It was when we were living near the southbound exit. Maurice Echegaray had his company office on our staircase and there were three doors between his and ours. If Mum met him on the stairs, he would tell her he was disturbed by the smell of cooking from the flats which got into his office through the ventilation ducts. Mum used to reply that she wasn’t going to stop eating just so he could go on selling whatever it was he sold. Every now and then he would give me these looks and every now and then I would stub out my cigarettes by his door. There was a sign on it: Maurice Echegaray Trade Management. The sign was made of gold-coloured plastic and smelt synthetic when you put your nose right up against it. One time he pulled the door open just as I was doing exactly that. He said, ‘You little bastard, you’re harassing me.’ ‘Dream on,’ I said and he said, ‘Sorry,’ and I said the same thing over again, ‘Dream on.’
He didn’t say anything more that time. Just stood there watching me leave and his silhouette looked all narrow in the light from the stairwell window. Whenever I met him afterwards – at the entrance or in the garage – he would keep a watchful eye on me, like I was vermin or just an insect, any kind at all.
Apart from that there was not much happening on our staircase during those years. A woman used to come and clean two days a week. From time to time a pipe burst and there would be water on the floor. Though if you said it to any of the old girls on the staircase, about nothing much happening here I mean, they would say things hadn’t stopped happening here for a very long time because all there ever used to be in our neighbourhood were sheep-pens, orange groves and an old china factory their old men worked in when they were young. Then the cranes had come. New facades, shiny facades, facades that reflected the sky. Pricewaterhouse, Inditex, Iberia. There were green oases at the very top of the buildings with swimming pools for the employees, who were mostly bank directors, consultants and city slickers.
‘The noise of the traffic sounds like the sea up there,’ said Isabel who had been up there once. ‘You can lie in a deckchair, drinking a Margarita and feel like you’re in the Bahamas, even though you’re really just in Valencia.’
Dad said it was nice to live here now. That with all this new stuff the neighbourhood had sort of gone up in the world.
‘There’s nice and there’s not so nice,’ said Mum. ‘Even if the new bits are nice enough, our bit is still pretty ugly.’
And she was right about that. From the balcony you could see our building mirrored in the new one, and all the defects stood out more clearly in the reflection. Discoloured and washed out clothes hung on the balcony washing lines. You could see the bare bricks under the plaster. Even if the awnings were colourful, the orangey colour looked dirty under the layers of pollution. It was hard to understand why Pricewaterhouse had chosen to open for business opposite a building like ours, the same way no one could understand why someone like Maurice Echegaray would choose to have an office on our staircase. Or the gym for that matter. It was at the very bottom of the building opposite, with Turkish baths and an ice machine that made frozen shavings you could rub over your skin. There wasn’t any cellulite in the world could survive that, the people who worked there used to say. When the door to the gym opened, a scent of luxury slid out onto the street which normally smelt mostly of exhaust fumes and burnt earth. You could stand outside those doors and just breathe in that luxurious aroma for a while. Only then someone would always come out and tell you had to make your mind up about if you were coming in or not.
It was when that job advert appeared in the paper that I got the chance to really get to know Maurice Echegaray. It was the same week I did my A-levels: Maurice Echegaray Trade Management Seeks Qualified Staff.
‘Christ, will you look at that,’ Dad said. ‘The Frenchman’s expanding.’
‘What an opportunity,’ I said to Isabel. ‘The same week I’m due to leave school.’ I rang the number in the ad. An answering machine switched on, and a mechanical voice told me that Maurice Echegaray was not available. I said my name was Almudena Reyes, that I lived three doors along and that I might be interested in working for Maurice Echegaray if he paid half-way decent wages. He could ring me, or drop in if he preferred. I thought about mentioning my education too but I was caught out by the beep and it just felt silly to have to ring back.
I kept waiting. Summer was coming and the thermometers on the street showed 29 degrees. The sky was veiled in haze. In the evenings the first cockroaches leapt up and down out of the drains and sometimes we would run after them and try and mash them with our shoes and then there would be this cracking sound and a dark spot on the sole of my shoe.
Maurice Echegaray didn’t ring back. And he didn’t drop in. I tried to get other jobs as well but none of them rang back either. I waited for a whole week, and in the middle of the following one I rang his doorbell.
‘I’m looking for a job with you,’ I said when he opened.
‘I’m not looking for anyone,’ he answered.
‘There was an ad in the paper.’
Maurice Echegaray fixed his eyes on me. His nose was kinked and he had dark skin. His suit was white and the surface was slightly silky; he wore gold-plated cufflinks at his wrists. The air around us was filled with a scent of expensive perfume. Then he let me in. The flat was similar to ours: you entered a small hallway and then the living room was right in front of you. It contained a suite of black leather sofas which looked a bit greasy in the light entering from the street.
‘You’ve grown,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
We chatted for a bit. About the building in general, the neighbours and their kids, the cranes and the fact that getting a job nowadays was difficult; it was not as if people were queuing up to offer them to you. Then we sat in silence for a bit. You could hear someone walking back and forth above us; the sound of water rushing through the pipes.
