A Life of Miracles (2)

This is the 'set-up' chapter of the fictional book based on my life in Montana and Spain and bringing Didi home...I always wanted to write about a character 'Watlington P Risborough' having been amused so many times by the signpost on the M40 to London which points the way to Watlington and Princes Risborough but doesn't have the space...

Frankly Speaking Chapter Two
copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2002


It is night time and I am sitting by the French windows overlooking the lower village, the mountains and, far below, the sea. Frankly is asleep on her rug at my feet, her nose whiffling as she chases rabbits in a dream. We are surrounded by lighted candles to enhance the dim bulbs of the wooden four-branch chandelier hanging over the dining table.

I have a book in my hands but I am not reading, rather sitting in a quiet dream, assimilating my day and tracing very slight echoes of fear and loneliness which keep approaching but are, so far, being rebuffed by an unusual feeling of peace.You see, nobody in the world except the owner of this little whitewashed house knows exactly where I am. Not Alex, not my mother, not my friends.

Nobody has the telephone number and, unless I call out, there will be no calls in. I was going to keep in touch with a few people via email but Shimon’s phone is old-fashioned bakelite and the plug cannot be removed. I don’t have a mobile and, even if I did, it wouldn’t work here in the Alpacharras.

Even the BBC World Service is having trouble reaching me and that’s via my short wave radio. I gather that there is trouble in the Middle East again and that some African president is holding a peace conference without inviting anyone who dislikes him but neither of these is relevant to me.

There is no one to tell me anything; what I should do, what I should feel, who I should be. I am alone.

I have achieved a lot today. I have braved the shop next door and bought fish, chicken, rice and vegetables. I had to wait for maybe 20 minutes before I was served, not because the queue was so very long but because from the moment that shop opens until the time it closes, it is filled with gossiping women.

Everyone was talking at the tops of their voices and my slightly apologetic presence was not regarded as even vaguely important. As the voices soared and fell it reconfirmed that my phlegmatic English psyche just can’t compute the idea of such enthusiasm or rancour being voiced over the price of fish. It is all a plot. Something drastic is being planned.

The village shop is, without doubt, a hotbed of vice. Even now, at 9pm, the urgent tones of the protagonists are echoing out through the chains that fall over the shop door to keep the flies out - and in through my bathroom window.

If I looked out, I would see the shadows of a vast Mafia of women (or is it a Mafia of vast women?) perched on every available protuberance - both of the shop’s and theirs - gesticulating, nodding and generally explaining to each other either 1) What’s wrong with the world, 2) That they had always said that that was what was bound to happen - and, most importantly, 3) How best to change their everyday language each morning so that any visiting foreigners never get the hang of it.

For this is not Spanish. The Los Poopians speak their own particular dialect. I had to buy my purchases today by pointing and smiling for my Spanish phrase book and its companion CD are virtually useless and my attempts to voice what I have learnt so far met with blank incomprehension all round.Perhaps it’s not a dialect. In fact, I think it’s a secret code. Something like adding an extra ‘g’ to every third syllable on alternate Thursdays. The Enigma Code machines of World War Two are probably secreted at the back of the village church and people go and swot up on the latest enhancement to the language after service on Sundays.

The shop itself is a tardis – seeming far bigger inside than out and it has quite enough variety of food for anyone to live on – but no fresh milk nor eggs. Shimon told me that you buy those, together with goat’s cheese from individuals in the village. I shall look forward to that. The idea of bringing home a jug of fresh, warm goat’s milk is wonderfully appealing.

Only one of my purchases has proved to be a total waste of time – but it could have been a lot worse. On one dim shelf I saw a pile of small packages called ‘nouget’. Assuming that it was nougat, I added one to my pile of purchases but when I brought it home and looked more closely an explicit picture of a skeleton chasing rats put that faint hope to rest. It is obviously rat poison.
That could have been nasty.

