Monday 1 June 2009

Grammatical Gangland

By Richard Morley.

I could tell by the way that the dame sat down at the table that she worked for the man. I’d seen her kind before. Too many of them and yet, there were never enough. I’d watched them across steaming café con leches and through so many empty caña glasses, that Mahou could rebuild the Carabanchel brewery on the profits alone. The dame had no class: Skirts down to her knees and a sensible shirt. She carried the file. Everyone knew the file. It was dark blue and printed with the shadowy figure of the man. I scanned the room. Some poor sucker was gonna get his this hour. I wondered who it was and thanked Fowler it wasn’t me.
I watched the dame’s hard stare as it swept the bar. She knew, like I did, the mark would be sitting alone. Waiting. For a brief moment, her gaze lingered on me, but she must have recognised me as one of her own. Yeah! We were the same she and I, grabbing for "clients" who wanted to know what we knew and were happy to pay for the privilege. But she was different. She worked for the man.
Her gaze came to rest on a guy two tables on my left. I hadn’t spotted him. He’d tried to melt into a dark corner and been halfway successful, but the dame got him in one. Dames can do that.
She strode to his table, sat down and smiled. The mark bobbed in his chair and shook her hand. Respect, you have to show respect. He smiled too, but it was uncertain, nervous. I felt sorry for him.
She opened the files and stared at him through her glasses. She was not happy.
“Look, I explain you”, he stuttered.
“It’s ´explain to you´, Pedro”. This woman was tough. She showed no fear and had no mercy. She had a complete arsenal of nouns, adjectives and deadly verbs and would drill them into her “clients” daily. The mark just sat there and took it. She worked for the man.
The man controlled the city. Wherever you went, wherever you looked, the man was there. Once, he was just an ordinary Private Dick, selling his knowledge to any two-peseta bum who was desperate. Pesetas had gone now and now he was a company man. His company! You had to give him credit. In any scam, there was a lever to be pressed, a system that could be worked if you knew how. The man had found it and pushed the lever, worked the system until now he had the power. No more scrabbling for loose change. No more working the hours. Other schmucks did the hard graft now. It used to be just the classes. Teaching the message. But when the message went out on the media, the man controlled the media as well. Newspapers, radio, television; they were all his.
Or to be more accurate, almost. When it came to teaching the knowledge, he had competition. There was the Don, whose quixotic approach meant he’d had to diversify into other languages; some international houses were trying to muscle in, and the man’s greatest rivals, the Medina brothers. Between them, they cleaned up, leaving a few scraps here and there for us PIs, or private instructors. We still got jobs and made a living, but you were made if you worked for the man.
I watched the dame over the top of the notes I needed for my next job. I was feeling mean; A few irregular and phrasal verbs. I could make the saps sweat too. My next victim was gonna get a lesson I hoped he wouldn’t forget. She was asking questions the mark couldn’t answer. Something about conditionals. She was good. I could see the fear on the student’s face, the small glances at the clock on the bar wall, the trembling of the lower lip as he tried to pronounce the letter V. He hated it, but he’d still agree to more sessions. Desperation is a wonderful thing, particularly when they’re paying for it. Every employer wanted English. Maybe it was time we put our prices up.
I put my notes back in their folder. It was yellow. I would never get to carry the blue one. I got up to leave. As I pushed my chair back the dame’s lens enlarged eyes shot heavy lead bullets of pity in my direction. She knew what I was. A guy eking out a living teaching the dregs of linguistic ineptitude. I could see a verb conjugating on her thin lips. “If you want more hours, the Prince is looking for teachers”. Condescension dripped from every word, superiority from every rounded syllable. Working for the man did that to a person.
The Prince: called by that name by everyone, but never to his face. Not if you wanted work in this town. He preferred to be known as Big Luis. He was an agent, a chulo that worked the east side, beyond the Puerta de Alcala. He ran a string of girls out of a forth floor office on the Calle de Principe de Vergara, some of them with CELTA, some without. That’s why he was called, “The Prince”.
The dame turned back to her student. I was dismissed. She knew I would never go to the Prince, but she could clear her conscience now she’d thrown me a few crumbs. I paid my cuenta and left the bar. I could afford it.
I walked along the hot, hard pavement and wondered why anyone would sell their souls to the Man, the Prince, or even the Madinas. It was rumoured they showed no mercy. That you would wake up one day in some isolated pueblo from where there was no return. Once they had you, you were theirs forever.
I remember this green guy, so wet behind the ears they still dripped, who arrived and schlepped his TEFL to every school in town. Nobody wanted to know. Except the Prince, who took him in, in more ways than one. A serious juegos de palabras. The Prince had this schmuck going every which way. He sent him to the boonies and he spent more time on unpaid travel than drilling his victims. A few weeks of this and the guy wanted out. There was a lesson for us all. You don’t cross the Prince. They found him on a bench in the Retiro Park with the letters AEIOU sliced into his abdomen. He had been ritually disemvowelled.
That would never happen to me. I was a loner, and proud of it. It might mean getting only the scraps, but the pasta was all mine. Nothing scooped off the top. Sure, I had to hustle, but who doesn’t these days.
At least I could look at myself in the mirror most mornings. I was free and always would be. Unlike the dame, my future was perfect.

Copyright Richard Morley 2009.

You ever had an itch and wanted to scratch it. I just have. You wanna make some smart remark, add your scratch in the comment boxes below.

1 comment:

  1. Do you listen to Guy Noir on Prairie Home Companion (a weekly show on PBS radio in the US)? Garrison Keiller does the skit using the same voice you have used. A script from the May 29 show can be found at