Roger and Sarah arrive at Manfred’s and enjoy a honeymoon. The move to the Gato Negro and Roger becomes the club pianist!
The ride to Barcelona, although the distance was considerably shorter, took much longer than had the ride from Irun to Madrid. This train was certainly not the pride of the RENFE — the Spanish National Network of the Iron Rail — this was the milk train. A train that stopped at every station and hint of a station on the least excuse. It ground frequently to a halt for half an hour at a time, seldom for any visible reason. Time and time again Roger leant out of the window to see if they had actually arrived anywhere, but invariably there was nothing to be seen. Sometimes the single track had become two, and they had shunted onto the adjacent line to wait interminably until another train rushed past. But more often than not there was no other line; no apparent reason for the delay. He became convinced that either the engine driver was a chronic narcoleptic, or that the train was somehow lost in a twilight zone and had consequently to stop repeatedly in order not to reach its destination too soon.
If the night had been uncomfortable, the following day was agony. The tedium and slowness of their progress became progressively more intolerable. They were unable to converse, either with each other or with any of the other passengers. This was not the gay, colourful crowd of the first journey, made interesting and exciting by novelty. Roger’s increased familiarity with the land of Cervantes, its people and their customs, had eroded much of the exotic flavour with which a newly experienced environment is frequently imbued. Given time, most places will become depressingly familiar. All he saw now was downtrodden peasantry. A peasantry that kept itself apart from the foreigner and the señorita from the city, and that refused to be impressed or drawn into conversation by even his most cheerful and idiomatic Spanish.
Where Sarah had been mildly aloof, Carmen totally ignored these people’s very presence. He thought at first she was unnecessarily embarrassed because of her condition. But that was nonsense. No one could possibly know. They both looked eminently respectable. Slowly he realized she was doing her best to bear up in what were for her trying and humiliating circumstances. She was simply not accustomed to riding in milk trains.
It was now Roger’s turn to gaze, as had Sarah, balefully out of the window. He had not bargained on this. It was hard enough keeping up one’s own spirits without having to worry about someone else’s moody perceptions. Still, he thought, trying to cheer himself up, when they got to Barcelona Manfred should be able to set things straight. By all accounts he had a pretty nice flat in the hills. It would be fun to explore a new place.
But it was impossible to keep his thoughts centered on positive things; the endlessness of the train ride gnawed its way back to the front of his brain, and he gave himself up to a state of semi-conscious boredom. As day dimmed to evening he became ever more certain that they were lost and would never arrive anywhere, doomed to rattle slowly across the endless plain for all eternity, like some flying Iberian Dutchman. Was it possible they had taken a wrong turning somewhere — that someone had pulled the wrong switch at one of those empty, desolate junctions — and that they were on their way to León, Gallicia, or somewhere farther…extremely farther…Extremadura…?
It grew pitch black outside and emptier inside as the sullen passengers left by ones and twos. After a while, Roger and Carmen were alone in the compartment; sole passengers on the saddest train in the world. The flaking varnish of the wooden seats was littered with the pathetic debris of the poor: the tattered remains of a newspaper, a small pile of shells from someone’s bag of nuts, a piece of chewed chorizo, and innumerable cigarette ends. He slumped in his seat, greyness invading his limbs as well as his mind. But Carmen still seemed to think it important to maintain appearances, and remained erect, as if even to notice her surroundings was beneath her.
Sitting in the shabby gloom of the third-class compartment it occurred to him now that if indeed they were still headed towards Barcelona, and were not lost as he had supposed, it must be because their co-passengers had known something shameful about the city, and had not wanted to wait around for it. This disturbing thought began to change his ideas about Barcelona. He had imagined it as a bright, sophisticated place — it was on the Mediterranean, after all, and not far from France — but now he started to have visions of some deeper, darker form of specially Spanish form of Hell. He had heard that the Catalans did not really consider themselves Spanish, that they spoke a separate language, despite General Franco’s efforts to suppress it. On the other hand, he had also heard that the bullring was large, that the city was the home of Pablo Casals and Antonio Gaudi, and that there were palm trees. Any place with palm trees could hardly be a total washout. Besides, Manfred lived there. What on earth was he thinking about?
