Wednesday, 14 January 2015
One Man's Misfortune...
is another man's luck. Or woman's, for that matter. In any case, after failing to find a home for the following short story, I've decided to post it here, it's only been rejected by two publications, but here it is for your entertainment. Feel free to comment, but remember... you're reading it for free!
The market stalls were sparse. It was raining, but being selective with the drops. Proper rain would have cancelled the weekly sale of fruit, spices and female underwear. They did sell other foodstuffs, other clothes. However, those stalls' owners were the first to head for the café instead of the village fairground, if there was no blue overhead. One stall-holder was always sure to be there. An old man who came grey skies or no. He would arrive on a tricycle, pulling a makeshift trailer, a remolque that satisfied no legal requirements. The Policia Local waved him through junctions or just waved hello whenever they saw it. Cages were stacked high in the trailer, their weight held down the canvas, wood and metal poles that made up the old man's stall in the market.
I walked down to the lower end of the market. The women's brassieres were piled in heaps here, rather than hanging from coat-hangers. Paco and his birds had the very last stall. If the rain ever decided to mean it, water would pool around his feet and he would lift those cages on the ground and replace them in his trailer. The trestle stall itself would remain festooned with cages and their brightly coloured birds.
He had many kinds of bird for sale. Predominantly canaries, but there were exotic – or unusual – breeds. I had looked them up after seeing the birds one sunny summer's day. There were Harz Rollers, the vibrant Red Factors and – incredibly - Australian Plainheads among the common-or-cagebound Wild Canaries. Paco claimed that he bred them all, but the twitch at the corner of his mouth gave me pause. In any event, he did not look like someone who was in contact with bird exporters in Adelaide or Altenau. Of course, it was possible that Paco had contacts in Madrid from whom he might buy the more exotic of these birds. That seemed no more likely than breeding them himself. Despite never once buying a bird, I had begun perusing books in the local library, buying tatty hardbacks at flea-markets and reading bizarre avian fora on the internet.
I splashed through the running water to Paco's stall. He was whistling to a bird in a cage hanging under the centre of the overhead tarpaulin. The bird had a black head and an orange-flame coloured breast. Finches On-Line described it as a black-polled orange-breasted finch, I thought I recognised it.
'Ay, Paco! Is that one a Cardinalito?'
He held his finger to his lips, 'Cuidado, do not say it so loud!'
'Is it?' I whispered.
He broke into English and left a mess, 'Ees Reth Sea Skin.'
He meant Red Siskin and it was an endangered species, from Venezuela.
I could have reported him to the Policia Local, but they would have shrugged their shoulders. The Guardia Civil would have been even less interested. I merely wanted to know how he had got hold of a bird so near extinction. Pointing at the cage, I tried my own feeble Spanish,
'Es en peligro, este, no?'
Paco laughed, showing what was left of teeth after living seventy or so years in a country with only private dentistry.
'No' here, Señor.'
He started to sing to the bird, tweets, trills, swooping melodies. And the bird sang back, better, but sadder, telling stories of tropical forests and other finches his song should have been attracting.
Paco tried to sell me a bird, again, but he pointed at fewer birds and gesticulated much less than he had at the beginning. I had explained many times that I had lost a bird to my cat when I first came to Andalucia. The cat was long gone, dropping dead birds and mice on the welcome mat at the feline pearly gates, but I'd never told him that. His phone rang, with that old Nokia tone that was once ubiquitous and annoying. He fumbled at the key pad and began shouting into it. A family emergency. His burro had escaped from his campo property. I pictured a ramshackle shed with a TV aerial and hot running water that he most likely lived in at weekends and throughout the summers. By the time he finished the call he was looking steadily at me and stroking his chin.
'Cuida a mis Pinzónes! Look after my finches!' He switched to English. 'No sell, no sell nothing, OK?'
He leapt onto his trike with enviable speed and pedalled in the direction of Guaron, via the back streets behind the fairground.
It was half-an-hour before someone came to the stall. I saw other vendors huddling together pointing at the guiri behind Paco's stand, but no-one braved the drizzle to speak to me. The person who did arrive looked an unlikely customer in any case. A woman around 40 in an expensive raincoat. Her nylons were rain-splashed around the ankle and her shoes looked dangerous even if you discounted the wet cobbles underfoot. She was as out of place as a Bird-of-Paradise in a hen-house.
'Good afternoon, Señor. You have some beautiful birds.'
'Thank you, Señora. They're not mine. I'm just looking after them, for a … for someone.'
