Summer Can Kill
She poured coffee and squeezed oranges and refilled the baskets of bread and pastries on the tables, concentrating hard on doing it right, the way she'd seen him do it. People nodded and smiled and thanked her, and she tried to smile back without showing the gaps in her teeth too much. At first she'd been nervous when they looked at her, but no-one had said anything and she'd been able to concentrate again. When the cleaner came she wanted everything to be perfect, and even more when he arrived. She wondered if he was worrying and hugged the feeling of being cared for close. It had been such a long time since anyone had looked after her. If she did well he'd be pleased, and he'd give her more things to do, and if she did those things well he'd begin to trust her more and more. He was kind to everyone, even the cleaner, but she thought he was especially kind to her. She'd seen him looking at the Spanish girl in an annoyed way sometimes, and she felt pleased about that. Even when he was stern with her she loved him
Not getting up till I woke up was such a treat that I tried to go back to sleep. I lay quietly, listening to Pilar sloshing in the shower. In a little while she came out, morning light shining on her damp skin and slithering over the curves.
'If you want breakfast in bed you'd better get clean and smooth.' I got up and made a grab for her but she dived under the sheet and wrapped it round her. 'Ten minutes, or I yell for a substitute.' I headed for the bathroom.
Forty minutes later, sipping coffee and feeling like a king, I asked her where demure Pilar had gone. To my surprise she took the question seriously.
'I've been wondering about that. I am being a bit blatant, aren't I? I definitely didn't behave like this with Jorge. Do you mind?' Jorge never risked your ass. I didn't mind, and told her so.
'What's happening today?' she asked. 'I ought to go and see Mum. She's in a terrible state and I really do feel guilty about being so excited about you and everything, and not paying her enough attention.'
'You'd better do that then.' God bless Spanish families. 'I'll check on Elena and then I think I'll go and look at the hotel again. Where's Federico? Would he mind if you borrowed those binoculars again?'
'He's birdwatching in Doñana, ' she said, 'and the cats are in kennels because I said I wouldn't clean out their poo for a whole month. The binoculars are still here, I think.' She went and looked and came back with them. 'They're only his second-best pair.'
'As long as they work. I'll buy him some catlit when he gets back.'
'Whatever you're really going to do, be careful, and either tell me or nobody, ' she said, 'I don't want Anita to have to keep more stuff from me. It bothers her.' She was quiet as we dressed and I let her think. No point in pushing. As we came out of the building I looked up and down the street automatically, then decided that I could trust Agustín on this, at least.
'I'll take a bus to Mum's and call you later.' She kissed me trustingly and I headed for the Metro feeling guilty.
In the hostal Elena was washing dishes. There were four e-mails waiting
'Elena, there's work for you.' She came out of the dining-room drying her hands and gazing expectantly at me. I wished she didn't look so damned eager.
'I'll finish the dishes. Take a look at these and reply to them. OK?'
'But what are they about?' she asked. I shrugged.
'Read them and see. I've got washing-up to do.'
When I'd finished I risked a look round the door. She was typing slowly and consulting a piece of paper and I went to track down Anita. She was staring into a toilet-bowl and shaking her head.
'Thank God for plastic gloves, ' she said disgustedly. 'I'd be ashamed to leave a bathroom looking like this.' I took her point, but didn't really share her indignation.
'Was everything OK this morning?
'You are something else, ' she said. 'I bet if I started crying now you'd start cleaning the toilet for me. She's watched you for three days and serving breakfast isn't exactly rocket-science. You need to stop being such a control-freak. You're caring and everything, but when you want your own way you're a bit ... Is Pilar alright?'
'She's alright and I'm alright and she's visiting her mum today so that's alright too. Um, Anita... , ' I hesitated, and she snorted.
'No, Alex, no-one's talking about Vallecas or anything like that. In fact no-one's talking about anything. Everyone's waiting for something though. Did Agustín really call you back?' I nodded and she sighed. 'He wouldn't have done that unless Martínez had told him to. You must have pressed that old lizard's buttons somehow. He's famous for having no feelings at all.' I left her to the toilet-bowl. In reception Elena had finished. I read the e-mails and then flicked through the data-base.