An eternity later, they arrived. Not with banging and shouting, bright lights and clouds of steam, but with a slow, exhausted hissing from the engine as they trickled into an almost completely deserted industrial wasteland of empty platforms and abandoned carriages. There was no announcement, no rush of exiting passengers, no shouting guards or hustling porters, just the unremarked finality of the train’s last stop. The absolute end of the line. They crept out of the carriage onto the dimly lit platform, and stumbled tiredly, almost guiltily, a very long way to the gate at the end. As they passed through the gate, he noticed with dismay that there was not even a ticket collector. No one seemed to care whether they had arrived or not. And worse, there was no sign of Manfred.
He was not totally surprised at this. He had written to Manfred that they expected to arrive on this particular train, but since their actual arrival had very little in common with the published arrival time, it was not really to be expected that anyone would be there to meet them. They stood in the middle of the almost empty station, just the sound of a few cleaners and sweepers echoing in odd corners, the train they had arrived on now totally dead and silent, and felt wretched and abandoned.
Carmen looked expressionlessly at Roger. He winced internally, and gathered himself together.
“I suppose I’d better try and give Manfred a ring,” he said, attempting to sound brisk, “do you think there’s a phone around here somewhere?”
She looked at him with what he felt was a disdainful pity, and he said: “Right, then. I’ll have a look.”
But there was no phone around anywhere. Slowly losing hope, they dragged themselves and their luggage from one end of the vast station to the other, peering into gloomy corridors and alcoves, but found nothing. Depression was joined by its half-brother despondency, with cousin panic from the asylum shadowing them closely.
They left the station, hoping to discover a hotel, but instead of finding themselves in any kind of busy thoroughfare, emerged onto an even emptier side street. They walked to the nearest corner and found only closed warehouses and dead factories. They then walked the length of the next street and found that they must be near the waterfront, for tall dockyard cranes reared up behind grimy walls hiding buildings alternating with littered vacant lots, fenced off from the street with rusted chainlink. Then at last, just as he was sure the whole thing was a terrible and disastrous mistake, they found a little bar, cheerfully lit and bravely sporting a pair of chequered-cloth covered tables on the pavement outside the front door.
At one of the tables sat a rosy cheeked, rotund old lady — dressed all in black, as all old ladies seemed to be — bouncing a little girl on her lap. The little girl shrieked with delight every time the old lady pretended to spill her off, whereupon the old lady chuckled and bounced her the harder. Above the door to the bar was a hand-painted sign reading ‘Teléfono’. Roger pointed at it with relief.
“I’ll try Manfred. Why don’t you sit down here. I’ll order some coffee.”
He disappeared inside, leaving Carmen to make the acquaintance of the old lady and the little girl. By the time he reemerged the little girl was on Carmen’s lap, and Carmen was smiling.
He gave a secret sigh of relief and said: “Coffee’s coming right out. Manfred should be here in half an hour. What do you think of that?”
“Sinko vat,” said the little girl, laughing at her cleverness.
“I think I am very looking forward to meeting your friend,” said Carmen.
“Mi tin yo fren,” echoed the little girl.
“Ssssss!” said the old lady, putting a hand in front of her mouth in mock shock.
“I’m sure you’ll like him — he’s a real ladykiller,” said Roger with a grin.
Carmen narrowed her eyes. “Ladykiller?”
“Yes, you know, a real charmer. Terribly polite and very gallant. He’s supposed to have lots of girlfriends.”
“I see. Well as long as he has room for us tonight I do not care how many girlfriends he has,” and she bounced the little girl up and down harder than the old lady had done, growing suddenly morose again. “I wonder,” she said after a while, “if this little girl has a mother and a father.”
Roger looked at the old lady dressed all in black, and asked in his best Spanish after the little girl’s parents. The old lady’s face relaxed its happy, scrunched-up smile, became long, and then positively drooped, mournfully. Mumbling something unintelligible, her hands falling to her side, she glanced heavenwards. He looked at Carmen for clarification.
