So, he is alive, with the monks, protecting “the relic”. The Englishman was here, in Ireland, although I thought I got rid of him, once and for all, five years ago. I thanked my luck when he left Constantinople, his presence disturbed and irritated me. When I left that city for England, to offer my respects to the king, I found out that he was there, making trouble. Nevertheless, I decided to use his presence for my own advantage. I told the king that one of his brother’s men was inciting his people to rebellion, saying that King Richard Lion Heart was alive. I remembered his majesty that one of the many pretenders to the throne could use his testimony to brand him as unlawful usurper. I know who this “traitor” was; there were not many crusaders, survivors of the third, with a big black cross tattooed in the back. I warned king John, Dugald accompanied the soldiers and pointed at him. He was captured. But the king has failed me. He told me that everything was settled, but he lied. Of course, he thought that to abandon him in a small boat, without food nor water, with the flesh of his back whipped to the bone would be as good as to kill him without passing the sentence. The king has not been the only one to fail me, those painted beasts also. I gave them precise instructions: Fournier and the Englishman should die, the relic stolen. The other monks could live, I did not care for them.
I feel rage grow inside me. The bastard babe-slayer, as I called him that night in Constantinople, can ruin everything. I’ve worked so hard for his, all my life. I changed my destiny with my own hands. There can only be one Baron de Merville, our property cannot be divided. It is the custom that all goes to the elder brother, and the second is destined to the church. In our case it was my father who decided who was the older between my twin brother and myself. When questioned, the terrified midwife said she couldn’t say who saw the light first, covered with blood and mucosity as we were. She made a knot to our umbilical cords, but had to help also my mother. It was not an easy delivery; she had a heavy haemorrhage and was too busy trying not to die, she couldn’t care less about birthright those moments. Therefore, once cleaned and bathed, my father had to decide who would be the heir, and he chose Guy. On seeing me, he said that all that black hair in the head of a new born was surely a sign of the evil, and that dedicating my life to God I will clean, not only the original sin, but also that touch of evil in me. Poor father, equanimity has never been his forte. Thus, as my father thought me wicked even when I wasn’t, I decided to prove him right. For him I was only Guy’s corrupt copy. He was kind and generous as I was rude and selfish. Although we were identical, the pale blue of my brother’s eyes were, according to the baron, clear and bright, while mine were unsettling. His smile broad and honest, while I could only smirk, and his nose straight and noble, while mine menacing as a bird of prey’s peak.
We went to Ireland when we were boys. Growing up, my brother proved also meek and coward. How would he as Baron of Merville hold the lands that my father conquered with fire and steel? But he was not weak to my father’s eyes, of course. I was condemned to study my prayers and my Latin while he trained, without success. I was as good with books as he with swords. When I was fourteen I decided to settle the matter, once and for all. Despite our differences, my brother and I shared a passion: hunting. A dangerous sport. I confess it was not easy to prepare the accident. My father was particularly over anxious with everything concerning his favourite son. I managed, during a moment of distraction, to loosen his horse’s belts. I challenged him to a race inside the woods chasing a fox. As I expected, after a few jumps over some scattered trunks he fell from his horse. Providence lent me also a hand: he broke his neck on falling, although I had my dagger in my hand when I approached him, just in case I had to help him with the passing.
My mother did not put up with the mourning, and she followed his son a little time afterwards. Poor stupid thing as she was, I think she felt I had something to do with the business, and she always looked scared to death near me. My father spent a fortune in masses for Guy, started to use a hair shirt and to confess daily. The day of the burial he summoned me: “Raymond” – he said – “I will not deny you what’s yours by right, I will never cover the family with shame. But know that the very day you come to age you will not receive a single coin for me for your maintenance. When I die everything will be yours. Not before. Prove me that you deserve the name of Baron de Merville”.
I didn’t even argue his decision, I expected it. I went back to Rouen, and lived with some relatives. I considered the next crusade (there will always be another crusade) as my only chance to make fortune. Most of the knights searched in crusades money and recognition, but died in the East, or returned crippled and poor. I wouldn’t be one of them. I joined the flood of French knights headed to Venice, where we waited to embark. It took quite a long time to the pope and the Serenissima to establish the terms of the agreement, the amount of money that we were supposed to get and never received, and the number of galleys that would take us to the East.
