Summer Can Kill
She was going to have to do something about this. Maybe it was because he was foreign, or the fact that he was so calm, or that he looked amused by everything. He'd listened patiently and his eyes had changed just enough that she'd believed him when he'd said that he'd help. Her friends had come back, curious and excited, and were gabbling on about nothing, and she was trying to join in, but the fluttery feeling stopped her from concentrating. She couldn't really describe how she felt, and part of her noted that and found it unsettling. Perhaps she should be a bit more forward, if she could work out how to without looking cheap. She wasn't a shy little thing, whatever people thought. She'd made up her mind to go to England and she could make up her mind about this as well. Anything would be better than sitting and waiting. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with a summer romance. She was sure he wasn't gay, so maybe he felt sort of the same. She shook her head to clear it and tried to join in the conversation.
Anita was radiating impatience as I entered the hostal; having her stay while I was moonlighting meant I was going to owe her a big one when she asked.
It hadn't been hard to combine jobs. Miguel and I had come to a suitable arrangement about money, I'd kept some academy teaching hours just to stay legal, and I had private classes to fall back on if it all went south. I kept my flat for the same reason. Anita and I cooperated like a dream, considering how different we were. I tried not to take advantage though: if you're unskilled and from Ecuador you've probably had a bellyful of that.
'Hola, Alex.' Her look wasn't really unfriendly. Miguel had upped her pittance and her children were that much closer. She was just as keen as I was that he shouldn't look for a full-timer, and so far he seemed happy; more importantly, so did Dolores.
She bustled round collecting her parcels. She lived in Lavapiés with four other immigrant women who all worked and saved and did very little else. Occasionally I took her out for supper and after the second glass of wine the real person would begin to shine through. I noted that she was happy to talk about her children and her mother, but clammed up tight when it came to her husband. Careful with those married women, you rascal.
She'd been covering for me because we'd instituted a laundry and advice happy-time from eight till ten. For seven euros I'd put a wash through, hang it out to dry, fold it, and put it back in the appropriate room. The advice was free. Ironing cost extra and was Anita's province: we both had plenty of customers. We'd decided not to inform Miguel of this added extra; he'd only have been upset. I'm always astonished at how many otherwise thrifty people will pay silly money to avoid doing their own laundry.
'One in, and one waiting, ' she said. 'The one that's in is the two guys in room nine, and the other's that Norwegian girl in three.' She giggled. 'It's so weird: her knickers look as if they're made of wool. Perhaps she needs something to get her hot.' She winked. 'Enjoy your evening, guapo, and try not to get too excited.' The machine was on its final rinse so I went into my room and took off my sweaty clothes, realising there would have to be another wash after the Norwegian girl's thermals. I sighed and headed for the shower.
Ten minutes later, cool and clean, I was hanging the wash out and trying to remember the lyrics of Champagne Supernova when there was a cough behind me. Standing in the doorway were two American college-kids who'd checked in that day.
'Hi, guys, ' I said cheerfully. The girl cleared her throat.
'Um, it's kinda delicate, ' she began. I smiled encouragingly.
'What's the problem?'
'I kinda need to see a doctor.' She looked at me expectantly.
'Any special sort?' Trying hard not to embarrass. 'I mean, urgently, or... ' I let the question tail off delicately. She glared at her boyfriend...
'I guess we screwed up, ' he said shyly. 'We kinda left one of our washbags in Barcelona, and we need to get stuff... ' His voice tailed off too. Ah hah.
'I'm sorry, ' I said, 'but I don't recall your names. I'm Alex.' I stuck out a hand and the boy shook it.
'Greg, ' he said, 'and this is Lorraine.'
'Nice to meet you properly. OK, Lorraine, We're not talking toothpaste here, are we? More, sort of, regular medication, maybe?' She nodded her head, mortified, and hating everything, especially her dumb boyfriend who hadn't checked the bathroom in Barcelona. Poor guy: she probably made exasperated noises whenever he did check, and he'd given up.
'No problem' I told her. 'I've got to be here till ten, but come and catch me after that. We'll trot down to the pharmacy and see what they can do. Um, do you have the package or whatever from... ?' Trying not to say the word 'pill.'
