The Siren of Salamanca

There is a pedestrian crossing in Salamanca which twitters like a flock of birds whenever the traffic stops. No-one seems to know why it does this. Perhaps since it lies opposite a park, someone thought it appropriate. Or possibly there is simply something wrong with the mechanics. But for whatever reason, the sound causes the passing stranger to stop and look up, slightly puzzled.

Jose Antonio, who was one of those Spaniards who goes everywhere at a brisk trot, even at the hour of siesta, paid little attention to the twittering of the crossing, and still less to the strange examples of modern sculpture which adorned the park. Jose Antonio had little time for art. He left that sort of thing to the wife, who was more leisured and more cultured than he was, and furthermore did not need to find herself out on the street at the time of siesta. Time, in fact, was a matter of serious importance to Jose Antonio. He had married Elena almost two years ago, and was still congratulating himself on his choice. Elena was slim and elegant, cultured and beautiful, with dark coppery hair and hazel, cat-like eyes and a sort of mysterious aloofness which at first he had found exciting. She was also very rich, so that Jose Antonio was doubly aware that his choice had been a good one.

Jose Antonio hastened over the crossing towards the park and up the hill towards the bull-ring. On the corner was a stall that sold hot churritos, a welcome snack in the winter months when Salamanca, with its central and elevated position, is cold enough to freeze the hairs on a polar-bear’s backside, and welcome in summer just as a comfort to the greedy. Today however, the churrito man, who had been observing the well-dressed stranger’s comings and goings with interest, had left early to celebrate his wife’s birthday and nothing remained except his stand, smeared slightly with grease and a faint glistening of sugar. A pity, since he could have made a valuable witness to the events shortly to follow, which might have proved good for business.

Jose Antonio was thin, energetic and studious, with good features and a small bald patch forming like a skull-cap on the back of his head. He had considerable charm, in his own opinion, as well as a good career as a commercial lawyer in the most beautiful pink and golden city in the world. He also had a rich, attractive, educated wife, and a genius for organisation. All in all, it was difficult for him not to feel smug, from early morning when Salamanca is as fresh and pink as a newly peeled shrimp, to late evening when the light pours along its golden streets like warm marmalade. Sitting on his balcony, watching the family groups thronging the streets till the last rays of sun on the peach-coloured towers of Salamanca finally faded, it was impossible not to feel satisfied with his life and the excellent way he organised it.

At nine pm precisely in Salamanca, the screaming swifts which hurtle round the rooftops by day disappear, and at five past nine, the bats come out. “Impeccable timing! Exactly like you, darling,” Elena would comment with a smile, and he could sit back and reflect that here, truly, was a man who could have his cake and eat it.

Jose Antonio had married Elena for her money, there was little doubt about that. But of late, there had been two small worms gnawing quietly at the apple of his self-satisfaction. The first was the impression Elena was becoming bored with him, although for the life of him, he couldn’t think why. The second was her rather more disturbing ability to be seen in two places at once.

Jose Antonio had first noticed this extraordinary gift during the early weeks of their marriage, when, looking down from their balcony, he could have sworn he saw her in the street below. Yet there she was, sitting inside the room with her book. And when he looked again, the figure in the street had gone. Then there was the time they were drinking coffee together in the Plaza Mayor, when he saw her in the doorway of a leather-goods shop in her black couture dress with the solid silver bangle and necklace she wore gleaming like freshly poured cream, yet there she sat, still at the table. Another time, as she walked beside him, and he could still smell the Angel perfume she wore, he saw her svelte back and copper-coloured hair disappear inside a  pastellería.

“What did you buy?” he asked, only to receive a blank look and notice that she was carrying nothing.

“What do you mean?” she said. “I haven’t been anywhere.”

“Then how do you do that?“ he asked.

“Do what?” But he did not reply, and she simply smiled her enigmatic smile.

Nothing happened for several weeks until they were attending a service in the New Cathedral. As the congregation rose to go, her hand still on his arm, he saw her in her dark dress and pearls pass by the open door.

All this was highly perplexing, and surely could not be due simply to the heat – for  the sunset-pink of Salamanca in high summer does have a certain hallucinatory quality  –  or simply over-work and too much anís…..

Perhaps it was just his imagination. But it was possibly for this reason that he sought solace in the arms of the guileless Loli in the Calle Villanueva, for one hour on a Tuesday and a Thursday during the time of siesta. But on the other hand it was probably simply because a quick bang with Loli twice a week put him back on his feet, so to speak. And also, of course, because to a man of his organisational skills, the urge to juggle with a bit on the side was almost irresistible.

He’d bumped into Loli quite literally, ten months or so after his marriage to Elena, when she’d collided with him in the street, causing the massive water melon she’d been carrying to explode all over him. He retrieved the melon, which dripped profusely onto his shoes and trousers.

