Let Things Lie
SEATED IMMOBILE BENEATH the jacarandas in the Plaza, gnarled hands on his stick, he gazed expressionlessly west beyond the village kids punting a ball around the dry fountain. He was well into his eighties, lived with a niece – a widow with a loft of canaries in her house ending the street that wandered south to Alicante. His name: Artemio Sirvent-Carbonell but villagers knew him as ‘Narbonne’ because he had returned from there to the village five years before.
He was also known for two things: first for being a man of few words and second for being one side of a village quarrel that dated back to the Civil War. He was Republican and not on speaking terms with José Muscaret-Casanova, another village anciano who lived with his wife of fifty years, Concepcíon Verdu – Fenollar, in a large house behind a high wall at the North end of the village. He’d been Nationalist and some said he had betrayed Narbonne to the Guardia Civil causing him to flee for his life and that he’d then stolen his land by bribing the mayor to fiddle the catastral and discreetly re-draw some boundaries. The land: a dozen terraces of olive trees you could just see west from the Plaza at the foot of the Sierra.
As always with the Civil War, facts were hazy. Most protagonists wanted to forget. There were murmurings about Narbonne’s involvement with Concepcíon. Some said that she’d been the village beauty and Narbonne’s novia before his exile. Now she was a fat, unhappy, woman, pale and asthmatic, only seen on a balcony when village processions went by – or sometimes in the front seat of José’s Mercedes.
As far as the village was concerned the situation was settled. The two men didn’t speak. They lived at separate ends of the village. They were in the late autumn of their days and when they died their feud would die with them. There was nothing to be resolved. Narbonne maintained his seat beneath the jacaranda, Concepcíon wheezed away in her shadowy Sala de Estar and José sipped cognac with cronies in the card room at the men’s club behind the church - though a few years before he might have been with his flashy mistress in Alicante.
Then one sleepy afternoon an English couple arrived in the Plaza. He was paunchy, jovial, wearing mint-white trainers, sherbet yellow shirt and a baseball cap. His wife, equally plump, constantly took photographs with a tiny camera. They were torched with sunburn and laughed when no-one had made a joke. They sat outside Pepe’s bar and held him in conversation. Pepé had a little tourist English. They said they were ‘just cruising around’ and possibly looking for a plot for their dream house. He was selling his earth moving business in Watford ‘and I’ll rent a digger and do me own ground-work see’. Vick Treadwell continued his interrogation of Pepé for about an hour as his wife, Renée, referred to as ‘Reen’ by her husband, kept going from the table and taking photographs – including one of Narbonne beneath the Jacaranda. He was, she commented, ‘so typical’.
Pepé pocketed a massive tip, pretended to laugh at a joke he didn’t understand and went back to his bar shaking his head. The couple walked out of the Plaza in the direction of the club.
That late summer and autumn they became familiar figures. There were whispers that José Muscaret had taken them to the exclusive Montiboli for lunch and they’d been seen wandering the olive groves below the sierra. Vick made Pepé’s bar his base. He gave thumbs up signs to the bar flies and smiled at the children crowding the freezer unit for lollies. One day he came over to Narbonne and handed him a photograph. Narbonne took it. It was upside down. Vick , laughing loudly, turned it the right way up. Narbonne looked at it expressionlessly and handed it back. Vick shrugged and returned to his wife – who was photographing some village kids with a puppy. ‘Not interested’ he said, ‘but I bet those old boys could tell a few stories eh? – that one in particular. Pepé says he doesn’t speak to any one these days – least of all José. Some old argument. Get a life eh?’
Autumn moved on. Narbonne appeared in the Plaza impassive as usual, as ever gazing west, but something had unsettled him. The only person that really talked to him was his niece; a busy little women, a regular in Maruja’s store where she gathered news and gossip. One morning she’d told Narbonne that the old olive grove had been sold to the ‘Ingleses’ – that they were building a house on the second terrace up and a swimming pool on the terrace above that. The alcalde had approved it all. As she spoke she noticed a change in Narbonne’s usually saturnine receipt of village information. He seemed troubled, almost disturbed.
‘What’s the matter Artemio?– you’ve told me many times you don’t want anything to do with it all that. ‘All in the past, let’s things lie.’ you said.’
‘It’s nothing.’ he said finally. She scurried back to the kitchen leaving him in thoughtful silence but as he was leaving for his slow progress up to the Plaza, he said:
‘Carmencita, tell me when they want to start the building there, won’t you. Anything you hear, just let me know.’
‘Yes, of course’ she replied thinking nothing of his request – only that she was unlikely to forget it for he made so few.
A week later in the Plaza Carmencita walked over to Narbonne from a gaggle of woman chattering on the corner.
‘Tio – the Englishman came to our house.’
He looked up at her surprisingly quickly.
‘He said he wishes to talk with you.’
‘Oh, I don’t know – his Spanish is very bad – just that he would like to buy you a copa at Pepé’s at six this evening.’
