The Castilian Suite: Chapter 4

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 4
A Risky Business
Roger and Royal-Dawson learn the scalping ropes from Don Diego — but the roaches are ever present.

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: “, 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

The Castilian Suite: Chapter 3

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 3
Pensión Montañesa
In which our hero moves into Pensión Montañesa, and becomes part of the Bullring’s underworld.

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?”

“Ignacio de…”

“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?

“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

The Castilian Suite: Chapter Two

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 2
Alone!
In which our hero finds himself abandoned.

He was still dreaming when he woke up, or at least he thought he was. He did not immediately accept the reality and thought he was still in a long, high-ceilinged ward in a noisy, old-fashioned hospital. The light was very subdued and everything was very indistinct, but he was aware of a lot of activity. People were being moved on trolleys to and from beds, curtains were being drawn and reopened, long-coated bespectacled doctors, followed by small groups of anxious looking interns and nurses were moving rapidly from one part of the ward to another.

One group paused momentarily at the foot of his bed, examining a chart and conferring briefly, but without looking at him. He knew that he ought to get their attention for a moment and clarify his position — his friend was sure to be waiting outside, and if he could only get a message — but they ignored him and moved on to the next patient, leaving him to sink back exhausted on his bed and gaze at the high ceiling above him. He focused on a long-bladed fan revolving slowly, causing the string which hung from its centre to describe a wide, lazy circle just a foot or so above his head. As he stared at the fan the noises of the ward grew less distinct. It seemed as if the occasional groans and cries from patients in various parts of the ward were coalescing into one concerted effort designed to attract the attention of the peripatetic doctors, who by now had passed completely out of sight.

The voices of the patients became more rhythmic, their cries more insistent, and suddenly they were singing in chorus, antiphonally. He listened, fascinated. Gradually, one voice became predominant, the others reduced to less organized responses. Not only could he not understand the words, but he also realized they sounded quite alien, Eastern perhaps, sung in an extremely narrow melodic range. There was a quality of defiant complaint evident in the curious slides from one tone to another, interspersed with bursts of exultant shouting and clapping from the chorus, which now no longer seemed comprised of such vast numbers as he had at first thought. There seemed, in fact, to be but one singer accompanied by maybe two children’s voices, and the voices seemed now to be no longer in the room with him, but coming from somewhere outside.

He made a greater effort to focus on his surroundings. The fan, with its attendant string circling below in a vain attempt to catch up with the long wooden blades, continued to revolve slowly above him, making fuzzy shadows dance lugubriously on the high grey ceiling. The ceiling, however, now came to an end not twelve feet away from the end of the bed, against a similarly dingy grey wall. His eyes followed the plastered wall down from the simple cornice to where it was interrupted by a plain green panelled door. The ward faded from his awareness, faded indeed completely from memory. Instead it became apparent that he was in a rather small, if long, room, with a door at one end and his bed at the other. He raised his head a little and looked about in the gloom. To his left there was a window, shuttered from the inside, with more dull green paint peeling from the half-closed louvres. It was through this window that the singing was coming, now clearly from below. But below where? And what was this room? Remembrance of the ward flashed back. Was he perhaps in a private room in a hospital? He sat up further and decided that this was a surprisingly shabby room for a hospital. If anything, it looked like a room in one of those old prints of medical scenes from the Crimean War where wounded and dying were crammed incongruously into once grand residences; he half expected a nurse in a long Victorian dress, not yet recognizable as a nurse except for her white apron, to enter at any moment and insist that he lie down again. But no, this was no hospital, they would never allow such caterwauling outside.

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up, noticing with surprise as he did so that he was fully dressed. His shirt was twisted around his waist and undone at the neck and his jacket had been removed — ah, there it was, heaped up on a chair next to the shuttered window. He went over to the window to investigate these strange shutters. Why on earth were the shutters on the inside? It made the room look as if it were really an enclosed porch rather than an interior room. But the shutters were obviously part of the original design, the woodwork was all of a piece, and when they were opened a narrow shelf was revealed, wide enough to sit on. He pushed the shutters back as far as they would go, expecting the room to flood with light, but although it was clearly daytime, it was strangely dim outside, and the room brightened hardly at all.

The opened shutters had revealed a pair of tall casement windows. He pushed one of them open, knelt on the narrow window seat, and looked out. And then to his surprise realized he was not at ground level. In fact he was looking down on an inner courtyard several floors below: a small square of stone-paved space at the bottom of the shaft formed by four towering walls, one of which contained the window to his room. A combination of vertigo and claustrophobia overwhelmed him and he jerked back into the room to look for another window, to try to see out, really out. But there was only the one window. He lunged at the door and tugged it open. The door, however, opened onto an even darker and more sinister space than the window: an empty corridor made almost black by the comparative brightness of the light outside the window. Quickly closing the door he returned to the bed and sat down to gather his thoughts. A few deep breaths and he looked about him to see if any other possessions apart from his previously noticed jacket were in the room.

Any other possessions! Where was his suitcase, and his bag? And oh, my God! he thought, as rational awareness took over from the confused half-awake state he had been in up to this point, where the hell is Sarah?

He looked at his watch, but unwound it had stopped at a quarter-past four. A quarter-past four when? Another thought rushed into his head: he didn’t know about winding it last night, whenever that was, but he remembered now that he had not wound it the night they spent on the train. Perhaps it had stopped the following afternoon, as they were coming in to Madrid? — Madrid! Yes, that’s where he was, he was in Madrid — but how had he got here, to this room? He forgot for the moment about trying to figure out when the watch had stopped as panic surged through him with the realization that he had absolutely no memory of coming to this room, nor when he had last seen Sarah, and whether they had made any arrangements. Perhaps she was waiting for him somewhere. But where, and what the hell was the time? Was it early morning or later in the afternoon?