‘I only employ professionals,’ he said finally.
He clasped his hands in his lap and crossed one leg over the other.
‘Oh, I see,’ I said.
‘That’s just the way things are now.’
I said I was good at picking things up. All my teachers had said that: I had potential.
‘Would you call yourself a professional?’ Maurice Echegaray asked me.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not a professional. I’ve got to say that because I don’t like telling lies and particularly not to myself.’
That’s a phrase that usually goes down well with most people, but Maurice Echegaray just shook his head and said it was a pity I didn’t like lying because telling lies was essential in business. Absolutely essential. And if you were able to lie to yourself as well, so much the better, as far as appearing credible went.
‘But maybe you could learn,’ he went on to say. ‘If you’ve got so much potential.’
We sat in silence again. He asked me if I wanted a coffee, and I said no. He asked me if I wanted a glass of water, and I said yes. He left the room and came back with a glass of water that tasted of chlorine.
‘I need someone to answer the phone,’ he said then. ‘And seeing as how you live next door, well then.’
I shrugged my shoulders. A phone answerer. Nothing to write home about exactly, but on the other hand you had to start on the bottom rung and work your way up. Some people could do that: start on the shop floor and end up as the managing director. So I said yes, and we decided I could begin the very next day and if there was anything else he needed help with, I said, all he had to do was give me a shout. The telephone wasn’t going to be ringing all the time, was it?
I was right about the phone, it was absolutely silent. The first morning went really slowly and I mostly listened to Maurice Echegaray talking on his phone. His voice could be heard through the half-open door to his office and sometimes it sounded cheerful, sometimes pretty angry. He spoke slowly when he was angry, pronouncing each syllable with exaggerated clarity as though he was talking to an idiot. I listened in a bit but was mostly bored. I looked around the office. The black leather sofas still seemed sleazy, and when you looked more closely the place was pretty messy. I emptied ashtrays and did some hoovering. I watered the flowers and saw that he had stubbed out his cigarettes in the flower-pots as well. I cleaned the toilet and polished the mirror with a blue spray I found in the cleaning cupboard which smelt strongly of ammonia. Then I aired the place, I created a cross-draught and managed to get rid of that stale smell even though the air that entered was hot and rather muggy too.
When Maurice Echegaray was about to leave for the day he said: ‘It looks very nice in here. Just pull the door to when you leave.’
I waited until the door had shut behind him, then I went into his office and opened the drawers and found the cigarettes. I sat on his chair, put my feet up on the table, and then just sat there for a while. I leant my head against the neck rest and looked out the window. You could see the Pricewaterhouse logo on the other side, the mirror glass and a bit of the sky, the patterns of aeroplane contrails. I drew the smoke into my throat, coughed and stubbed the cigarette out in the newly-emptied ashtray.
Then I shoved the hoover into the cleaning cupboard, poured the cleaning water down the toilet and went home to Mum who wanted to know what my first day at work had been like.
Over the first few months Maurice Echegaray and I established a kind of routine. I arrived in the morning, did a bit of tidying – arranging the pots and other stuff in the office – and then sat at my computer chatting with Isabel. Every now and then the phone rang and I would answer it. I connected the callers with Maurice Echegaray. Mid-mornings we would go down to the bar in the building opposite. We would sit outside at a table on the pavement and Maurice Echegaray would have black sunglasses on that I could see my own reflection in. Those glasses made my nose look big, misshapen and sort of spread out across the lens. People looked at him with an expression that was both curious and a bit scared, and you could watch that in the lenses of his glasses as well. He talked loudly and when he got worked up about something he would make these sweeping gestures. One time he told me that while he might not be the best person in the world, he was on good terms with his own life. I didn’t understand what he meant by that, but I nodded all the same. He also said he thought I was doing my job well and that he had a container of bathing caps on its way in that I might be up to dealing with when the time came. He said I had been right at the job interview, that I did have potential and that if everything went well he would be promoting me to a consultant in a while. He was going to teach me a bit about commerce and make sure that I got the chance to earn money and could have a bit of fun in my life.
At home I said what I was doing was a sort of work experience and that I would soon be getting a chance to show what I was capable of.
‘That’s nice,’ Mum said.
It occurred to me later that I should have made the most of that initial period when you set up a routine. You should never take for granted things will go on the same way. I know that’s what everyone tells you, but it isn’t the same until you realise for yourself that that’s how it really is, deep down inside you.
‘I’ve taken on a professional,’ is what he said when the time came a few weeks later. This was down by the bar and he was sitting, leaning against the wall and smoking.
‘A professional?’ I said.
‘Yep. A pro.’
He explained that this was the kind of person he’d been after when he’d put the advert in the paper. Someone who knew the ropes. On the sharp side. With the right instincts and a nose for the job.
I said I hoped he was a nice person and asked what his name was. ‘It’s not a him,’ said Maurice. ‘She’s a girl. A lady. A woman.’
Her name was Rebeca. There she was in the office the next day. That was the first thing I saw when I came in that morning: her rather short high-heeled silhouette in front of the window.
