THE WAITING GAME
There was a loud rattling noise: I looked up from my suitcase as light entered the room. The boy who had led me up to my sixth floor room was pulling up the heavy wooden interlocking slats that served as blinds. Outside my bedroom window, right in front of my eyes, blocking out all other scenery, was the largest coal-tip that I had ever seen: a small, backyard volcano, steaming fiercely, its peak dominating the sky-line. A red truck, followed by a yellow truck, followed by a green truck circled in a convoy slowly up its sides heading towards the dump zone near the flat cone at the top. My eyebrows went up. The trucks drove past three trees which clustered together as though they were trying to form a Delphic Grove in which all questions could be answered.
I turned to ask the boy why three trees were growing there but he was busy in the bathroom pointing his index finger at the ponderous black flies that were heaving themselves up the bathroom window. I could hear him counting: "17, 18, 19..." He interrupted his counting to tell me that the trees were famous: "Faith, Hope, and Charity: the Worker's Party planted them there last year. They had this plan to turn the coal-tip green ..."
He pointed at another fly -- "20!"
"They planted three trees and then they were voted out. The new council didn't like trees. So we were left with Faith, Hope, and Charity."
I thanked the boy for carrying my bag and, when he held out his hand, I gave him some small coins. I shut the door behind him, then sat on the bed and contemplated the trucks that continued to drive round and round, like tiny clockwork toys, upwards to the top of the tip, then down again to the flat land at the bottom.
"And when they were only half way up..." I hummed to myself.
I lay on my bed and after an hour or so, I unpacked my bag and went into the bathroom with my washkit. There were flies all over the window, and I started to count them, but lost patience and gave up as they changed position and danced one over the other. I had not showered yet and was all sticky from the early morning train. So, I undressed, took a shower in the luke warm brown scaly water which stained the towel when I wiped. Then, I went down to the front desk where another boy, seated, handed me a map of the town. One of its main attractions, he told me, was the ruined castle, built by the Knights Templar, which had been besieged and destroyed by Napoleon.
"Blown apart by Bonaparte?" I asked.
But this was beyond the linguistic capabilities of the desk clerk who, opon seeing my Canadian passport convinced himself that here was an opportunity to have a free English lesson while practicing on me his broken hotel English.
"Eh?" He grimaced the question towards me, shrugging his shoulders and throwing out his hands. "You want brandy? Napoleon Brandy?" And he pointed to the bar.
The castle, it seemed, unlike the always available hotel bar, was not open. In fact, it wouldn't open until later that afternoon: 4:00 p. m. to be precise. The remains of the old city walls, on the other hand, according to the pamphlet, could be visited at any time, so I decided to begin my voyage of discovery by locating the old city walls.
They were not hard to find. Scarred by cannon ball and musket shot, broken down in places where enemy troops had once charged through like an unstoppable flow of lava, they were easily visible, still standing guard round the old city centre. In places, the walls formed part of the castle itself. Occasionally, small dwellings seeking for shelter from who knows what storm, had been built into the immense stonework of the castle's medieval walls. The central square boasted some railed off buildings and a pair of abandoned ladders stuck up to the sky. I could count the wheelbarrows. There were three of them, one red, one green and one yellow. I wondered what shirts the local footbal team wore: a neapolitan ice cream stripe of red, green and ... A man strode out from a little bar at the edge of the square, scowled at me, and I didn't dare laugh, or add the third colour to the scheme.
Several large houses that had once clearly stood shoulder to shoulder with the fortress walls had been pulled down. Ragged outlines stood, like a broken line of infantry, hard against the sky. Where such gaps occurred, the standing interior walls froze the city fortifications in a sort of photo frame within which the decorative wallpaper stood out like muddied Picassos against the otherwise rough stone walls of the fortifications. Marks made by chimneys, stoves, wires, plumbing stood black against gaily patterned paper. I tried to reconstruct a mapa mundi of the inhabitants' daily lives from the colours they had left behind them: that was a dining room; this had been a kitchen; that must have been a child's bedroom; this must have been the bathroom. I pointed out the rooms as I mused and then stopped as I saw two men looking at me as though I were a farmer of woollen thoughts, chasing daft sheep clouds across a celestial pasture.