“Her father is dead. Her mother, who never married him, works in this bar.”
Having explained this, Carmen asked the old lady something else, and from her reply Roger pieced together bits about the unwed mother not being able to take care of the daughter…the owner of the bar wanting to marry her — but not wanting to take in the daughter…the mother unwilling to give up her daughter…the old lady being the dead father’s mother and wanting the little girl…but her son not having been married it was difficult for her to claim the girl…the mother not being able to stop working — unless she married the bar owner — but not wanting to give up the little girl to the old lady…if only they had been married…but what was anyone to do?
It was altogether a sad and confused story. He was about to make a remark on the foolishness of people and the sad plight of the little girl caught in the middle of it all when something in Carmen’s expression stopped him.
“We will do better than that, Roger. You and I?”
“Oh yes, of course. I mean we’ll never let things get so out of hand. We’ll…”
“We will get married before our little one arrives. Yes?”
He went white and suddenly felt amazingly leaden and light-headed at the same time. Married!? There was something shatteringly threatening in the idea. It was as if he had been told he had cancer. It was a concept that seemed to drain all the colour out of the world. As if he had walked into a room full of partying beautiful-people, and they had all instantly been transformed into a collection of diseased, geriatric mourners. As if he had been told he was going to be locked up for life. And yet his reaction had nothing to do with the way he felt for Carmen. Despite the trauma of the last few weeks, Carmen was still the illuminated centre of his existence; the spark that kept him motivated and alive. She was his passion and his infatuation, and despite everything he viewed their wearisome journey to Barcelona as an incredible stroke of good fortune. Something that was going to make possible their living together. But marriage! This was not something he had ever thought of in the same breath as Carmen. Marriage was what happened to older people, to his parent’s generation, to people who settled down and led boring, predictable, pedestrian lives. Not to people like him and Carmen. Not to composers and movers and groovers.
He was saved from having to answer directly by Manfred’s noisy arrival in a yellow Volkswagen. A broad ruddy face and a shock of Teutonically perfect blond hair exploded out of the tiny car, larger than life and twice as noisily.
“Coulter! Velcome to Barcelona! And this must be the schöne Carmen. Velcome, velcome!””
The handsome German scooped them up and magically fitted them and their luggage into a space seemingly much too small even for him, said something to the old woman that brought a smile back to her face, and before they knew it was careering off down the cobbled street talking a mile a minute.
The journey seemed a long one, possibly because they were so cramped. Carmen sat in the front, her knees under her chin. Roger was twisted sideways in the back, almost buried by their bags and cases, only one of which had been able to fit in the ridiculous boot at the front of the car. He looked past Manfred’s ear as they whizzed out of the dark neighbourhood between the docks and the railway station and burst into the Ramblas — a broad avenue lined with open-air cafés, bars, newsstands, and large, ornate art-deco kiosks reminiscent of Parisian metro stations, papered with every kind of advertisement. The yellow vw fought its way through the suicidal traffic and riotous crowds with much help from its abrasive hooter, and eventually they found themselves careening wildly around the spacious but still densely trafficked Plaza España. Some time later, having progressed through an ever quietening series of streets that became narrower as they climbed into the hilly residential district where houses were newer and the streets were cleaner, they stopped outside a building freshly plastered, workmen’s tools still littering the unfinished courtyard and part of the street.
The sight of tubs full of flowers on either side of the elegant doorway — not to mention a baby palm tree in the entranceway — washed all Roger’s fears and anxieties away. The memory of the scabrous train ride and his ensuing depression was forgotten completely as he stepped into Manfred’s living room and gazed out of the balcony window across the lights of nighttime Barcelona far below, abruptly bordered by an inky black Mediterranean beyond.