‘Rebeca Almudena, Almudena Rebeca,’ said Maurice and we kissed each other coolly on the cheek.
It didn’t take me long to realise it was never going to work between Rebeca and me. It was just the way she was, provocative right down to the pores in her skin. She’d walk slowly round the office holding her cigarette low and letting the ash drop on to the floor. She crossed her arms over her chest when she was talking to someone and if you disagreed about something she would ask if you were prepared to discuss the matter. After a few days there was ash all over the flat. I tried to keep myself in check. I told her it wasn’t practical using the floor as an ashtray.
‘Why not?’ she said. ‘It’s made of marble after all. There won’t be any holes.’
Her eyes were dark. When you looked deep inside them it felt like you could see something right at the very back. Something cold and muscular, like a fish, or an eel. ‘That Rebeca,’ Maurice Echegaray told me. ‘She can sell anything at all. Exhaust systems, tinned worms, shampoo and cow dung by the kilo. You name it, she can flog it – just like that.’
What I thought was that she was pulling the wool over his eyes. That was the kind of person she was, manipulative and a bullshit artist, and she’d been marking out her territory with her cigarette ash and she was bound to have Maurice Echegaray in her sights.
A month later though, I had to admit he was right about her, because our billing just took off with Rebeca’s arrival. She would be there till late at night, ringing round, sorting out the customs forms. Then she would be at the docks in the morning making sure that the cranes were handling her containers correctly, because if you didn’t do that, she said, it was like they’d drop them deliberately into the gap between the boat and the quay and on top of the cargo being destroyed you’d have to start the whole thing over from the beginning, as it was a kind of no-man’s-land from an insurance point of view.
‘Listen and learn,’ said Maurice Echegaray to me.
And I listened and I learnt.
‘We’ve quadrupled our income since Rebeca arrived,’ Maurice Echegaray said after a while. ‘That’s one sharp lady. She knows the ropes, let me tell you, she knows how to get things done.’
‘I’ve got cellulite,’ Isabel said around that time.
I told her about the ice machine at the gym.
‘Much too expensive’, she said.
‘So try it at home,’ I said. ‘It’s bound to work with ordinary ice from the freezer as well.’
The phones in the office were ringing a lot now. Most of the calls were for Rebeca and I didn’t have time to clean any more. The thickening trails left by Rebeca had soon covered all the floor space. When I sat at my desk eating my packed lunch, I used to stare at that ash on the floor and think that I simply couldn’t understand how anyone could do that. What century did she think we were living in? Expecting someone to clean up after her like that.
‘Do you mind tidying up tonight?’ Maurice Echegaray said one day.
‘I’ll do everything apart from the Rebeca trails,’ I said.
‘Don’t be like that,’ said Maurice.
I didn’t reply. I did a bit of pressing buttons on the phone, on and off, even though the handset was in its cradle. I brushed together the crumbs from my packed lunch. ‘What do you want in return?’ he said.
‘How do you mean?’
‘How can I make it up to you? What do you want for your trouble?’
‘A secret,’ I said.
‘What kind of secret?’ he said.
‘A secret you haven’t told anyone else. Here in the office.’
He laughed and went into the kitchen for a while, and I could hear him rattling the tin of instant coffee. The kettle hissed. Then he came back with a coffee cup in his hands. ‘I’ve got a hole in the heart,’ he said.
He stood leaning against the door frame. He said it in that French accent of his and looked at me. There was something playful in his eyes, and I couldn’t tell if he was having me on or if he was just happy. I thought of suggesting we went down to the beach for a bit. To talk about the hole in his heart. Isabel and I used to do that, go there I mean, and it was always nice even when there were some huge runny turds down there. Dogs’ and kids’. Sometimes sand had blown over them and if you stepped on them they would squidge up between your toes and pour over your toenails as if there was an undertow.
But Maurice got in first.
‘I’ve got to be off now,’ he said and put his coffee cup on the window ledge. ‘See you.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
I did the hoovering. I cleaned the bathroom, spraying it with furniture cleaner. I was thinking about the beach, wondering if he’d been there, and if he knew Valencia at all, and how I could suggest it some other time. When the cleaning was finished, I sat in Maurice Echegaray’s chair and went through his drawers. There was a packet of Lucky Strikes in one of them and next to it a packet labelled Puros Cantero. I opened it and took out a cigar. I lit up and put my feet on the desk. I smoked it calmly, inhaling even though I’d heard you weren’t supposed to with cigars. Then I went in to Rebeca’s office and did the same in there. I thought maybe that was a bit sick, or not sick perhaps but not normal, only then I remembered Isabel telling me that one of her mum’s friends was a cleaner and she always made everything look spotless but when she was finished she’d pull her trousers down and pee on the edge of the toilet. Just a little bit on each one, she had to run up and down all the floors again even though she had finished for the day and could go home to her husband and kids. There was really no comparison in my view.