Tired of this patchwork-quilt guessing game, I wandered back to the hotel, chose a table in the dining-room, and waited for the restaurant to fill up. But it never did. There were just three of us eating: myself, a middle-aged gentleman who was stamped with the indelible mark of the commercial traveller, and a business lady, dressed in a striped suit like a man, with hair pulled severely back from her face. She wore gold-rimmed glasses. The three of us sat at separate tables, in silence, avoiding each other's eyes.
The restaurant was crowded with waiters. There were at least four to each of our tables. As a result, we three guests were overwhelmed with attention. When I took a sip of water, a waiter came and topped up my glass; when I put down my knife and fork, just for a second, a waiter padded quietly up and tried to remove my half-finished meal. At one stage, I held on to my plate with both hands, feeling desperate, while the waiter tugged and pulled and nodded in the direction of the kitchen ...
I picked at the second course, not over-hungry in the presence of so many staring eyes. As usual, I dipped my bread in the wine, in the omelette, in the salad oil. Every move, every dip, was recorded by the eyes of the dozen or so waiters. By the time dessert reached my table, I was dipping my bread in my coffee, in the caramel creme around my flan... By this stage, many of the waiters were openly laughing at me. I had not spoken a word to them in Spanish, so they didn't know I understood every word they were saying as they chattered on and on about the way in which I was eating my food. Even the lady with the gold-rimmed glasses was laughing slyly at me when she thought I wasn't looking, though she would mop her lips with her serviette or turn her head away if I stared back at her.
Occasionally, I would catch a waiter staring at me; then, I would hold his eyes with mine, and I would slowly dip my bread in my coffee. That waiter would attempt to keep a straight face. He would sweat and turn red while beside him his companions nudged each other, sniggered and chuckled and burst into laughter.
After lunch, I went for a walk along the main street and down to the banks of the river which runs through a deep gorge just here. The townsfolk whose houses back on to the river were apparently accustomed to tip their garbage out of door and window, straight into the ravine. Some of it had landed in the water to be swept away. The rest, settling on rock, tree, and bush, was waiting for a sudden summer storm or else for next spring's freshet rush to carry it away. Already, even though it was only early in the summer, the heat of the mid-day sun was awaking the stench of rotting garbage and there was a constant buzzing of flies. I moved away from the bridge with its view of the castle on the hill above me and turned downhill towards the coal-tip in the shadow of which there were four empty soccer fields, grassless, and as hard as baked mud.
Just before four, I got up from the park bench on which I had been sitting for an hour or so and I retraced my steps back to the castle. Its imposing entrance, which appears in all the tourist brochures, gave the impression of a monument well cared for: a false impression, I should add. The ancient outer wall would have been in ruins but for the little patches of cement, stone, mortar, and brick which held it together in a jig-saw pattern of new tacked on old. A gateway and tower, circa 1950, had been constructed above the thirteenth century entrance; this new construction was what the brochure displayed. Once inside the main entrance door, it was easy to see that the castle itself was in a sad state of disrepair. An old man whose breath reeked of stale wine and garlic greeted me; he told me he was the warden and invited me to look around. I asked him how much it cost.
"Nothing! Come in! It's free! Gratuitous! Absolutely free!"
I looked at him in disbelief and he chuckled as he closed the massive door behind me, securing it with an oaken beam, he muttered in a low voice, so I hardly caught the words: "Free to get in, señor. But then you have to give me money before I let you out!"
Still chuckling to himself, the old man gave me nod and a wink, and highly amused, he vanished back into his little office. On his table I saw an open bottle of wine and a half-empty glass with a fly walking on the rim.
The castle grounds resembled a vast bird sanctuary. At every unexpected noise, great clouds of birds rose up, flew round and round in circles, and hovered for a minute or two. In 1808, Napoleon, or one of his generals, had sacked the castle and burned the keep down. It had never been properly restored. The gatehouse was in ruins, except on the outside, where it was newly cemented; in fire-blackened holes where floor and ceiling beams had formerly rested, thousands of choughs and swallows had made their nests. Guano stained the walls and a smell of waste and decay hung everywhere.
I had been inside the castle for an hour or so when, from the top of a tumbledown tower, I spotted an old woman in the courtyard. She was wielding a small scythe. Before her, dandelions, thistles, grass fell like Spanish soldiers before the cannon of Napoleon's armies. When the woman rested, she looked up, saw me, and waved. She called something out, but I could not catch her words. I wandered back down the tower steps and crossed to where she was standing.
