being introduced to the man, and then was suddenly left holding the fort while Royal-Dawson dashed off to get the tickets in question from their ‘other friend’ who had been trying to sell them back to the ticket office. The American started to ask questions about the nature of their sudden business — did they live here, were they on holiday, etc., etc. Roger mumbled a lot and looked distracted as he tried to follow Royal-Dawson’s progress through the crowd. But it was difficult to keep him in sight, and rather than having to answer impossible questions he turned his attention to the children: a boy about eleven and a girl about twelve years old. Fortunately, the press was so great that it was hard to keep any kind of coherent conversation going for long without being pushed this way and that, and he was able to side-step — literally — many of the American’s questions until at last, mercifully, Royal-Dawson reappeared waving the tickets in the air.
He took the man’s money and pointed out the direction he should lead his family in to reach the right entrance, and then rapidly propelled Roger in the opposite direction. As soon as the family disappeared from view he let out an exultant whoop! and said to Roger: “You see, that’s all there is to it, fifteen hundred pesetas for five hundred pesetas’ worth of tickets. We give five hundred back to Don Diego and keep five hundred for ourselves. Now it’s your turn. Find the right people and give me the nod as soon as they’re ready to buy, and I’ll pick up what’s needed from Don Diego or one of his men at the taquilla.”
And in fact that was all there was to it. By the time the beginning of the corrida had been announced by the blare of the band inside the arena, they had sold five more groups of tickets. It bothered Roger when he noticed that the next group of tickets Royal-Dawson brought back did not seem to be sequentially numbered, especially since the old German gentleman to whom he had sold them was so concerned that the seats be adjoining — he did not want to be separated from his daughter and son-in-law; and that the timid pair of English matrons — God knows what they were doing at the bullfight in the first place — who had wanted to be sure that the tickets were for seats in the shady side of the arena were handed tickets with the word ‘sol’ printed right across the top; but he could hardly argue with Royal-Dawson in front of them, and it was all going so fast…
By now the crowd had thinned out so much that although there was still a substantial number of people trying to get in at the various entrances around the arena they could now see clear across the plaza to the taquillas on either side of the main gates. Off to one side Don Diego was having a word with a Guardia Civil, and for a moment Roger thought they were going to be turned in, to be locked up in some forgotten Spanish gaol and slowly tortured to death with bastinados or whatever had been used in the Inquisition, for having dared to trespass on the toothy don’s territory.
“Did you give Don Diego everything we were supposed to?” he asked Royal-Dawson.
“Not to worry, my dear boy, he saw to that. Once we’d made a start and were in funds we bought everything from him at his price. What we have in hand now is all ours. What do you say we treat ourselves to a good meal and a better bottle? There’s a small place just off the Plaza Mayor I’ve been wanting to introduce you to for a while now.”
“But the corrida — aren’t we going in?”
“Not unless you want to run the risk of sitting next to someone you might not want to see. You might end up on the wrong side of the barrera with just the bulls for company.”
Some time later, with more money in his pocket and more food in his stomach than he had enjoyed for a long time, and once again feeling vinously sympathetic to the world around him, Roger looked up from the flan with which he was finishing the meal just in time to see a giant cockroach fall from the ceiling and land on the table between them. The cockroach and Roger raced each other away from the table while Royal-Dawson shrugged and finished his wine.
“Spot of local colour, dear boy, that’s all. Have to get used to those chaps. They’re everywhere this time of year.”
But it seemed to Roger, as he edged back to the table, mortified by his timorous reaction to the local colour, that what he was having to get used to were unexpected and unnerving wrinkles in the plan every time he began to think things were sorting themselves out and looking up.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as eBook or Paperback from Blackburn Books