The next few days were the best Roger had experienced since he and Sarah had left the French border four months earlier. It was like a honeymoon. Manfred treated them as if they had been a recognized couple from way back; there was no hint of censure. And since this was a new city for both of them there was absolutely no need to hide or worry that they might be unexpectedly met by family members or other disapproving acquaintances. The flat itself was even nicer in the daytime than it had appeared on their arrival. The view was magnificent, with all Barcelona spread out before them, the palm-fringed Mediterranean glinting in the distance. The furnishings were positively sybaritic compared to the traditional severity of Carmen’s parents’ house, and seemed from a different planet altogether compared to the Gomez’s pension.
Manfred had brought them coffee the morning after they arrived, before he left for the shipping company’s offices on the Ramblas. After a lazy few hours on the balcony, they gathered themselves together and decided to explore the city, all thoughts of problems present and future blithely forgotten.
The next few days were a time for getting to know each other all over again. Since she no longer had to show up at the Prado each morning, Carmen felt as if she was on holiday. They played, they lazed, they made love, and they dreamed aloud together in the sun. On the balcony, on the carpet in Manfred’s spacious living room, with the indigo sky and azure sea as backdrop, on the beach, and even as they rode the underground around Barcelona, they talked, explained the world, described their future, and laughed at everything they saw. In the evenings they met Manfred after work, and they all ate together in cafés, restaurants, bars — colourful meeting places filled with people Manfred knew, who said hello, shouted invitations, and exchanged gossip. It was all very urbane, exciting, cosmopolitan.
Roger preened, and began to feel it was all due to him. This was how he had imagined things would be, how they ought to be. Carmen became convinced she had indeed escaped over the high convent wall that had kept her in Madrid, and was now in the ‘real’ world at last, where Roger’s claim to be a musician was no longer a preposterous absurdity. As Manfred introduced them to one crazy poet after another crazier painter, and to one aspiring model after another ambitious photographer, she felt sure she had finally emerged into society, and with one of its potentially greater luminaries to boot.
It was on the afternoon of the fourth day that a slow leak developed in their bubble of happiness. They passed a kiosk plastered with bullfight placards, and Roger stopped to read the announcement of the last ‘Grand Corrida de Toros’ of the season, featuring the controversial El Cordobés. Royal-Dawson’s lectures had left their mark on Roger, and he had automatically adopted his more knowledgeable friend’s attitudes and opinions with regard to the current state of bullfighting. There was a lot of discussion at present about what was considered high style and what was regarded as pure commercialism, all directed towards the unsophisticated tourist public. El Cordobés, the reigning king of the latter form of bullfighting, was held in low esteem by the purists, but there were those who maintained the Fiesta Brava might well benefit from some new blood, so to speak. El Cordobés was certainly an iconoclast; a showier, flashier, more crowd-pleasing matador did not exist. He was the veritable Mick Jagger of the bullring. Royal-Dawson had been pitiless in his denigration, but now that Roger was on his own, far from Royal-Dawson’s immediate influence, he felt the desire to make his own judgements. He suggested they attend the fight on the following day — and the bubble began to leak.
“We will sit behind the barrera in the shade,” said Carmen, who had been used to the best seats in the arena since her father had become the preferred physician of a long line of matadors and their teams.
“Well unless I can resell a couple of tickets at a smart profit — enough to afford something in the shade, we’ll be lucky to make it into the tendidos in the sun.”
“That is wrong what you do in Madrid,” said Carmen, “here we must do better.”
“We don’t have much choice, do we?” said Roger, a little pained. We’re not exactly here on a government grant. My money’s almost gone as it is. Manfred’s nightlife, with all those damned taxi rides I seem to end up paying for, has been pretty expensive.”
She looked at him but said nothing. It was not exactly a look of recrimination in her eyes, but he felt the criticism. It was this new feeling of responsibility that he kept forgetting about. He had never been in this position before, and it was taking some getting used to. The idea that far from being able to expect other people to provide for him he was now being held accountable for someone else’s welfare was unreal. And he was accountable not only for Carmen, whom he had wrested away from family and job, but for his unborn child. What a thought! He still had difficulty taking the idea seriously. It was fine on an academic level — when they discussed their future in general idealized terms — but trying to imagine that it was actually true, here and now, that he was soon to be a father, was too much. It bore little relation to what he thought he was doing or who he thought he was. What was most disturbing, and unnerving to the point of being scary, was that Carmen seemed to take it completely for granted, as if they had been in this position for ever. Her silence was full of her previous demand for marriage.
