Sunday 31 October 2010

Smoke and Morirse

By Richard Morley.

The Main Street of my Neighbourhood.

I like my little bit of Madrid. My barrio is sandwiched between two major arterial roads and cut off from our neighbouring barrio by an expanse of wasteland where forty years ago they dumped the sandy soil known as Peñuela that was removed from the tunnel of our metro line. Google earth shows my barrio to be about one kilometre long by about a half a kilometre wide. Isolated by the roads and the dog-walkers wasteland we are, to all intents and purposes, a little village.

Running through the centre is our main shopping street. These days it seems to consist of hair-dressers, opticians and banks; lots of banks. In four hundred metres we have eighteen branches of one bank or another. You are never more than twenty metres away from a cash point. I suppose they must all find customers. Our barrio might be small in area, but it is high. Apartment blocks up to twelve stories high soar into the Madrid sky. From my own apartment window I have a glorious view of all of eastern Madrid.

Surprisingly, at ground level, our concrete jungle, or Jungla de Cristal (glass jungle) as the Spanish call it, is hardly noticeable. Our streets are lined with tall, leafy trees that effectively hide the brick and concrete beyond.

At either end of the main street are two small businesses. Both of them are estancos, or tobacconist shops. They sell more than cigarettes and cigars. Here you can buy bus and metro tickets, newspapers, birthday cards, stamps and envelopes and decorative wrapping paper for presents, which for some reason the gift shops where you buy the presents, don’t sell.

I tend to frequent one of these estancos more than the other, for the simple reason that is the closest to where I live. I have wished this wasn’t the case. The far estanco is run by an attractive young lady who is always polite, cheerful, and knows my order as soon as I enter. The only words of Spanish I have to use is “uno”, “dos”, “mechero” and, of course, “gracias”. She, on the other hand, likes to practise her few words of English, with a smile and a self conscious chuckle. It is a pleasure to go there on the odd few times that I do. Maybe I should move to the other end of the street.

My estanco, the one nearest me, was run, in the mornings, by a sharp chinned, sharp nosed and sharp tongued woman called Esperanza. Give her a black cloak, a pointy hat to hide her grey straggly hair and a broomstick and she would have been first choice for any of the three witches in Macbeth. In the more than three years I have lived here Esperanza never once remembered what cigarettes I smoke. Or at least pretended not to. I had to order them, by name, every time. Then she pretended not to understand and gave me a pack of some different brand. I know she did it on purpose. And when I pointed out the error, the look on her face suggested that I was the one who had made the mistake.

The Estanco.

It wasn’t just me. Others had a similar problem with the woman. Every transaction, whether for a simple purchase of a single packet of cigarettes or a more complicated postal matter, took time and frustration. All queries were answered with a snapped reply. The woman had the shortest syllables in the Spanish language. Queues would form, with much grumbling from those at the back when the unmoving line of people stretched metres along the pavement outside her tiny shop. It was not possible for more than three or four people to actually be inside together.

At two in the afternoon she would shut up shop for lunch. Not a second later. Leaving any proposed purchase to the last minute was a fatal mistake. More than once I was caught on the wrong side of the road, waiting for the crossing lights to change in my favour, when I would see her face at the window, dead on two, pulling the concertina security bars into place and slide the sign on the door to, “Cerrada”. No amount of gesticulated pleading would make her remain open for a few seconds longer.

Luckily, Esperanza only worked in the shop in the morning. From five, when the shop reopened, to eight in the evening, we would be served by Carmen, Esperanza’s daughter, but who certainly did not take after her mother.

Carmen has deep brown eyes, jet black hair and bee-stung lips that always carries a smile. Once she had realised that I stayed loyal to one brand of cigarettes I have never had to ask again. Unlike her mother she dealt with all her customers quickly and cheerfully and there was hardly ever a queue. Naturally, I tried to make my purchases in the evening.

Last August I was away from Madrid for the first two weeks of the month. Having broken from my normal routine I found myself without cigarettes after two o’clock on a Monday afternoon. I knew the estanco would be closed, but my local, the Elizabeth Bar, with its more expensive cigarette machine would be open. Being a Madrid summer, it was hot. I needed a break and thought a cold beer would be a good idea (when isn’t it?) and so set off for the bar.

Imagine my surprise when I saw, at approximately half past two, that the estanco was open. To buy the cigarettes there would only have saved me fifteen céntimos, but look after the céntimos and the Euros look after themselves as my mother would have undoubtedly said if we had lived in post euro Spain. So I entered the estanco fully expecting to see Carmen behind the counter. Surprise number two was that it wasn’t Carmen but Esperanza and therefore, even more surprisingly, there was no queue. Just her and me, but then it was lunch time.