'Send them, ' I said, 'and check the inbox again this afternoon.'
'Is that all?' she said.
'You enjoy this sort of work, don't you?'
'Yes, ' she said instantly, 'and it is different from anything I have ever done, and you are so kind to let me do it.' The twinge of alarm prodded me again. 'People are really pleased when you help them.' She stopped suddenly, as if enthusiasm was forbidden. 'What are you doing today?' Have you forgotten what this is all about?
'Looking for your sister of course. Pilar's with her mum, so keep your phone on. Help Anita. Go out and walk around. In between chores learn some more Spanish. You need to be fluent.' I left her looking earnest and went to find the car.
There still didn't seem to be any unobtrusive access to the hotel so I went two hundred metres along the lane I'd parked in before and tucked the car behind a derelict agricultural hovel. My daypack held water and apples and I set off into the scrub feeling like a real explorer.
Forty minutes later I'd decided that real explorers are raving mad. I'd been forced to struggle back along the thorny ridge before reaching my vantage-point above the hotel, and was hot, bitten, scratched, and completely pissed-off. The view was worth it though.
The van was standing in the yard, with the BMW next to it. Next to it again was a Lexus, with Alberto washing it. A red-haired woman came out of the back-door and gave him a can of something. The two of them talked briefly before she went back in, the set of her shoulders hinting at dissatisfaction. Olga. Alberto threw the can across the yard and lit a cigarette.
Half an hour later the door opened again and four men stepped into the yard. I recognised the brothers and Niku, but the fourth was an unknown. He was coasting down the far side of middle-age, and was dressed in a grey suit and a crimson open- necked shirt. Looking at him through the lenses I realised that he was an older version of the brothers. A relative certainly, and an alpha male to boot. His body language was insistent and the others listened and didn't interrupt. After a final bout of authoritative arm waving he got into the Lexus and drove off. The other three stood in the yard and began to argue.
Two hours later I was slowly grilling. Alberto had loaded a dozen women into the van and left, and I was wondering whether to maintain my vigil or give up when the door opened again and the brothers emerged. A girl came out with them, and stood by the BMW. She was small and slender, dressed in the tartan skirt and white blouse and socks of a Spanish schoolgirl; she even had her hair held back in an Alice band. She raised her face to the sun and I grabbed the binoculars. I couldn't decide if there was a genuine resemblance or not until one of the brothers spoke to her and she opened the back-door of the BMW and stooped to get in. Pure Elena: the posture, the profile, the awkward grace, the whole essence. No doubts. One of the men slammed the door shut and they started arguing again.
I wriggled backwards and legged it to the car, trying to ignore the stitch that developed almost immediately. If they hadn't left, coming out onto the main road behind them would be a little obvious. If they had, then they had either gone north or south. Probably south, unless they had a pressing reason to head into the boonies. Go with the odds. I hit the ignition and headed towards Madrid.
Twelve dangerous kilometres later I hadn't seen the Beamer. I swung across all three lanes, just making the exit-ramp of the next junction without killing anybody. At the top of the slip-road I pulled onto the hard shoulder and ran across the road to look back. The traffic seemed to have recovered from my passage and I leaned on the crash-barrier watching the chain of cars swing hypnotically past. I still had the binoculars round my neck and I focused them on a bend half a kilometre up the road.
Within minutes my eyes were stinging with sweat and I was about to give up and go back to the hotel when a steel-grey BMW came round the bend. I didn't stop to see if it was the right one and sprinted for the Xsara.
As I came back down onto the motorway it was ahead of me. The plates were right. Bingo. I was hot and sweaty, my neck was burning, I was nearly incontinent, and I had no idea where we were going. I felt wonderful.
Half an hour later we were shuffling through traffic on the M30 and wonderful was just a memory. Too close and I'd be noticed; too far and I'd miss him if he turned. A hundred metres ahead of me he slid into the right-hand lane without signalling, and took the Avenida de Burgos exit. I hit the emergency flashers and forced myself after him. At the top of the ramp I was only six cars behind.