I walked across the floor the way Rebeca used to with my hand on my hip waiting for the ash to drop onto the floor. But cigars burn slowly and the ash wouldn’t budge. In the end I had to knock it off with my index finger and then it fell in slow flakes to the floor. I tried to make out patterns in the ash. To decipher the future or just something about Maurice Echegaray in general, before I got out the hoover again, sucked up the ash and went home for the day.
It got warmer. The air was heavy, saturated with exhaust fumes. Rebeca said there was a kind of haze lying over Valencia, not just in summer, but all the time. A kind of orange- grove-haze, and she said it was inside people too, it lent them a special temperament. Leisurely and a bit flat. Casual and a bit stale. Now that she thought about it, she said, she’d never been in a city as leisurely as Valencia. I didn’t respond. I’d heard it before and knew it was something people said when they came here because they felt envious and didn’t know what else to say.
It was after the holidays, some time around late summer, that Maurice Echegaray said it was time to move offices. Thanks to Rebeca’s efforts, that was how he put it, we could now exchange ours for a better one in the building opposite. The Pricewaterhouse building, the Indetix building – that’s right, the gym building. We could each have our own little office room and there would be nothing mean about the views since the place was on the seventeenth floor. There were just one or two formalities left. The mortgage. But he was going to arrange that the next day at the bank and there wouldn’t be any problems since they knew him, they saw him every day down at the bar.
Only the next day he didn’t mention either the bank or the mortgage and although I wondered, I didn’t like to ask. That evening everything was made clear when Dad told me what had happened at the bank.
‘I’ve got a bit of news,’ he said.
Pedro Fraga, the bank manager, had told him that Maurice Echegaray had caused a scene at the bank when he came in to ask for a loan to pay for a mortgage on his new office which was going to be in the same skyscraper the gym was housed in, and which was in fact managed by the bank’s property department. The bank had refused him the loan. Why Dad didn’t know, but he said that if the bank refused someone a mortgage loan it had to be because the bank had their reasons.
‘Echegaray completely lost his head,’ Dad said, whisking his hands around in the air.
He had accused the bank of being nationalists. He had said it in such a comical way, Fraga told him, ingrained Spanish nationalists, in that priceless French accent which only made things worse, and meant no one could take Echegaray seriously.
‘Anyway,’ Dad said. ‘Then he left, Echegaray.’
He stormed out of the bank, strutting a bit, Dad went on to say, only that was an expression he must have got from Fraga as well because I’d never seen Maurice Echegaray strut. You could just as well turn that on its head and say if there was anyone who didn’t go around strutting it was Maurice Echegaray.
Only the story didn’t end there according to Dad, because next day something really sensational had happened. Echegaray had returned to the bank offices, landed a briefcase on the bank manager’s desk and said:
They had opened the briefcase; they had counted and counted the whole lot again, inspecting the bank notes. A lump sum of one million Euros. Obviously they wondered where he’d got the money from. Fraga had asked Echegaray directly, and Echegaray had told Fraga to mind his own business. With knobs on. So Fraga had asked around. And the upshot was that Maurice had to have contacts in the underworld, maybe with the Nigerians. Of all the Africans, the Nigerians were the worst. They had organised themselves in networks and weren’t born yesterday. Everyone knew that, Fraga had said, and let Dad know he ought to think twice about where I was working so I didn’t get mixed up in anything improper. From now on the neighbourhood would be keeping a watchful eye on what Mr Echegaray got up to.
‘He might be mixed up in drugs and prostitution,’ Mum said.
She brushed her hands anxiously over her apron, mumbling that all cats were leopards at night and I should make sure I didn’t get mixed up in anything to do with the Nigerians.
I went into my room and tried to remember if I’d seen anything strange in Maurice Echegaray’s desk drawers. But I couldn’t remember seeing anything apart from cigars and a Waterman pen, so I dismissed the matter from my mind. I thought he would eventually get his loan, and Fraga would calm down in a while.
‘That ice-machine is fantastic,’ Isabel said. ‘I’ve got rid of it all now.’ ‘The cellulite?’ I said.
‘Yes, do you want to try it?’
I shrugged my shoulders and said it was pretty expensive.
‘You’d be investing in yourself,’ said Isabel. ‘In your own future.’
I started to work out. I went to the gym every day after work; I would lie in the Turkish bath or on the sun terrace. Now and then I’d swim in the pool and that’s where I came across Rebeca one day.
‘What are you doing here?’ we both said at the same time.
We didn’t have much to say after that. I went over to the hot tub while she moved to the ice machine. I kept my eye on her the whole time, I noted when she went upstairs and waited a long while so I could avoid coming across her in the changing room. Though I obviously didn’t wait long enough because when I got there she was sitting on the bench showered and dressed. Her bag was closed and placed beside her.
‘You took your time,’ she said.
‘I didn’t know you were waiting,’ I replied.
She stayed there looking at me. I tied the towel around my waist and dried my hair. I didn’t like her looking at me.
Once my hair was dry and I was forced to change, I said: ‘Why are you staring at me?’
‘I’m trying to work out if you’ve got cellulite,’ she said.
Bloody hell, I thought. I gathered up my clothes and went into the toilet and got changed in there. When I came out, she said:
‘You don’t like me.’