I met him in Venice. He had a name, and a voice, there. An Englishman, knight of King Richard Lion Heart. He hoped to find him -or his body- near Jerusalem. But we were not headed to the holy city. Politics and religion make strange allies, and instead of fighting the infidel in Jerusalem we were to help the deposed king of the Byzantines to retake his throne. That was real good news to me. Constantinople busted with gold, and I wanted my share. I needed as much as I could get to achieve what I had in mind.
Things went better than I expected. The Englishman proved an excellent warrior. When we entered Constantinople we sacked together the house of a certain Genovese merchant, rich as Craessus. He seemed possessed by a demon. I took also that paste that he got from the Syrian merchant, much less than the amount he swallowed-up, anyway. It just quieted the bites of hunger in my stomach and gave me a little bit of euphoria, but it didn’t change me. I guess that the drug only liberates your real self. The Englishman reputes himself a knight, noble as King Arthur, but he is a monster, actually. I know that’s what I am. I’ve heard it all my lifetime.
The morning after, when the effect of the drug vanished, I did not remember him what he did in that house. I let him live in his righteous lie, condemning me from his high pedestal of chivalry values every time I stole gold, commerced with false relics, or sold prisoners as slaves. But one night, I made him face reality when we were playing dice: “your lucky will be over soon, you bastard babe-slayer”. How beautiful that moment was. The horror in his eyes, the abyss when he remembered everything: the red pulp of a child’s brain staining a wall that was white before we destroyed that family. I heard that he left the city some weeks later. I had to stay six more months in that shit hole before I got the money I needed to return to my dear father Baron de Merville with a small army of my own, richer than he will ever be. I’ve spent the last five years proving him to deserve my title, enduring his hypocrisy and cowardice, the masses before and after every manslaughter, trying to clean up his soul. It’s so easy to gain absolution: send a coffer filled with gold to the holy father, and he will send you back a nice parchment, sealed with lead and wax, pardoning you all sins imaginable. My father has not realised that the king of England is our only possible ally and protector. Not God. Who can not care less of us.
When I heard about Friar Geraldus’ mission I offered myself to escort him and the “relic” to Rome. With a small detour in England, hosted by king John. I’m sure Geraldus would have made a mess at the beginning, but not for long. I was determined to let him the glory of having convinced king John of England to deliver the holy relic to Saint Matthias to pope Innocence III.
I should be headed to the English court now. I’m not supposed to be here, hunting three monks and a “mute” in the bogs. If only he had died when he had to.
This is the backstory I have imagined for Raymond de Merville in his own words. It’s related with the previous post, the backstory of the Mute. I have placed it, in the timeline of “Pilgrimage”, when Raymond and his men are chasing the monks and the mute in the forest.
– Tell me: how does a man without a tongue confess his sins?
– We pray for him
I have a tongue, but I don’t speak. Should I open my mouth I’d scream, or go mad. Perhaps I’d return to the sea to let the ocean swallow me up. I can’t speak, I won’t do it, not until the very end. Indeed, it is a very pleasant thing to have good people praying for me. Raymond has always had the skill to read any situation on the spot. To know people. I thought, a long time ago, that I could do it also, but I was wrong. I thought I knew him. I trusted him, although only in the very beginning of our acquittance. I even thought, waiting to embark in Venice, that we were alike, but we are not. Otherwise he’d also scream, or bit his tongue. He would, if he believed. Although all the things that I have seen I still believe in God. How can, a man like me? I don’t know. I stand on my knees for hours, and I let Friar Ciàran prayers fall upon me. He has also seen the evil, he’s hold the sword but nevertheless, he can speak. Because he has not done what I did. What would they all think of me? Would young Diarmuid still tell me about the soul of the razor-shell if he knew that once I plucked a babe by the legs as he plucked that mollusc and dashed his brains off against a wall while his mother screamed just as long as it took Raymond to cut her throat? A family of Genovese merchants. Theirs was the only house still intact in the centre of Constantinople.