I have explored the house, with its cool lower floor with two extra bedrooms, the double door that goes out onto another little courtyard lower down on Calle La Era and its tiled, plaster-covered floor. The walls are pock-marked and brittle with what must have been a cowboy plastering job or, maybe, it’s just too damp down there for the work to hold. Whatever, the cause, it has rearranged itself all over the floor. I swept it all up but, five hours later, more has fallen. I think I will leave the lower floor be and live upstairs as much as I can.

I have dusted and swept the little bedroom with its curtain-covered wardrobe space half-filled with Shimon’s clothes and now completely filled with mine. The floor is of red tiling throughout and it needs re-colouring and polishing but it is now, at least, clean.

The books, which cover one entire wall, will have to wait another day. They are all brittle from damp and heat and you can scrape grey dust from the spines. I thought that Shimon came here twice a year but if so, he obviously doesn’t do housework.The brown wooden beams across the six foot by four foot skylight above are encrusted with spiders’ webs, their occupants, both alive and dead and the empty carcasses of their prey.

The skylight is above the stairs and I can’t reach the beams even with a broom so there is nothing I can do.

The fridge freezer has been scrubbed and the few dead contents within exhumed and fumigated. There was some margarine, the remnants of something which had once been a head of garlic and an opened packet of long-life milk all of which had evolved into new and repulsive life forms but had fortunately not yet developed the power of movement. The fridge itself stank as they will if kept closed.

I have done some washing (by hand) and hung my travelling clothes out on an airer on the roof. There are steps by the front door up onto a perfectly barren square of whitewashed concrete with walls of barely a foot high around it. The view is magnificent down to the sea and across the roofs of about fifty other houses below me. The houses behind me, higher up the hillside can probably watch me as I can watch others.

If it gets too hot inside, perhaps I can bring a mattress up and sleep here under the great black canopy of night and it’s familiar Western stars.

I know how to use the calor gas-powered immersion heater and cooker – and I know that we are dangerously low on gas and that the shop does not sell it. I know that the water comes on, briefly, only twice a day and that I am going to have to live with the constant companionship of flies.

I know that there is no television, let alone satellite or cable and that there is no one to entertain me but myself. No one to comfort me either should I weep or grieve.However, the telephone is there and I can activate half of England in a network of communications from one single phone call to my mother if and when I want to.

But for the moment, it is enough to sit in the candlelight with a stomach full of home-made fish and lentil stew and a half-drunk glass of rough Spanish wine sitting on the floor beside me. I have gathered kindling from the fields to make a fire in the open hearth if I want one and there are enough logs under the awning below the steps to the roof to last for most the winter. There are no sounds apart from the echo of the voices of the women in the shop and the soft sound of Frankly’s breathing and there is nothing to do but immerse myself in one of Shimon’s old and fragile books.

I once heard someone say that pain and grief were caused by too much past and that fear was caused by too much future. My past and future are dormant and all I have is now. It is enough.


Of course the following morning I am miserable as hell and howl all over Frankly and the World Service. Fortunately the morning’s serialisation is Juliet Stevenson reading Madame Bovary and I am so irritated both by her voice and Emma Bovary’s insipidness that the grief turns to anger and I stomp furiously out of the house for the morning walk rather than winging and wining my way up to the top of the hill.

I hate Alex and all that he stands for. I hate his lies and betrayal and his sanctimonious words that it is ‘all for the best.’ I will be better off without him but I don’t need him to tell me that.

Today I turn left out of the village, still on a mule path, but a more arid one with less vegetation. The steep climb up means that I am soon looking down on Los Poops and I cannot help noticing that there is a gathering of people around one particular house. As I watch, a coffin is brought out and a small cortege begins to make its way up the street. I know that the graveyard is just around the corner – so I hurry ahead to avoid getting caught up in the way. I can always loop around the hill and return to the village from the other direction. As I walk, I can see two police cars winding their way up to the village.