It didn't get any easier. Madrid is traffic-lights all the way, and keeping him in sight was harder than I'd imagined. Opposite the Pio XII shopping-centre he turned right, and I slowed before following him. This was a residential area and traffic would be sparse. I drove slowly up the tree-lined road checking cross streets. At the third I saw the BMW sitting at the kerb, and turned and drove past without slowing. It was outside a large, white-painted, detached house that sat back from the street, insulated from the world by a high wall and wrought-iron gates. I swung round the next corner and parked. The first thing I did was to lower the tone of the neighbourhood, then I zipped myself up and thought about what came next.
The answer was nothing. The Beamer sat, and I sat watching it. I wondered if I was as conspicuous as Alberto and Niku had been and if the house was full of Albanians laughing at me. After half an hour I lost my nerve and went back to the Citroën. I parked again a hundred metres away and came back by a different route. The BMW was still there and I scrambled over the garden wall of the house on the corner. The property was screened by laurels and had an unkempt look. I couldn't think what else to do. If there were dogs, there were dogs; if the police came, then they came. I'd tell them that I was looking for a lost ball.
Nothing went on happening except that I ate three apples, drank all my water, and wished I had a cigarette. No wonder 007 was such a chimney if he did this sort of thing for a living. I'd moved along the wall as far as possible and was only about twenty metres from the BMW.
By four o'clock I was nearly asleep, but the screech of a complaining hinge brought me to full awareness. Niku was coming out of the gate, pulling Monica by the arm. She was pale and seemed to have bitten her lip. He looked impatient, like a coach-driver running behind schedule. Monica stumbled as they approached the car. Her legs weren't doing a great job and he had to support her while he opened the door. As he bundled her into the car I saw that the back of her blouse was daubed with crimson stains and there was blood on her thighs. The BMW's engine caught, and it drifted round the corner, then the gate closed and the street was quiet. My vision blurred and my chest felt tight and I heard a voice swearing in English: I realised it was mine.
Twenty minutes later the gates opened again and a Toyota Landcruiser rolled out. As it disappeared I climbed back over the wall and strolled up the street. The mailbox matched the gate, and had a cute little wrought-iron thatched roof to stop the letters getting wet. On a plate at the bottom, where normal people stick a piece of paper with their name on, was a small brass plaque. 'Don Álvaro Ceacero de la Mata.' I walked slowly back to the car.
Later, showered, changed, and with After-Sun on my neck and arms, I sat and sipped brandy. Beer didn't seem to be enough. I wasn't sure what I'd seen, but it had turned my stomach. I felt angry and impotent and I wanted to kill somebody, so I rang Pilar.
'Hola, cariño, I was just about to call, ' she said. 'Where are you?'
'At my flat. Are you still at your mum's?' My voice gave me away.
'I'm at home, ' she said. 'What's happened? No, don't say anything, I'll get a cab.' She arrived ten minutes later; when I opened the door I felt stupid for having called her so I turned and went back down, leaving her to follow.
'Alex, what's wrong?'
'I've found Monica, ' I said, and felt tears begin to trickle down my cheeks.
She held me in her arms and in a little while I went and rinsed my face and dried it. She was sitting quietly and had fetched herself a glass of juice. I looked out of the window, then at her.
'I didn't know those were there. Thank you.' She took the brandy away and brought me a beer.
'Have a cigarette, cariño, if you want, and tell me about it.' I began to speak, haltingly, about what I'd seen. She didn't interrupt, but her expression hardened.
'You feel terrible because now you've actually seen her and you can't do anything about it yet. One of the things about you is that you hate feeling helpless and you hate seeing other people who are helpless. So what you'd better do is think it through. Apart from the awfulness you've found out quite a lot, haven't you?'
I surprised myself by talking for half an hour, stopping and correcting myself, thinking out loud, trying to tease out connections. When I began to repeat myself she stopped me.
'Your face looks better now. What about behind it?'
'OK, I guess, but I don't suppose I'll be a bundle of laughs, and I don't want to lose sight of you.'
'No chance, ' she said. 'What are we going to tell Elena?' I closed my eyes.
