This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
MÁLAGA, SPAIN, 1969
Ahead, above buildings and trees, twinkly yellow lights outlined the top of the big wheel. The people around Gabriel — even the air around him — fizzed with excitement. He chewed his cheek and stared at an ominous glow rising up into the twilight, pulsing like a giant phosphorescent jellyfish. Roni meant well, bringing him along for a night out. He was a good boss. But fairs, albeit fascinating, had never been fun for Gabriel, even as a child. Venturing into a crowd of strangers was stupid. Sooner or later, it always ended in humiliation.
He followed Roni along the crowded footpath, keeping a hand in front of his face, head down, hair shaken forward. At least, his hair smelled fresh. He’d washed it three times after settling the goats for the night, and scrubbed himself all over before dressing for the fair. Twice, just to be sure.
Roni’s young son, José, skipped along beside him, clutching Gabriel’s free hand and chattering about the rides he hoped to go on and the North American who’d just landed on the moon. Holding a child’s warm, sticky little hand in his was, for Gabriel, a new and magical, experience. The boy was beguiling, with dark flashing eyes and a cherubic smile — and amazingly unfazed by Gabriel’s obscenity of a nose — or his aflicción, as his mother called it. Or, as most people called it, his pig-snout.
Málaga Fair was a first for José, too. But, unlike Gabriel, the boy had visited the city before, with his papa. Apparently — although Gabriel couldn’t believe his chain-smoking boss had managed it without having a heart attack — they’d even climbed up the steep hill behind the port to an old Moorish fortress.
The noise of the fair, audible half an hour back, unravelled, now they’d arrived, into separate sounds: all kinds of music, Spanish, Mexican, Argentinian; tangos, sevillanas, bulerías; speakers blaring at bone-shaking volume, mingling with sirens, hooters, screams and squeals and gravelly tombola voices through loud hailers.
Gabriel felt pathetically tense. He looked from the lights to the dingy perimeter. “I’ll walk round the outside, meet you later.”
José jumped up and down, springy as a cricket. “Stay with us, Gabi. It looks brilliant!”
His imploring look — and his naivety — touched Gabriel. “Sorry, José —”
“He’s not much for crowds,” said Roni, between lighting a thin black cigar. “See you behind those bumper cars in an hour or so, eh? Get something to eat and some beers.”
Alone, Gabriel braved the bright lights briefly to buy a toy trumpet for José; and, for Mamá, a tin figure of the famous Málaga fish vendor.
Roni had not exaggerated. The fair was awesome: big and bright, promising a world of thrills. On every side, bold voices urged fairgoers to try a hand at this or that; win a goldfish, a doll, a bottle of coñac. Mouth-watering smells wafted on the balmy air: sausages, ham, prawns, squid, candyfloss, turron.
It was frighteningly bright. Along its wide avenues, filigree arches of silver fairy lights repeated into infinity, turning night into day. Coloured light bulbs, thousands of them, festooned carousels and stalls. He’d never seen so many lights.
So many stalls and carousels. So many people.
So many beautiful, beautiful girls.
The girls at home looked pretty, too, in their figure-hugging, frilly-skirted feria gowns. But these malagueñas walked with the world at their feet. There were two heading towards him now. They were strolling arm-in-arm, careless of their beautiful frilled skirts brushing the dusty ochre ground. Singing the endless la-la-laa’s from the English song that was often on Roni’s radio, ending with, “Hey, Jude,” and giggling. He studied them through the screen of his hair. With their scarlet lips and flashing eyes, hair in gleaming coils and earrings like chandeliers, they looked as exotic as parrots.
After they’d passed by, he found a quiet vantage point from where he could watch the fun — and fantasise about walking around those bright avenues arm-in-arm with Yolanda … riding with her in the flying torpedoes and the swing boat that almost tipped people out and the whirling octopus. How her eyes would sparkle! He pictured her blowing a giant pink gum-bubble and popping it . . . and laughing and looking into his eyes with that Ay!-so-sexy wink.
Stupid. He couldn’t go on rides. How would he keep his face covered? And why would such a fabulous girl — why would any girl — go with him? For sure, she wasn’t constantly dreaming about him the way he —
They were standing in front of him. The La-la-laa girls. Standing there, giggling and eying him from behind their fans.