Shimon told me something about some ex-police commissioner living here. Perhaps he is the one who has died and old colleagues are coming to mourn him.

The graveyard is a neat affair, firmly fenced off from the rest of its surroundings and with a high wall cut into the hillside for mini-crypts holding the bodies of about half the residents. Some more ordinary graves are scattered around too, each one looking fresh with flowers. They are plastic but it’s the thought that counts.

I chivvy Frankly on swiftly and she grumbles to herself, complaining about the heat and the lack of grass to eat for her digestion. Moments later she is distracted by being bounced on by what looks like a half-grown grey and black husky. It bounces on me too so I am hardly surprised to hear a voice call: ‘Tigger!’ from the other side of a grove of long-leaved trees.

What does surprise me is that it is obviously an Englishwoman’s voice and its owner confirms that with her fair colouring and faded 1980s Laura Ashley dress.

My first delight at seeing a fellow countrywoman is tempered with some deep, long forgotten instinct that tugs at me as she approaches with a ‘Cooeee!’ and a friendly wave. It is like the first day at school or at a new job when you know deep inside that the first kind soul who wants to make friends with you is going to be the one person you never want to see again.

I have three alternatives: pretend to be a deaf mute, jump over the edge of the path and run as fast as I can or swallow hard and take my medicine.I school my face into a polite and welcoming smile.

‘Good morning. You must be Anna,’ says the woman in very precise tones, holding out her had to be shaken.

Her grasp is claw-like but I’m aware that I am already paranoid. How does she know who I am? What does she know about me? However, I won’t need to ask any questions; all I have to do is listen.

‘Shimon let me know that you were coming,’ she says gaily. ‘You’ve been living in Colorado and you’re bringing your sweet little dog back to England on the Pet Travel Scheme.

‘I’m so sorry I wasn’t here yesterday to welcome you. I wasn’t sure which day you were coming. Shimon is so naughty; he really doesn’t keep in touch as much as he should.

‘Let me introduce myself. I’m Stella Collins and I live in the big house over on the top up there.’ She waves her hand airily at the village but as I am in the process of being bounced on again by Tigger who nearly winds me with a two-pawed attack on my stomach, I am more concerned about being half knocked backwards against a tree.

‘Careful Tigger,’ says Stella absently. ‘Silly boy! He’s such an enthusiastic dog. I can’t bear these repressed little animals that don’t express themselves, can you?’

‘Ah,’ I say wisely, getting my breath back.Stella is a striking-looking woman in her sixties with a deeply lined face and a wide mouth. Her hair is naturally blond turning grey and, from the tightness of the dress, her figure has obviously seen better days.We walk on together and it is clear that Frankly and I have been adopted. Frankly is currently being bounced on and bearing it with a stoicism bordering on saintliness.

I foolishly try to distract Tigger and get a terribly friendly little bite on my hand.

Meanwhile, Stella is twittering on and asking questions. I am prepared to be determinedly reticent about the reason why I am in Los Poops but Stella is so pleased to have an audience that she never creates a space for a question to be answered and, instead, regales me with details of village life and its occupants. Within the space of ten minutes I go from being paralysingly ignorant of Los Poops and its inhabitants to having rather more information than I really wanted to know.

In a nutshell:David and Stella moved to Los Poops six years ago when they both took early retirement from their publishing business. They own two houses, one of which they rent out to visitors. Two of their dogs have been poisoned by the villagers.

‘It’s the hunters that do it,’ she says cheerfully as I look at Frankly in horror. ‘If the dogs take any of the game they’re systematically poisoned. Often, they just put down rat poison everywhere.’

Tigger bounces on me again from behind without any attempt of restraint from his Mistress and I wonder whether it’s just Stella’s dogs that get poisoned. I know already just how easy it is to get rat poison.

Also living here are Rani and Sylvia who have an open marriage. They lived on a commune somewhere once and Sylvia has a tendency to take lovers much younger than her.