'I don't think I want anybody except you to know the details, but I don't trust my instincts any more. Tell me what you think.'
'Do you mind if I just organise you this evening, and we'll see how things look in the morning? You've done an awful lot today, and most of what you found out is because you trusted your instincts. You could think about that, maybe.' I thought about being looked after until the morning.
'Tell me what you're going to organise, boss.' A memory forced its way into my brain. 'But I've got to buy flowers: it's Dolores's birthday and I'll get gold stars for remembering.' She grimaced.
'Do we have to?'
'Elena's going to need a job while she organises herself and she hasn't even got a passport, and I bet Monica won't have one either. I need to keep Miguel sweet, and that means Dolores. If I can't persuade them to employ her I don't know what to do.' I looked at her in a melting manner.
'There's no need to make faces. You are so one-track, trying to stay three moves ahead all the time. Let's go and do it now.' She reached for my hand and heaved. 'Time you started functioning again, Mr Instincts.'
Thunder was rumbling as we left and the air was hotter than ever. I wondered, not for the first time, how people managed to live here before air-conditioning. The market yielded a bouquet and we walked slowly up to Miguel's. The blinds were down but there was light spilling onto the street and noise from inside. I thumped on the door and Miguel opened it. When he saw Pilar he stepped smartly forward. Introductions and ceremonial kisses accomplished, he gestured us to enter. Curiosity brought Dolores bounding to her feet and the round of greeting and kissing repeated itself, then again with the rest of the family. Three tables had been pushed together, and Miguel had reached the stage where he was urging his brother-in-law to compare wines. Home-baked empanadas and other unidentifiables waited to be attacked. We had arrived at the right time: it's better to be born lucky than rich if the cook is Dolores. Space was made for us although we weren't family. That's rare in Spain, and I sensed Pilar taking the fact on board.
She was stupendous, playing Dolores like a violin. Blushing shyly, she confessed our relationship; she emphasised that I'd insisted on putting back our plans for the evening in order to congratulate her on her birthday; she had no idea that such good food still existed. As she was eating pigs' ear, which is in fact pork-flavoured chewing-gum, I marvelled at her ability to lie convincingly. It's a gender thing I thought, as I reached for the empanadas
Apparently all the family were going to the ancestral village on Wednesday and would be away for a week. Miguel didn't look overjoyed but Dolores contented herself with reminding him that the village wine would be as good as ever; he pretended to be mollified and pulled himself together. I huddled with them in the kitchen and talked business, promising to bring all the cash up tomorrow and to collect paying-in slips for Friday and Tuesday banking. Keep them purring.
With impeccable timing Pilar gathered me up and explained that I had to go to the hostal. More kisses followed and we escaped. I looked at her.
'You are so good. And you ate ear and tripe without flinching. I'm impressed. Now what?'
'I like tripe, thank you, and actually we did ought to go the hostal. You do exaggerate though. You said Dolores was a dragon but she's really nice, and Miguel too, and they really like you so I don't want to be a liar to them, and anyway, Elena needs to give you her report. Can you bear to do that?' She was right, I thought: the whole visit had been surprisingly pleasant, and I wondered if I'd been missing something. Still, if she was with me I was up for anything, and I told her so. I felt calm and focused: the emotions of the day had boiled down into a glowing nugget of anger that I planned to nurture. You know how to do that.
As we entered the hostal Elena jumped up and ran to the reception desk, looking at me expectantly. Anita seemed irritated and somehow glum, and Pilar went to talk to her, giving me a smile as she disappeared into the dining-room. I let Elena tell me all, part of me wondering why Anita had left without saying goodbye.
Every 'i' was dotted and every 't' was crossed. Three loads of washing arrived while I was looking at her notes and she hopped up and dealt with them as if she'd been doing the job all her life. I told her how good she was and informed her that as a reward Pilar and I were going to go and leave her to it.
'One thing, Elena.'
'What did I forget?'
'Nothing. So forget the notes.' I blew her a kiss and we left. In the lift, Pilar rubbed the back of my head and looked at me quizzically.