He was so shocked, he forgot, for a moment, to cover his nose. His pig-snout.
Which they saw.
They both shrieked and snapped their fans shut; and their smiles turned to looks of disgust that drained the blood from his face. He darted away into the darkest corner he could find, and hid there, gnawing his fingernails. He shouldn’t have come; didn’t belong here. He’d been careless, uncovering it. Idiota.
He couldn’t leave without telling Roni. But, when he checked behind the bumper cars, Roni wasn’t there. Too early. At night, with no watch, it was hard to gauge the hour.
Nearby, stood a man with a disfigurement, a silver-haired, distinguished looking gentleman. One side of his face rippled with pearly scars. The scars weren’t enough to make the man a freak, but enough that passers-by turned for another look. They were nothing compared to Gabriel’s nose, a nose more hog-like than human with its front-facing nostrils and fleshy rims. The man was smiling at a boy in a bumper car, oblivious to stares.
The man’s confidence inspired Gabriel to venture up one of the side avenues — hand firmly in place, head bowed — to buy a pork skewer and fried potatoes with mayonnaise.
Approaching a children’s carousel, he stopped, horrified. The ponies looked wretched. What’s wrong? This work was no harder than, say, plodding around a threshing circle. And definitely more stimulating. Creeping closer, he cringed at red eyes, nasal discharges, cracked hooves. The poor creatures weren’t even blinking the flies from their eyes. One had sores festering under the edges of her saddle that almost brought up his just-eaten pork and potatoes.
He waited until the ride finished and parents were lifting children off the ponies, and approached the proprietor, a small, skinny gypsy as bristly and grey as an old boar.
The showman scowled.
“Your animals need treatment.” He had to shout over the carousel music, an insistent, hurdy-gurdy nursery tune. “That one’s wearing the wrong saddle. She’s suffering terribly. And, if you don’t treat her sores, she’ll get parasites.”
Squinting through smoke rolling from his red-veined nose, the man growled, “You taking the piss?” He tossed his cigarette stub onto the dust and pulled a roll of tickets from his pocket, stuffing back the bills that came out.
“That one with the bloody nasal discharge —”
“Clear off, cretino.”
“They’re all suffering.” Seeing the man’s eyes widen, Gabriel realized he’d let his hand slip from the nose. Too bad. He thrust his face forward and shouted, “They all have foot problems. That one’s lame. See the big crack? And —”
“Clear off, pig-face, you’re scaring the kids. Filthy aborto.”
“Qué pasa?” Two Guardia Civil officers barged through the crowd, hats and holsters gleaming under the lights.
The showman intercepted the Greens. “It’s nothing, officers.” His growl was gone. He was grinning, like a dog baring its teeth. “This pig-faced cretino’s making a fuss, all because one of the animals has a sore foot. Happens all the time, ask anyone who keeps ponies. I myself get blisters. And, without doubt —” He pointed at the Greens’ dusty boots. “— you worthy officers patrolling the fair! Madre mía!” He rolled his eyes theatrically at onlookers.“If we all stopped working every time we got a blister, our families would starve, no?”
Some laughed. The Greens looked stony.
The showman winked at the officers. “I ought to denounce him for scaring the kiddies, ugly cretin. But live and let live. You take him away, I won’t make a denuncia.”
“Good evening, officers.” A commanding voice. “I’m Santos de la Cruz.”
Vaya! The distinguished gentleman with scars.
“I breed thoroughbreds. The young man is correct. The condition of those animals is absolutely appalling.”
Gabriel squared his shoulders and looked from the squirming showman to the officers to the gawping bystanders.
“Unless this rogue agrees to rest that one . . .” The gentleman pointed his walking cane. “. . . I shall denounce him. In fact, I suggest you confiscate his licence until they’re all healthy.”
The senior officer cleared his throat. “I’ll look into it, señor.”
Gabriel said a quick prayer of thanks.
Santos asked him, “How old are you?”
“You were brave to speak up.” The scars appeared taut, warping his smile; but friendly crinkles formed around his eyes “You have a good feeling for animals.”
