Copyright ©2008 P.J. Brooke. All rights reserved
It was Thursday, market day in Diva. A breeze from the Sierra Nevada tempered the burning Spanish sun. The town was hungry, rationing enforced. The people, silent, bought what they could afford. They looked at no one. Carmelo, the young herdsman, eyes alert for danger, crossed the street. No Guardias, Franco’s fascist police. His buying done, he walked down the Rio Sierra path, and turned right along the track towards El Fugon. He checked he was alone, hid his sack of food in the hollow trunk of an olive tree, looked around again, and continued down the track.
The guerrilla leader, Manuel Paz, El Gato, stepped lightly across the field of red poppies towards the olive tree. He sniffed the air: there was a faint smell of the harsh black-tobacco Gitanes. He reached for his gun.
‘Fire,’ shouted the officer. A volley rang out. The force knocked El Gato back. He fell among the flowers. Capitan Vicente Gonzalez, stepped up to the body, blood still seeping from the wounds, and kicked it hard.
‘That’s another red bandit dead. Gracias a Dios.’
It was the feast of San Miguel, August 1947.
Leila smiled as she saved and closed the file on her computer, ‘That’s better. Only eighteen chapters to go. Might get it finished next year,’ she said to herself.
It was Thursday, market day in Diva. A breeze from the Sierra Nevada tempered the burning Spanish sun. Leila quickly crossed the square in search of shade. She had arranged with Hassan to take the bus up the mountain. A crowd, shopping bags full, lined the street outside the bus office. He came round the corner, and they smiled at each other. They managed to get two seats together, and the bus took off up the steep, winding road.
‘You’re looking great’, he said.
‘How’s the thesis going?’
‘Great. Some fantastic interviews, And I’ve dug up some really new material. It’s amazing this has never been done before. Did you know this place was in the front line of the resistance after the Civil War? Guerrillas operating in the hills over there into the early 1950s.’
‘Wow. Really. But not very relevant for getting a job is it?’ Hassan said.
‘Just you wait. I’ll be on the telly before you finish your Master’s.’
Hassan laughed. ‘That’s possible… given my rate of progress.’
Tentatively she put her hand on his. He moved it away gently. She looked out the window, across the valley, and then upward: sun and snow on the mountains dazzled.
They got off the bus, and took a path that climbed steeply. The old mule track crossed a few streams, winding its way round the mountain. The air was sweet with wild thyme and rosemary, cooking in the midday sun. Olive trees lined the path. They passed a mulberry tree.
‘Hey. Look what the Moors left us.’
‘They planted them to feed the silkworms. Sad isn’t it…this was one of the worlds most important silk producing areas…the Granada weavers exported to Damascus…and its all gone now…what a waste of skills.’
‘The young historian strikes again. You should be working to change the world, not moaning over all this old stuff.’
‘But if you don’t really understand what’s gone before, you ain’t going to get things right now.’
‘Okay. Okay. Point taken.’
The mulberries were ripe. Hassan scrambled down the gorge to the mulberry tree.
‘Careful. Don’t fall.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve been training.’
He reached up to the lower branches, and began to gather the mulberries. The sun glinted on the hair of his forearms. Leila smiled: shame he didn’t have a clue about history. Still, no one’s perfect.
‘These are so good.’
The juice from the berries stained their hands purple. She glanced at Hassan’s lips, smudged with rich juice.
‘Heh. Wait. Just like that,’ said Hassan. He took out his camera, and photographed her laughing at her mulberry stained hands.
Leila sat down, took off the small rucksack, pulled out a flask, unscrewed the top, poured some mineral water into the cup, and handed it to Hassan.
‘Go easy on the water. We may need it later on.’
She took out olives, cheese and bread. Silently they ate, looking out across the valley to the mountains beyond. Leila stretched out on the bank, and looked up at the silver leaves of the olive tree. Now and again a bird chirped.
‘Cool, eh? A bit of paradise.’
She sat up and smiled at him. Hassan’s gaze became more intense. Leila glanced at him again. The sun, filtered by the leaves of the olive tree, streaked across his face, and lit up the mulberry juice around his mouth. All she could see were his eyes, luminous. She stroked his cheek. Her fingers ran round the outside of his eyes and along his lips. He froze.
‘Leila, don’t tease. You know I can’t get involved – I’ve got really important things to do at the Centre.’
Leila laughed, ‘Saving the world, are we?’
‘No, but it’s important and you’ll be proud of me one day.’
‘Oh. So what is it that is more important than me?’
‘It’s ..’ Hassan faltered.
He then quickly added, ‘We’d better go. We can’t be late for my lift back.’
They set off down the path. She brushed his hand, but he pulled away.
‘Will you be at prayers tomorrow?’ she asked, more upset than she cared to admit.
They reached the Paradiso café, its large “Stop The War” banner still prominently displayed. Javeed was waiting.
The car horn tooted.
‘Can we give you a lift?’