"Good day, señora."
"Good day, señor. Are you enjoying our castle?"
"It is very nice. Very tranquil, very old. Tell me, what are these small black birds?"
"We call them choas, señor. I do not know what they are in your tongue. Do you see how fat and black they are? Well, during our war, we called the fat priests choas." She smiled at me most disconcertingly.
"Did you now?"
"Yes, señor. Tell me, señor: have you seen a thin priest since you came to this town?"
"No," I said, "but then, I haven't seen a fat one either!"
I had read in the guide book that savage repressions had taken place in this area before, during, and after the Civil War. The local miners had not been known for their respect for the clergy, and, if this lady's attitude was anything to go by, it would not have surprised me to learn that all the priests, fat ones and thin, had been laid to rest beneath the coal tip on a level with the coal. According to the histories of the region, in the eyes of many, the association with black would have suited them down to the ground. Choas, indeed! Choughs, and this lady all chuffed up about the clergy!
The old woman smiled and I noticed gaps in her teeth. I asked if she owned the castle and the smile became even broader revealing even more missing teeth.
"No, señor. I do not own the castle. But it is still our castle, señor. Comprende? Understand?"
I admitted I did not understand. Clearly, this was a town full of riddles: hotel bell boys who counted flies; free entry, but you paid when you left; owners who did not own...
"How can you not own the castle, yet it's still yours?" I asked.
"The castle belongs to everyone, señor!" She smiled again and showed her missing teeth.
"Do you work here?" I asked.
"Yes! I come here once a week, señor ..." she hesitated, and looked down at her scythe " ... to cut the grass for the rabbits."
"Rabbits?" I said. "I can't see any rabbits. Anyway, I thought rabbits liked long grass."
"No, señor! You do not understand! I am not cutting the grass for the rabbits; I am cutting the grass for the rabbits! Now do you see?"
"I confess I do not."
She explained that she would take the cut grass away with her, to her home, in a large straw basket. When she got home, she would feed it to the rabbits. Now did I see? I admitted that things were now a little clearer and asked where she kept her rabbits.
"Why, señor, in my apartment. That is my hobby. When my daughter-in-law persuaded my son to leave me to go and live with her parents..." (and at this point she hawked noisily and spat upon the ground) "... I decided to keep rabbits so as not to be lonely."
"You must like rabbits then?"
"Oh indeed, señor; indeed I do. They are delicious when stewed with the proper mixture of herbs. I prepare them the same way as my grandmother did; and her grandmother before her. When I cook them, they are delicious. My son likes them cooked no other way."
"He must be unhappy so far from his rabbit stew."
"Not at all, señor, not at all. I put some stew on the bus for him once a week and it gets to him the very same day. This weekend I am going to see him. In the big city ..." (she spat again) "... I will not cook for the family, but for him I will take a dozen rabbits; and I will prepare his stew."
"Why did he leave?"
"There were no jobs. His wife was tired of him sitting round the house all day. She said her father could get him employment. Over there. In the big city. In the factories."
She shrugged her shoulders with evident disgust. We made some polite conversation about the weather and then I expressed my delight in meeting her, admitted that it would be a great pleasure to meet her again the following day, if I was still in town, and made my farewells. As I looked back to wave, I could see her, back bent, busily scything her plot of grass.
When I returned to the entrance, the old warden was not to be seen. I called, listened to the flapping of bird wings, and, as silence once more descended on the castle and its grounds, I heard snores emerging from the little office. I hammered on the door, shouted loudly into the room, and the old man emerged, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Within the office, the empty wine-bottle was lying on its side. I couldn't see the glass, but on the table, a couple of flies were drinking from a pool of spilled wine.
Now that he was awake, the old man didn't want me to leave. He told me he was alone, that his two sons had left him to go to the capital to find employment in the factories. There was no decent work here in this little town, he said. Unemployment was high. Unless the kids went underground and worked the mines, there was nothing for them to do. In sympathy, I left a small sum of money for the reconstruction of the castle and a slightly larger sum for the replenishment of the empty bottle, and then I was permitted to leave.