'Oh, sure, ' she said, 'I just took the last one this evening and then realised... ' She stopped again. What does she think you're going to do? Call her mother?
'Does either of you guys speak Spanish?' The boy smiled sheepishly.
'I guess there's nothing in our phrasebook that covers this situation, ' he mumbled. I nodded in agreement.
'Not to worry. I know the boss in the all-nighter in Embajadores.' When I'm talking with Americans my vocabulary creeps west. It makes them feel more comfortable. They nodded gratefully and I turned back to the boxers. By ten-fifteen everything was sorted: I'd boggled at the Arctic lingerie, but had put speculation out of my mind. I knocked on their door and Lorraine answered it.
'Ready?' I asked. The toilet flushed and Greg appeared, looking pale under his sunburn.
'I guess we need Lomatil too, ' he muttered. He was having a hard day: he had a dodgy digestive tract, his girlfriend was pissed off with him, and now he was going to have to stand helplessly by while a complete stranger helped her to buy contraceptives.
We traipsed out into the night and headed towards Embajadores. At the lights I pointed to the flashing green cross of the all-night pharmacy.
'Over the road, guys. If Conchita's there, no trouble, and if she isn't I'll explain to the duty person.'
No trouble was what we had. Conchita was happy to help; I warned her that Lorraine was shy and she took her off to one side, looked at the empty packet, found the Spanish equivalent, called me to translate, and sold Lorraine three months supply, ('our minimum'), in two minutes flat. She produced Lomatil for Greg and even brought him a glass of water. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Lorraine looked twenty times happier, her love life safe for the rest of her holiday, Greg seemed relieved too, and I had the warm glow that being a Boy Scout can induce.
'No charge for that, ' I said as we re-entered the hostal, 'but you have to promise to give these out to everyone you meet.' I handed them a dozen cards. 'Website and e-mail, reservations on-line, information, questions, all answered promptly.' Surprisingly, the setup worked, and average occupancy (unofficial) was up: even Dolores admitted it. I couldn't bear the thought of dragging out of doors again so I called for pizza, ate it in the little breakfast-room, and went to bed. I set my mobile and was unconscious in about ten seconds.
The phone's irritating melody forced its way through the sleep clouds. 'PILAR NURSE' said the screen, adding that it was two twenty-seven. I looked at it with hatred and hit the green key.
'Alex?' Her voice was high and panicky. 'Alex, is that you?'
'Of course it's me. What the hell's the matter?'
'Alex, we're in a taxi and a man came to my flat and... ' Her voice was rising hysterically. What the fuck? I turned on the bedside-light and tried to think.
'You'd better get yourself down here and we'll sort it out, whatever it is. Tell the driver 'Hostal del Rocío', Calle Atocha.' I winced as I heard the syrup in my voice. Madrid's Obadiah Slope. I tottered into the bathroom, stuck my head into the shower-stall, then rough-dried my hair and ran a comb through it. Vain bastard, but otherwise I'd look like a devilishly handsome Struwelpeter. Tee-shirt and jeans, espadrilles, phone and wallet, keys: I headed for the door.
A taxi stood outside the building, half on the pavement. I bent down and looked.
'Hello, darlings, I'm so glad you're here, ' I carolled. As Pilar scrambled out and turned to help Elena I stuck a twenty-euro note in the driver's hand and made a never-mind-the-change face; he took off before I could change my mind, nearly tearing my arm off as he accelerated away. Taxi drivers are the same the world over.
I straightened up and looked at my visitors. Elena was wearing a set of sweats that were obviously Pilar's. She was wobbling on a pair of fuck-me shoes with three-inch heels, a relic of her working outfit, I guessed. Her face was colourless and pinched and the bruises stood out like purple stains.
Pilar wasn't in much better shape. Her face was as pale as Elena's and to my amazement she only had flip-flops on. For a well brought-up Spanish girl to be out without shoes is unheard of. Despite the heat, both of them were shivering.
'Stand here for two minutes, my lovelies. We'll go to my flat. There's more privacy there.' And no need to explain all this to Anita or, God forbid, Miguel. Thank God for Madrid taxis, I thought as I saw one coming towards us. I stuck a hand out and it swerved into the kerb. The girls hadn't moved and were standing holding each other.