This was one subject they had so far skirted since their arrival. But he had not been able to forget it. It had been there in the back of his mind, and he had known that he was going to have to come to terms with it. He knew that it was all of a piece with what she expected him to do — for her, for him, for the child, for all of them. But exactly what he was going to do, he had no idea. The bubble leaked a little more as he realized it was time to finish with the honeymoon and see about a job.
“I’ll talk to Manfred this evening,” he said. But she had no idea what had been going through his mind, and assumed that he intended to ask for a loan.
“No. Tomorrow I will look for a position. We will do better here.”
“Yes, of course we will,” he replied. But the old depression was squeezing the sunlight out of the afternoon even as he said it.
As it turned out, their welcome was wearing a bit thin with Manfred, and he brought up the subject of Roger’s employment that very evening. He was quite happy to accommodate a pair of lovebirds for a couple of days, but they were beginning to cramp his style. He had been forced to put Lola off two nights in a row now, and she was threatening to make a date with his colleague at the shipping line, tall Jürgen. Tall Jürgen generally came in second with the ladies he and Manfred met during their nightly forays into Barcelona’s demi-monde, but now he at least had the advantage of a free flat. Manfred had his reputation to think of. Of course, his appearance with Carmen and Roger the Composer had been a plus at first with everybody on the scene — Carmen was quite spectacular in everyone’s eyes, not just Roger’s — and Manfred had been able to bask in a large amount of reflected glory on this account. Carmen had the great asset of genuine class. Furthermore, she didn’t realize that she had it, and so didn’t flaunt it. She was naïve but perfectly poised. Nevertheless, it would soon become apparent to everyone that Carmen belonged to Roger, and was not some new conquest of Manfred’s. And while Roger’s Englishness was also an initial plus for Manfred in the eyes of his café friends, he was beginning to be embarrassed by what he thought of as Roger’s wimpishness. He would be unable to get away with explaining some of Roger’s more ingenuous remarks about certain of the International Ladies (as Manfred like to think of them) as a Composer’s Sensibilities for much longer.
Both parties jumped at the subject on their minds with an awkward suddenness the moment Carmen left the room to get ready for the evening’s outing.
“Roger, about some vork for you…”
“Manfred, I’ve got to find a job…”
They both laughed, Manfred relieved that Roger was not the sponger he was beginning to take him for, and Roger that admitting his straightened circumstances was not going to be embarrassing. What Manfred suggested next, however, took Roger by surprise.
“Listen, you are a composer — a musician — so how about you make some music? There is a jazz club in the Barrio Chino — the only jazz club in all Barcelona, in fact — where I know the dueño. He likes to have a house rhythm-section for visiting musicians, since he can’t afford to hire the whole band. Right now he needs a drummer. You must be able to play the drums, yes?”
Play the drums!? Roger thought back to the time he played a side drum in the school pageant, and half the cast had almost marched off the front of the stage. What a disaster — but they said he had talent! He remembered the jam sessions at college when he had bashed away at Rowlandson’s drumkit to everyone’s delight. Of course, when not deafened by their own enthusiasm, everybody had been drunk most of the time. Nevertheless, he knew the difference between snare, tom-tom, and bass. And he knew how to hold the sticks…brushes, too. Then he thought about the intricacies of modern jazz tempi. He laughed. The idea was ludicrous. But he nodded cautiously.
“Well, yes. I suppose…”
It was all the confirmation Manfred needed.
“Goot! I take you there tomorrow.”
“Take us where tomorrow?” asked Carmen, who had just rejoined them.
“To the Gato Negro. Roger will be the new drummer, and you will both have your own place upstairs.”
Carmen smiled, admiration and relief apparent. Roger began to stutter that he didn’t know how good a drummer he was, but Manfred brushed aside his objections saying: “Nu’ ja, of course you vill have an audition. But a composer so good as you are can surely play some simple rhythm. Not to be a star, just to be the backup. I vill arrange it all tomorrow, and ve vill go to the Gato Negro — the Black Cat — before the club opens. You can play the first set with Tete Monteliú.”