But the greatest surprise, if not shock, was yet to come. “Hola, Buenas”, she almost chirped and then a strangely smiling Esperanza turned to the rows of cigarettes and turned back with my brand. The right brand. Then, while making change, talked about the weather, followed by a cheery “Adios”, when I left.

Twenty five hours later, meaning at three thirty the following day, the shop was open again. Esperanza stood alone in the door. I didn’t need any cigarettes so walked past on the other side of the street. She saw me, popped her head out, and waved. This was so strange I will admit to thinking that perhaps she was on some sort of medication.

That evening, when I did need cigarettes, I went to the estanco and was served by Carmen. Oddly, she was not her usual happy self. But then, I never did understand women.

For me, this was very welcome. If I was busy working in the morning and slowly working my way through a pack of cigarettes, I no longer had to keep an eye on the clock to ensure that I had renewed my supply before two. There are times when writing or researching a piece for the blog or working on interminable lesson plans for my students means I lose track of time. It gave me a new flexibility.

And so it continued for two weeks. September had begun. Vacation time was over and my students were back in their offices expecting me to arrive for lessons at fixed times. I had lost some of my flexibility, but if I timed it right, I had just time to get to the estanco before catching the bus to the first lesson of the afternoon. I left my apartment and walked the two hundred metres to shop. I crossed the small plaza opposite and saw Esperanza standing in the doorway and wiggled a hand in her direction, but the lights of the pedestrian crossing were against me. The nearest approaching car was still way off, and if I was quick I could have made it across the road, but that vehicle was a black hearse with a cherry wood coffin buried in piles of flowers in the back. I looked across at Esperanza and smiled. She smiled back. A rather strange, wistful smile I thought. And she returned my wave.

The Crossing.

As the hearse passed me by, I stood on the pavement in respect. In first car of mourners bringing up the rear I thought I caught a glimpse of jet black hair behind a sad face that stared unmovingly ahead towards the car bearing the coffin.

The slow procession passed and the road was clear. I looked across and began to cross. But the little estanco was in darkness. The security bars had been pulled across and the sign in the door proclaimed, “Cerrado”. I swore. Perhaps Esperanza had to go somewhere and couldn’t wait, I thought. But she had seen me. Waved at me.

I was puzzled, but thought what the heck, shrugged and recrossed the street and bought my cigarettes from the machine in the bar Elizabeth.

Returning from lessons a little after five the following afternoon I climbed off the bus and crossed over to the estanco. Carmen was just pulling back the security bars and opening for business. “Are you back to normal hours, now?” I asked. “Now that everyone’s back at work.”

A look of puzzlement crossed her face. “We haven’t changed our opening hours”, she said.
“But you have been open every afternoon at least for the past two weeks”, I protested. “I’ve been getting a pack nearly every day”.
She looked me square in the face. “Your normal brand?”
“Yes, of course”. I assured her. “You mother’s been serving me.” I smiled. “It’s been interesting talking to her. Usually she’s so busy. But she’s a different woman when the shop’s not crowded. Quite chatty, in fact.”
“My mother’s been serving you every day for two weeks?” she asked, uncertainly.
“One pack?”
“Normally. Sometimes two.”

The blood seemed to drain from her face. She turned to the rows of stacked cigarettes. “For the past two weeks when I’ve opened the shop at five we’ve been a pack short from the end of morning count. One day, two packs. Your brand”.
“Perhaps Esperanza forgot to tick them off”, I suggested.
“Esperanza? My mother?” Her body suddenly shook and she grabbed the counter for support.

“Señor, my mother died two weeks ago. Because some of the family were on vacation the funeral was just yesterday. In fact I saw you standing at the crossing, opposite the shop. I remember seeing you wave, but I couldn’t see who you were waving to.” Her eyes narrowed and stared into mine. “Where were you going?”


  1. Scary story for the deaths day, you told me the story last year, didn't you? I still preferring the María's story in La Alberca...terrifying!!!

  2. What ever the reader's take on the story, I want it to be true. I am stealing "bee-stung lips", just so you know.
    I just wonder if Carmen thinks you're crazy now.

  3. What a brilliant Halloween read :)

  4. Sofia Montgomery1 November 2010 at 08:14

    Hello there Richard! This is my first visit to your blog, after you provided a link on Facebook. I enjoyed your writing very much and think I'll be visiting regularly, if it doesn't make me yearn too fervently to be back in Madrid...

  5. An absolutely wonderful story and not reading it until today, I had forgotten about the Halloween conection – brilliant!!

  6. You always could tell a tall tale!!