'Come on, kids, ' I said, 'time to get safe.' I bundled them into the back and slid in next to the driver. 'Calle Barquillo, ' I grunted, 'corner of Princesa.' It wasn't the nearest point to my flat, but there was no harm in taking care: maybe Lord Voldemort was after them. The cab pulled out into the traffic.
Five minutes later we drew up halfway along Calle Barquillo. Feeling slightly paranoid, I looked up and down the street as I clambered out and opened the back door for the girls. They stood passively on the pavement and I put an arm round each. Pilar leaned into my shoulder, but Elena stiffened and tried to pull away. I let go and took her hand instead.
'Only fifty metres, ' I said. 'Come on, my lovelies.'
I gave her arm a little tug and we set off like a trio of drunks. At the second corner I swung them round into the cross-street. Halfway down we stopped and I opened the building's street-door. I hustled them into the flat, remembering to face the door as I closed it.
'OK, first things first.' Elena's hand had been as cold as ice. I moved through to the bedroom and they followed me as if they were on strings.
'Into the shower, both of you.' I gave Pilar a little nudge. She started, and looked as if she was about to cry. I put my arm round her shoulder again. 'Come on, bonita, straighten up. You're being no help at all. Give Elena a hand, and we'll put her to bed, and then you have a rinse too, and we'll start putting it right.'
She nodded and moved towards the bathroom, and I steered Elena in the same direction. My bathroom is only slightly larger than a phone-box but there's room for two people to manoeuvre if they're careful. Ask not how I know. I stepped back and pulled the door to.
'I'll pop a couple of clean towels through, ' I called. There was no reply, but a moment later I heard the clunk of the boiler as the water was turned on. I let out the breath I'd been holding and set to work.
Windows, fan, towels through gap in bathroom door, clean sheets, extra pillow, tee-shirt for the invalid, shirt and boxers for Pilar. My mum raised me well. Coffee pot on, hot milk. From a bottom shelf I took a bottle of Soberano fine Spanish brandy, guaranteed five minutes old, and poured myself a shot. Sip, sip. Me and Keith Floyd. The milk was almost boiling so I turned the gas off and went through to the bathroom.
'Everything alright in there, girls?' Pilar's voice, heavy with strain, came through the door.
'Alex, can you help, please?' I went in. She was half in the shower stall, still in her shorts and tee-shirt, supporting Elena. I leaned in carefully and took the patient's weight, then shuffled backwards into the bedroom.
'What happened?' She squeezed water from her hair.
'She just flopped. One minute she was rinsing herself and the next she was on the floor.' She sounded calmer than before. Maybe practical problems brought out the best in her.
'Towel, ' I said. Pilar put a clean one on the bed and I laid Elena on it. Her hair was plastered round her face and the childish shape of her skull was accentuated by the white background. Her torso was bruised and grazed and her small breasts scarcely showed.
Between us we dried her and wrapped her wet hair in a hand-towel, and I held her while Pilar eased the tee-shirt over her body. She made it look easy: perhaps nurses' training is useful after all. I pulled the sheet up over her. OK for the moment, I thought, and turned to Pilar. As I looked at her I felt a smile coming on.
'You need to change, girl, or I'll lose my self-control.' She looked down at herself. Her tee-shirt and shorts were soaked and it was plain that she wasn't wearing underwear. The contrast between her and Elena couldn't have been more marked. She blushed, then shrugged.
'You're a bit wet too, so I don't suppose it matters really. You're stronger than I thought though.' I picked up the clean shirt and shorts and handed them to her, wondering if she was in shock.
'I'll make us all a drink.' I went into the kitchen, added a squirt of honey and a dollop of brandy to the milk, and poured brandy into my coffee as well. I found a pack of Fortuna that someone had left behind and took one and lit it from the gas. I have a tendency to connect stress and tobacco. The smoke hurt my throat, but I persevered, taking swigs of coffee and brandy to help the process. I poured a half-mug of my concoction and tested it with a finger. It wasn't too hot so I took it through and sat on the bed. Elena was still in the same position, but her eyes were open. I held out the mug and waited. She reached for it and curled both hands round it. I tried for reassuring.