Roger gasped. The idea was even more preposterous than he had first thought. Tete Monteliú, the blind pianist, was Spain’s most famous jazz musician. He couldn’t possibly accompany someone of that stature — even if he could play the drums — which he couldn’t! But Carmen was delighted by the idea, and when later that evening at the bar Manfred had announced the fact that Roger was to accompany Tete Monteliú tomorrow he became the centre of attention.
Dismayed embarrassment began to abate as someone bought him a drink, and someone else clapped him on the back and toasted the ‘English Genius!’ He swallowed the drink and thought perhaps he might pull it off at that. How hard could it be? He certainly had a thorough grasp of the rhythmic structure of basic jazz — why, it was nearly all straight fours — just a little syncopation now and then. Besides, everyone would be listening to the pianist. Sure, he could do it. Plus, he’d have access to a piano, and be able to run through those passages of the Suite he was still uncertain of. And he and Carmen would have their own place to live as well — above a jazz club. How very hip! It was perfect.
The next morning he was no longer quite so sure. He dug out a few of Manfred’s jazz records and tried to listen to what the drummers were doing. Ignoring the solo passages, he played along on the backs of chairs, and decided that at the very least he could keep time. Maybe he could do it. At least he would give it a try. Encouraged, he began talking about how wonderful it would be finally to have their own place, and Carmen smiled in secret anticipation of what she hoped would be an important formalization of their relationship. She even tried out the sound of ‘Señora Coulter’ to herself. She prepared an omelette for lunch and opened a bottle of Manfred’s best wine (meaning to pay him back from Roger’s first week’s salary) and set it down proudly in front of her future husband. The unwitting future husband immediately drank half the bottle, omitting to offer his future wife a glass — who in any case was abstaining because of the baby — unaware of what was the real reason for this unexpected feast, thinking only that a little Dutch courage — or creative relaxation — might be good for the audition to come.
After the meal, both of them silently celebrating their separate fantasies, they made love on the balcony, and then gazed dreamily out at the Mediterranean, thinking how wonderful life was. Their reverie lasted for what seemed like a demi-eternity, for it was siesta time, and the workers in the street below had all disappeared into the shadows somewhere, leaving their wooden barrows and long-handled shovels scattered carelessly over the quiet street, secure in the knowledge that no self-respecting Spaniard would be abroad at this hour.
Later in the afternoon they decided to walk to the club. By the time they reached the Plaza España end of the Ramblas they were tired, and they stopped for something to drink at an outdoor café where Roger allowed the smallest shoeshine boy he had ever seen to develop a brilliant shine on his oldest pair of grey suede shoes, and Carmen allowed her palm to be read by a gypsy notable for being one of the few old women Roger had so far seen who was not dressed entirely in black. Roger had now convinced himself he could pull it off. In any case, he had little to lose and would look a terrible coward if he attempted to back out of it. Manfred was right, he was a musician, after all. And he owed it to Carmen — and the baby. He would give it a shot.
Towards six o’clock they emerged from a narrow passage into the antique regularity of the Plaza Real. The centre of the square consisted of a wide cobbled area, expansively empty at this hour — pedestrians, tourists, loiterers, lottery sellers, and stray children were all keeping to the shaded arcades that ran around the perimeter. Not until nightfall would life spill out into the open. The absence of traffic heightened the illusion that they had reentered the eighteenth century, except for the fact that in one corner of the square a bright neon sign in the shape of a cat announced the intrusion of the twentieth century in the form of Barcelona’s only jazz club.
Like many other establishments, the entire front consisted of doors that were folded back completely when the bar was open, exposing a gaping hole in the stonework of the square’s facade, but under the shadowed arcade it was impossible to see more than a few feet into the dark room. All that was visible was just the beginnings of a long bar, almost deserted at this early hour, and a large blackboard on an easel proclaiming in coloured chalk a performance by ‘El Maestro de Jazz Español: Tete Monteliú’. The unshaven bartender ignored Roger but leered at Carmen, and Roger suddenly forgot how to order a plain gassy seltzer for Carmen. He was still struggling to formulate the correct idiom when Manfred appeared from the depths of the club with a small, greasy man in a three-piece suit and a pinched, suspicious face.