'I know she's got a crush on you, but you don't really like her, so why are you giving her your job?' I wasn't sure how to explain and I didn't want to say that the kitty was unexpectedly fat, so I just shrugged.
'My life seems to be changing. I can do a few more private classes, and it'll be nice not to have to do all the chores. Dammit, I can't just throw her away. I'll talk to Miguel and Dolores and if that doesn't work you can persuade them. Miguel would roll over and beg if you asked him to, and Dolores could be persuaded if she thinks it'll save money.' I was suddenly tired. 'Can we go home now, please?'
We showered together and I made an omelette while she fixed salad. I had a glass of wine and surprised myself by not wanting a second. The hard kernel of anger was still smouldering, and I tested it gently. Hot enough. Pilar threw her napkin at me.
'Calling planet Alex. How are you now, cariño?'
'Infinitely better. Astonished at your skills. Totally enchanted by you. But I saw her blood and someone's going to pay hard for that.'
'Come to bed, ' she said. 'You can think about demanding payment tomorrow.' Summer lightning flickered as she stripped off her tee-shirt and I felt enormously lucky.
She held me till I slept, and when I woke from the dreams she was still holding me. She said nothing, but began to shift her body round mine. I tried to say it didn't matter, you don't have to, but she stopped me with a gentle hand over my mouth. I could hear rain tapping softly on the window.
'Stay still, ' she said, 'This is from me to you, because you've been hurt, and because I love you.' Oh shit.
On Tuesday morning we sat at one of the dining-room tables and drank coffee. I had woken early and thought, and I very nearly had a plan. At ten o'clock Anita arrived and inspected me. She still looked unhappy.
'You look a bit stressed, Alex. What's happened?' There's good news and there's scary news.
'Full briefing as soon as Elena sits down. I'm just going to sit here and have some more coffee. Pilar, you've heard this already, so could you deal with anyone who appears, please?' Curiously, it was only a matter of moments before they were sitting at the table.
I told the story as it had happened, omitting the details of Monica's exit from Don Álvaro's, saying only that she had looked thin and frightened. I'd decided that for the moment sins of omission could be excused on compassionate grounds. If Elena asked questions, we would see. I was unwilling to lie to her directly, but she only asked if I was sure.
'Not at first, ' I said, 'and her face is sometimes like yours and then not, but when she turned to get into the car I was sure. It could have been you.' She began to cry quietly and Pilar reached out to her. I got up and went into reception. I called up Google and gave it Don Álvaro's name. Hit after hit after hit.
A very high ranking civil-servant in the Community of Madrid. 'Abogado del Estado, ' which is as high as you can get on that ladder. A golden career boy from a wealthy family, currently chairing committees for land-zoning and control, reporting directly to the regional ministers. Most of the information was from government and community websites, but his old university also trumpeted his general perfection, adding that he was a devout believer and conspicuous for his donations to religious charities. There was no entry saying that in his spare time he enjoyed raping and torturing young girls dressed in school uniform. I felt the anger stir again and sat quietly, welcoming it. The dining-room door opened and Pilar emerged. She looked at me but I shook my head. I wasn't going to share this yet.
'I'm going to have those bastards out of our lives and the lives of everyone that any of us care about, and I'm going to hurt them on the way. Will you be able to hold me when I need it, even if I'm holding stuff back?' She didn't need to think.
'As long as you remember that I'm scared too. Fifty-fifty?' I reached up and twisted a tendril of her hair in my fingers, but she put a hand over my mouth. 'When you're ready. There isn't a required response.' Bloody woman's altogether too perceptive. She hadn't finished.
'I was going to go to my place and tidy things up a bit, but now I think I'm going to stay here and help, and then maybe take Elena for an outing somewhere. I think there's some guilt somewhere, and she's altogether a bit too stuck on you. I'm not jealous, but it needs taking out and looking at, and I need to talk to Anita too.' I turned the computer off and picked up the envelopes of money to give to Dolores.
'You are something else and I'm lucky to have met you. I'm going to go and watch some places and some people, so kiss me and make me luckier.' When I left I'd collected enough luck to win the lottery.