She smiled. I admired the shape of her eyes.
'I am looking for some birds,' she licked her lips and made a sound in her throat I didn't quite recognise.
'I'm sorry, I was told not to sell any of them.'
'I would make it worth your while,' her English was perfect, and though her accent was unmistakably non-native, it was a thing of beauty. I heard the strange noise again.
'No, I couldn't possibly....
'What is your name? '
'No, your first name.'
'People call me Kit.'
'I like that. Kit.' She smiled, it was both attractive and repellent at the same time. She continued,
'Of course, I would give you money too.'
She stretched her arms high over her head and arched her back.
'I'm afraid I can't... Look, Paco will be back soon.'
She looked up at me out of the corner of her eye,
'He won't mind - not when you tell him what I gave you for a few tiny birds.'
She put a hand on my arm and it felt like a static shock.
I heard shouting from the corner of Calle Gataflor. Paco was waving and the trike was weaving. I lifted a hand. When I turned back, the woman had gone. Her perfume lingered, heady and animal, as far from floral sweetness as I could imagine.
Paco arrived out of breath. The donkey had been recovered. It had been eating squashes in a neighbour's field. The bird-man looked his merchandise over. His goods were trilling and cheeping, all save the Red Siskin in the cage overhead. Paco whistled an arpeggio or two but the bird didn't answer. He looked at me,
' No customer? You no sell nothing?'
I tried the Spanish for 'I've just watched you count them.'
'No es seguro cuantos llevé,' he said.
I wished that I had taken the woman's offer, since he clearly didn't know how many birds he had brought. I took my leave of Paco, but not before I said I'd see him next week.
The next few weeks were uneventful to say the least. On a good Thursday he sold 2 or 3 birds. The woman never turned up. September became October, which turned into November. It was a cold, sunny day in December before Paco had another emergency. His ancient mobile rang again and I gathered that another neighbour's Dalmatian was terrorising his chickens.
'Puedes? You won't sell anything?'
I told him I wouldn't.
The woman arrived within minutes of Paco's tricycle disappearing in the direction of the countryside. I didn't notice her approach. One minute there was no-one at the stall, the next she was standing in front of me. By this time the sun had begun warming the winter air. The woman's gaberdine raincoat was open over a leopard-skin print dress. She looked dressed for a cocktail bar in the city rather than a stall selling caged birds at Villablanco's tatty market. And she was wearing a hat, with feathers. If she hadn't been so magnetic she would have looked ridiculous – and I knew she would not have cared if she had.
'Kit? Cuanto tiempo!'
'Yes, it's been a while.'
She moved like a dancer, light-footed, sinuous. I was ready for the thrill when she touched my arm, but that didn't mean I didn't feel it deep inside.
'You re-ally must sell me some birds. I would be very grateful, Kit.'
Paco had been gone barely a minute. He really didn't know how many birds he had.
'I could sell you one.' I croaked. My mouth was quite, quite dry.
'One? And what would you deserve for that?'
'I d-don't know.'
'Well, I suppose I could meet you for a drink. I'll be outside the Parque Zoologico in Fuengirola, tomorrow at 3.'
I looked for the smallest bird in the smallest cage.
'Ah... Fifty euros.'
She removed one note from a sheaf. Then she replaced the crocodile skin purse in her crocodile skin bag.
' I won't need the cage,' She removed the tiny yellow bird from the cage. Of course it didn't fly away. It sat in her cupped hands. Just then I heard the ting-ting of a bell. I turned to look but it was a boy on a bicycle frightening a girl off a nearby pavement. When looked for the woman, she was gone. There were two or three empty cages under the stall. I placed the newly emptied one next to them and crossed my fingers.
Barely five minutes later, Paco returned ringing his trike bell like a cash register in the sales.
'Did you catch the dog?' I asked.
'Hostia! No. It ran off with most egg hen.' He spat on the floor. 'I speak to Policia Local about woman. My cousin talk to her.'
He looked over the birds and sang again to the Red Siskin. Then he looked under the stall. He straightened up and poked a finger in my chest,
'You sell a bird.' It wasn't a question.
'Yes, but...' I was reaching into my pocket for his fifty euros.
'No but, dime a quien lo vendiste!'
I told him I'd sold it to a man, a guiri, a German from a town about ten kilometres from Villablanco.
He let out a breath and his shoulders slumped,
'Is okay, maybe. How much? Was canary, no? Twenty?'