I’ve tried to justify the deed, afterwards. We were hungry, pillage was the only way to get the money we were promised. I was confused. During the siege of the city the food was scarce and I cheated hunger chewing a sticky paste. One of the many Syrian merchants that fluttered around our camp had a reputation for obtaining the impossible. I asked him to find ašīš; I saw the Nizaris transformed by it during the other crusade. I swallowed all I had left when the walls of the city collapsed. I’d not need it any more. But I forgot everything. It was Raymond who made me remember. Two weeks later. We were playing dice, I was winning all the games.
“Your luck will be over soon, you bastard babe slayer” – he said in his bad English with Norman “r”s. I think I got pale. As pale as could become my face burned by the Eastern sun. I knew he was right as soon as he said it.
“You forgot?” – he continued, turning his head, looking innocently at me. I remember his blue eyes, that smirk and that false expression of candid innocence. “Apologies, Englishman. But I must say that you scared me that night”. He lifted the tiny wooden barrel containing the dice. He threw. “Double six! Bon, my luck is changing, finally”. The last sound I heard leaving that tavern was his laughter.
I cursed Raymond for reminding me of the babe. He knew that my mind had wiped out everything, but he kept it for himself until the appropriate moment arrived. I could not stand his company as much as I did before, in Venice, or during the siege. He was trying desperately to make as much money as he could, he repeated that he needed it to pay a group of armed men of his own, that he would need them back in Ireland. He disappeared for days with a strange-looking priest, searching for gold. He commerced with false relics, sold prisoners as slaves. I always reputed myself better than he, nobler, braver. He could not stand my haughty looks, my contempt towards him and he revenged the best way he could: putting me in front of the evidence. I wasn’t better than he.
The following days I tried to make terms with that part of me, and I made my living as a hired sword. When there’s a king to depose there’re many feuds to settle. It was necessary to wipe out the followers of the old usurper. I am good at killing, I made that for years. Those days it gave a new thrill to me. I took a certain pleasure to take away the life of someone that could defend himself: beat, thrust, slash, and then the next. One night the subject in my list escaped, and I chased him near the harbour. He entered a small house, I could hear him hiding in a tiny room, trying his best to conceal his breath, speaking to someone. I stormed into: a woman cried, she was holding a child in her arms, and I froze. It could have been easy for me to kill the man and let the woman go. Even when he took the baby from her arms and threatened to kill it.
“As if that would stop me” – I said. I left the room, the house and the city. I embarked in the first ship to Europe and after two months in Venice I returned to England. I still talked, those days, but very little. And when I opened my mouth it was to say that king Richard Lion Heart was alive and that he would return from the East to claim his kingdom. I knew it was a lie but people would believe anything they wanted. The friars that what we are carrying in that coffer burns infidels. I knew it was the lighting during the storm that made the reliquary hot. And that the water of that small river was not haunted by a bad fairy. When I returned to England people wanted king Richard, and I gave them that illusion. But some dreams do not last long. I was imprisoned by king John’s orders, my atonement finally began. I thanked every whiplash, every punch. When there was very little left of me they didn’t know if I was telling the truth about Richard. I never confessed. Therefore the king, afraid that his brother may return, and knowing that I was close to him during the third crusade, decided to let me live… If I survived the ocean, the hunger and the thirst.
I look different now. In Constantinople my nose was straight, my hair short and I shaved whenever I could; but I know that Raymond and Dougald had recognised me. Every time they look at me, and after what he has told me after cutting the hands of the poachers, I’m beginning to understand why I’m here. And why God has crossed our paths again. I just have to wait, I’m sure that Raymond will offer me the chance to make His will. My will.
I wrote in my Pilgrimage review that I’d have liked to learn more about Raymond and the mute. I have placed this monologue of the mute, in the film timeline, right after Raymond faces the mute for the first time. I’ve written in a previous post not to write fiction in English any more. But this came to my head in English. My apologies for the mistakes.
Penélope was enjoying a quiet October afternoon in one of her favourite Madrid spots, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. She made an agreement with Manuela, the other employee in the small import-export company she worked in, that once a month she would stay in the office during lunch break just to leave an hour earlier in the afternoon so she could visit the museum, when the entrance was free.
As she already knew the Thyssen quite well, she devoted every visit to seeing no more than a couple of paintings. One of her favourite ones was the portrait of an English lord, David Lyon, painted by Thomas Lawrence.
Suddenly she realised that someone was standing beside her.