Gabriel nodded; felt his chest swell.
“Don’t worry, I’ll see something’s done about them.”
“Grandpa!” A child’s voice, panicky.
“Coming.” With a polite farewell, Señor Santos disappeared into the crowd.
Gabriel felt abandoned.
The older Guardia officer snarled at the showman, “Do as he said, right?”
“And you.” The officer frowned at the hand hiding Gabriel’s nose. “Clear off.”
Gabriel hurried away and hid behind a booth. He watched the Greens leave — and waited for the showman to unhitch the pony with sores.
He gnawed his nails, watching the carousel fill up again and the gypsy working his way around, collecting money.
When a man lifted a boy onto the pony with saddle sores, Gabriel rushed over. “Por favor, take another.”
Man and boy stared.
Gabriel tightened the hand over his nose. He felt exposed, couldn’t help squinting under all those light bulbs. “Look how she suffers. See those sores?”
The man looked and winced. “Uf! Gross.” He glanced around — between sideways peeks at Gabriel. “They’re all taken.”
“The Greens told the owner to rest her, or he’ll lose his licence.”
“Clear off, pig-face.”A cigarette flew out of the showman’s mouth. His spittle sprayed Gabriel. “Else I’ll —”
“Hombre!” Gabriel shouted. “This pony’s in agony. She needs treatment and rest.”
The showman stepped closer. He stank of liquor. A snarl twisted the vertical, whiskered lines of his face. “Don’t tell me how to look after my own puto animals. Been looking after ponies since before you were born, aborto.”
He’ll have a knife in his boot. Dismissing a cold shiver between his shoulders, Gabriel persisted,“If you don’t —”
“Piss off!” The man thrust both hands into Gabriel’s chest.
He slapped them away — two-handed. “They’re overworked and sick.” He faced the gathering crowd, aware he was bare-faced. Bare-faced, facing their stares and undisguised revulsion. With blood rushing in his ears, he bellowed, “Is this how you amuse your children? Letting animals be tortured?”
People stared, shocked into silence.
Couples began arguing, dragging children from ponies, demanding refunds. Soon, the showman was swearing, parents yelling back, youngsters bawling.
“Now what?” The Greens again.
The senior officer glowered. “What’s up with you imbécil?” — staring slit-eyed at Gabriel’s uncovered nose, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Clear off, or I’ll arrest you for causing a disturbance.”
Gabriel was trembling inside, but made himself speak up. “Officer, he hasn’t stopped working that pony. Look — she’s still saddled.”
The showman rolled his eyes at the Green. “Haven’t had time to unsaddle her, but I made a man take his kid off.” He smirked a what-did-I-tell-you look and shrugged. “See? Now the moron’s upset the kiddies.”
A voice in Gabriel’s head said, Don’t aggravate the Green. But, seeing flies settling on the sores, he couldn’t stop the words roaring from his mouth. “He’s torturing these animals. I demand to make a denuncia.”
“That’s it! You’re under arrest.”
Arrested? No! Mamá will be mortified.
The younger Green approached with a gleaming set of handcuffs, looking nervous. Gabriel saw himself as the people watching probably saw him: a freak with a toy trumpet poking out of his pocket; maybe crazy; maybe dangerous. His face burned. He longed to escape these lights. And close his ears to the comments.
Could he sink any lower? He shouldn’t have come. Idiota.
“Idiota! Didn’t I tell you to stay with me?”
Roni? Gabriel peered through his curtain of hair. It is!
“Come on, son. Let’s go.”
That gruff voice: oh, how sweet-sounding!
Roni winked at the older officer, rolled his eyes and aimed a screw-loose gesture at Gabriel.
“He’s under arrest,” growled the Green. “Twice he’s caused a commotion.”
Roni rubbed a finger and thumb. The officer cleared his throat and followed him behind the carousel.
The young Green fiddled with the handcuffs. The crowd stared and sniggered.
Gabriel watched the senior officer re-emerge into the light, now “Venga, keep him under control!”
Following him — grinning, gold tooth reflecting the carousel lights — Roni patted the officer’s epaulette. “Right, amigo!”