He stood up, willing himself to be calm, and went over to the window again. The singing, although flavoured heavily with flamenco-like cadences, sounded no longer so exotic. It was the voice of a woman singing lustily as she washed something in a large wooden tub. Two children were playing and tugging at her as she bent over the soapy mass. One of them appeared to have put something in the water and was trying to prevent the other from removing it. A second woman came out of a doorway he had not noticed before and said something to one of the children. The singing stopped and the two women burst into laughter as the smaller one fell in.

He smiled at the scene below and then looked up for the first time, and saw that there was only one more floor above him. The windows that looked out from the top floor onto the courtyard shaft were aglint with reflected sunlight and the whole top of the building was bathed in a fresh, clear light. It was the light of morning — or was it? he wondered, immediately doubting himself. This was unbearable; he had to find out what time it was, then find out what day it was… His mind ran on, anxiety verging on panic again. He had to find out where he was, and then find out where Sarah was. Oh, my God! he thought, as despair turned him momentarily cold, Sarah! Sarah, where are you?

He felt awful; but that didn’t matter now, what mattered was to get organized, make sure he had everything that was his that might be in this gloomy room, and get out of here, find reality, and find Sarah…

He shoved his shirttails back into his trousers, straightened his collar, and, reaching for his comb, looked around for a mirror. Ah, not only was there a mirror, there was also a sink, somewhat randomly fixed to the wall, and fitted with the oddest pair of taps he had ever seen. He turned them, twisted them, pushed on them, but nothing came out. Hmm! Spanish plumbing seemed to have been as idiosyncratically designed as the Spanish train system: no similarities whatsoever with what happened in the rest of Europe. Never mind, he could still comb his hair. He got his parting just right and tried out a smile in the mirror, but then winced as if this reflexive bit of vanity might queer his chances with whatever fate or fury it was that was holding sway over him in this damned room. Enough of this, let’s get out of here, he thought, there must be a street, some other people, someone who will know where I am. And deciding that apart from his jacket there was nothing else that was his in the room, he pulled open the door and strode out into the passageway.

The washerwoman was in full throat again. Her voice, amplified by the courtyard, reverberated up and down the forbidding stairwell he found at the end of the passage. It was only three flights down and he was soon at ground level wondering which way to go. To his left was the door to the courtyard, ajar, and through it he glimpsed a broad back humping up and down over the tub. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want this woman to see him, so he turned right and stepped up through an archway into a narrow, carpeted passage that opened almost at once onto a little room with a cubby-hole cut in one wall, on the other side of which he saw with relief someone who looked unmistakably like a hotel desk clerk.

The clerk raised his bald head and peered encouragingly at Roger over rimless spectacles. Roger opened his mouth to say something, and raised his hand to gesture — but then remained speechless for lack of any appropriate Spanish. The fingers of his outstretched hand slowly went limp and curled into his palm, expressing his urgent dismay far better than any words he might have uttered.

“You are Señor Coulter?” queried the clerk, tentatively.

“Oh, thank God, you speak English. Yes, yes! I’m Roger Coulter. Do you…have you…?”

He stopped, not sure how to explain what he wanted. He wanted most of all to ask for Sarah, but he didn’t know how they had registered — if indeed they had both registered. He also needed to know where he was, and what day it was, and what the time was, and where Sarah was…but the clerk was waving a hand at him, conjuring him to silence. With his other hand he held out an envelope towards Roger.

“This letter is for you. You want also you passport?”

He nodded dumbly and took both items. He could see clearly that the writing on the envelope was Sarah’s, and with a sudden flash of guilty inspiration he knew what the letter must mean: he had been so drunk — the one thing she could not abide — she had abandoned him. His adrenalin-fueled energy was suddenly dissipated like air from a burst balloon. He mumbled his thanks at the clerk, who disappeared back into his cubby-hole, and turned to find his way out onto the street, seeing nothing more.

 *

On the other side of the door the sudden noise, the blinding brightness, and the crush of countless people on the crowded street absorbed him at once into its tumult. All conscious impetus drained out of him. With the awareness that everything smelled and sounded differently here, he succumbed to the pain in his head: the throbbing nausea that was the hangover he had so far been too busy to acknowledge.

For the moment nothing else mattered; all other questions had lost their urgency. He allowed himself to be swept along, uncaring and unnoticing, almost comforted to be passively participating in this busy stream of life. Exotic smells continued to assail him, unrecognizable noise assaulted him, until at last, beginning to need relief, he turned out of the main press into a narrower street. In the relative calm, propped up against the wall of a building, an old woman sat in the shade with two basins of olives for sale on the ground before her. A little farther along, a one-legged man with one unseeing eye and one grotesquely empty socket was selling lottery tickets. Balancing himself precariously on a single crutch, his hoarse cry echoed back and forth between the buildings: “¡Lotería para hoyyyyyy! Lotería para hoyyyyyy!”

Shaking his head as he passed him, Roger stumbled on down the narrow street, which was lined with high, crumbling buildings festooned with wrought-iron balconies opening out from tall, shuttered windows, occasionally bright with the reflected sunlight that filtered down through gaps between one house and the next. He paid little attention to where he was going, and let the curving street lead him on, across narrower streets, through suddenly met quiet squares, down alleys, and out again into busier streets. The pounding in his head continued to demand attention. He thought he had better find somewhere to sit down, somewhere to get out of the street and the noise and the sun — perhaps a hair of the dog?

Paying more attention to his surroundings, he saw he was now in a street lined with small shops, and he began to look more closely at what they contained. One dusty window disclosed half-made suits draped over threadbare mannequins. Another was hung with tripe-like entrails. The next appeared to be some kind of law office, and was adorned with a worn sign reading ‘Abogado’. And then suddenly he was outside a bar, its wide doors open to the street, its interior glinting invitingly. He entered and crossed the sawdust-covered floor, dodging a variety of pendant hams, curved sausages, strings of onions, and numerous other unidentified objects fixed to the ceiling, and sat down on a bar stool. It all seemed quite familiar, but he was unable to tell whether it was where he had been the night before or whether it just reminded him of the innumerable cantinas he had dashed in and out of with Ignacio on the long train journey.