‘Except there aren’t any young men left in the village any more,’ says Stella, not noticing my slightly bemused expression at being told the intimate personal lives of total strangers. ‘They’ve all gone to look for the bright lights in Malaga. So she has to look further afield now.’

There’s Katherine too, who takes care of the Posada since George and Emily his wife moved down to the coast. George comes up three days a week and, now that Katherine’s husband has gone to Madrid and (there is a slightly deprecating laugh there that I don’t understand), there is talk about that. I suspect that there isn’t much talk that doesn’t originate with Stella.

The rest of the Britons are visitors – and five or six are present in the village at the moment. I haven’t seen them? Oh, they’re out and about. I’ll bump into them soon enough. Sarah hasn’t been here for about six months now and her house desperately needs a new roof. She really ought to attend to it. As for Shimon, well it must be a year since he turned up and that was with really the most unsuitable girlfriend.

Stella has a long and elegant neck but unfortunately it is not long enough for me to tie a knot in it on behalf of all these people who might actually have a life.

‘And the Risboroughs,’ she says, with what I know will become a very irritating little laugh.

‘Well, they’re American of course. Such a silly idea to buy a house here. They thought they were going to be living in England and decided on a holiday home in Los Poops. My dear, they completely gutted it and put all sorts of unsuitable things in. But he got transferred back to the States so it’s all wasted. She never liked it here anyway. He’s visiting at the moment to put the house is up for sale but it’s far too grand for anyone round here to be able to afford it now.’

I am getting dizzy from all this unwanted information but there are some things that I do need to know so, as Stella draws breath I ask about the water situation. Is this rationing going to last?

She doesn’t know but there’s a long diatribe about how inconvenient it all is and how inefficient the Spanish authorities are.

Where do I buy calor gas? Oh, there’s a man who delivers once a month.

When would that be? Oh, sometime soon but he’s not very reliable. Great.

‘So who died?’ I ask, wondering if Stella knows as much about the indigenous Los Poopians as she does the immigrants.

‘Paco the builder,’ she says. ‘No loss. A wife beater. Oh, my dear, everyone knows it. Sanchia was perpetually covered in bruises. Heart attack I expect.’

‘I wondered if he had been in the police.’‘The police? Why?’‘Because of the police who were driving up the hill to be a part of the funeral.’

‘What?’ Stella’s nose goes pinched when she is excited. It gets two white marks on the side of the nostrils. She is avid for more details and tries to insist that we return to look at the funeral to see exactly who these policemen are.

With some difficulty, I decline but only escape after agreeing to go round for a drink with her and David tonight at seven. At least I haven’t been deemed worthy enough to be asked for supper.

Tigger is called and cajoled into turning back and Frankly stands, looking at me doubtfully. I stroke her soft ears and make the clicking sound that means ‘come on’ and she looks pleased.

Frankly at ten years old is unimpressed with puppies, particularly those that bounce. She is even more unimpressed by unfairly curtailed walks, no matter how hot it is.

We wander on, noting how the landscape is softer and greener where the crumpled hills meet - evidence of hidden streams which must flow in the spring. I am trying to work out how to circle the village without walking too far but my attention is caught by what looks like a ruin just a little further on below us. It’s just a house without a roof but it is surrounded by little walled gardens which show how much it was once loved.

There are pink and yellow climbing roses and what looks like lilies as well as fruit trees and a vine which has over run everything.

I find myself working my way down across the parched earth and between almond trees to take a closer look but before I am near enough for my footsteps to be heard, a figure appears from behind the house. It is a man, silver-grey haired, not very tall but definitely not a local Spaniard by his colouring and the quality of his clothes. He is in jeans but they are very smart jeans – probably designer label – and they are topped by a businessman’s crisp blue and white striped shirt.

I can see his face now; not handsome, not ugly, probably late forties or early fifties - and it seems blurred in a strange sort of way. It is not until he raises a hand to his eyes that I realise that he has been crying.