I walked up Calle Atocha and wondered how to begin. A brain-cell stirred and I snapped at the thought: when in doubt try City Hall. First things first, though; I carried on up to Miguel's.
Business dealt with, and a happy break wished to one and all, I went back to my flat and the cashpoint behind the oven. It was going to be a taxi day, I thought, bearing in mind that civil-service smurfs finish work at three sharp and need careful handling for an hour before that. I stuffed money into my pocket and prepared for hand to hand combat with Spanish bureaucracy.
Getting information from state employees is like pulling teeth, but I can be persistent when I have to. Data began to dribble my way, and I joined up more dots. When three o'clock passed and the government shut up shop for the day I telephoned the private sector.
Simon Lennox is a former colleague who moved from teaching to journalism, and now edits Madrid's only English language weekly. He knows everything that happens in the city and has access to Spanish journalists who scratch his back if he asks nicely. He was still at lunch, and I told him not to move. When I walked in he was sitting flicking through papers, a brandy in his hand.
'Alex, you're just in time for a beer. What do you need?' He waved at the waiter and called for more refreshments. His Spanish is fast and slangy, he affects a pressman's cynicism, and he wants to be Lou Grant, but he keeps his word when he gives it, and that's rare nowadays.
'Personal business, Si, plus a beautiful sex and corruption story that'll be all yours for twenty-four hours. Whoever you pass it on to will owe you a great big one.'
'Tell me.' I told him as little as possible and he looked at me cynically.
'Alex, don't bullshit. You're the closest-mouthed guy I've ever met. For Christ's sake, I don't even know where you live. There's lots more, so why are you flashing me?'
'Purely personal, Si, and I'll take you out one evening and tell you why, but for the moment it's mine. Are you going to help me or do I need to say please?' The anger must have showed, because he put his glass down and signalled to the waiter.
'Never seen you so worked up. Let's do it.' We headed for his office.
Two phone calls and twenty minutes later an e-mail arrived in his inbox. The attachment showed a head and shoulders shot of one of the masters of the Spanish universe. Noble head, piercing eyes, look of sleek satisfaction, one of the chosen. Simon printed the photo and handed it to me. He looked at the e-mail again.
'Ceremony of Inauguration, Don Álvaro Ceacero de la Mata attending the opening of a new development, blah blah. Who is he, Alex? I'm going to owe Jose Pedro for this.'
'He's dog-food, and Jose Pedro will beg you to be his friend, ' I said. 'Thanks, Si. I owe you.' He waved a hand in dismissal and I left.
Don Álvaro's office was in a grim, glass-fronted building in Moncloa, the Whitehall of Madrid. Across the street was a bar, and a fellow who sat in its front-window could see the facade of the building and the entrance to the carpark surprisingly well. I ordered a ración of mussels with the second beer and they bought another tapa as well. You know when you're at the posh end of town. I didn't know if Don Álvaro knocked off at three, or whether he stayed. Senior civil-servants put in heavy hours when they have to, and he hadn't risen to his present level without being good. Family connections can't get you appointed Abogado del Estado any more: you have to pass some very tough public exams for that. I leafed through my paper and kept an eye out.
Patience is rarely its own reward, but I hung on, and at ten past six the Toyota glided out of the carpark. I folded the paper and left it with a largeish note on the bar. I'd be back here tomorrow and it would be nice if they remembered me fondly. Outside, I flagged a taxi and told the driver that I was in a hurry to get to Pio XII.
Taxis move faster than Salamanca tractors, and they're allowed to use bus-lanes. I'd been standing behind my favourite garden wall for ten minutes when the Toyota rolled round the corner. The gates opened and the car went in.
When I got back to the centre I headed for Calle Hortaleza, and went into the ironmongers' on the corner. I browsed and pondered, and then, with my purchases neatly wrapped, ambled up the road to my flat.
When I let myself in the boiler was growling. To my delight, there was a pile of clothes on the bed, and splashing sounds coming from the bathroom. I made haste to join the fun.
After the fun we lay on the bed and waited for our pulse rates to settle. Pilar turned to me and hit me quite hard on the shoulder.