He asked for a glass of tinto and remembered how riotously they had all got off the train — at least he and Ignacio, that was. He seemed to remember Sarah having already disappeared somewhere with a porter and the bags, but then reappearing outside the station, to remonstrate with him as Ignacio insisted they celebrate their arrival. Now that he thought about it, he could remember different bars and numerous toasts, but he had no recollection of how they had got from one bar to the next. At one point he had been given an outrageously hot chili that had reduced him to complete speechlessness while Ignacio and the bartender had laughed until tears ran down their faces. He could also remember having shouted a newly learned toast, ‘¡Salud, pesetas y mujeres!’, in chorus with Ignacio and some other bartender in some other bar to apparent general approbation, but he could no longer remember Sarah as having been present. And he still had no idea how or when he had ended up in that room.

The cold tinto tasted good, and he ordered another one. The bartender pushed a plate of rolled-up anchovies at him, each one speared with its own little toothpick. He ate one and took out Sarah’s letter. He regarded it with about as much comprehension as he might have regarded a newspaper printed in Arabic. The individual words danced unintelligibly before him, and yet he knew without being able to read them that it had to be very bad news.

Another tinto and some more tapas and he felt better able to face up to things. He picked up the envelope again into which he had stuffed the letter, and noticed that there was something else in it. He pulled out the letter and shook the envelope. A luggage receipt and one of Ignacio’s visiting cards fell out. Well, that was thoughtful of her, he thought bitterly. How come she gets put up and I get dumped in a crummy hotel? No need to answer that one! She’s the one with the long legs. But I don’t remember old Iggy paying much attention to her.

He turned the visiting card over idly, and saw with surprise that there was a pencilled address scribbled on the back. It was the address of a pension. Doubt took over. Maybe she wasn’t at Ignacio’s. He had better read the letter again, carefully. He smoothed out the now crumpled sheet on the bar and concentrated. The writing resolved itself into Sara’s familiar neat hand:

 Dear Roger,
I feel terrible doing this to you, but I’d feel more terrible if I stayed. I know it’s important to you to get the Castilian Suite written but it’s something you have to do — not me. I can’t just walk out on Daddy, not yet. Perhaps when you come back we can try again. At least he should have a chance to get to know you before we abandon him.
I’m taking the train back to Paris. Ignacio will take you to a hotel he knows. He’s written the address of a pension run by some friends of his family on his card. I’ll write to you there. Your luggage is at the station — I’ve enclosed the receipt.
Write something great. I know you can.
I love you,
Sarah

 One more tinto and his head hurt even less. So that was it. So much for the Grand Adventure. Without Sarah it all suddenly seemed like a grand drag. He could just hear Robbins, Camp, and Russell sniggering now. God, what a fool he had been to think that he would really be able to pull it off! Living in Spain with Sarah. It had seemed too good to be true. And it was. Now he was stuck with a filthy hangover in this unbearably hot city alone. Totally alone.

He realized that much of the idyllic vision he had woven about the joys of composing in Spain had been for Sarah’s benefit. He hadn’t really believed it all himself. But he had needed her to be with him to lend support to what he knew in the end would be a worthwhile effort. It was just that he wasn’t sure he could do it on his own. Alone. In a strange land. He had needed her not only because she was beautiful and he loved her, but also because she always knew what to do. She was so practical.

He picked up Ignacio’s visiting card ruefully and looked at the address pencilled on the back. Even as she left she had known what to do — while he had been carousing, out of his mind. He just didn’t know if he could do it on his own. For a moment he was tempted to follow her back to Paris, and then London, but he knew his bridges had been too thoroughly burned. His parents’ house was out of the question; he had made too much fuss about establishing his own independence after college. But then he had given up the flat he had moved into and sold his car. He had talked so much about what he was going to do, it would be too humiliating to reappear sheepishly before he had been gone even a week. He would have to stay. At least for a month or two. There was no way he could go back now before having written something. And as he thought of composing his heart sank even lower. How could he compose anything in this frame of mind? She had taken him too much at his word. Oh God, he didn’t want to be a composer, he just wanted to be with Sarah. Nevertheless, returning was impossible.

For the first time in his life he came face to face with the fact that the world did not revolve totally around him. It was as if he was ten years old again and instead of getting Christmas presents he had been told his parents were dead. The aura of security that had always enveloped him was suddenly gone, and he felt not only terribly vulnerable but also spinelessly impotent.

He flushed with shame, and then groaning he swigged down the last of the tinto, drowning out the thought of this appalling weakness as quickly as it had occurred to him. Hold on, Coulter, he thought with a bravado he knew was utterly false, heartache is one thing, but you mustn’t let the lady get you down. It’ll all look better in the morning. And then he remembered it was morning.

Wanting now only to go to sleep again and escape from this wretched nightmare, he decided to find the pension and hole up until he felt better and could make plans. He paid the bartender, and with much sign language and much waving of the luggage receipt managed to get directions to the station. He left the bar, relieved to have an immediate purpose on which to concentrate and thereby put the larger consciousness of his life out of mind for the moment. Two streets later he was hopelessly lost. A repeat performance of the ticket display accompanied by more mute gesturing got him a little farther.

After a while he found himself in a large square in front of an old, bullet-scarred church. He wound his watch and set it by the church clock, noticing as he did so more lottery sellers offering the chance of an alternative means of salvation to the insufficiently pious.

Nothing in this close and noisy neighbourhood seemed familiar, but oddly he was not in the least disconcerted by the strangeness. Rather he seemed to draw comfort from what felt like his privileged position of aloof alienation. Madrid and its inhabitants were unaware of the young Englishman, and far from feeding his distress their lack of concern lent him the strength that often comes to those in trouble when they see how trivial are their woes compared to the larger business of life.