– “Tom!” – she smiled and embraced him, greeting him in the Spanish fashion, kissing him twice on the cheek. – “What are you doing in Madrid? I had no idea that you were coming. Why didn’t you tell me?”
– “And miss the face you just made? I wanted to see you and, just in case you don’t know, your expression when you’re surprised is one of the funniest things I have ever seen”.
Penélope patted his shoulder, and smiled. She observed him for a moment. Although they’ve e-mailed each other regularly and talked on the phone in the months after they met in August, this was only the second time they got to see each other. Tom was dressed in a very elegant grey suite with a light blue shirt, dark tie and a pair of black made-to-measure shoes. His hair seemed darker and was wearing the glasses with the transitions lenses which were now almost transparent. Nothing to do with the jeans and black t-shirt he was wearing in London the time they met.
– “Oh, you look different, so…”
– “.. boring?”
– “Professional” – Penélope concluded – “How did you find me? I always switch off my mobile phone when I’m here”
– “Maybe you won’t believe me, but I can be quite charming with young ladies when I want to.”
. “Manuela told you”
– “Indeed. Her English is almost as terrible as my Spanish but fortunately ‘Thyssen’ is pronounced the same in both languages” – replied Tom.
– “And what are you doing in Madrid? Apart from laughing of my face, of course”
– “It’s the best place to keep track of our investments in South America without spending eight hours on a plane” – said Tom. The truth was, he’d never usually come to Madrid for these kinds of meetings but he wanted badly to see her again.
– “And you? I understand you come here often”.
– “Yes, one Friday per month, more or less. This” – said Penélope pointing at the portrait – “is one of my favourite paintings. It reminds me of England”
– “Fortunately you have said England, not me”
– “No, you don’t look like him at all. Nevertheless, there’s a painting in Venice by Titian of a man who looks exactly like you. A brave captain dressed in black armour holding a banner.”
– “I’m glad to hear that, because this guy looks exactly like one of my Eton schoolmates, Reginald Ashford-Jones”.
– “Oh, sounds like someone important” – said Penélope trying not to laugh on hearing the way he pronounced that name.
– “A pompous bastard” – replied Tom. He started to giggle as if recalling a funny joke and burst out laughing. – “Until the day John and I locked him in the dean’s bedroom, naked as a worm.”
– “How long will you be staying in Madrid?”
– “Meetings are over, I’m all yours until Sunday afternoon”.
– “And you’re staying at…?”
– “The Palace”.
Penélope laughed again. “Of course, the most expensive Hotel in Madrid. I always forget when talking to you that you’re richer than Cressus”
– “I will take that as a compliment”.
– “You should” – said she.
They agreed to meet in a couple of hours near “Opera” subway station, they went for dinner to “La Casa del Pulpo” and then had some drinks in the Mercado de San Miguel. They enjoyed a very special evening together, and then the day after Penélope took him on the usual tourist strolls, Palacio de Oriente, Puerta del Sol, Parque del Retiro…
After a delicious dinner in “Casa Botín” they walked to “Plaza de la Villa”. Tom had not said a word since they left the restaurant, for a moment there he seemed every bit the quiet man she first met.
– “I have something to tell you, Penélope. The day you saw me, at John’s house. After he died I would often go, to visit my mother, to keep her company. One day she asked me to take something to his room, and, I’m still not sure exactly why but I started to read the letters you sent him. They were on the bedside table. I’ve read all of them, I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have”.
Penélope felt awkward on hearing this, she didn’t know what to say. She noticed a kind of anger brewing inside her, not towards Tom but John and his whim regarding the letters. She suddenly realised how selfish he had been, trying to bind her down with those beautifully handwritten letters, hitting her weak point with surgical precision.
– “They were personal. Indeed you should not but… It was a lifetime ago, Tom. I sometimes feel like that day never happened, like… I’ve wasted my time holding on to a memory of something that I’m not sure was ever real. Your mother told me that maybe everything that happened had a different purpose… Which one? I lived for more than a year almost like a hermit. I just lived for those letters, for the moment they would arrive and the moment to write back. What was I writing them for?” – her voice broke, and she started to cry – “For a corpse? Please, Thomas, tell me… what for?” – Penélope gasped, feeling that her heart fill with anguish, faced with that reality.