I stop dead. Whoever he may be, he does not want a stranger to see him like that.

There is a clump of bushes to my right so I move swiftly behind them and duck down to hide. Frankly, however, trots happily on down the hill.

He sees her just as she sees him and stops with one front paw slightly raised. The man looks curiously at her for a moment and then hastily wipes his eyes with the back of his hand before he looks around to see if the owner is present. Seeing no one, he drops into a crouching position and stretches out his hand. This is the kind of behaviour that Frankly usually ignores but today she trots on, cautiously, until she is close enough for him to reach out to stroke her.

Man and dog regard each other with close attention for some moments and come to a mutual understanding as to the necessity of Frankly’s ears being stroked.

‘Hey fella,’ says the man, identifying himself as the American Mr Risborough. ‘How are you doing?’

He has obviously owned dogs because he knows just how to scratch her ears properly and Frankly knows that she has found a friend. She sits down and puts her head on one side while raising a paw with which to entreat him to continue.

‘So where are you from?’ says the man looking at the tag on her collar which still has our Colorado address. This evidently surprises him (as it would) but it obviously distresses him slightly too.

‘What are you doing here?’ he says putting his head right down to Frankly’s. ‘Why aren’t you at home?’ Then he pushes back the silvery hair which is falling over his forehead and sits down with his back to me, on a piece of broken wall, still stroking Frankly’s ears. I think he is crying again.

Now what do I do? I can’t just stand up and walk down. I could edge away back to the path while his back is turned and pretend that I just came round the corner but if he is crying he won’t want anyone to see.

‘Coo-eee Aaaaannnna!’Oh bugger, it’s that interfering old bat. She is not in sight yet but her voice has had an electrifying effect on the man. He virtually dives back into the ruins, leaving Frankly on her own. At least that problem is solved.

I turn, reluctantly back up the hill, trusting Frankly to follow me, just as Stella comes trotting into view.

‘Oh there you are!’ she trills. ‘Oh my! Such a shock! The police! Paco was murdered!’

We walk back together into the village. I am a realist and I know that no one could ever escape a woman such as Stella when she is so big with news. Just my luck to move into a village which has a murder within 48 hours. So much for peace and quiet.

Apparently, the funeral has been stopped and the coffin taken down to Motril, the nearest coastal town, for a post mortem.‘So they don’t know that he was murdered; they just suspect it.’

‘There must be a very good reason for their suspecting it,’ says Stella grimly. ‘The doctor certified natural causes on the death certificate so someone must have reported something suspicious. Obviously Sanchia would be top of the list – it must be poisoning. But isn’t here; she’s been visiting her mother this week.’

But I find out fairly swiftly that even if they don’t suspect Sanchia, they do appear to suspect me!

Two short, grey, middle-aged policemen turn up at my door hour after I have escaped Stella and got home.

Frankly roars at them like the good guard dog she is but I can do nothing but let them in politely – and the questions begin.

But of course they speak no English and I speak virtually no Spanish. For all I know, they could be asking me if I dance the can-can.‘No hablo Espanol, Senor,’ I say, smiling apologetically making a hopeless gesture with my hands but they don’t appear to believe me. I can catch the words ‘Halevi’ and ‘casa’ and several others which sound familiar but it is a hopeless task.

Then I spot the word ‘nouget’ and my eyes stray to the pack of rat poison on top of the fridge.

The great detective with the moustache follows my gaze and almost leaps to impound the clue
before I can move. He is standing with the unopened packet jabbering away to his companion excitedly. Then they both start looking through the rubbish in the pedal bin.

‘Hang on a minute!’ I say angrily but I am of no account. I am told firmly to sit down and be silent (and you can understand those words in any language) while they examine the contents of my store cupboard and the rest of the kitchen. This is surreal. Am I supposed to have poisoned a man I have never even met with an unopened pack of rat poison?