'Feeling better now?' Her eyes fluttered and the mug began to wobble and I grabbed it hastily, then moved to sit beside her, slipping an arm round her to raise her from the pillows. To my surprise she sniffed and then relaxed.
'You smell like my father, ' she whispered. 'He always smelt of brandy and cigarettes.' I held the mug to her lips and she sipped.
'Not too hot?' She shook her head. By the time Pilar came out of the bathroom the mixture had gone and her bruised and swollen eyes were drooping; I reached behind me to put the mug down and she turned on her side and fell asleep. I looked at her for a moment.
'Not even a thank-you, ' I said, half to myself, and turned to Pilar. 'Feeling better?' She was wearing the shirt outside the boxers and had done the buttons up to the neck. Her wet hair was twisted into my only other towel, and her face was clean and shiny. I wanted to jump on her bones but instead I motioned her into the lounge. She sank into an armchair and sat quietly while I went into the kitchen and filled another mug. She took a gulp, then looked at me accusingly.
'Medicinal, ' I told her. 'You've had a terrible night, and a nasty shock, and it'll help you relax.'
'Alcohol's not good for shock, ' she said primly. 'Fruit-juice is much better.'
'Brandy's made from grapes, and grapes are fruit.' She managed a smile and sipped obediently. I sat down opposite her and looked at my watch. Half past three: in four hours I was going to have to be on my way to the bakery.
'Alright, bonita, time to tell me.' She put the mug down and opened her mouth to speak, but it turned into a big whooping sob and she launched herself across the room and onto my lap. I put my arms round her and patted her back gently. Pat pat, pat pat. She rocked and sobbed and my tee-shirt grew damper and damper. I wondered why I'd spent virtually the whole night getting wet. Because you're a sucker for it. At last she looked up, her face puffy and her nose pouring snot and tears.
'Back into the bathroom, sweetheart, ' I said gently, 'cold-water rinse and blow your nose.' I turned her round and swatted her gently on the behind. She trudged off and I followed her. I found a comb in a drawer, and put a clean tee-shirt on. After a couple of minutes she came back and sat down again. She took another mouthful of milk and brandy, grimaced and swallowed, then finished the mug. I noticed that now the top two buttons of the shirt were undone. I handed her the comb and she bowed her head and began to work on her damp hair carefully, as if it were the only task in the world. Then she took a deep breath and started talking, concentrating, as if trying to describe a scene from a film.
'We were in bed and Elena was asleep, and I thinking and the doorbell rang.' She looked up. 'You're going to think I'm an idiot.' Probably. 'Probably not. So you answered the door and... ?' Her first mistake was to say, 'Who are you?', rather than 'Who's Elena?' when a voice said he was Pablo, and had a message from Elena's sister. I sat up as if I'd been goosed. 'Sister?' Pilar shook her head and I wondered what else I didn't know. 'Pablo' had blagged her into buzzing him in. Second mistake. Just as well she'd been sensible enough to keep the security-chain on, because when he appeared and saw the door ajar he'd charged it. The chain had done its job and she'd managed to slam the door shut. Pablo had started hammering on it, yelling that he wanted the little Rumanian tart, then the banging stopped and she heard another voice threatening police and prosecution. Heavy footsteps went downstairs fast and the second voice asked if everything was alright. She'd had the presence of mind to apologise for her drunken ex-boyfriend. The second voice was her downstairs neighbour's. He'd advised her that if anything like this happened again she should call the police, and she'd heard his footsteps stalking back down the stairs. She'd called after him, asking him to check that there was no Pablo lurking in the stairwell. After a minute he'd shouted up to say that all was well. 'I didn't know what to do, ' she said. 'Elena was curled up in a ball like a baby, and I looked out of the window but I couldn't see anything so I called a cab, and when it came I rushed her downstairs and just told the driver to go down Castellana. I didn't bring anything, just my keys and my phone. I haven't even got my purse.' Tears began to trickle down her cheeks again. I knew what had happened. The big bad world had come knocking at her door and shocked her out of her wits. It's been a long time since it shocked me. When you're the only Grammar School boy in your street you learn all about threats.