‘No that’s all right. It’s not far. But thanks all the same.’
Javeed made her uncomfortable: there was something taut and hard about the man.
Leila waved as Hassan got into the car. She walked slowly back to her father’s house.
‘Dad, it’s me.’ She entered his study.
‘Hi, dear. Had a good day?’
‘So-so. Went for a walk with Hassan. He’s really sweet. But he does go on about how important his work is at the Centre. Probably trying to impress me. But when I ask him about it, he just clams up.’
‘I think he’s shy, love.’
‘Leila, I’m sure Javeed is doing excellent work at his Centre. A European Training Centre for young Muslim entrepreneurs is quite a breakthrough.’
‘Maybe,’ responded Leila.
‘And Zaida really likes Hassan. She was telling me about his family, how his mother left him when he was young.’
‘I know that. He’s told me all about it.’
‘Give him space. Zaida thinks he’s really keen on you.’
‘Hm. Okay, okay Dad. What are you doing?’
‘Oh. Making a few notes for my talk tomorrow. The graffiti by the mosque has upset some of our people.’
‘But we’re okay here, aren’t we? I still remember when you came back from your first visit. You couldn’t stop talking about this valley – a little bit of paradise you said.’
‘May be less so now. Sub- Inspector Max Romero wants to see me. He’s coming on Saturday for a chat.’
‘That’s nice. He’s cute.’
‘Cute? Leila, he’s a police officer. It’s not respectful.’
‘Dad. Please! What time is he coming?’
‘About five. He asked after you. He said his grandmother is enjoying your interviews.’
‘Me too - she’s a gold mine! She even knew Lorca.’
The next day, Friday, was prayer day. Just before one, the muezzin gave the traditional call:
“Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! God is great! God is great! Come to prayer. Come to prayer. I testify that God is the divinity, that there is no other God but God, and that Muhammad is his messenger. La ilhaha illa Laah! There is no God but God!”
Leila found the simplicity of the call comforting.
“Come to prayers! Come to prayers!”
Leila made her way to the mosque. She removed her shoes, and placed them in the corner, went quickly to the small female wash room, turned on the tap and washed her hands three times, then her face, mouth, nostrils and finally her feet. Refreshed, she climbed the staircase to the women’s balcony, overlooking the prayer hall. She used to resent this separation of male and female. But now she accepted it. She looked down at the prayer hall with its plain, white washed walls and the arch facing Mecca, a small wooden platform and a plain chair placed within it. To the left was a framed print with the 99 names of God written in classical Arabic, and to the right some brown pots on the shelf around the prayer niche. The hall was filling up now. But no sign of Hassan.
Leila glanced down at her father, Ahmed. He stood up, and began the khutabah: ‘we created human beings in order to test them with suffering. Do people think that no one has power over them? They boast “We are so rich that we can afford to waste riches.” Do they think that no one observes them?’
The door opened, Hassan slid in, late. He made no effort to glance up at the balcony. After prayers, Leila joined the women and children for their communal meal. The men ate theirs in the other dining room. She wanted to talk to Hassan, but couldn’t go next door before the meal was over. The meal ended; she slipped next door. Hassan was alone in the corner.
‘I enjoyed our walk yesterday.’
‘Yeh. It was good.’
‘The mulberries were great. Thanks.’
‘Oh. No problem.’
‘The Abdel Karim Band are in Granada next week. Some friends are trying to get tickets. Would you like to go?’
Hassan clenched his hands together.
‘Look. Ah.. ahm. Javeed has talked to me. I’ve got important things to do. He says it’s b. .b….best if I don’t go out with you again.’
‘What! I thought you liked me. Can’t you decide anything for yourself?’
Leila’s voice rose in anger.
‘Hassan, this is stupid. Sit there. I’ll get two mint teas, and we’ll talk this through.’
The whole room was looking at them. Leila left the room, and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with two mint teas on a tray. Hassan had left. Leila banged the tray down on the table.
And then, caught in Zaida’s stare, she flushed crimson, and muttered
Leila stomped up the hill to her father’s house. He wasn’t in. She went to her room, and opened her thesis notes. But she couldn’t concentrate. She needed out. She walked down the hill and then up to El Gato, the foreign hippies bar. She hadn’t tasted alcohol for months. The barman gave her an inquisitive look.
‘A coke please.’
She took the coke, and retreated to the far corner. The bar filled up quickly. She recognised one of the men. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
‘Never expected to see you here.’
‘Just coke,’ lifting up her glass.
‘You’re looking a bit upset?’
‘Not really. Just angry with someone who can’t decide things for himself.’
‘Can I join you?’
‘Leila. I’m Ahmed’s daughter, over from Edinburgh.’
‘Ahmed. Oh, sure. I like your dad. He spoke at the peace rally in Granada. He’s good.’
Jim was a bit scruffy even by local standards, not what you would call good looking. But okay. She had seen him with a wife or at least a regular. Never again a married man.
