An early version of Decent People was published in The Nashwaak Review, 1 (1994), 203-10.
Decent people: a strange concept in itself, here in this little Spanish fishing town where people are classified as decent only if they are serious, and serious only if they go to mass every day. Personas de misa diaria, they call them. And they're very respected. But I've never really understood why. Perhaps it's all part of coming to terms with a new language, a new culture.
My landlady's daughter is going to be married to a person who is possibly one of the most hideous men I have ever met, yet everybody in the family accepts the future husband as a blessing because (a) his family has lived here for generations; (b) he's actually got a job; and (c) he's serious and decent and goes to mass to take communion every morning in the town church at about 6 o'clock. Es de misa diaria.
"Perhaps he's got a lot of sins to confess?" say I, in my broken Spanish.
"Never mind!" says my landlady. "You don't understand yet; but you will one day. Luis goes to mass every day; he's a serious person; and he's very, very decent."
Most Sundays, after mass in the town church, a group of us get together to play soccer on the beach. We have to wait for a Sunday when the tide is out; then the town hall lends us goals and nets and we play pick-up games of soccer down below the dunes, where the ample beach is wrinkled with hard, sea-packed sand. If we are lucky, we can play right through till three or three thirty. My landlady never eats lunch till two thirty on a Sunday; if I am late, my food is kept for me. Sometimes, I don't go home to eat, but pick at snacks in the local bars. Provided I call to tell my landlady where I am, there are no recriminations.
She understands a young man's need to be involved in soccer. Luis does not. He thinks soccer games on Sunday -- the Lord's Day, the Sabbath -- are a disgrace. It is against his principles to indulge in such frivolous behaviour on so serious a day. Anyway, as he has told us on many occasions, he would rather spend such a holy day (Luis, being decent and serious prefers the old spelling and meaning of the word) with his future wife and family.
Occasionally, he is called away to work (secret work, special work, about which he is permitted to say nothing), but that is different. Everyone agrees that if one has a job, one must work at it. Work is duty; work is serious; work is an obligation; and decent people are obliged to work; even on Sundays.
Beach soccer, which Luis has never been known to play, is wild. In the dry sea wind, the players sweat, and scarcely notice their steady dehydration. They run flat out for two or three hours, the salt water dries on their lips, and they are left with that terrible thirst which can only be slaked in one, or two of the local taverns.
One Sunday, after the soccer game, a group of us go to a cafe just off the main beach for a drink. We start out quietly, then after a couple of hours of steady imbibing, someone, I can't remember who, calls out: "Hey, guys! Let's go to the Calle de San Pedro!"
At first, there are groans; then these are drowned in a chorus of approval. So off we go. The Calle de San Pedro is not the sort of place where a young man wants to be seen by his family; consequently, it is out of bounds to any young man who might wish to be known as serious or decent. Luis, for example, would never even allow us to talk about the place. It would be impossible to imagine him going there, even in the wildest of dreams.
That Sunday, we did not approach the Calle de San Pedro from the central square where anybody could have seen us. Instead, we took a long and circuitous route that led through the tunnel, across the edge of the station square, up the rear of the hill towards the old hospital, and across the top of the poorer districts of the town. Needless to say, we stopped to quench our thirst at regular intervals along the way, so that it was almost dark when we finally arrived at our destination.
"Let's go to Pepe's bar first!"
"Yeah! Pepe's bar is a great place to start."
It was at the top of a steep, cobbled street, on the left hand side. When we got there, it was crowded with men. Fishermen mainly
"Phew! Let's get out of here. The place stinks of fish!"
"We can't go without drinking something. You know what Pepe's like. Let's have a porrón."
And a porrón of red wine duly appeared. The porrón is designed for a small boat in the open sea. It is a small glass flask with a wide funnel at one end through which the wine enters and a thin spout at the other through which the wine exits in a fine ruby jet which the experts shoot directly into their mouths; done with skill, lips never touch the flask which circulates from hand to hand amidst cries of appreciation for the skilled and jeers for the careless (and the newcomers, like me) who suddenly choke and cough as they squirt a red stream of wine up their noses and onto face, shirt, and tie.
After a while, we moved on to the Central, a bar that seemed crowded with those same well-dressed, middle-aged men whose well-meaning wives scold young boys and assure them that the Calle de San Pedro is not the sort of place to visit if the family is to maintain its reputation for respectability.
Among this crowd, to my surprise, I caught a glimpse of my friend Andrés. I was raising my arm to wave and was about to shout over to him when I felt my arm held.
"Don't wave. Don't say a thing. Pretend you haven't seen him."
"But that's my friend Andrés."
"Not up here it isn't. Listen to me: act as if you haven't seen him."