Other clocks struck noon as he continued his erratic progress towards the station, his requests becoming more polished with each repetition. He learnt to recognize the word for station as the people he accosted — each saying much the same as the person before — grasped his predicament and gave him directions. After a while he no longer needed to gesture so violently; words sufficed. Thus absorbed in his task and thinking less about his hangover, his tiredness, and the empty feeling that Sarah’s letter had produced, he found himself eventually before the main entrance of the Estación del Norte.

Having retrieved his luggage he was once again recognizable as a traveller; his dazed demeanour marking him as lost to boot. Standing outside the station with no clear idea of what to do next he immediately fell prey to the solicitations of hotel agents, small boys attempting to give him directions or advice or perhaps just begging, porters eyeing his cases, and ten taxi drivers all shouting at him at once. And then, as if he had known all along what the next move would be, he produced Ignacio’s card, and pointing to the pencilled address on the back, got into a very low-slung taxi — quite unlike the sedately upright conveyances of London — and was borne rapidly away; exactly where, he neither knew nor cared very much. Sarah had put the card in the envelope with her letter, and so he regarded it as an instruction from her. Or at least, the last link with her, and as such he would follow its lead until once again he might find himself completely on his own. Maybe tomorrow he would feel well enough to think about going after her. But he suspected already he wouldn’t have the guts.

The journey was surprisingly brief. They drove a short distance along a broad tree-lined avenue, crossed another wide avenue, and then turned up a smaller steep street to stop outside an imposing but deteriorated double door adorned with a pair of impressive iron knockers in the shape of long-fingered hands clasping big silver-painted balls. High up, on the stonework surrounding the door, was a small blue enameled sign with white lettering which read:

 Pensión Montañesa
4 o Drcha.

 * * *

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

The Castilian Suite: Chapter One

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RCJacketFrontfBChapter 1
A Train Ride to Madrid
In which we meet our hero and his reluctant girlfriend.

 He was in love. With Sarah, with life, and with himself. Or at least the idea of himself. Himself coolly rushing south in the quiet train that smelled so exotic, so different, so French. And he was in it. He was on a French train, with Sarah, going to Spain. Oh, it was scarcely to be believed. What would they say if they could see him now? Suave old Coulter, fancy that, off to Spain with a beauty!

And beauty she was, all long legs and long blond hair. The classic type. Just dripping elegance, without any artifice of painted face or fancy hairdo. A natural beauty. It was impossible to imagine her sitting awkwardly, looking ugly, doing anything gross. God, what a beauty! And she matched the train so well. Unlike the chugging, stuffy English train they had taken from London to the Channel ferry, the French train was modern, silent, and discreet. And now that it was getting dark it was even more discreet, and he felt the elegant romance of the scene intensify. It was like being high. Like being just a little bit drunk on very expensive brandy. Like having crashed an extremely fancy party and knowing that there is no need for anxiety. No one suspects anything. No one is laughing at the presumption. It’s a trick — but it’s working.

The one small light that had come on automatically in the corner of the compartment lit her face like a small spotlight, while everything else disappeared into the shadows as the evening turned to black night. Every once in a while the train whooshed through a small town, a bright station, past lights that suddenly lit up the rest of the compartment. And then on into the blackness again, leaving Sarah’s softly illumined face reflected in the window. She gazed out into the darkness, apparently lost in thought, and Roger gazed at her, amazed at how wonderful life was, and how easy it all seemed. All he had needed to do was to explain, to ask, to buy the tickets, and here they were.

In fact, it had not been all that easy, but then Roger Coulter had been spoiled most of his life and took more for granted than he deserved. To start with he was smart — gifted even, his parents and teachers had said — although apart from his much declared interest in music the giftedness had yet to make itself apparent in any particular direction. It was true he could play several instruments passably well — but only passably — and he had written several competent — but merely competent — pieces. This much hardly counted as gifted, and yet the impression he gave was of great promise. But then it was also true he was personable; pleasantly assured and disarmingly good-looking, in fact. This no doubt played a large part in confirming the promise, the reputed talent, the giftedness. As a result he assumed more than he ought to have, and expected more than he deserved, and his assumptions and his expectations were usually gratified.

So it had been with Sarah. He had been immediately bowled over by her, and had had no doubt that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen — the ultimate goddess on earth — but, far from having been humbled and rendered dumb in the face of such perfection, he had at once assumed she was made for him — and for him alone. That Sarah herself did not at once recognize this inalienable truth he put down to a charming reticence, a sort of noblesse-oblige modesty. He was not in the least embarrassed or deterred by her initial refusals, and did not realize how narrowly he had missed turning her completely off at the beginning. And it was not merely his insensitive — if charming — insistence that won her over in the end, either. But won her over he had, and though he was inordinately pleased with himself believed it was no less than he deserved.

They had met at a party that Robbins and Camp had thrown to celebrate their having moved into a new flat in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from Victoria Station. Having both read economics at Oxford, Charlie Robbins and Derek Camp had now entered the civil service, and in their own inimical economic way had decided to share digs, at least for a year. They felt this lent them a little more status than living in separate bed-sitters in some less central area of London — as did Roger. Roger, of course, was loudly dismissive of their need to appear respectable, but beneath his artistic bravado was secretly jealous. He had explained his position to the beautiful Sarah by stressing his need to work in less bourgeois surroundings than the City of Westminster.

“Hampstead is so much more inspirational; the Heath, Keats’s house, the Vale of Health, and all that.”

Sarah had agreed — or at least the inexpensive champagne Roger had been plying her with had agreed — and they sat at the top of the staircase feeling pleasantly superior to the noisy crowd of recent graduates below. At a certain point he had taken a chance and kissed her. To his surprise he had not been immediately repulsed, but instead had thrilled to discover a tentative tongue exploring the inside of his lower lip. A half glass of tepid champagne later found them on a pile of coats in one of the small upstairs’ bedrooms, clumsily attempting to grope each other. He was not absolutely certain that the mission had been successfully accomplished according to what he knew of standard practice, but when she gave a little cry and closed her eyes he rolled off her feeling considerably chuffed and sufficiently emboldened to suggest the Spanish trip. And now, barely two months later, here they were, together, on their way to Spain.