I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Maybe I don’t like you and maybe you don’t like me. Is that a problem?’
‘No,’ she said.
She got up and took a step towards me.
‘Do you think I’ve put on weight?’ she said.
I shook my head.
‘Well then, check this out,’ she said and pulled up her skirt. ‘So what’s that if it’s not fat?’
She grabbed one of her buttocks and squeezed it hard enough to make the skin crease. ‘If that isn’t the onset of cellulite, what is it?’
‘That’s orange peel,’ I said.
‘And just what is that exactly?’
‘It’s what’s you get before cellulite. You get orange peel first.’
She dropped her skirt.
‘I see. Have you got it?’
‘Let me see.’
‘Let me see. Christ, Almudena, don’t be silly. We’re both women whether we like one another or not. You really should let me see if you’ve got cellulite, I mean, Christ.’ I sat down on the bench and clamped my knees together.
‘You don’t exactly put it about, do you,’ said Rebeca.
She sighed theatrically.
‘And there’s me thinking that Maurice hates cellulite.’
‘Maurice Echegaray?’ I said.
I must have sounded a bit hurt, because she smiled triumphantly. She picked up her bag, swung it over her shoulder and moved towards the door.
I really should have been feeling happy all the same. The container of bathing caps had arrived and I would be moving up the ranks at the office. I was supposed to be learning more about commerce and Maurice was going to employ someone else to answer the telephone and do the tidying. It struck me that if someone had told me a year ago I would be working for Maurice Echegaray and that I would be getting a promotion and have someone answering the phone for me into the bargain, I would never have believed them. I would have imagined the future lying before me like a beach that had just been raked smooth. But now the moment had actually come what I felt was mostly a knot in my guts. I didn’t know anything about bathing caps or containers and it was Rebeca’s job to train me, which wasn’t likely to bode well as far as I was concerned.
The girl whose job it would be to answer the phones was called Sonsoles. And it was my job to train her. That wasn’t likely to take long, Maurice told me, since it mostly involved pressing buttons and sounding friendly.
‘The important thing,’ he said, ‘is that you make sure she doesn’t chew gum and that she is not rude to the clients. Here in Spain, people have got no idea what a good telephone manner is.’
That’s what I told Sonsoles, who had a large mouth and smelt of strawberries, and she nodded and spat into the wastepaper basket. I also told her that Rebeca had a bad habit of dropping her ash all over the carpet and that I had spent almost an entire year cleaning up after her but now it was Sonsoles’s turn.
‘Okay,’ said Sonsoles.
I took my notepad and went into Rebeca’s office. She was leaning back in her chair, holding a Waterman pen between her thumb and index finger. She said that the world of commerce was just like the real world. You had to be attractive and well-groomed and be sure of what you were doing, but not peculiar.
‘Okay,’ I said, wondering what drawer she put the Waterman pen in. I was going to be holding it the next time I sat in her chair.
There was quite a lot of best practice to learn too, she said, and I could look all that up on Google. Reimbursement procedures, delivery terms, that kind of stuff. Each commodity was a world of its own. One day you’d be selling logs of wood, the next exhaust pipes. If you got nowhere, you had to pick yourself back up again and soldier on. When it came to bathing caps, brain-storming was essential.
‘Brainstorming,’ she said. ‘Who could you see needing bathing caps?’
Her telephone rang and what the gesture she made then reminded me of most was waving away a fly. The training was over, and I went back to my office, thinking about who might need bathing caps. Swimming pools were what occurred to me off the cuff, but when I rang a few of them they said they already had their suppliers and that there wasn’t exactly a huge demand. I went on to tackle the makers of toilet bags but they didn’t want any either.
‘I saw bathing caps at El Corte Inglés,’ Mum said when I told her over dinner. Maurice and Rebeca laughed when I told them that.
‘The major companies,’ they said ironically. ‘Sure, why not? They’re bound to want to buy bathing caps from Almudena Reyes.’
Just their saying that felt terrible but what was worse was that they were right; the bathing caps proved impossible to sell, and the switchboard at Corty kept connecting me to different people until I got dizzy and had to put the phone down. I asked Maurice for a different product which seemed like giving in on my part because I felt so stupid and ridiculous at suffering such an obvious defeat.
‘Of course people buy bathing caps,’ Rebeca said annoyingly. ‘You’ve just got to find the right channels. You’ve got to be a bit smart.’
She smiled when she said that and it struck me that that was the first time I had seen her teeth. After that I rang Corty five days a week, five times a day. Every time the lady on the switchboard would tell me I needed to talk to a certain Asunción, only she was very busy and almost never in.
‘I’ll just keep ringing if you don’t mind,’ I said. ‘You do that,’ the switchboard lady said.
At home I talked about the bathing caps and Mum and Dad said while it was a good thing I was employed, was a job you couldn’t leave at the doorstep when you got home really worth having? Isabel also asked me how it was going. I told her it was working out fine and Maurice Echegaray was a commercial genius who could sell almost anything he put his mind to. And I was a cog in his wheel. Our double act ran like clockwork and everything would have been fine if it hadn’t been for Rebeca, but then every paradise had to have its serpent, didn’t it?
