Something was different about Eduardo’s singing that morning. What was it? Pilar adjusted her bolster, drew the soft embroidered sheet up to her chin against the cool February air and listened through open shutters to the morning song of the pueblo: A chorus of advice about the renovations to the house at the end of the street. The syncopated rhythm of the concrete mixer, giving way to an uneven, clicking percussion as the mule passed beneath her casement window. A moment’s pause, and the caged birds entered the overture in a squabbling series of sharps and flats accompanied by the cheerful arpeggios of Enriqueta, toiling up the long steps, ‘Buenos días! que tál?’ The whine of a scooter out on the hill track, the barking of the campo dogs, bells and bleating as the goats spilled out of the village corral and escaped onto the hillside, hooves slipping, mouths eager. Eduardo’s heroic baritone dominated this counterpoint, soaring into the foothills like a jubilate – or could it be an alboreás? A wedding song? Surely not. She parted the curtains and saw him, arms akimbo on the upper terrace of his overgrown garden, serenading a gorse bush. It was time to get up.
On her way to the new post office with a parcel for her niece in Barcelona, Pilar passed Eduardo on Church Square. He was dressed in his best green sweater and deep in conversation. His listeners seemed attentive. Later, she saw him on the bench in front of the sugar factory, hands curving expressively. On her way home, she found him on the long steps, hair newly cut, tamed and glossed, his stick a hazard to passing tourists. Pilar called in at the shop for bread and information.
‘Have you seen Eduardo? I think he’s up to something.’
Mercedes looked up from her account book and nodded. ‘He came by earlier. I’ve never known him to talk so much.’
There was a murmur of assent from other shoppers. They had seen him putting himself about the village. What could be going on? It was time to call on Carmen.
Carmen was shaking out her blankets, which was no easy task for a woman of her age and stature. A feather had lodged in her hair and her fine lips were pursed as she sent dark looks up and down the calle.
Pilar put down her shopping and straightened her back. ‘You’re early with your spring cleaning,’ she said.
‘I am moving downstairs!’ said Carmen, as if announcing a death.
‘You’re exchanging bedrooms with Eduardo?’
Pilar’s tone was incredulous. Eduardo’s room was a monastic cell with a narrow bed, a large wrought iron crucifix at its head, an upright chair, a mean wardrobe and one window that grudged entry to the light.
‘Where else?’ said Carmen. ‘My Eduardo has a novia!’ and she gestured upstairs with a flick of her elbow.
Pilar peered up the dark stairway, half expecting to see the girlfriend enthroned at its head like the Virgin waiting in her niche for Holy Week.
‘A girlfriend? Mother of God! How did he meet her?’
‘On the bus to Malaga.’ A great sigh. ‘He looked at her and she looked at him and that was that! And now my brother needs the matrimonio and the big bedroom, so I am moving downstairs. It is the custom.’
A bedspread billowed and almost engulfed them both. Pilar caught the other end.
‘In Torre, they walk hand in hand,’ said Carmen, as they brought the corners together.
Pilar retraced her steps to the shop, wondering at her cousin’s uncharacteristic compliance.
Mercedes’s shop had everything its customers required. There were potatoes, oranges and avocados from the small landholdings around the village; eggs from Acosta’s twenty fat hens that jostled the donkey for space in his backyard; pegs and paraffin and glossy cakes in cellophane packets. However, the shop’s main function was the reception, discussion and dissemination of village goings-on. Morning and evening, it was an aviary of twittering gossip presided over by Mercedes on her perch behind the counter, sharp nose alert for news. Pilar brought her some.
‘Eduardo – a novia? At his time of life? Que va!’
The women in the shop reflected on this new development. Eduardo had maintained an affable bachelorhood throughout his time as clerk in the local notary’s office where he counted the cash for the black property deals. Now retired, his routine was even less exciting. On weekdays he rose early to drive to the campo where he cultivated his small holding of olive and avocado, returning before mid-day for a meal cooked by his sister Carmen – just the two of them now, since Pedro’s sudden passing three years ago. Then, a siesta.
‘By the way,’ said Mercedes, ‘I heard something about plans to sell his land to the English to build a villa? Is that true, Pilar?’
‘He would not be the first.’
‘I heard this too,’ said Ana Flora. ‘Which means that-’
‘He’d have all the time in the world to pursue other interests,’ said Mercedes, with a flourish of the carving knife against the steel. ‘How many slices, Ana Flora?’
‘All the time in the world to run after fancy women,’ muttered Dolores.
‘Seven – no, give me eight,’ said Ana Flora. She turned to Dolores. ‘At his age, he needs to make up for the time he has lost.’
‘At his age, he should know better, what is done and what is not …’
‘Ai, Dolores, he is still a fine-looking man! Why should he not have some fun?’
The older woman sniffed, gathered up her loaf of bread, thrust it into her shopping trolley, put down a coin and steered an uneven course out of the shop. Pilar rubbed her ankle.
‘Hey, Pilar, so tell us, you of all people, what do you think?’
‘I think that Carmen may be thinking about the empty apartment she owns at the bottom of the village,’ said Pilar.
On Saturday, Pilar was invited to Carmen’s house for breakfast. The blunt note of the knocker sent shocked echoes down the calle.
‘Enter.’ Carmen’s tone was ceremonial.
Pilar pushed the half-open door and, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom of the parlour, she saw that Carmen was wearing her heavy gold earrings and a righteous expression.