Let’s see Robbins or Camp, or even debonair Russell organize something like this! he thought. No, this was a trip that only Roger Coulter could have pulled off. Life was indeed wonderful. It was worth it after all. It was proof that he had what it took, that he was going to be a great musician, a great composer. And when the recognition came, as it surely must, Sarah would be there with him, graciously putting everyone at ease.

He closed his eyes and saw himself at the Royal Albert Hall, after the premier performance of his Castilian Suite, amid cheers, bravos, a welter of bouquets, and the adoring attention of an amazed public. He saw the critics from the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph fighting to get his attention, tugging at his sleeve like adoring fans wanting autographs, their dignity forgotten in their enthusiasm, pulling, asking, insisting…

 *

It was the French conductor saying something about passports. In 1961 there were as yet no through trains from Paris to Madrid. Adjustable bogies were still a thing of the future, and French trains were unable to run on the wider Spanish tracks. At Hendaye, on the Spanish border, passengers got out and walked down the platform and boarded the Spanish train. The Spanish part of the station was known officially as Irun, although the little town of that name was a few kilometres farther on.

They got out onto the long French platform, stumbling with their suitcases, Sarah barely awake, and tried to figure out which way to go. Guards were shouting to one another, relaying instructions from one end of the train to the other, porters were noisily plying for hire, and a completely incomprehensible announcement was echoing out of the station’s public address system. People emptied out of the train and stood around in confused groups, unsure what to do next. Doors slammed, conductors perched on the steps at the ends of the carriages and looked authoritative, but there was no clear indication where anyone was expected to go.

A knot of people was beginning to form towards one end of the platform under a sign which read ‘Douane’. Noticing several businessmen making towards it with purposeful confidence, Roger grabbed Sarah by the hand.

“Come on. That’s got to be the way. If we can beat the crowd we’ll stand a better chance of getting a seat in the Spanish train.”

She removed her hand quietly but firmly from his and looked around with just the slightest air of irritated disdain. “We need a porter before we start beating anybody. Look, there’s one, call him over.”

Roger was about to argue, feeling that they would lose valuable time messing about with a porter instead of making directly for the customs hall, but was constrained by the greater need to appear gallant and amenable. He had promised Sarah that the whole adventure would be a piece of cake, and he did not want to risk putting her out of sorts in the middle of the night when he was none too sure what the rest of the journey was going to be like. He waved to the porter and pointed to their bags. Nodding affirmatively when the porter shouted: “Espagne?”, he quickly found himself and Sarah being led right past the gathering crowd, through another door, and into a large hall where a small group of businessmen and a well-to-do family were being processed through Customs and Passport Control. They were processed themselves in a moment, and to Roger’s pleased surprise were soon following the porter again. The growing crowd outside the first door was still milling about, presumably being required to give preference to passengers with porters. He might have known: if you had money things were invariably easier.

They left the customs hall through the far door and came out onto a long uncovered platform, more poorly lit than before. The porter led them away from the main station buildings towards what had to be the Spanish train, almost lost in the distance under billows of freakishly illuminated steam.

He caught sight of a couple of Guardia Civiles with their strange patent-leather hats, the brims so oddly turned up at the back, and then had to look again to make sure he had really seen the guns slung over their backs.

“My God, did you see that? They were carrying guns!”

Sarah smiled at him coolly with one eyebrow raised. “Yes. We’re in Spain now. Generalíssimo Franco’s Spain. Guns are quite common in dictatorships, I believe.”

He winced inwardly. He was supposed to be the experienced traveller, not Sarah. That was twice she had made him seem foolish.

The porter stopped in front of the first carriage they came to, and Roger gave him a few francs. Sarah watched while he decided where they should sit, and then helped as he struggled to get the luggage stowed on the nets above the straight-backed wooden seats. They had been among the first to board, and as a result now sat there for almost an hour while the train slowly filled up.

Sarah said nothing, apparently too tired or too disgusted with the accommodations. Roger stole an occasional glance at her, but eventually her eyes closed and she seemed to have fallen asleep. No doubt she would perk up when they reached Madrid. In the meantime he was tired as well, and the euphoria that had enveloped him in the French train was a thing of the past. This was the unromantic, nitty-gritty part of travelling. Sitting in an uncomfortable and rather dirty train sometime after midnight. Not even moving, just standing in a siding while an intermittent procession of equally tired and irritable passengers boarded in the gloom. He realized the waiting was part of the schedule, built into the timetable, but it was hard to endure.

At long last the train shunted down the track a little, into Irun Station proper, and the local Spanish passengers got on. They left Irun with a great blowing of whistles and much shouting and slamming of doors, but despite this auspicious beginning the train never seemed to gather much speed. For the next couple of hours it did little more than chug slowly along, making frequent stops. Sarah was now soundly asleep, propped up in the corner opposite Roger, but Roger dozed only lightly, frequently being jolted awake only to be slowly lulled back into semi-consciousness a few minutes later.

After a while the sky began to lighten and the reason for their painfully slow progress became obvious. This was not the flat country they had been travelling through in France. Rather, the way through Vascongadas, the Basque country, was hilly and tortuous. Causing further delays, new passengers got on everywhere, even when the train stopped merely for work crews repairing cuts and fills far from any station. Actual stations were frequently little more than a single low building, consisting of a combined ticket office and cantina, but surprisingly bustling and full of life although apparently situated with little regard for the nearness of any observable settlement. The entire train became ever more crowded with noisy, beret-wearing Basques, old women, children, chickens, and a collection of luggage remarkable for the amount of string with which each piece was held together.