One day Asunción was actually in.
‘I’ll put you through,’ her secretary said.
I told her my name was Almudena Reyes and I was calling from Maurice Echegaray Trade Management. And that I wanted to come and show her samples of bathing caps. Which were available in every colour and were a steal at the price.
There was silence from her end. Then she said:
‘You sound like a bundle of nerves.’
There was more silence for a bit while I was trying to come up with a good reply.
Finally she said with a sigh:
‘Come tomorrow at 11 am. I’ll give you quarter of an hour.’
‘I just can’t understand how you managed it,’ said Maurice Echegaray when I came back to the office the next day.
Rebeca came out of her office as well. She listened as Maurice and Sonsoles congratulated me. She looked away, dropped ash on the floor. I told her I wasn’t doing the cleaning here anymore and that it was Sonsoles who was dealing with her ash now. Rebeca nodded and leant against the frame of the door and there it was again: the eel, cold and sort of writhing around itself at the back of her eyes.
A few weeks later we moved into the new office. From our windows we could see both the apple orchards inland and the sea. I would keep an eye out every now and then for the old china factory, but I never saw any chimneys overgrown with grass so it might have been torn down. There were cream-coloured leather sofas in the middle of the premises. In the centre of the table was a large green bowl with pistachio nuts. Sonsoles answered the phones and from time to time I would go to the bar downstairs and fetch the coffee. There was wall-to-wall carpet on the floors so Rebeca wasn’t allowed to drop her cigarette ash on them anymore, Maurice Echegaray said. Fraga was ringing from the bank on an almost daily basis. Now that Echegaray had bought the flat with cash, it could stand as security for other matters. Building insurance, health insurance, accident insurance, life insurance policies. Children’s insurance if he’d had children. White goods and car leasing. A Volvo? A Jeep?
‘All successful people have Jeeps nowadays,’ Fraga said.
And Maurice Echegaray laughed. That’s flattery for you, it always works and if it doesn’t that’s because you haven’t laid it on thickly enough. I know because I was standing there with my hand in the pistachio bowl listening to Fraga greasing up Maurice the way a mechanic oils a car engine. In the end Maurice was all wrapped up and ready to go, eating out of Fraga’s palm and when Fraga upped the pace, Maurice sped up too. He soon bought a big black Jeep which Sonsoles said, a bit dreamily, was manliness incarnate, while Maurice Echegaray just said it was a good thing to have. A company car you see, in case he had to do any company trips. And Rebeca, the golden calf, got hers. A car, and a gift voucher at a boutique so she could kit herself out with the kind of wardrobe ‘her profession demanded’.
I didn’t get anything.
‘Your time will come, you’ll see,’ said Maurice Echegaray. ‘Now you’ve got started with the bathing caps, something else will come along, and if you can match Rebeca’s pace, I’ll make sure you get both a car and a wardrobe.’
And why not. I really couldn’t complain as everything was going pretty well. Asunción rang and said she was going to need four more containers of bathing caps in the coming year. Payment in advance and no haggling about the price. Maurice bought a bottle of cava and we toasted the occasion in the office. I asked him if he remembered that time he had called me a little bastard. That was a long time ago, he said. There had been a lot of water under the bridge since then. I was someone else now. A professional, who could flog bathing caps like nobody’s business. I wanted to say something about his heart, and ask him if it was dangerous for him to have a hole in it, if it was big or little. And tell him that the beach was really nice at this time of year, that they had pulled their socks up and were cleaning it twice a day with a tractor, and that you could go for a walk there and it was a part of Valencia I wanted to show him if he had the time and the inclination.
But I was too shy to mention the business about his heart. Only being shy right then was dumb because there was a new determination in Rebeca, and what applied to the goods she moved in her job was also going to apply to Maurice Echegaray. Once she’d made up her mind she wanted something, then have it she would. There had been some tell-tale signs already. Like when they bought roller skates and started practising in the office. Rebeca already knew how to skate and glided elegantly between the potted plants and marble table. Maurice stumbled after her like a calf whose legs were too long, and knocked over folders and piles of paper stacked for recycling when he fell over. Sonsoles followed behind tidying up after them. I said I thought it was undignified, that we were there to sell things not lark around like five-year-olds.
Rebeca and Maurice started to keep to themselves. After a while they would sometimes be away from the office for several days. When they came back, Maurice would always be happy and excited, and you could hear Rebeca was in high spirits as well from the sound she made in the corridor. But the moment she caught sight of us in the office, it was always the same. Her face went all stiff and she’d cross her arms over her chest, the eel would be there in her eyes and she would go into her room and shut the door. If you ever said anything, about their being late or where they had been, she would say the business was running well enough for us to keep our questions to ourselves. There wasn’t really anything you could say to that since Maurice Echegaray was now being called a super-salesman and a jet-setter by the whole neighbourhood. Dad told me that he had become one of the bank’s most important clients and that Fraga could pay half his salary from the income his operations pulled in. All the same Fraga suspected that morale in the office was low and that there had to be links to the underworld. Shady deals – Fraga could put two and two together after all. Containers by the truckload and a million Euros in cash. Those things had to be connected up. Invisible and delicate threads linking everything together no one could see but that could trip you up and make you fall so far you never got up again.