Then he saw the Englishman –his yellow shirt, giving him a thumbs up sign from outside Pepé’s, grinning and nodding his head. His wife was photographing a cat. Narbonne made a slight affirmative nod – but no other expression passed his face.
‘All right.’ he murmured to his niece, ‘I think I know what it’s about. I’ll see him.’
After a light lunch, he had an hour’s sleep in his quiet back room. When he woke he heard the drone of an earth digger. It was on the second terrace, it’s arm and bucket moving up and down tipping red soil into a heap. He could see a yellow shirt in the driver’s seat. He watched it carefully until it stopped.
From the wardrobe he pulled out his best French suit. He asked Carmencita to iron a clean shirt, took a red tie from tissue paper and methodically polished his best leather shoes. He wanted to be appropriately dressed for the ‘consulta’. The Englishmen had bought the land. He was too advanced in years to consider making any kind of dispute over the matter but he would answer questions the Englishmen might have despite those children’s shoes he wore and the ridiculous American hat. He’d been graceless over that photograph. The Englishmen had meant no harm. He would assist for there was one issue on which the Englishmen would need help. Something José knew nothing about.
At 5.30 he left his room.
‘Oh Tio – you look like a politician!’ said Carmencita, astonished.
‘I am to talk business,’ he said.
‘What business cariño?’
‘The Englishmen and the land – it was mine you know, before that José.’
‘You don’t want trouble Tio –that José you know what he’s like.’
‘No, no trouble – let things lie, but I appreciate being asked, you know. It is courteous – I am not too old for that.’
He made his way up the street towards the square. As he passed beaded doorways he heard whispering: ‘¡Ay que guapo!’ and ‘¡Buena suerte Narbonne!’ but he made only faintest acknowledgment. As he turned into the Plaza, he was startled to find a crowd outside Pepé’s. As he came closer they moved aside to let him through as if he was arriving for some special fiesta. He didn’t know whether to feel flattered or intimidated. On entering the crowded bar he saw the Englishmen’s broad back with its yellow shirt and the plump thighs of his wife seated and talking to someone he couldn’t see. The bar’s noisy chatter suddenly went silent. The Englishmen laughing turned and said ‘¡Hola Viejo! ¡Bienvenido! ¡Bienvenido!’ then words he didn’t understand as he grabbed his elbow and led him to the table. Seated there was José. Grinning and putting forward a claw like hand, he rose from his seat to embrace him brushing his cheeks three times. The murmuring in the bar rose to fever pitch. Without changing his expression in any way, as if in a trance, Narbonne shook the proffered hand, the English women’s camera flashed and the two old men sat down.
Pepé’s voice whispered in his ear ‘I’m sorry viejo but this Englishmen insisted that you two old souls should make up your quarrel and so he set this up. He wanted to see you shake hands and make up. He has bought some Barcelona Cava – here have a glass. He means no harm.’ José sat there looking at Narbonne. His fixed smile revealed a glint of gold in his mouth. All Narbonne could do was nod slightly and let the tumult of voices drown him. In the babble was the laughter of the Englishmen and the cackle of his wife. She took photograph after photograph as various villagers shook the Englishmen’s hand.
At noon next day, he was back beneath the Jacaranda. It was hot. Dust devils whisked about the Plaza. There were no children about.
His face was expressionless - but running through his head was a wild rush of memories:
Sixty years before in the olive grove desperately hauling boxes from the hidden sacks the Asturians had delivered at nightfall. Man-handling them into the pit dug for an irrigation tank, two metres deep and five by three - was it deep enough? Despite the effort that almost made him weep, he could not get thoughts of Concepcíon out of his mind, her sobs when he said he had to leave by dawn, her promises to wait for him and frantic kisses. By four the boxes were placed. He had to leave the third terrace looking absolutely undisturbed, the tank filled with stones with an earth cover. No–one in the village knew of the deal he’d made – he only hoped that the partisan cell up in Aitana had got his message. There was enough to blow the Alcoy bridge to atoms.
He remembered the road to Barcelona, the hunger, German planes and entry into a cold unwelcoming France. He never told anyone of the things he’d done just to survive.
For years he believed the government couldn’t last – that he could return to his village and to his terraces at the foot of the Sierra. But the Caudillo proved a long lived old goat. Word came of José’s dealings, of Concepcíon and their big wedding. He made a life in France. He never married. He saved all his money to enable a return to his village, but not until Spain was free. When it was, eventually he returned.
The wind whisked the dust spirals around the square. From the west, a glimpse of yellow - the drone of a digger on the third terrace.
And then a sudden plume of grey smoke from a flaring ground of fire and as the full roar of the sound pounded into the square he could see fragments of stone, earth, digger and olive trees rise high into the air.
The echoes cracked and rumbled around the walls of the church and the sierras and were all that one heard before the running feet and the shouts