The officer barked at Gabriel, “Behave yourself, understood?”
With a grumpy, hiss-whispered, “Let’s go,” Roni gripped Gabriel’s elbow, kneed the backs of his legs and urged him through the crowd.
“Roni, those ponies —”
“For fuck’s sake,” Roni muttered, “not another puto word, unless you want a beating and a night in jail.”
Behind them, José piped, “Papá? Can I ride a pony?”
Rolling bloodshot eyes at Gabriel, Roni growled over his shoulder, “We’ll win you a goldfish, okay?”
Roni insisted they try various food stalls. This meant circling the fair for another hour or so, with José blasting away on his trumpet and Gabriel watching out for the Greens. With a final treat for José of churros y chocolate, they left around one a.m.Gabriel’s stomach churned, watching the boy dip the fried batter into viscous chocolate sauce. He was tasting the beers and assorted snacks they’d consumed: pork skewers, mussels, squid, pig trotters, black pudding, fried aubergines with molasses.
Walking back to the city centre, he felt honoured when José asked to ride on his shoulders. The boy was soon half-asleep, a dead weight; double the weight of the goat-kids Gabriel often carried around his neck. But how touching, José’s chocolate-smeared fists dangling below Gabriel’s chin, clutching his toy trumpet and a goldfish in a bag, which he’d won triumphantly, with Gabriel’s help.
Roni’s cigarette glowed while he took a drag. “I’ve spent a puto fortune. Kid went on everything.”
“Sí?” Gabriel was worrying about the ponies. The horse breeder cares, though. He’ll keep his promise. To ease the ache in his neck, he fantasised about another meeting with the gentleman. He, too, was disfigured — although not enough to make him a freak. That must be why he’d said Gabriel was “brave to speak up.” They’d discuss the care of horses. Having by then studied the veterinarian’s books — a whole set, what a godsend! — Gabriel would surely impress the señor with his knowledge.
“Women were all right, no?” Roni’s gravel voice interrupted Gabriel’s reverie.
“Mm? Ay, sí.”
“Coño! In those dresses, even the old birds look tasty!”
Gabriel rubbed a scuff on his wrist from the handcuffs. “You still haven’t told me what you said to that Green.”
Pausing under a street lamp, Roni belched and took a drag from the cigarette glowing dangerously close to his fingers. “Hostia! Said you were simple-minded, with a fixation for animals.”
Gabriel exploded. “Simple-minded?”
The glowing butt flew into the gutter, and Roni set off again. “In other words, the truth, imbécil. How would your mother feel, you in jail because you got a wasp up your arse over a pony’s blisters?”
“I told you, that breeder agreed with me that —”
“The Green agreed with me, you’ve too much puto emotion.” A match struck, glinting briefly on Roni’s bleary eyes and gold tooth. “That mine, next to the blue saloon?”
“Leche! Hope it starts. You drive.”
Gabriel felt his eyes bulge. “Como?”
“Madre mía! I’ve never driven. Only Mamá’s cousin’s motorbike, and only in the field.”
“Nothing to it.”
“I don’t have a licence.”
“Hombre! Drives itself, long as you’re not in a hurry. Pull off when you see the sign for Corche. I’ll direct you from there.”
Initially, Gabriel used only first and second gears. José, incredibly, slept in the back while the Seat van bucked and bounded through Málaga’s dark streets.
“Relax, Gabi.” Roni propped his tasselled black leather shoes, covered in ochre dust, on the dashboard, and was soon snoring. Gabriel backtracked in search of signs to Almería.
By the time they’d left the city, his gear-changing was quieter than the rattle of Roni”s phlegm. But, peering through the darkness to follow the N340 road — and fighting to hold up his eyelids — Gabriel wished the van had two working headlamps. At the turn-off for Corche, he was tempted to press on; didn’t fancy hanging around while Roni, “made a night of it”. But he was indebted to his boss, especially tonight, so he prodded him awake.
After Gabriel wound two or three slow kilometres along a rough road, the surrounding fields took on a blue haze. He parked the van alongside a dozen cars and motorbikes and a mound of watermelons, all glimmering intermittently under the flashing blue sign, Bar Club Sauna Las Vegas.