But I didn’t care about any of that, to be honest. Invisible connections, Dad and Fraga’s machinations over a vermouth in the bar next to the bank – I had got other things to think about. The bathing caps were selling like hot cakes and no one could believe the market hadn’t been completely saturated, how could people buy that many bathing caps? Asu rang and ordered more; she paid up when her lorry-drivers picked up the containers from the docks, and I stood there a bit like Rebeca, pointing and shouting at the dockers to handle my particular containers with kid gloves. We always had cava and cold cuts in the office fridge, since the way things were going we had something to celebrate almost every day. To the point where Maurice Echegaray and Rebeca finally announced their engagement. When I heard the news, I thought that if ever the time had come for things to swing round the other way it would be now they were engaged since they sort of turned each other’s heads. They were happy, oblivious to their surroundings, and no longer on guard. You couldn’t really make out the eel in Rebeca’s eyes anymore and sometimes they wouldn’t turn up at the office for days at a time. When I rang Maurice Echegaray at home, they said straight out that they had spent the last few days in bed and might be popping into the office again some time next week.
We could manage things on our own anyway, they said.
‘Almudena and her bathing caps,’ Rebeca shouted in the background.
‘Make sure Sonsoles doesn’t stick too much chewing gum under the desk,’ said Maurice Echegaray.
So much for them. I couldn’t stop thinking that if I’d been a bit quicker to suggest that business with the beach instead of just thinking about it, things might have been different now.
‘Anyway they suit each other,’ said Sonsoles. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect couple.’
It was on one of those days that a friend of Maurice Echegaray turned up at the office. He introduced himself as Smart and was as black as coal. He said there was a bit of a problem with some containers. That they’d found some objects in them. At the customs.
‘What kind of objects?’ I asked.
Smart shrugged. He said he didn’t really know, but that his contact in the customs had said it would be best for Maurice Echegaray to be prepared. They could enter and search the premises if they had grounds for suspicion.
I rang them, and Maurice and Rebeca got to the office fast, fetched their briefcases and then drove down to the docks. They didn’t come back that afternoon but the rumours had spread in any case, and when I went home for lunch Dad said that Fraga had been informed that there had been irregularities at the docks and that they had found a thing or two in Echegaray’s containers.
‘Like what?’ I said.
‘It was rocks and African weapons,’ Dad said.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘No one gets run in for a few stones and knives.’
‘It’s the principle though,’ Dad said. ‘These jet-setting types think they can do whatever they like. That’s what Fraga doesn’t approve of, the principle. The principle.’
I kept thinking about the principle.
The afternoon of the following day the rumour had spread all the way up the stairwell. Echegaray had been detained down at the docks. They hadn’t locked him up yet but it was only a question of time before they would. There was a lot of whispering going on. When they went out onto the roof terrace to fetch the sheet, the women stayed to talk in hushed voices, exchanging information was what they called it.
By midday the whole building was on its feet. Even the old men who mostly just sat there watching television, were out and about. Downstairs by the post-boxes, they were talking about Maurice Echegaray and contraband while smoking and dropping their ash on the floor.
I went to the market to buy food. I thought that Maurice was bound to be coming back to the office in a few hours, and by then he’d be absolutely exhausted.
I bought a lobster. Not that I had any idea how to cook one, but I was going to ask Mum on the way back. As I walked back from the market towards our building, I could see something was different. It took a while before I could put my finger on it but then I realised what it was. Everyone was on the balconies. I mean really everyone, the old men and women and kids. The families had moved outside, tidied away the mops and cleaning fluid which was usually what most people kept on their balconies and were sitting there, as if they were waiting for something. They were eating as well, it’s true. Only this was the first time I had ever seen people in our building eating dinner on the balcony and they looked funny, out of place sort of and a bit lost. Like expectant hens in cages, or like any other animals stacked up in cages for that matter.
Mum told me what to do with the lobster when I got up there. She said all you had to do was pop it in the pressure cooker and tighten the lid and it would die just like that. Then she told me she and Dad were going to eat dinner on the balcony.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘It’s a lovely evening,’ Mum said. ‘It’s completely clouded over,’ I said.
‘Pooh,’ Mum said. ‘It’ll be some time before they get here.’ ‘What’s more,’ she said and lowered her voice, ‘I’m dying to see the look on that jet-setter’s face when he comes back. Him and that brunette. That prostitute.’
I closed the door behind me, went up to Sonsoles who couldn’t believe her ears either.
We laid the table with a red cloth that Sonsoles brought from home. The wine was being chilled. The lobster was in a white plastic bag. Every now and then it would move about a bit and Sonsoles would look revolted. I tried to calm her down, told her it was fresh as could be.
The clock struck 9, half past 9, 10 o’clock. At 11 we went out onto the office balcony and looked over at our building. They were still there.