‘May I present Maria, a friend of my Eduardo,’ she said.
A generously proportioned woman in her mid-fifties emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and blinking in the light from the open door.
‘Encantada,’ she said, offering a damp hand and a wary smile, her features a little melted by the years.
She turned back to her task. Pilar could see thick sticks of batter draining on kitchen paper by the side of the cooker. Eduardo was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where is he?’ whispered Pilar.
Carmen’s chin indicated the open door. ‘Usual place.’
Both women nodded. No change there, then. Eduardo would be sitting under the lemon trees, shoulder to shoulder with the other men of the village as they watched the world from under their hats.
The table was laid, the dish of chocolate was ready, and the churros stacked on a plate. Carmen unfolded a huge white napkin, tucked it into the chain of her crucifix and picked up a fork. Holding it like the baton of a conductor about to begin the overture, she looked from Pilar to Maria, and smiled sweetly.
‘Who will say grace?’
Pilar looked at her. What was her cousin up to now? She drew a breath, but Carmen was quicker.
‘I think our guest should be the one to ask a blessing on our breakfast, do you not agree, Pilar? Maria, por favor, you will say the words for us.’ Carmen folded her hands and looked expectantly at her guest.
Maria’s blush was magnificent. It began somewhere below the deep V of her cleavage and made its way slowly up to the dark roots of her hairline.
‘I – eh – I am not …’ Her eyes were riveted on the crucifix that gleamed on Carmen’s magenta bosom.
‘Not what! Not well? It will be the heat. Permit me.’ Carmen reached for her largest fan and agitated the air perilously close to her visitor’s nose.
Pilar took pity and spoke a brief grace. For a while, conversation took second place to the dipping and chewing of the oily churros. Pilar gratefully swallowed the last fragment and looked up to find Maria’s hopeful eyes upon her.
‘Very…delicious,’ she pronounced. ‘Very …’
Maria found her tongue. ‘Eh, it was my mother’s recipe, she always told me, you must whisk the egg whites with great care until they are in peaks, like …’ Her lips still shaping the final sound, she outlined with both hands a mountain range.
‘Like the snow that falls on the Sierra Nevada,’ said Carmen briskly. ‘Never mind. Practice makes master – or mistress, of course.’ Her smile illuminated the parlour.
The summer gave way to cooler autumn days, Pilar’s favourite time of year. She dragged a stool out onto her small bedroom balcony and breathed the smell of woodsmoke from a vast bonfire. She could hear Eduardo singing, ‘Ti ri ti ti tran tran tran.’ The morning recitals had been ringing through the upper village for a week or so now, accompanying the sounds of his spade and scythe as he cleaned up his terraced garden. A sharp breeze filled the air with fragments of scorched leaf. Pilar was about to close her casement window when Enriqueta came out of her house, her three children bouncing alongside her.
‘Our Lady be praised that I didn’t start my washing early!’ said Enriqueta, seeing Pilar. ‘Jesús-Miguel, come here. You have wood-ash in your hair.’ She brushed at the air as the boy dodged and ran away.
Eduardo opened his front door and stepped down into the street. He was wearing his old jumper and his wide brimmed hat.
‘Eduardo, que tal! You are making a fine new garden, is he not, Pilar?’
Eduardo nodded, touched his hat to both women and made to walk on.
‘I see that you have moved that old bench. Jesús, tranquilo! You must have fine views up there by the olive tree,’ Enriqueta said.
‘Indeed I have.’
‘Your Maria will enjoy the view and the vegetables. No, mi corazón! But we have not seen her lately?’
Eduardo’s smile was pious. ‘She is at home in her apartment in Torre.’
When Pilar got to the shop, Carmen was ahead of her, leaning on the unattended counter, catching her breath.
‘You’re early today!’ Pilar said.
‘The day will be hot. Do you want to go ahead of me?’ said Carmen.
‘No, gracias, I have to find a birthday card.’
Pilar turned the card stand slowly, shaking her head. Nothing suitable for her teenage goddaughter. She would have to make the journey into town after all. What a nuisance.
Mercedes appeared from the storeroom with a large box of soap flakes and nodded towards her customers. ‘Washing those blankets again, Carmelita?’
Carmen inclined her head, lips pursed.
‘You’ll have a fine drying day once the bonfire goes out. How is Eduardo?’
‘He is well. I will also take some of your fresh goat’s cheese.’
‘Ah, yes, his favourite. Anything else?’
‘Some serano. Six slices. Finely sliced, mind.’
Carmen’s foot tapped on the wooden floor while Mercedes slowly sliced the ham, wrapped it, and paused, her pencil hovering over the column of figures. ‘Enriqueta was saying you moved back upstairs again?’
‘Eduardo had need of his room.’
‘Ah, so the widow packed her bags?’
Carmen’s nose grew thin with scorn. ‘What need has Eduardo of a novia,’ she said, ‘when he has his garden?’
Liane’s children’s writing has been published by the BBC and in various anthologies, and her non-fiction includes a feature article for the Independent. Her adult short fiction with a thread of magical realism has been published in UKC Kent Review, LitroNY Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, First Cranked Anvil Short Story Anthology and Pigeon Review. Her seaside collection ‘The Punch & Judy Man’ in aid of Porchlight is available at lianesmith.bigcartel.com @LianeWaveCrest.