“Hurry up,” said Roni. “I need a piss. Don’t lock it. We’ll leave the boy.”
“Won’t he be scared if he wakes and —?”
“He’ll come in. Been before. Ha! Hasn’t a clue it’s a puticlub!” While they crossed the car park, Roni winked, one red-veined eye glinting dully, and slapped Gabriel on the back. “Promised you a treat, no? You can take your pick of the women!”
Gabriel gasped. “No! No, I’ll wait here, after I’ve had a pee.”
“Bollocks! I’m paying. Don’t worry about the nose. They already know. I said it was thi-i-i-s big!”
“Ha! They’ll be disappointed, eh?” Laughing provoked the usual coughing fit. Roni fist-thumped his chest. “First time, no? You’ve some catching up to do! Can’t get too much.” He gave Gabriel’s arm a clumsy thump. “Venga! Work off that excessive emotion. They’ve a pretty good selection. Even a Chinese. Haven’t tried her myself, but they say she’s an acrobatic little fucker. No tits to speak of, but — Hola, amigo! How’s things?”
An old man in a moth-eaten cardigan held the door open. The air that rushed out smelled of coffee, liquor and sickly perfume.
“But spectacular nipples, they say. Still, if I were you, I’d stick to regular Spanish first time.”
The lights — those that worked — were mercifully dim. Ten scantily clad women were flirting with men at the bar. Roni invited two for a drink. They greeted him like an old friend and ordered extravagant-sounding cocktails. When Roni complained that drinks in puticlubs were overpriced, they laughed like hysterical hens.
The older woman smiled — a wrinkled, lipstick-on-teeth smile. ‘No need to hide it, Gabi, cariño! We’re all friends here.”
He lowered his hand. The younger woman’s breath hitched.
The older one grimaced at Roni. “What a shame, and him such a hunk!”
A hunk. Yolanda called me a hunk … before she saw it.
“See?” said Roni. “They don’t give a gnat’s bollocks about it!”
Gabriel nearly said, They can’t afford to be picky. Instead, he quipped, “Gnats don’t have bollocks,” which provoked fits of hen-cackles.
While Roni chatted them up, Gabriel studied their chipped nail polish and the cigarette burns in their nylon underwear, and watched a cockroach running up the wall tiles. It touched a ragged electric cable, fell and landed belly-up, all jerking legs and feelers.
After a dish of bitter olives, a slice of wet potato omelette and two large brandies that burned his throat, Gabriel found himself following the younger woman upstairs — a girl, really, probably no older than himself, with a pimply face and a wilted red carnation behind one ear. Called Paloma.
He felt dizzy. His head fizzed like a neon sign advertising his sordid mission. A pulse jumped like a cricket in every finger and toe. He followed the girl’s undignified progress along a shabby corridor dimly lit by a Moroccan-style lantern. He studied its faint kaleidoscope on the worn floor tiles — then noticed her ankles wobbling alarmingly in red high-heeled shoes. There was something poignant about those shoes. They were too big. Begged, borrowed or handed down, he guessed. Expressly for this walk of shame.
She nudged him into a murky cell that stank, like her, of cheap scent and cigarettes, with a wall of erotic photographs. He hesitated, feeling dirty.
Behind him now, she giggled. “Relax, cariño. I’ll show you what to do.”
He felt a hand stroke his buttock; shrank from it when it slid to the front.
“Your boss paid for half an hour. Good man, no?”
Her fingers moved over his intimate parts, prompting an involuntary response. He tried forcing his mind to go blank. Forget the smells, the sordid room. Forget Yolanda. Fabulous Yolanda with her fizzy eyes and silly jokes . . . Yolanda dancing . . . swirling her skirt and twirling her hands and fluttering her fan like a scarlet bird . . .
Forget about love. Love was for the others.
I shouldn’t have come here. Shouldn’t have agreed to this, “Night out.” Still, I’m glad I spoke up about those ponies.
He watched pale fingers with chipped red nail polish unfasten his trousers, and let the words of the gentleman horse-breeder fill his head: You were brave to speak up.