He approached her and took her face in his hands. He whispered.
– “To make me fall in love with you. I fell in love with you reading your letters, and I loved you even more when I saw you, and the more I know you the more I love you. That’s the reason why I was so silent that day, I was simply terrified by the thought of you gazing into my eyes and discovering how I felt”.
Penélope was crying and smiling at the same time.
– “That’s why I came here” – he continued – “the meetings were an excuse. I just had to know if I should let myself hope you…”
She held him tight, and kissed him.
– “I need someone real in my life, Tom. Someone to embrace, to wake up next to, to talk to, even to argue with. I’m tired of written words. Take me with you”.
When they walked out hand in hand Plaza de la Villa, Penélope had the awkward sensation of being observed. She turned round suddenly but there was nobody there except them. Tom held her tight, they kissed again and went up again Calle Mayor.
Indeed someone had been observing them that night. Someone who was walking now hurriedly in the opposite direction and jumped in the back seat of a black car parked in Calle del Sacramento. The driver gave the man a passport and other documents, his new identity, hopefully the last one. A private jet was waiting for him in the small airport of Cuatro Vientos; the flight to Houston would be long and he would have enough time on the plane to convince himself that he had done the right thing. He made a decision seven months ago, he knew he would cause them all pain, but they were safe now.
Although he had observed the couple with regret, he was happy that she was with Tom, as his brother was definitely better than he had ever been. At least, Tom had never used Penélope as he did. He was not interested in her when he saw her in that library, but in the paperback she had bought. It contained a very important piece of information, his contact had just put the book on top of the pile of Conn Igulden’s new best seller, but, when he was about to take it, he saw Penélope walking to the cash register with the book in her hands. The problem she had trying to purchase them gave him the chance to talk to her and, as soon as she went to the bathroom in Coco Momo Café, he changed her paperback with another copy he bought in the bookstore, wrote those two words on the napkin and placed the piece of paper inside “Sense and Sensibility”. He really meant what he wrote, he could have let her go after their tea, invent an excuse, a phone call, a sudden meeting, but couldn’t help feeling attracted to her and hoped that “ONE DAY…” he could be free to love. He was so tired of acting, pretending, being always someone else. He would give the services that last year, and then quit; in the meantime, John decided to enjoy the afternoon. He wasn’t lying in his letters when he wrote about how he often remembered the hours spent together.
John had the firm intention to continue their relationship where he left it; the letters were a bait, a way to not let her forget him. Unfortunately, something went wrong in Tripoli. One of the Ghedaffi men he imprisoned after a long chase managed to escape from jail just as he was about to be hanged, and went after him. He thought the Libyan had lost his track but he didn’t; upon returning to London the service informed him on his identity being compromised and that the only solution to protect his family was to fake his own death. The decision was on him and he chose. When his mother came to Bedford Square everything was ready, he planned his performance down to tiniest of detail. He could be a really good actor when he wanted, but he needed two things to disappear: an excuse and an audience. Penélope was the excuse (he could have contacted her if he wanted to, he had had her telephone number for months), and his mother the audience. When he left his house he loathed himself and was tempted to have a real accident and finish it all; but he lacked courage. He had spent the last months buried alive, hidden in a small flat, enough to persuade the man who chased him that he was really dead. Before leaving England forever he went to see her mother. She told him that Tom was in Spain to see Penélope, so he asked security to arrange everything for his Madrid departure. When he saw them together he knew that, even if not intentionally, he had succeeded in making something good to happen.