"But he didn't smile, or wave, or anything."
"In the Calle de San Pedro, nobody waves, nobody smiles, nobody recognizes anyone except the friends he has come with. Remember, when you leave here, you haven't seen Andrés, and Andrés hasn't seen you. When you go away from here tonight, you leave everything behind."
"Okay, okay. I understand."
"Come on. Let's get out of here. Let's go somewhere else."
At the next bar, there was a much smaller crowd and there were some free tables at the back of the room. We took one over and when the waiter came, we asked him for a jar of wine, a Spanish omelette, and French Fries with lots of salt. The waiter asked us if we wanted dice, and we said yes. He returned a couple of minutes later with a jar of wine, a green felt cloth, a leather dice shaker and a set of poker dice.
"Now you can really have some fun, boys!"
He placed the wine jar on the table and set off for some glasses. My friends explained the rules of the dice game to me. There were seven of us at the table; each one of us would pay 200 pesetas to play. That would put 1400 pesetas in the kitty. From that we would spend 400 on food and wine and with the remaining 1000 we would buy a present for the winner.
"What sort of present?" I asked.
Everybody laughed. Javi drew a seven-sided figure on a paper napkin. He pencilled a line through each of its sides, extending each line outward until he achieved the shape of a seven-pointed star. This was the score-sheet. These were to be our life-lines. One for each player. With great care and artistry, he marked down our names. Each time we lost a game, we lost a life and a bar was drawn through our line until the star became an intricate spider web of interlaced lives lost in the course of the game. There were seven players, so we each had seven lives. When we lost seven lives, we were eliminated. Finally, only one player would be left alive; we would then all go to another bar and help him choose his present.
Javi and Pepe were soon eliminated. I was en capilla for seven straight games. The more excited I became, the more everyone laughed.
"He wants the present! He wants the present!"
"Don't tell him!"
"En capilla, en capilla!" they chanted each time it was my turn to throw the dice.
"En capilla! Like the bullfighters. Before they enter the ring to kill the bull or be killed by him they enter the bullring chapel, kneel before the image of the Virgin, pray, and confess their sins. That's where you are too!You've only got one life left. You're waiting to die. You're en capilla! En capilla! Nervous, eh?"
And then I was gone. Soon we were down to a straight shoot out between Bobi and Monin. The game was becoming serious. We called for new wine, and the losers agreed, rather decently I thought, to pay. It was determined that the two finalists would start again. With five fresh lives. Javi drew a two sided figure, like a porrón, like the horns on a fighting bull, and the new game started. It lasted five rounds. Bobi won them all.
We called the waiter over, settled our bill, and walked out.
We moved down the hill towards the steps and then turned left along one of the many sidestreets that zig and zag their crooked ways through that part of town. When we got there, the Calle de San Pedro was as crowded with men by night as the market-place was crowded with women by day. In some places it was impossible to move through the crowds milling in front of bars and discos. After about ten minutes, we found a small, almost deserted bar whose name I have no wish to remember, and we all went in. A thin business-man whose face looked remarkably like that of the local chemist, scuttled out, sideways, running away rapidly, like a crab when the rock beneath which he is sheltering is lifted. He turned his face away from us as we went in.
The interior of the bar was painted a bright, light blue. Behind the zinc- topped counter there was an enormously fat woman who could have earned a living as the fat lady in a circus show. Her piggy eyes looked out at us from rolls of wobbling flesh.
"I can't look after you all. You'll have to wait. There's only one girl upstairs and she's busy."
Bobi stepped forward: "You don't have to look after all of us, only me."
"That's no problem, then. Second room on the left; her name's Lisa. Up you go and don't bother her too much. It's Sunday."
The fat lady held out her hand and Bobi pressed the thousand pesetas into it. "Upstairs. Second on the left. Be quick. And you others, what do you want?"
"You can't stand in my bar doing nothing so you might as well sit down and have a drink. You'll have plenty of time."
She laughed; and great rolls of fat shivered up and down her face, over the tightened muscles.
I took a deep breath, hitched up my trousers and sat on the bar stool at the end of the bar closest to the door. The others followed my example, and we all sat down.
"Well?" said the fat lady, "What will it be?"
"Cuba libre all round."
The fat lady took out seven glasses, half-filled them with dark rum, produced three old-fashioned bottles of coke from beneath the zinc counter, threw a handful of ice into each glass, and topped them all up with coca-cola which foamed and bubbled but didn't quite tumble over the edge.
"Aren't you going to join us for a drink?"
In answer to the question, the fat lady poured a glass of dark rum for herself, scowled ferociously, and emptied it down the dark tunnel of her throat.