Eventually the compartment became so noisy that Sarah awoke, a little puffy-eyed and still silent, but ready with a smile for Roger when their eyes met. He felt he ought to do something to let her know everything was under control, and so decided to try to find out where they would stop next and if there might be a chance of any breakfast.

His first attempt to use the little Spanish he had managed to learn during the previous weeks had the effect of making them the instant centre of attention. It was clear to everyone that the nice young man and his pretty companion knew very little Spanish, and almost everyone in the compartment proceeded to try their hand at making them understand. But try as they would, for the longest time the only thing that either Roger or Sarah did understand was the unending supply of wine pressed on them from long-necked green bottles, kidney-shaped leather botas, and cups that were replenished in every cantina the train stopped at. By the time the sun was properly up, any anxiety about their immediate future in Spain that Roger might have felt, had become pleasantly diffused in a warm, wine-and-olive-induced fog.

Somehow, between all the stringed luggage and sweaty children, and aided greatly by the abundant refreshment and the length of time they had been travelling, they fell asleep again on the hard wooden seats. Leaving the Basque country behind, the train jolted noisily on through Castilla La Vieja. They awoke briefly at Valladodid — where a lot of people got out and a seemingly identical crowd got on — but otherwise they saw little of the Castilian landscape until they awoke again in the bright mid-morning sunshine.

Roger was the first to stir, aware of the discomfort without knowing its cause. The oddly irregular jolting, the stiffness in all his limbs, and the heat, all impressed themselves on his consciousness before he actually opened his eyes. It was the unusual aroma of a distinctly foreign cuisine that actually brought him to his senses as he realized with a rush of excitement exactly where he was. He unslumped himself and sat up. Sarah was still asleep, her eyes closed, a coat draped over her body. Sitting next to her was a small, dumpy woman dressed entirely in black, complete with a black scarf on her head, busily cutting slices from a long, wrinkled sausage and passing them to two young children who were sitting — or rather, jumping up and down — next to Roger. Noticing Roger sit up, she smiled timidly at him and shushed at her children who continued clamouring for the sausage. He smiled back wanly and looked past the children to see who else was in the compartment. A man in his late twenties or early thirties, dressed in a suit of conservative but cheap and distinctively Spanish cut, sat smoking a pungent cigarette, gazing complacently at the children. Next to him, a soldier was stretched out occupying the rest of the seat, fast asleep and snoring vigorously.

Despite his earlier failure, Roger tried out some more Spanish: “Bueno mañana!”

The small mother looked up and smiled again, even more nervously than before. The soldier continued sleeping, oblivious to this ingenious conversational gambit. But the man with the pungent cigarette turned with sudden animation, and replied with great gusto: “Buenos días, buenos d-í-a-s!”

The emphasis with which this was said, and the smile that accompanied it, made it clear to Roger that he was being corrected as well as replied to with friendliness. The two or three sentences that followed conveyed far less, and he groped around among the half dozen or so words that constituted his entire Spanish vocabulary in an attempt to communicate to this smoker of pungent cigarettes his unfortunate deficiency. At last the smoker realized he was making no sense to Roger and stopped, raised his eyes and his hands in mock despair, and then repeated his last words more slowly, looking at Roger with encouragement as if he were trying to prompt an answer.

With no idea of what was expected of him, but eager to show his appreciation for the response he had engendered, Roger decided to take a new tack.

“Roger Coulter,” he said, pointing at himself and then holding out his hand.

Comprehension was immediate, and the smoker put out his pungent cigarette with great deliberation, sat up straight, proffered his own hand, and announced with almost theatrical gravity: “Ignacio Toredo de Mijares y Bustamente, a su servicio.” But breaking into a smile and pointing at himself as Roger had done, made Roger understand that he was to be addressed simply as ‘Ignacio’.

“Right then — Ignacio! Nice to meet you. Call me Roger, okay? And this is Sarah — who seems to be still asleep.”

Ignacio looked over at Sarah, and repeated her name slowly and loudly several times, obviously committing it to memory rather than addressing her. Having, however, already been half roused out of her sleep by the children’s noisy importuning and Roger’s conversation, the sound of her name now completed the process, and Sarah opened her eyes and lifted her head, the coat falling to the floor. She gazed vacantly at Ignacio for a moment, and then sat up with a start, a flicker of confused anxiety crossing her face until she caught sight of Roger. He smiled at her reassuringly, leant across and took her hand.

“Hello there! Welcome to Spain. Say hello to Ignacio.”

She managed a polite: “Mmm,” and Roger said: “How are you feeling?”

She  looked as if she was feeling none too well, but before she could offer another ‘mmm’, Ignacio, with a further burst of unintelligible volubility, thrust his bota at her, obviously suggesting a morning libation. She grimaced and waved it away. Ignacio burst into laughter, raising his eyebrows as if to imply that her refusal was only to be expected, and offered the wine to Roger. It seemed only polite that one of them at least should accept this gesture of friendship, so Roger smiled again and took a drink.

Earlier, the abundant wine had tasted good — sweet and robust — but now it hit his mouth coldly and acidly. His distaste was noticed at once by the small mother who, smacking the little boy’s hand in the act of reaching for more of the sausage she had been slicing, solicitously held out a slice for Roger. He accepted it and gave a piece to Sarah, who now sat up and straightened herself out. More sausage and bread appeared, more wine was offered and refused — and then accepted — and before long Roger and Sarah were reabsorbed into the small but convivial world of the increasingly warm compartment.

The little girl, despite her mother’s protestations, edged ever closer to Sarah until she ended up sitting on her lap. A game developed whereby they pointed things out to each other and tried to make each other understand what they were pointing to. But it soon became apparent that the little girl thought everything was called ‘cow’, while Sarah remained unsure whether ‘arból’ meant ‘field’, ‘wall’, ‘wheat’, ‘track’, or anything else that was pointed to.