'Don't ever creep up on me like that again. I could have died, and it would have been your fault entirely and no-one would ever have forgiven you.' I thought it had been a splendid joke.
'Next time I'll warn you. What are we going to do now?' She sat up and pushed my hands away.
'Not that again. I thought the English were supposed to be inhibited and distant. I'm going to tell you about Elena, and then you tell me what you've been doing all day, or vice-versa, and then we'll see.'
'Tell me about Elena then. I think she's altogether too invested in the hostal. Is she using it to hide from something?' Apparently that was some of it. Pilar told me the rest.
'It's strange really. I talked with her first, while we did some of the rooms, and then I sent her out to have a walk and I talked to Anita. Anita says that she's trying to avoid rejection by trying to be as useful as possible. Well, she didn't say that, but she said that Elena's been telling her that she doesn't want you to be disappointed, and stuff like that, and when Anita said that you were too laid-back to be disappointed she got all huffy and went off to check the e-mail again.'
'It's because I smell like her father, ' I said lazily. I told her what Elena had muttered while I was giving her milk and brandy. Pilar's face had its professional expression
'It's all part of the same thing. She's getting better, and she loves her sister and everything, but you're security, and the hostal is somewhere to belong. It's transference. We had classes about it, because if you're not careful patients can become too dependent on their care givers and want to stay in hospital forever.'
'If I were in hospital and you were nursing me I'd chain myself to the bed.' She grabbed me in a very unfair way and squeezed slightly.
'Do you want to listen, or do you want me to make you beg? What it means is that she's feeling tense and hopeful and guilty and reluctant and everything all at the same time, and the only way she can stop feeling bad is to pretend that the hostal is more important than anything, and it's all twisted up with what you're doing for her.'
'What we're doing.' She shook her head.
'Anita says she doesn't talk about anything except you. You're her topic of choice, and she keeps trying to find out more things about you.'
'And when you were talking to her she was deflecting so that you didn't get all jealous and think she was trying to whisk me out of your clutches.' 'Deflecting just like you ... She spent the whole time talking about trivia, and when I tried to be longer-term and suggest what might happen next, she sort of closed down and looked for the next chore. She isn't very happy, for lots of reasons, obviously, but she can't show it in case we... ' I got the picture.
'She's going to have to come to terms with it sharpish. I know how to get Monica, and if I'm clever and lucky it'll be this week. Do you want me to tell you?' She looked doubtful and I tried to explain.
'If I don't tell you, you're going to worry. But if I do tell you, you'll still worry and you'll have the problem of holding it all in and not nagging me about it, or else you'll nag, and I'll get pissed off and we'll both be miserable.'
'You mean that I'll worry whether you tell me or not?' Of course you will.
'More or less right, ' I said, 'except that now if I don't tell you, you'll start believing that you should be even more worried.' Long pause.
'You'd better tell me then, and try not to scare me too much, but don't leave anything out.' And on the seventh day I'll rest.
I showed her the picture of Don Álvaro and began to explain, trying to add one and one together convincingly and explain why it was our move.
'Last week I got them jumpy, and Sunday certainly pissed them off again, but they've had a couple of days to calm down, and I'm fairly sure they didn't see me yesterday, so they're probably relaxing a little. I think that when I've got Monica out of the picture I might be able to get Martínez to negotiate with them and smooth things over, if I can think of a way for him to get something out of it. I don't know exactly how yet, but it's going OK so far and I know more than they think I do, or than anyone does, if it comes to that.' She looked at me, her eyes narrowed.
'Stop there. I'm beginning to get nervous. This is so difficult; I told you how I felt the other night, and you're trying to be fair, but you're so focused it's scary. Would you mind if I went home? If we go on talking something will snap and I don't want that to happen.' She got up and started dressing, and I watched her. When she was ready she came back to the bed.
'Remember what I said: I'm not giving up. I'm falling in love with you because you make it so easy, but you're going to be an absolute bastard to love properly, and I'm not one for half-measures in that area. Do you understand why I need to think about things?' I knew exactly why. She gave me a kiss and left. No door-slamming, no extravagant behaviour, no tears. I wondered if it wasn't time to examine myself more closely.