‘Christ, I just don’t believe it,’ said Sonsoles. ‘They are still sitting there.’
They were smoking and pouring wine and the sound of their conversations was like a kind of murmuring.
‘It should always be this way,’ said Sonsoles. ‘It’s so cosy.’
‘Cosy?’ I replied.
The sky was almost black, but we moved our chairs out all the same. We told each other we didn’t want to miss this, the reaction when Maurice Echegaray and Rebeca got back. Not Rebeca and Maurice actually coming back but how people were going to react when Maurice and Rebeca came back, was the way we explained it to each other, nodding in agreement.
Soon after the heavens just sort of opened. There was rumbling and lightning, and inside in the kitchen the lobster kept creeping round in his bag.
When the clock struck midnight I boiled it.
‘That’s a big one,’ Sonsoles said when the water got hot, and it started making a commotion inside the saucepan.
We put our hands over our ears. Only once it was on the table we sucked all the juices out of its limbs and the flesh came away easily, it was white and quite tender, it melted nicely on our tongues and went down well with the chilled white wine.
It was half past 11 when the black Jeep stopped outside the building. I leant forward to see better. The doors opened and they climbed out. Maurice Echegaray was holding his jacket over his shoulder and looked tired. When he closed the car door he undid his tie, took it off and opened the door again to throw it inside the car. Rebeca got out of the car with her shoes in her hand. The drains had not been able to swallow all the rain that had fallen and the pavement was covered in water. I could see the neighbours in our building on their balconies, their eyes fixed on the street. Admittedly it was night time and not the kind of hour you would normally hear that much traffic, but I bet you could have heard a pin drop.
‘Maurice,’ Rebeca said. ‘Let’s dance.’
Her voice echoed strangely between the buildings. She splashed her feet around in a puddle and it was as if even that splashing sound made an echo.
‘Dance? Right now?’ he said.
‘Yes. Come on.’
And Maurice Echegaray opened the car door for the third time, turned the radio on and there was the sound of music. Very quiet but still audible, it was something tranquil. They took each other by the hand, embraced and danced with their feet in the water. It was still dead quiet in our building and I don’t think anyone dared breathe for those minutes they stayed there. Then they locked the car and went up to the office, their briefcases under their arms and their shoes dangling from their hands.
There was a sense of unease in the building the next day. I could feel it the moment I woke up, before I’d even opened my eyes, a depressed feeling like barbed-wire that came oozing out of the walls.
‘What makes people hate them most,’ said Mum at breakfast, ‘isn’t that they earn money but that they go round like they owned the whole world. They behave like they owned the whole world.’
Who else would ever come home in the middle of the night and start using the public pavement as a dance floor? Who in this building would ever have driven their car half way onto the pavement and left it parked like that? Who else would have had a Jeep, which took up almost two entire parking spots on its own and was really meant for people with an inferiority complex?
When it came down to it they hadn’t found much in the containers. A couple of African swords and some kind of ivory bracelet, the kind of things that turn up in containers and were hardly worth turning everything upside down for, according to the customs office. But Fraga declared he’d had enough. He couldn’t go on doing business with someone whose reputation you couldn’t rely on, and he was obliged to look more deeply into Maurice Echegaray’s habits and financial situation. He made some calls, checked with the authorities and the institutions and finally announced that he needed to hear people’s general impressions of Maurice Echegaray in order to get a sense of the real lie of the land. So he began visiting people in their flats which was what got the snowball rolling. People started talking and Fraga made notes. Then he spent several days considering the matter. Finally he came up to our office and said he was demanding the return of the entire sum he had lent Maurice Echegaray to buy cars, insurance policies, clothes and flats.
‘But you’ve got the office as security,’ said Maurice Echegaray.
‘That’s not enough,’ said Fraga. ‘I need the entire sum now.’
‘That is totally absurd.’
‘I have to demand the immediate return of the entire amount.’
‘We haven’t got the money now. We’d have to move in that case.’
‘That’s not my responsibility,’ said Fraga looking distinctly shabby. His forehead was shiny and lips were puffy.
What Fraga said to me was that even though he was sorry for my sake, because he knew that I liked my job and that I’d done well with the bathing caps, there would be other opportunities. Maybe even at his bank. You never knew. The future was always a spectrum of unexpected opportunities.
I didn’t say anything to him. Not to Mum and Dad either, that evening. I didn’t even say anything when Maurice Echegaray and Rebeca shoved their laptops in their briefcases and slammed the office door shut behind them, but inside I felt something I couldn’t share with anyone because it was dull and bland, as empty and uninteresting as an old cupboard.
In any case that was the last time I saw Maurice Echegaray. A few days later a moving company turned up and took away the sofas, the desks and the computers. They lugged them into the lifts and lugged them out again downstairs. We stood there watching as everything was piled into a lorry which then accelerated and drove off, west towards Madrid or perhaps just towards the world in general.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Frank Perry has translated the work of many of Sweden’s leading writers. His work has won the Swedish Academy prize for the introduction of Swedish literature abroad and the prize of the Writers Guild of Sweden for drama translation.