I took my hand out of my trouser pocket and searched in my jacket for my wallet. I gave him two tens. We sold more birds than usual that day, around a dozen. On the way home I called in at the Animal Rescue charity shop on the high street and dropped the fifty in the contributions tin. The next day I went to Fuengirola Zoo. I got there at 2 and waited until 4 o'clock. The security staff at the Zoo gave me some sharp looks until I finally gave up. All the visitors were foreigners, but there weren't many. I was glad it hadn't been raining.
Constitution day came and went. Christmas went by and so did New Year, before any more disasters befell Paco's country property. There was a spike in sales just before the holidays. A bird is for life not just for Christmas I said to the Germans,Danes and Dutch. The Brits were out saving last year's Christmas-present dogs, I supposed. On about the 4th of January, a few locals came by to buy presents for 'Three Kings'. I pitied the child who was unlucky enough to get a caged bird. Around mid-day Paco's antique phone rang again. I asked him what it was this time. He hesitated, as though running over in his mind what he was going to say,
'I look after cousin's horse. It sick, my wife say.' He shrugged. 'Careful what sell. And who sell to.'
He pedalled away in the direction of Gataflor to hook up with the road out to Guaron. One of the guy selling mounds of loose brassieres strolled over, an unlit cigarette in the side of his mouth.
'Again? What do you mean?'
The man did a peculiar movement with his pelvis and arms and said 'Jiggy-Jiggy!' before exploding into a laughing fit that soon turned into a coughing one. The cigarette remained glued to his lips.
'His cousin's horse is sick, out at his place in the campo.' I said.
'What place in countryside, Señor?' He lives up high, on the Variante, in apartment with his birds and his wife.'
And I remembered the 'Club 24' on the road out to Guaron, where several friends said the drinks cost a lot and the girls seemed better value.
So when the woman arrived, I decided to forgive her standing me up. It was a crisp, sunny day. She was wearing a short animal fur jacket over a tiger-striped sheer blouse. Her skirt was made of soft leather and hugged in a way that cheaper cured skin never would.
'I'm so sorry, Kit. Can you ever forgive me? It was just not possible.'
I liked that. The lack of excuses, apart from saying it was impossible.
'Nothing to forgive, if you tell me your name.'
'Caterina Gateada Lopez de Nijar, a tu servicio.'
'That's a mouthful.'
'You can call me Caterina. Other people have.'
I heard the noise from deep in her throat again.
'Well, what can I do for you?'
'I want a bird, just one.'
She pointed with a gloved hand to the cage hanging from the overhead tarp of the stall, right at the Red Siskin.
'I want the Cardinalito.'
'Paco tells me it's very valuable. Not to say illegal to sell.'
She looked up at me from under the peek-a-boo that never goes out of style for a certain kind of woman.
'What if we trade?'
'I'd need money too, for Paco.'
She took her purse out of her crocodile bag and gave me all the notes in it. Some were fifties, but most were yellow and worth four times as much. I'd never even seen one before. The wad only just fit in my pocket. I lifted the cage from its hook overhead.
'So...' I said.
'I'll pick you up at 3 when the market is closing. Meet me down there on the corner.'
She was pointing at the place where Calle Gataflor met the Recinto Ferial. I reflected that Paco would probably see me when she came for me.
'Okay,' I handed her the cage. She would come, or she wouldn't. Surely Paco would be happy with five thousand Euros for the bird?
Cat walked off, in the opposite direction to where she said she'd meet me. Up towards the ayuntamiento, maybe she had business with the mayor. The cage swung jauntily from the index finger of her left hand as she walked. I wondered if birds could be sick. A bus drove by and when it had passed she was gone.
A few hours later, around five to three, Paco turned up, bell ringing. This time I noticed how wide his smile was. Its disappearance was all the more noticeable when he saw the Red Siskin's cage had gone.
'Hijo de puta! Cabron! You sell to woman, no?'
I held out the thick wedge of notes. He slapped my hand away and there was a blizzard of paper money. The neighbouring stall-holder came over, cigarette in mouth and began chasing the money. Paco jerked his thumb over his shoulder and said,
'Ve te!' Get lost.
So I walked down the fairground toward Gataflor. A black Jaguar pulled up. I could see a man in a chauffeur's cap through the driver's window. Caterina stepped out from the back. On one of the seats was the Siskin's empty cage. I leaned forward to kiss her, but stopped.
There was the tip of a downy red feather sticking out of the corner of her mouth.