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