The train stopped at yet another small station, and a crowd of farmers and country people dressed in their travelling best, together with more of the ubiquitous soldiery, climbed onto the train with still more boxes and luggage secured with the universal hairy string. The sleeping soldier was forced to awake and sit up in order to make room for the extra passengers. The compartment became even hotter. Sarah began to wonder how much it would cost to transfer to first class, but she said nothing; this was the Great Adventure, after all. The train rattled on, making similar stops throughout the morning, at several of which Roger and Ignacio took the opportunity of getting out to replenish the wine supply and bring back rolls and cheese and olives for general consumption.

By the time lunchtime rolled around, Roger was having a great time. He and Ignacio had been talking nonstop, and although the conversation had seemed at first mutually incomprehensible, somehow — he was not quite sure how — he had learned that Ignacio worked for a firm of wine merchants, and was on his way back to Madrid from Bilbao, where he had been visiting his brother, who was stationed there in the army. Furthermore, Ignacio seemed to be promising him a guided tour to the Spanish capital, together with unlimited hospitality in his home where he lived with two younger brothers and his widowed mother. As this information sank in, bit by bit, Roger attempted to explain to Sarah their good fortune, waxing enthusiastically about Iberian amicability and how easy it was to fall on one’s feet when travelling, provided one relaxed and made an effort to be friendly with the locals.

Sarah smiled thinly back at him, unimpressed. The small mother and her two children had left the train several stations back to be replaced by a priest in a grubby cassock who, possessed of a certain amount of halting English, had been pressing his garlic-fumed attentions on Sarah, causing her ever greater embarrassment as she attempted to explain that she was not Mrs Coulter but she was indeed travelling with Mr Coulter. Since she had not been drinking the wine, and since the little girl had dropped her greasy sausage into Sarah’s lap several times before she left, she viewed the uncomfortable wooden seats, the smoky and claustrophobic atmosphere of the carriage, the noise, the malodorous priest — indeed, the whole situation — with considerably less enthusiasm than did Roger.

Roger, however, was oblivious to her discontent and increasing irritability, noticing only her reluctance to join in the bonhomie, and made several remarks to Ignacio concerning man’s natural predisposition towards good fellowship in marked comparison to woman’s greater hesitancy and reserve, born, no doubt, of her inherent situation as the weaker partner in the adventurous and sometimes risky journey that constituted life. Whether Ignacio fully understood or not, he cast condescending glances in Sarah’s direction and clapped Roger on the back in a vigorous display of male amity as they toasted each other and their new found friendship yet again.

 *

The afternoon wore slowly on as the train worked its way across the wide, sun-baked Castilian plain. Small villages appeared from time to time, huddled on low eminences islanded amidst a sea of irregular fields awash with uneven lines of yellowing grain. There were no hedges and no walls; the fields began and ended wherever the ground was flat enough. Where it was not, coarse grass clung to the dry slopes, and sudden arroyos scarred the landscape.

Sarah had not spoken for hours, and was sunk into an unhappy reverie. She regarded Roger’s self-satisfied inebriation with a sad dismay of which he was completely unaware. Pushing her blond hair out of her eyes she turned to look out the window, trying to see beyond the horizon to the unknown city and whatever it was that might await them once they arrived.

She tried to remember why she had agreed to come along in the first place. Lord knows there had been enough reasons not to. But in the end none of them had seemed as relevant as just getting up and doing it. As far as practicalities went she had to admit Roger had not made much sense, but he was usually fun to be with — when he wasn’t silly with too much wine — and she thought she could probably bring sufficient sanity to bear on things so they wouldn’t get into too much trouble. And yet here he was, already out of control, and they really had no idea what they were going to do when they arrived in Madrid. In fact, they had no plans at all beyond a vague and romantic idea of living in some sunny room while he wrote music.

Having become enraptured by the thought of the sun, the Fiesta Brava, the Moorish past, and imagined groups of ‘original’ gypsies, he had carried on endlessly about the need to remove himself from England’s stultifying environment so that he might write something without the ‘banalities of normalcy’ peering over his shoulder. He had become convinced that his projected Castilian Suite for String Orchestra would immediately guarantee him if not success then at least sufficient recognition to enable them to get married and set up home not too far from London, modestly perhaps at first, but ultimately in grand manorial style. Although the ‘sunny room’ was envisioned as being somewhere on the coast of Andalusia, Madrid had been chosen as their initial destination since he had felt it would prove an easier place to establish themselves. It was, after all, the capital, and he felt surer of making the necessary contacts in a sophisticated metropolitan centre than in some less accessible, if more idyllic, seaside town. The ‘necessary contacts’ were hoped-for sources for Sarah’s intended journalistic output — which was to support them while the magnum opus was being composed.

With this in mind they had managed, with the help of various friends and acquaintances, to compile a list of half a dozen or so names and addresses of people in Madrid who might provide them with leads for stories and articles that could be sold to various English publications. Sarah had worked on the university newspaper during her last year at school, and more impressively had written a regular film review column for one of the more obscure London trade papers: the Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette. It was doubtful if any licensed victuallers had ever paid much attention to the film reviews — the exigencies of British licensing hours precluding normal cinema attendance — but the column had provided her with a small stipend and, more importantly, a press card identifying her as a bona fide member of the journalistic community. They were counting on this to be their passport to the newsworthy goings on in one of Europe’s more exotic capitals.

She did not doubt her writing ability, nor her ability to see beyond the commonplace and identify the curious, the fascinating, and the unique aspects of life that would make for interesting reading. But she was less certain of her ability to push herself into strange situations and convince people to confide in her. She was, in truth, a self-contained and rather reticent personality, a fact obscured by her assured bearing and striking good looks. People automatically assumed that she knew what she was up to, and accorded her the deference generally reserved for those in authority. The combination of her own reserve and other people’s deference made spontaneous openness unlikely — hardly the most felicitous state of affairs for a would-be journalist or gossip columnist.

Roger and Ignacio had now started to sing, and some of the soldiers were clapping. He caught her eye, and broke off for a second.

“Come on, Sarah, you know this one, join in!”