I didn't want to see anybody or do anything so I called Elena and told her that she was on her own unless there was a complete emergency. She sounded delighted. I slept for a while, but after an hour I woke up sweating, so I fixed myself supper and played Van Morrison louder than most people would like and cleaned the flat. After another shower and watching mindless television for half an hour I went to bed. My last conscious thought was that being by myself was actually very nice.
Wednesday I woke early and surprised Elena as she came back from the bakery. When we had set the tables I fetched two coffees and pointed to a chair. She sat and looked apprehensive.
'Time to think carefully, kid. I've found Monica, and that means in a day or two it'll all be over, so you'd better start thinking how to look after her, and where you want to do it. I know you're scared because you don't know what sort of state she'll be in, and you're wondering what'll happen to the two of you when you're back together again and how you'll manage. Pilar will help you with the first bit, and I'm working on the second. But you're going to have to help too.' She nodded meekly. 'And helping has got to be more than just working here and thinking that pleasing me will make everything alright. It's not fair on Monica, or me, or Pilar, or you if you keep retreating into fantasyland.' Tears started trickling down her face, and she got up and went into the bedroom.
She didn't reappear and I did breakfast. Anita arrived and looked startled to see me.
'Alex, guapo.' She dumped her parcels and kissed me. First time for a while. Pilar's told her something. 'What's happening?' I realised that she'd been out of the loop, and filled her in on everything that seemed relevant, which was everything.
'Two questions: where's Elena and where's Pilar?' I tried to smile wryly.
'Elena's sulking because I told her that she should stop mooning around thinking that I was Sir Lancelot, and Pilar's at home thinking, because I asked her if she wanted to know what I was planning to do and she couldn't decide. Life was easier when I wasn't worried about upsetting people.'
'Pilar and I talked about that a bit, and we know you're not upsetting people on purpose. But you're going to carry on with whatever you're doing, aren't you?' I felt the anger stir in me again.
'Fucking right I am, and I'm going to deal with the bastard who's raping Monica and the people who are making it possible, and Elena's going to turn back into the person she's meant to be, and you're going to be able to make some choices about your life instead of being jerked around, and I'm going to take Pilar away somewhere and not think about anything except her. And if you can think of a better way of getting there, tell me. Please.' She went and fetched more coffee and sipped for a minute.
'I began to understand more when Pilar was talking to me yesterday. It's us who don't want to know. You didn't tell anyone that I helped you, even when Juan Martínez and Agustín were asking you, which can't have been a lot of fun, and you've found that poor girl and now you're going to go and get her somehow. You're not getting it exactly right, but you're the only person who is actually trying. Eres muy hombre, chico, and neither of them really understand what that means. I'll talk to them, and I'll call you later to tell you what's been happening. One day perhaps you'll tell me what made you so hard.' She stood up. 'Why weren't you in Ecuador ten years ago?' There was no answer to that.
'Thanks, kid. I was beginning to think that everyone was right except me.' She dug out a sad-looking tissue and blew her nose, and flapped her other hand at me to go.
It wasn't the most exciting Wednesday of my life. I sat opposite Don Álvaro's building and watched people go in and out. I drank coffee till I sloshed and then beer till I had to switch to alcohol-free, and my kidneys had their best workout ever. At two o'clock I walked behind Don Álvaro and three of his colleagues as they went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It didn't look like my type of establishment, and once they were settled I found a sandwich-shop and ordered one with everything and a fried egg as well. Yum yum.
I trailed the quartet back and took up position in the bar again. The staff were beginning to wonder if I'd taken root, but I studied the Guardian, purchased especially for the occasion, and ignored them. I managed to fill in almost all the crossword, but was still three clues short when, at a little after six, the Toyota came out of the garage. Once again my taxi beat it to Pio XII. OK. I tried to put myself in Don Álvaro's handmade shoes and wondered how often sick bastards need to flex their perversions. I went back to the centre by Metro, thinking sour thoughts, and as I came up the escalators in Chueca my phone rang.
'Anita, what's happening?' There was a sigh.