Dear God, don’t let them arrest me and take me away. I suppose they would have to find me an interpreter but what would happen to Frankly in the meantime?

One of the officers turns back to me and speaks with gestures and I work out that he is going to try and find someone who speaks both Spanish and English. At least, I hope that’s what he said. Otherwise it could have been ‘I’m going to fetch the handcuffs and you’re nicked Madam.’

The other officer and I are left, looking slightly awkward. He has a gun in a holster and he puts his hand on it warningly. Of course, I had already considered wrestling him to the ground and making my escape but I think I’ll put my faith in the power of the spoken word.

It is a surprise to see who the first officer brings: it is the American man I saw at the ruined cottage. His face is set and he is speaking in accented but what appears to be fluent Spanish as he comes in through the door.

Frankly, who has been ignoring everything pointedly and hiding under the table, immediately comes forward squeaking a welcome and the man’s face softens at once. He leans down to pet her before he turns to greet me. He is wearing cowboy boots and the jeans are definitely Armani.

‘How do you do Ma’am,’ he says in a soft cowboy drawl. ‘My name is Watlington P. Risborough. I have a house here in Los Poops and these gentlemen from La Guardia have asked me if I could translate some questions for you.’

I bow my head in assent, watching him carefully. He is a strange mixture of two men in one; an urban cowboy if you like with soft skin but a creased face which has known severe weather. The eyes are set wide and are of a deep, velvet brown and the chin is small but this is not a weak man’s face. I would prefer this man to be on my side in a fight.

‘Would you and the other gentlemen like some tea or coffee?’ I ask.

‘Real coffee?’ he says hopefully.‘Ground coffee – from Colorado,’ I say.

‘That would be great.’ It has worked; we are on the same side. He turns and asks the two policemen what they would like to drink but this is obviously not the way they want to play it and a curt ‘no’ is followed by a stream of questions or instructions.

‘May I?’ I gesture towards the kitchen. Mr Risborough (I can’t call him Watlington P, I simply can’t! My lips twitch at the thought) asks the Guardia if I may make coffee and they assent gruffly. This is not turning out to be quite the keen interrogation they had planned.

Everyone watches me as I light the gas cooker with a match and put the kettle on. I take a small packet of Oreos out of the cupboard and put some on a plate and then turn to my questioner with a query on my face. He is looking at me keenly and one side of his mouth turns up in a smile as he takes a biscuit.

‘The police are investigating the death of a villager, Paco Ramon,’ he says. ‘They believe that he was killed by rat poison and they have heard that you were seen buying rat poison at the shop yesterday.’

That bloody mafia of women!

‘Yes, they have already found the stuff I bought,’ I say. ‘I bought it by accident because I thought it was nougat. I gather that they think that I may have killed a man I have never met, 24 hours after arriving in a country I’d never visited before, using a pack of poison that hasn’t been opened.’

‘Ah,’ says Risborough (Watlington P.) taking another biscuit. ‘Well, they have to look into every circumstance, Ma’am.’

The kettle has boiled and I am making coffee in a cafetiere. ‘Milk and sugar?’ I say.

‘Just black. Thanks.’

The two policemen break into a torrent of words but I have a feeling that Risborough, (Watlington P) is on my side and he calmly gestures to the table where we sit to drink our coffee.

‘They would like to know your name, where you have come from and why you are here in this house,’ he says. ‘And come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind knowing myself.’

I look up at those disconcertingly warm eyes which I know have recently been filled with tears and wonder who he is and what he means. This is not a man who would easily cry nor flirt unnecessarily.

‘You have a real cute dog,’ he adds with a smile.Frankly, the little trollop, is all over him, in bliss from prolonged ear scratching.

‘My name is Anna Marks,’ I say. ‘I am English but I have been living in Colorado, USA. I am here because I don’t want my dog to go into quarantine before I return to the UK so I am registering her as a European dog so that I can take her into the UK on the Pet Travel Scheme. Shimon Halevi, the house’s owner is an old friend of mine and he has lent me his house to stay in.’