I made my way back to the hotel. After contemplating the trucks moving up and down the tip, round and round, red, yellow, green, I took another shower, changed my clothes, and went down to the dining room for the evening meal. When I got there, the waiters were waiting for me. Black like flies, backs to the wall, watching, they stood hunched like vultures, with their glazed, expressionless eyes. I watched them watching me; then, I picked up a crust of bread, broke it clumsily between my fingers, and dipped a portion in the glass of wine that was on the table before me. There were sniggers and chuckles: their evening's entertainment had begun.
After the meal, I went to the bar.
The barman paid no attention; he was much too busy putting the final shimmer on a well-polished glass.
"A glass of brandy, please." I tapped my finger-nails on the bar.
The barman had now polished the glass to a sheen that would have won him first prize in a glass polishing competition. He kept his back towards me, placed the first glass high on a shelf, and reached for another. I took a fifty piece coin from my pocket, gripped it tightly between finger and thumb, just so, and banged it on the bar so that it rolled almost to the edge of the counter before the back spin that I had put upon it dragged it right back into my waiting hand. The barman turned round, looking for the coin which I had put back in my pocket.
"Would you be kind enough to pour me out a large glass of your best brandy. Please?"
"A good one."
"All our brandies are good."
"Naturally: but some are better than others, eh?"
"Then give me a glass of best brandy."
"Fundador? Veterano? Osborne?"
"You have no French cognac?"
"Then perhaps you could recommend a good Spanish coñac. Something worth drinking. Not Lepanto. Nor Carlos Quinto. I think they're slightly over-rated nowdays. Something local, perhaps?"
The barman looked at me carefully as though he suspected a trick. I remembered him as one of the ring-leaders of the scoffing groups of waiters. Upon hearing me speak my fluent Spanish, he led me expertly through the range of liqueur brandies behind his bar. I decided, after some hesitation, to sample a Torres Black Label, twelve years old, and invited him to share a glass with me. At first he declined, but when I insisted, he hesitated, and then said yes. We settled on a neutral topic for the ensuing conversation: soccer.
The brandy rapidly worked its magic. I invited the barman to another glass and asked him some personal questions. He told me that his name was Alberto and that he had been working in bars since he was eleven years old. He had been working at this hotel for some six years now. He was A head waiter, but not THE head waiter. It would be a long time before he gained any more promotion. The hotel catered mainly to commercial travellers, he told me, and although there were a few tourists, there weren't many guests who gave good tips and were really worth talking to. Life here in the town was a dead-end; his work was boring; if he did not wait in the bar, there would be nothing to do, except work underground in the mine... There was a pause.
"Why all the laughter in the dining room?"
"We all thought you were a tourist, señor." He squirmed, turned red, then looked uncomfortable. Your manners were different. You were an outsider and therefore amusing. We did not mean any harm."
I asked him about his plans, his aspirations. He told me somewhat reluctantly that one day he hoped to own his own bar. He had a girl friend. They weren't formally engaged, but there was an understanding. Her parents were rich and one day she would inherit. In the meantime, she pretended not to be interested in marriage just yet as her parents would not welcome a waiter into the family.
"Is there really no other work?"
"Only the pit."
As the other guests finished supper, more waiters joined our group. Their conversation was hesitant at first but when they saw that I bore them no ill will, they talked more freely. Such fine Spanish, they said. Was I from Mexico? No? Most Spanish-speaking foreigners who came to the hotel were from Mexico. From Latin America, then? I told them I was from Canada and they looked quite interested.
"Do they speak Spanish in Canada?"
"No. But they teach it in the universities. In Canada, we have some of the finest language programs in the world. Let me give you an example: a month ago, I couldn't speak a word of Spanish. Then, when I decided to come to Spain for a holiday, I also determined to learn your language. I entered an intensive language program. Two weeks long. Day and night. No sleep. Torture. Pain. Terrible. Bright lights. Cigarette burns. The third degree. But I came out speaking fluent Spanish."
"In only two weeks?"
"¡Mentiroso!" They clearly did not believe me. But I insisted. I looked them straight in the eye and dared them to repeat the word that condemns as a liar. I held their gaze and one by one they turned their eyes away, strangely unsure of themselves. Alberto joined in:
"He even knows about Butragueño -- El Buitre. And about Bahamontes -- El águila de Toledo. And you should see the tricks he does with a coin."