"Did you know," she said, "that my place was nearly shut down last week by the police? That's why it's so empty. Business dropped off after we got raided."
The fat lady poured herself another drink and held her hand out for more money.
"How did you stop them from shutting you down?"
The fat lady emptied another half glass of rum; she looked at us over the glass and, in imitation of a knowing wink, she covered her porcine eye with a flabby eyelid.
"There was only one policeman. He was very young and in civilian clothes. He said he was on special duty, extra special duty, he actually said. He showed me his identity card and I showed him Lisa!"
Javi proposed a toast to Lisa, which we all drank. Then, we sat there in silence, our elbows rising and falling as we sipped at our drinks. Presently the fat lady waddled over to the wall and fiddled with the dimmer switch. The room became very dark. A red light came on and a wailing noise came from the juke-box that started up behind us.
I looked around. The door and the open street were to my left. People walked past the door, glanced in, saw us sitting there and continued walking. I thought I saw Andrés, but this time I turned away, sat motionless, and stared straight ahead of me. Then I inspected my feet. They were resting, about a foot above the ground, on a dull, brass footrail that ran the length of the bar. On the floor, in the darkness, scarcely visible, were paper serviettes, cigarette butts, shells from peanuts, heads of shrimp, crusts of bread... all the debris of men who spend Sunday in a bar and throw what's left of their meal on the floor at their feet. Suddenly, at the far end of the room, Javi jumped back away from the bar, cursing wildy: "Jesus Christ!"
The boy next to him, I can't remember his name, Tonio, I think, drew his knees up sharply towards his chest and swore: "Bloody hell!"
The same reaction, almost the same words, came from the rest of our group: "Jesus!"
"What the f***!"
The boy next to me turned deadly white, lifted both knees with his hands towards his chest, and toppled sideways off his stool.
I looked down at the floor.
In the space between the footrail and the bar, a large cat, foaming and spitting, was running straight at my feet. Behind it, red eyes glowing, white teeth snapping at the end of the cat's tail, was the largest rat I have ever seen in my life. Later, we all swore it was at least twice the size of the cat.
I lifted both legs as quickly as I could and banged my knee on the edge of the counter, tearing a jagged gash in trouser and flesh. The cat hotly pursued by rat raced beneath the arch of my lifted legs and vanished
into the street. Loud cries followed their progress and then there were two quick pistol shots: Bang! Bang! A very young man ran into the bar. He was carrying a still-smoking pistol in one hand and a secret police identity card in the other.
"You're all under arrest!" He screamed.
It was Luis. The fat lady began to shriek at the top of her voice. She came from behind the bar, grabbed Luis by the waist and started to waltz him round and round, in time to the music, screaming all the time:
"Run! Get out you fools!"
We ran out into the street. Looking back, we saw the fat lady shutting the doors of the bar and turning off the lights. Luis was threatening her with his pistol and pointing upstairs. A large crowd had gathered and it was charged with energy.
After the shots, a crowd was rapidly gathering. The people hissed and seethed.
"She's going to be fined."
"That place should have been shut down years ago."
We walked slowly away.
"Poor Bobi!" said Javi. "He's going to be in real trouble when he gets home." "If he gets home."
Everywhere, people were discussing the night's activity. They milled around in little whirlpools of nervous excitement.
"There's a Civil Guard lying dead in there!"
"They've shot two terrorists. They were planting a bomb!"
"It's got to be the Basques!"
"Terrorists! Look out!"
People took shelter in doorways. Someone screamed.
"That's the worst thing about the Calle San Pedro," said Javi, "You never really know what's going to happen up there."
"The place never changes;" grumbled Monin. "There are some things you just don't want to know about."
We retraced our steps over the hill, back through Station Square, and out through the tunnel. We talked about Bobi as we wandered back home. "I wonder if he'll get caught and put in prison?"
"Not Bobi! He'll probably spend the night under the bed listening to the springs going 'Boing!' and counting the number of times they do it."
"Don't be stupid!"
"Or shut in the closet and looking at them through the keyhole."
"Or standing in the shower behind the shower curtain as they do it on the loo."
"Do what on the loo?"
"No seas tonto. Don't be a fool."
"Anyway, those rooms don't have showers."
"How do you know?
"I already told you: no seas tonto. Don't be a fool. Anyway: I won last week."
"Or in bed with them! Luis always seems to need help with something practical."
When we met Bobi a few days later, we all asked him question after question.
But he was as silent as the grave.
All we could get get out of him was: "You know: that Luis is a really decent person. he's really very serious. He goes to mass every day, you know."
We all agree that Bobi's become a convert to the cult of San Luis, as we now call it. He even goes to mass regularly on Sundays. Soon he'll be one of them -- one of the decent people, de misa diaria.