‘No, that won’t do,’ says Risborough. ‘They won’t buy any of that. Except the name, of course.’

‘What?’

‘La Guardia need things simple. That is just way too complicated for them. Can I tell them that you are Halevi’s girlfriend come out here before him to clear the place up? They’ll understand that and it will help. Halevi’s real respected around here.’

‘But it’s not true!’

‘Ma’am, that is of no relevance whatsoever when it comes to Spanish law!’ His face is set but there is a twinkle in those brown eyes and I can’t help but twinkle back.

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Tell them what you think will work. Just save me from the hangman.’

‘Oh it wouldn’t be as bad as that,’ he assures me. ‘Just a few years in prison with time off for good behaviour. Nobody holds much of a brief for Paco around here.’

Then turns to the police and speaks in swift, impressive Spanish. The conversation goes back and forwards for a few minutes and I can see that he is winning them over. Risborough (Watlington P) seems to have a knack of winning people over. I feel myself backing off mentally. The charm offensive is not going to work on me!

Frankly, on the other hand, is trying to climb up on his lap, boss-eyed with bliss from his talented ear-scratching.

‘No,’ he says firmly putting his hand on her head. Frankly obeys instantly and sits, leaning against his leg. I am outraged. She would never obey me like that.

After some more discussion during which both the policemen get quite agitated and there is sufficient hand-waving for me to fear for the crockery in the wooden rack over the sink, the two officals nod to me and turn to leave.

‘Is that it?’ I say. ‘Do they still suspect me? What’s going on?’

Risborough (W.P.) waits until they have left before answering. Then he leans back in his chair as if he owns the place and smiles.

‘Nope,’ he says. ‘They never really did. They just hoped that they would be able to pin it on a stranger. Only natural.’

‘Why? Who do they suspect?’ It is a silly question – I don’t know anyone in the village so the answer won’t make sense.

‘Every single one of the women,’ he says. ‘Is there any more coffee?’

‘What?’

‘Coffee. Is there any more?’Now he is teasing me and I feel irritation rise. For God’s sake, I don’t need a week like this last one has been cumulating with police coming round to arrest me and now some smart-arse American playing games.

‘Ah,’ says Watlington P. Risborough (God how those initials annoy me. Trust some stupid American to have pretentious name like that). ‘You’re mad at me. I’m sorry. I should be more thoughtful. I don’t know who you are or why you’re here – apart from what you’ve told me – and I’m treating you like some kind of friend. I’m sorry.’

Well that one’s a facer! Silently I pour him some more coffee and take my feelings out on Frankly by grimacing furiously at her. She totally ignores me. Watlington P. Pretentious’s right hand is still caressing her head.

‘Thanks,’ he says, drinking the coffee and taking his time. He must be a Mid-Westerner; no East or West coast American would take so long about anything.

‘What seems to have happened is this. Every single Spanish-born woman in the village bought rat poison yesterday. Every single woman called in on Paco sometime yesterday and now every single woman only has an empty packet left and a completely spurious story about what they used it for.’

‘What?’ I sit down, amazed. ‘You mean every woman is under suspicion?’

‘Yep – that is, nope. The police know perfectly well that somebody killed Paco. He was a bad lot and his wife had trouble with him. He would beat up on other guys too. I guess he drank and they say he took cocaine too…’

Cocaine? Conspiracy? Murder? What kind of hell-hole have I come to?

‘But they’re not going to be able to prove a thing. There are just too many suspects. The women have obviously conspired together to get rid of him while his wife was out of town. Maybe she knows about it; maybe not. One thing’s for sure: nobody’s going to say a thing.

‘I think they’re going to call off the post mortem and let it stand as natural causes. Not a lot else they can do.’