She gave him a tight little smile but shook her head and turned to look out the window again. The disordered, almost desperately struggling fields stretched off as far as the eye could see with no friendly farmhouses to claim them. This was certainly not England with its manicured farmlands; it was not even France. It gave the appearance of an unowned land. She sighed and thought about writing again.

There was another problem: she had serious doubts about the legitimacy of attempting to sell stories and newsworthy items simply for the sake of making a living. Writing was for her something personal: a means of examining the meaning of life, and of celebrating its wonders and joys. Pandering to the salacious pleasures of the semi-literate masses that consumed the cheap weeklies and shiny monthlies ran counter to her idea of artistic integrity. Roger had tried to convince her that as the means to his achieving musical recognition it was more than justified, especially since such recognition would also enable her to pursue her own literary bent without compromise. She remained uneasy on this score, however, and suspected that her decision to go along with his Grand Plan had more selfish and less altruistic reasons than the nurturing of a great musical career — or a great literary career either, come to that. She was too uncomfortably aware of the fact that escape from her father’s domination had played the main part in helping make up her mind. She loved her father and she knew he loved her, but since her mother’s death, some eighteen months earlier, she had felt obliged to try and fill her mother’s place as much as possible. She was an only child, but far from having been spoiled — as the common perception of only children would have it — she had been burdened with an excessive sense of responsibility towards her parents.

She waved aside the bottle of wine Ignacio suddenly thrust before her — “No thank you. I never drink from a bottle” — and thought again about what she owed her parents.

They had, after all, made great sacrifices to ensure that she would receive a better start in life than she might otherwise have expected, and had done this moreover during a time of great national and personal difficulty. At first there had been the war, which had meant deprivation for everybody, especially those remnants of the middle class reduced by the great pre-war depression and now totally shorn of all the amenities of gentility, and then there had been the almost equally bleak post-war years. Her grandfather, Norman Walsingham senior, had been able, in the period between the wars, to maintain the appearances, and to a limited extent the appurtenances, of the privileged middle class as a result of his eminence as King’s Counsel, but on his death, and the subsequent decline of the old firm, there had been nothing left for Norman Walsingham junior — Sarah’s father — to inherit other than the conviction that his rightful place in society had been unfairly denied him by the thoroughly lamentable decline of standards on all fronts: social, economic, and political. Having no property and only the now fading fame of his father to aid him, Norman Walsingham junior had begun his family career in circumstances that would have altogether crushed a less determined member of his class. The effort to survive in a manner he felt not only deserving of but also obligated to was made no easier by his determination to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the proletariat.

That he had in large measure succeeded, only to suffer the loss of his wife just as he was regaining his place in society, increased Sarah’s feeling of indebtedness and responsibility. But as her university career neared its end — a career purposely undertaken in London so she might live at home — she began increasingly to think of getting away. At the same time, she felt that to abandon her father now, after all that had been done for her, simply to pursue her own life, constituted signal ingratitude; a feeling made the more difficult to bear since despite her love for her father she found him demanding and hard to live with.

Then along came Roger, not long after her mother’s death. She was feeling lonely and vulnerable, sorry for herself and guilty about her desire to leave home and her father. Roger seemed to put everything into a different perspective. She resisted him at first, but he had not taken her refusals seriously. His was a totally egocentric view of life, in its way as forceful as her father’s. It was almost with relief that she had finally let herself be swept up by him and his unabashed, enthusiastic involvement with what he felt was important to himself. His freedom from any trace of guilt or social responsibility filled her with almost revolutionary exhilaration. She succumbed to his own headstrong rush for self-fulfillment, and felt relieved of any restricting obligation to her father. The truth was that she had merely transferred her fealty from her father to Roger, and had achieved no real freedom at all for herself. But this was totally hidden from her as a result of being in love for the first time in her life.

For his part, Roger — whose parents had all but disowned him when he had chosen music rather than follow his father into the family business — had absorbed her into his own ambition with little thought for whatever responsibilities she might have for her father, insisting that she had a right to self-determination, conveniently ignoring the demands he himself was placing upon her. Her need to be free and her love for Roger obscured her accurate perception of this, and she told herself that she owed it to her father to become successful as a writer and thereby justify all his sacrifices on her behalf, and that she owed it to Roger, who had given her such love and the ability to feel justified in wanting things for herself, to help sustain and support him in the Great Escape and the creation of the Castilian Suite.

Nevertheless, the thought of her father’s certain dismay and bitter disappointment when he would read the letter she had left for him the day before — having being unable to tell him face-to-face — now made her feel ashamed and selfish. Watching Roger become increasingly drunk, she felt more and more isolated and confused. Perhaps this wasn’t the way to assert herself after all. Perhaps this whole trip was wrong. She could lead an independent life without necessarily totally abandoning her father, or Roger, couldn’t she? She looked over at Roger, but Roger seemed to have forgotten her for the moment.

 *

The train had been travelling ever more slowly for the last half hour, and she was suddenly surprised to notice that the wide rolling landscape of hand-ploughed fields and scattered villages had given way to steep wooded ravines split with sudden vistas of broad valleys amid the high slopes of the Sierra de Guaderrama. The train puffed and chuffed its laborious way through an endless succession of tunnels until finally a different noise and rhythm from the engine indicated that they had begun the descent onto the hot plain below — still a thousand feet above sea level — in the dusty, shimmering centre of which stood — or rather lay like a sleeping dog, as someone whose name she had forgotten had once written — the Spanish capital. As the countryside gave way to habitation, and the outer neighbourhoods of Madrid began to fill the previously empty landscape, Roger and Ignacio continued entertaining the entire carriage with simultaneous renditions of Spanish and English popular songs, to their own immense mutual satisfaction. But Sarah, in her separate sobriety — tired, uncomfortable, and increasingly guilt-ridden — was unmoved by the jollity, and was becoming surer by the minute that the Great Escape had been a Great Mistake.

 * * *

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