'You did OK, love. The guy didn't get in, you got out, and Elena's safe.' She looked at me doubtfully. 'Honestly. You made the right decisions and you got the best result possible. Pretty good for a girlie.'
She tried to take offence but yawned instead. Not a dainty one, either, but a big tonsil-wobbler. Stick to practicalities. 'Time to get a bit of sleep, ' I said. 'I'll call you after the hostal breakfast and you can tell me what you need, and I'll go see how your flat is and get you some clothes. OK?' She nodded.
'I'd better give you my keys.' She struggled to her feet and went into the bedroom. She returned with her wet shorts and dug the keys out of the pocket. She reached into the other pocket and produced her phone. 'It's OK, ' she said in a relieved voice. Nobody can live without their mobile any more. I felt as if I'd been put through a mangle. As I took a step towards her she came into my arms and hugged hard. I looked into her eyes. There were two little me's staring back. My expression wasn't exactly predatory but it wasn't saintly either.
'Fetch wet gear, clean teeth, get into bed, ' I ordered. 'Use a tee-shirt as a nightie. There's a new toothbrush on the shelf by the basin.' Pure luck, but I modestly awarded myself the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. I thought for a moment she was going to pout, then she nodded and turned towards the bedroom.
The wet clothes came flying out and I draped them elegantly over chairs before sticking my head round the door. She was on the far edge of the bed, looking uncomfortable, so I moved Elena gently away from the centre. She wriggled over and rearranged the sheet, then lay back.
'Bigger than mine, ' she muttered to herself, and looked up at me. 'I'm sorry, Alex. I'll say thank you properly later.' That'll be welcome.
'Don't go anywhere. Spare keys are in the bedside drawer and juice and fruit in the fridge. I'm going to lock you in, OK?' She murmured yes, and closed her eyes.
I'd spent enough on cabs, so I decided to walk. It was a little cooler by now and the streets had emptied. I played with possible explanations, but my brain refused point-blank to function, so I stopped trying. The next few hours were going to be rough.
At ten-thirty that morning I let myself into Pilar's flat and collected clothes and toiletries, hoping no-one would mistake me for a burglar. I couldn't help noticing that none of her underwear was thermal. I stuffed everything into the sports-bag that I'd thoughtfully brought with me, put her handbag on top of the clothes, and zipped it.
A hundred metres up the street I began to feel as if eyes were following me. The feeling intensified, so I strolled unhurriedly till I saw a bar. I was already all caffeined-out, so one more wouldn't hurt. After a minute I turned and looked out of the window. Everything seemed unremarkable and I told myself that tiredness was playing tricks on me. I'd almost finished my coffee when I realised that one of the faces going past seemed familiar. It was the second time I'd seen this guy. He was wearing a leather jacket, which was why he stood out. No-one wears leather jackets in July. He was sauntering casually, but his eyes had flicked to the window as he went past. Except for the jacket he looked normal enough and I wondered if I was paranoid.
If this was "Pablo", he'd not only risked having the cops called last night but was now showing great perseverance. So better safe than sorry. I left the bar, trying to remember films that involved the hero losing a tail. When I reached the Metro entrance I dived down the stairs and without breaking stride went straight up the opposite flight. As I hit the pavement I glanced over my shoulder and saw the back of a leather jacket hurrying into the ticket-hall. I sprinted and ducked down a side-street, feeling pleased. If he'd been following me he wasn't now, and if he hadn't been, no harm done. After fiddling about a bit I came out on Castellana and hopped a bus. Eat your heart out, George Smiley.
The girls were in the lounge. Pilar was dozing and Elena had found some paper and a pencil and was sketching. Pilar stirred and opened her eyes, and jumped up to hug me. Marking out territory. It's a gender thing. 'How are you, kid?' I looked over her shoulder and included Elena in the question. 'You look better than you did a few hours ago, ' I told her. 'Dr Alex's famous medicine seems to have worked.' She didn't want to look at me but politeness won.
'I am much better, ' she said. 'Today is the first day since... , ' she hesitated, ' ... since my accident that I do not hurt.' Pilar disentangled herself from me.