‘Oh my God!’ I remember yesterday and the women in the shop. Were they planning this then? Was my joking thought about their plotting real?

‘But one of them must have done it! One of them must be a murderer.’ Or maybe all of them are! This is like Murder on the Orient Express.

‘Yep, but there’s nothing the police can do but arrest the lot of them and that wouldn’t stand for a moment.. I guess they hoped that it would turn out to be you. Why did you buy that poison again? You said you’d only been here a day.’

‘It was a mistake. I misread the label. I was going to take it back today.’

‘Well I wouldn’t do that!’

‘Er, no. Perhaps not.’We sit together in silence for a minute. I really don’t know what to think about anything. I just wish that my Alex were here so that I could talk it over with him. He would find it funny. The real Alex that is, the one who….No! Stop it. He doesn’t exist any more.

The hand which had been stroking Frankly is now resting on my fingers. It is quite an elegant hand with well-cut fingernails and dark hairs on the back of the wrist and a small gold signet ring on the fourth finger.

‘Are you okay?’

‘No, not really.’ I hang my head and pull my hand away.

‘Anything I can do?’

‘No. No, thank you.’

‘Well, if you ever need to talk something over, I’d be glad to listen.’

‘No, it’s okay, thank you.’ I am quite sharp now. I wish he would leave me alone. The whole day has been ruined and I need to have some time to myself.

‘Right.’ Watlington P. Stupid Name stands up. ‘Well…I’m er…leaving tomorrow for a couple of weeks but I’ll be back here at the beginning of next month. Will you still be here? If so, would you have dinner with me?’

‘I don’t know. I mean, yes, I’ll probably be here but…’ I look away.

‘I’m not asking you to sleep with me Anna; just dinner.’

My jaw drops. Our eyes meet. He is still talking. ‘I’m married. I’m not trying anything on you. But I’m out here in Spain quite a lot at the moment and I just think it would be nice to have some female company sometimes. Especially somebody who knows the US, particularly Colorado. I have a place there.’

He would. Probably a whole ranch. Those boots must have cost $500. But now I feel a fool.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I guess I’m just a bit fraught. Life has been a bit challenging lately.’

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I understand. Well, I’d love to listen sometime. Really I would.I’ll see you around.’ If he had a Stetson, he would be doffing it now.

‘Thanks,’ I get up, but he is already half-way to the door. In the movies, the hero always looks back at the heroine at the last minute and says something incredibly cool like ‘my friends call me Sundance.’

Oh, by the way,’ he says, looking back. ‘My friends call me Jack.’

The heroine would just say ‘’Bye Jack.’ I sit down, miss and fall off the chair.

Just like cowboys do, he walks back, asks if I’m okay, helps me up, ignores my giggles and smiles.

‘Why Jack?’ I say once I have recovered a modicum of equanimity.

‘Well I reckon Watlington’s a bit of a mouthful.’ He looks slightly sheepish. Interesting. Most Americans with ridiculous names are proud of them.

'There’s the ‘P’’.

‘Ah. Yes. No, that won’t work either,’ he says.

‘Go on. What does the ‘P’ stand for.’ I can’t resist this.

‘Perivale,’ he says and my face creases up involuntarily.

‘Your parents really didn’t like you did they?’ I say.

‘Well…Nope, it’s not that. It’s just the way things are done in my family.’

‘Then you must come from a very good family,’ I say, somewhat shakily, realising that I’ve been hideously rude.

‘Well, I guess,’ he says. ‘If anything good ever came from Nebraska.’

Then he grins because he is amused by my trying not to laugh.

‘It’s even worse than that,’ he says. ‘It’s not just Watlington Perivale Risborough, it’s Watlington Perivale Risborough III.’

We are both laughing. ‘Oh I am sorry!’ I say with my face splitting in two. ‘That really is tough.’

‘Yep,’ he says. ‘So it’s just Jack. I’ll see you.’ And he is gone.

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