‘We’re having a gig, an Irish night, down at Felipe’s, you know. Fancy coming?’
‘Yeh. Why not?’
‘That’s good. I said I’d be there before eleven. Another coke?’
‘Please. Without ice.’
Jim returned with the coke, and a San Miguel beer.
‘How long you here for?’
‘Until the beginning of October. Have to be back in Edinburgh forthe start of term to see my supervisor. Hey. Know why this bar is called El Gato?’
‘Ah. There’s more to it than that. El Gato was the guerrilla leader here after the Civil War. He escaped to France at the end of the Civil War, and then came back home to set up armed resistance round here to Franco. Got shot in 1947.’
Jim was a good listener. Within five minutes she was telling him everything about her thesis.
‘Oh Jesus. Look at the time –it’s nearly eleven. We have to go,’ interrupted Jim.
They got up, walked round the corner to Jim’s battered van.
‘Sorry about the mess. The Ferrari’s in the garage.’
Leila laughed. The van clattered down the road to Felipes’ bar, in the orange groves at the edge of town.
Inside Felipe’s, Jim took out his bodhran, the Irish finger drum, and started to play. The beat got faster and faster. The fiddles and the flutes tried to keep up. Couples got up to dance, swirling round and round. Leila began clapping, shyly at first, then louder and louder, faster and faster. A guy asked her to dance. Soon the wooden floor was shaking. Another dance. Another partner. Flushed, excited, buoyed, Leila sank breathlessly into her seat. And then got up to dance again and again.
‘Let’s see the dawn in at El Fugon,’ shouted Jim.
They all staggered into cars and vans, and then drove off through the town to the valley of El Fugon. In a few minutes a bonfire was blazing. The music started again, this time, plaintive, sad Irish tunes, Jim’s voice drifting like smoke.
Everyone silent, waited for the sun’s rays to crest the mountains and fill the valley. She hadn’t seen Jim most of the night. He came over.
‘I’m for my bed. Fancy joining me?’
Leila laughed, not offended.
‘Thanks, but no.’
‘Sure? You look like you could do with a good hug?’
‘Maybe another time, Jim.’
‘I’ve a spare bed. You can kip down there.’
The spare bed was a single mattress in the back of the van. Leila hardly noticed how messy it was. She collapsed onto the mattress, and in five minutes was asleep, snoring heavily.
She slept until the early afternoon, woken by the stifling heat inside the van. Jim was up, brewing tea on a gas ring.
Leila looked at her watch.
‘Help! It’s nearly two. My dad will have a search party out for me in a minute. Oh no… I should have called back and said not to wait up for me .I didn’t tell him I’d be staying over. I have to get back right now.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll give you a lift home I’m off to the beach this afternoon . Fancy coming?’ said Jim.
‘Maybe some other time. But not now. Gotta make peace with dad.’
Jim drove slowly. The springs had nearly all gone. Leila held onto the van door handle to lessen the bumps.
Leila pointed, ‘See that hollow olive tree over there….it’s haunted. It’s where they shot El Gato.’
Leila jumped out at the traffic lights. She failed to notice Zaida’s black look. The women often disapproved. Immodestia was just the polite term they used to describe her. When she got home, her father was out. She called him on his mobile, then went straight to her computer, her mind racing with ideas. She typed fast, and this time the El Gato story just seemed to flow.
‘She smiled, “With luck I might finish early next year.’
She clicked on Save, then Turn Off, waited a minute and then shut the computer.
After showering and washing her hair, she put on her new linen trousers, white tunic and her mother’s turquoise earrings and carefully arranged her scarf so strands of her black hair showed. A breath of fresh air might help. She closed the door behind her, and set off down the Jola road. There was a slight breeze. The green figs were out, hanging over the irrigation canals alongside the road. She passed a garden with a little girl on a swing. Back and forth. Back and forth. De norte al sur de sur a norte. A mother’s voice called,
‘Jane. Jane. Get off that swing, come and get ready. It’s nearly five. We have to leave for the airport in half an hour.’
Leila smiled and waved to the girl.
‘Hello, Jane,’ she called out. ‘Got another silly rhyme for you!
“My young friend Jane
Is leaving Spain.
We think that’s an awful pain.
But we’re both sure you’ll come again.”
Jane stopped, giggled, waved and then ran inside.
The sky suddenly darkened. Leila looked up at the mountains. Dark, pregnant bellied clouds were drifting down lower and lower. A colder breeze blew. The tops of the mountains disappeared. Rain. Sullenly, persistently the rain fell. Leila stopped, turned, and walked quickly back. A car stopped at the far end of the ravine bridge.
‘Get in,’ a voice called.
Leila approached the car.
‘Oh. It’s you.’
She got into the car. It was exactly five in the afternoon.
On the same day, Saturday, at exactly five in the afternoon, Sub- Inspector Max Romero arrived at the house of Ahmed Mahfouz.