“Roger, meet Señor Delgado!”
“Mucho gusto, Señor,” said Roger.
“Welcome to thee Bleck Ket, Señor Cowelterr,” said Delgado with a twisted smile resembling a grimace of pain so frightful that Roger jerked back reflexively as he shook the club owner’s thin hand.
Manfred proceeded to extol Roger’s consummate musicianship. Delgado’s smile became indistinguishable from a sneer and then imperceptibly turned back into a smile. By the time Manfred had finished his pitch it was hard to tell what the expression was. Roger shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, aware that behind him Carmen was waiting to be introduced, be invited to sit down, offered some refreshment, or at least to be acknowledged. Delgado motioned curtly to the bartender, who in turn sent a waiter to usher them to a table. Roger held a chair for Carmen and was about to sit down himself when Delgado said: “You play, Rogerrr Cowelterr, please!” and pointed past the bar into the depths of the room to where Roger now saw a small stage with a battered piano and a set of drums.
He can’t want me to play the drums on my own, thought Roger with sudden apprehension. He had imagined that at worst he would be able to mask his questionable competence behind someone else’s playing. To be asked to play solo was more than he had bargained for. But this seemed to be precisely what was expected of him. Everyone was waiting. Carmen smiled encouragingly, but what did she know? Manfred was beaming as if he was about to pull off the greatest promotional coup of the year. And Delgado simply sat there with his expressionless smile — or was it a sneer? — like a lizard waiting for its prey in the sun.
Roger walked to the stage, and then turned around as if to say something, but thought better of it and closed his mouth, and quickly sat down — at the piano. He played the opening bars of Beethoven’s Apassionata, then switched to a straightforward rendition of several Gerschwin tunes, and had already segued into part of the Castilian Suite before Delgado had sprung to life and come windmilling down the room talking like a machine gun, the word ‘batería’ being featured every three seconds.
“I only play the drums to accompany someone else,” said Roger with as much dignity as he could muster, and stood up to leave. But Delgado motioned him to stay, and shouted into the farther depths of the club. An unlikely looking character trotted out, smiled at everybody and bowed to Roger before sitting down at the piano and playing the worst imitation jazz Roger had ever heard. Unfortunately, the eager pianist had absolutely no sense of time, and it was impossible for Roger either to follow him with any kind of regular rhythm or impose any of his own on the chaotic cacophony that was being punched out from the abused piano. Deciding that it was hopeless, he shut his ears to the riotous and arrhythmic discordancy, and tried to play a simple four-four beat. He actually managed to get the high-hat crisply ringing on the off-beat, and inject an occasional rimshot on the side of the snare, but the effect was ludicrous. At last, losing patience with the absurdity of the situation, he abandoned any attempt at appearing either meaningful or competent and started bashing wildly at every part of the drumkit he could reach. He beat a short tattoo on the tenor drum, thumped the bass at random with one foot while the other came unhinged from the high-hat’s pedal, smashed at the rivet cymbal, rattled the cowhorn, and attacked the snaredrum with a paroxysm of paradiddles that eventually caused the pianist to stop playing and look up in astonishment at the demonic drummer behind him.
Delgado waited until Roger had stopped playing, looked at him icily, but somehow still with the frightful smile on his face, and said: “For afternoon and before jazz in evening you play piano. Concert batería no good! And the señorita, she waitress. Paco will show you room.”
Paco stood up from the piano, looked warily at Roger, and with a nervous smile nodded at Delgado. Not sure whether he was relieved, embarrassed, had been found out, or had been saved, Roger decided that he would opt for the latter, and looked over to Carmen and said as positively as he knew how: “Well, it looks like we’ve landed on our feet. Let’s go and inspect our quarters.”
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available in eBook and paperback from Blackburn Books