They looked at Alberto; then at me.
"I also studied the culture!" I smiled at them.
"They believe you," said Alberto.
"Listen," I told them. "I can prove I'm not a telling you lies. I bet I could teach you English, say, or French, in just two weeks using those same methods by which I was taught."
They looked at each other, then at Alberto, then at me. They were still not ready to believe me. I smiled: "We'll talk about it tomorrow. Just let me know what languages you want to learn. And get ready for your lessons."
I finished my second brandy and made my farewells, adding that it was late and that I had to go to bed as I wanted to be up early next morning to do some work and see the town. We wished each other a loud goodnight.
Next morning, at breakfast: the same guests; the same waiters. But something had obviously changed. The waiters no longer looked like flies or vultures; they were standing to attention by the walls. Their arms hung straight down alongside their trouser seams. They were all in white jackets and black pants and looked very, very smart. They were gazing straight ahead like a regiment on parade. I ate my breakfast very slowly. Total courtesy greeted my every move. Every wish was taken care of, in silence, by waiters who glided in quiet, mysterious fashion to satisfy my every whim.
I was finishing my third cup of coffee when the other guests left. Suddenly, Alberto, with a determined look in his eye, approached my table as the head of a deputation: the waiters wanted to make me a proposition. Would I listen until they had finished? Completely finished?
I nodded in agreement.
Alberto began: It was terrible to live in this town. The old, ruined walls. The shadow of the tip. The coal mine underground. Underground was not a fit place for living men; underground ought to be where you went when you died. Men should not be buried alive, severed from the light of the sun to do a full day's work in dust and darkness. But there were no other jobs. No opportunities. I had seen the castle? As the castle, so the town: derelict, abandoned. With luck some of them would eventually marry. Or move. Alberto might one day own his bar, if the rich parents accepted him... This one might buy part shares in a restaurant, if his uncle died and he inherited... That one always filled in the football pools every week. So did all the others. And they bought lottery tickets, sometimes as a group. Surely, one day, they would win? The lottery: it had seemed the only way out.
But with a language. With a language! They could go to Germany, perhaps, and work the hotels. Others had done this and made a great deal of money, but the others all spoke German. Or English, or French, or Italian. Would I do it? Would I? Would I teach them some of those languages with the marvelous methods I had described last night? Any language. It didn't matter which. Whatever was easiest for me. Whatever I had time for. They just wanted a helping hand. A start on the long road to somewhere.
Alberto emptied his pockets and money tumbled all over the table. It was theirs. They had saved it. They would pay me well. Two weeks I had said. Alberto started counting: here was my hotel money; this was for my food; this was for the bar bill; this was a little extra to persuade me they were serious. All I had to do was teach them a language. Something that might get them out from under the shadow of the coal tip. I did understand, didn't I? I
had been there a whole day now. I could feel it, couldn't I, the horror, the despair, the hopelessness, the abandonment? Any language, please. Any language.
I could not meet Alberto's eyes. I mumbled some sort of apology. Said something about having urgent responsibilities to meet elsewhere. Of having to leave immediately on my pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint James.
I got up and hurried out. On the way to my room I stopped at the front desk and ordered a taxi: "Immediately!" I said. "It's urgent. Right away. Right now."
Upstairs, in my room, I packed as fast as I could. Outside my window, I could see the coal tip. Its shadow stretched across the tarmac and covered the soccer fields where the next generations would play in shadow where there ought to be sun. The shadow grew strong fingers. A hand seemed to extend from the depth of the mine and clutch at my heart. I felt choked and very cold.
The taxi drove me straight to the station and I bought a single ticket for the first big city down the line, Ididn't even remember what it was called. The booking clerk told me that the train would not leave for another six hours. I said I didn't care. I walked to the waiting room, opened the door, went in, and sat down. I could see both the castle and the tip from the waiting room window. The three trees, Faith, Hope, and Charity, stood out against the tip. Around the tip, on the circular route to the summit, a red truck, a green truck and a yellow truck were slowly ascending.
After an hour, I selected another chair and turned it so I faced the wall. Five hours to go. I hummed to myself "When they were only half way up..."
Then I settled down and began to count the flies that were buzzing on the wall, going round and round, jumping over each other, chasing themselves round and round, and up and down.
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