“I’m terribly sorry!” she said. “I wasn’t looking where I was going. Look, your clothes are in an awful mess – do you want to come to my place and clean up? It’s only just across the street.” And that was how it began.

So, every Tuesday and Thursday, after half an hour in the Bar Maroc with his colleague Eduardo, he would slip quietly out of the back, murmuring something about seeing a client, and head for the Calle Villanueva.

He keyed in the number on Loli’s mobi-com. “Hola!” bawled the parrot from above, as he entered the welcome darkness at the foot of the stairs. “Hola!” it bawled again as he entered the flat, before resuming its amplified screeching. What it lacked in talent, it made up for in volume. Jose Antonio concluded  the parrot was retarded. But perhaps it was just as well. A mistress with a mynah bird could prove embarrassing. Compared to Elena, Loli was cheap and cheerful, an open-faced, open-hearted girl with curly dark hair and a liking for bright colours. She spoke in one of those huskily cracked tones punctuated by a slight gasp for breath that gave everything she said a sense of extreme urgency. “Hola!” she cried from the balcony where she was hanging out her smalls, and the parrot bellowed its greeting again, before reverting back to ear-splitting shrieks. Elena, of course, would not have tolerated anything so vulgar as a backward parrot. Elena kept a cat, not one of those scrawny dust-coloured Spanish gatos that accost you on any street corner with a rasping spit-in-your-eye croak, but an elegant striped mini-tiger with eyes like her own.

“Hey, babe,” Loli greeted him, as her skirt slid to the floor with a business-like swish. Loli wasted no time and asked no questions.

By the time his business with Loli was over, Jose Antonio had precisely twenty minutes to high-tail it back to the office, to be working industriously by the time Eduardo returned from the bar. He knew, of course, that he would not encounter Elena on a Tuesday or Thursday because those were her sacred days of rest. On Wednesdays and Fridays she performed voluntary work at the local hospital. No, the idea was too ridiculous. Nevertheless, it had crossed his mind.  Suppose, just suppose, that if he could see Elena when she very definitely wasn’t there, could Elena see him? No, the idea was complete nonsense. And in any case, all this doppelganger stuff was just the product of his overworked imagination. Besides, the one place where he had never seen Elena, was at Loli’s. Presumably because she had no idea he was there. Elena was not the sort of woman who had a suspicious mind, which was fortunate, since she was not the sort of woman who would take adultery lightly.

“Same time Tuesday, then,” said Loli cheerily, as he headed down the stairs. “Hola!” bawled the parrot, in passing. She waited till she heard the door close, then began to tidy the room (and herself) for like Jose Antonio, Loli also worked to a strict timetable. However, being a bit naive in the affairs of the heart department, the possibility that Loli might entertain a rival had never occurred to him.

As he headed out into the dazzling street, he had the ominous feeling he was going to encounter Elena. Not in the flesh, but in her doppelganger form, or whatever you liked to call it. Perhaps a sense of guilt was beginning to catch up with him after all. As he reached the far side of the crossing, a horrible thought occurred to him. If could see Elena, and maybe others could see her too, what would happen if she were to appear as she was dressed at this very time, namely, in her underwear? He reached in his pocket to put on his dark glasses, which might serve as some element of disguise, should this embarrassing scenario occur, and realised to his annoyance that his Filofax was missing. He must have dropped it at Loli’s.

The Filofax was a hefty wad which made a considerable bump in his jacket, and had caused Loli to remark snidely early in their acquaintance that the bulge in his jacket was nearly as impressive as the one in his trousers. But she quickly realised that he had no sense of humour. Irritated by this blip in his well-planned curriculum,  Jose Antonio turned sharply back towards the Calle Villanueva. As he reached the pedestrian crossing, he glanced hastily at his watch. It was ten minutes to five. As he looked up again, there across the road by the churrito stand stood Elena, her black dress dark against the green of the park. Bloody hell. Still, at least she wasn’t wearing her underwear. As the lights began to change, he stepped smartly into the road. The fire engine, which out of consideration for the last few minutes of siesta had not put on its siren, had no chance to stop whatsoever. The last thing he heard as he sailed through the air was the twittering of small birds.

“He simply looked the wrong way,” said the driver, who’d only been on an exercise anyway. “Then he just threw himself in front of me. I mean, you can’t stop a vehicle this size by just slamming your foot on the brake, can you?  Still, death must have been instantaneous, poor devil… ”

As the ambulance passed beneath her window with a politely subdued bleep, Elena, her coppery hair coiled over the pillow, gave a drowsy enigmatic smile. And unknowing of the circumstances, the departing Eduardo, who had been such a consolation to her following her discovery of Jose’s infidelity, smiled back.

The Siren of Salamanca & Other Stories is available to buy on Amazon