The End – for real
Thanks to Tanja and Sisci for editing the text
I have written this “Postscript” to “The Letter” because I could not take out of my head the conversation between Penélope and Tom in the Thyssen Museum and I wanted also to “see” them in their “happy ending”. Then I thought that, given that RA has already a high rate of deaths in their chaRActers it was not necessary to make him pay his fare to Charon also in this fan-fic. Moreover, another reason for John Thornton’s ‘resurrection’ is also a way to say that, unfortunately, Prince Charming does not exist (or if he does is a “rara avis”) and that, if a man like John Thornton approaches a woman like our Penélope, who is good looking but not a top-model, 99% of cases there’s a reason beyond Cupid’s dart. I concede you that it is not also something normal that the twin brother falls in love with the girl just by reading her letters, but this is fiction, after all…
She opened hastily the letterbox, grabbed the letters and hurried up to her flat. It was a hot summer afternoon in Madrid, so she longed for a long cold shower. She left the letters and the keys on the kitchen table, put her purse on a chair and was about to drink a glass of water when something caught her eye. She felt her knees tremble so she sat. Under the credit card envelope there was another one, yellow; she put aside the other letters and took that one in her hands. Her address was written in that neat, masculine calligraphy she knew so well; one of the numbers of her postal code was blurred, someone corrected it with a pen, but the number was wrong, therefore the letter arrived to one of the four corners of the country, before reaching the correct destination. She examined with dismay the stamp and the postmark, somewhere in North Africa, six months ago. She opened with trembling fingers the envelope, she was so nervous that she tore apart an angle of the sheet of paper. The letter was short:
“My dear Penelope, I’m leaving Phaecia and king Alcinous. I have had enough of travelling, I’m coming home. Call me when you read this, I want… I need to see you again.”
She read under the signature a London address, a phone number and an e-mail. She looked for her purse, took her phone and dialled the number; after a few clicks a cold computer voice informed that the number did not exist. She pressed the keys again, same answer. She opened the e-mail application and wrote a few lines to the e-mail address and left the phone on the table, watching it, praying for the incoming mail beep to sound. She breathed deeply and tried to calm herself. She had waited so long for that letter, and particularly for what was written in it, that she thought that somewhere a cruel spirit was laughing at her. For a whole year all his letters had arrived in a reasonable period of time, except that one.
She smirked watching the credit card bill lying beside the yellow envelope, and remembered how she met him.
She was in London, visiting a friend; as her friend had work to do she went alone to make some shopping. There was a library in Marylebone High Street she wanted to see, a beautiful Edwardian style shop. After an hour examining the scaffolds and walking up and down the aisles, she finally chose two books, an economic paperback and a beautiful hardback edition of “Sense and Sensibility”. But, when she handed her credit card to the clerk, it was not accepted. She cursed herself for her blind faith in technology, she always carried with her very little pocket money and it was not the first time she found herself in such embarrassing situation.
– “I can pay it for you, if you don’t mind. You will give me the money later” – said a voice behind her. She turned around, the voice belonged to a tall man, smiling at her.
– “No, no, I cannot accept it, you are so kind, but I really can’t” – she replied, blushing deeply. She gave the clerk the money for the paperback and left the shop mumbling “thanks again”. She went out of the shop and turned left, walking briskly. The afternoon was rather cold, she lifted the collar of her coat and, when she was about to cross Paddington Street, she realised that the man of the library was beside her. He smiled again and handled her something he had under his arm, it was the book.
– “Please, accept it, I insist” – he said.
– “I am sorry, I just can’t. I don’t live in London, I will never have the chance to pay it back to you, I cannot accept it”.
– “Can I offer you at least a cup of tea? Unless you have an appointment, or…”
– “No, I don’t have to go anywhere in particular” – replied, regretting her sincerity. Good-looking as that man was, he was a complete stranger. As if he was reading her mind, he held out his hand.
– “My name is John. John Thornton”. She could not avoid a small laugh and a glance of incredulity towards him. – “Yes, that’s the effect my name does to many people. At least to people frequenting libraries. I solemnly swear that it is my real name and that I have no cotton mills in the North.”
She smiled and they shook hands.
– “Penélope Reverte” – This time it was her turn to explain herself after his puzzled smile. – “I am Spanish. I’m visiting a dear friend, here in London. She is my very best friend since we were fourteen, we went to school together”. She felt quite stupid for feeling the need to make clear that the friend in question was a female, but the moment could not be more awkward than it was already, no matter how many other clumsy things she could say. It started to rain, he pointed to Coco Momo Café, just in front of them. She nodded and they crossed the street.
They spent an hour in the Café, taking tea and talking. She felt immediately at her ease with John, although she had never felt comfortable talking with attractive men. The few times she did, she always had the sensation of having to pass a test while being studied and judged by the women around. Instead, everything was smooth and easy with him; they had many interests in common and continued talking about books, movies and TV series when they went for a walk to Regent’s Park after the rain had stopped. She lost completely the notion of time until she received a phone call from her friend, saying that she was already at home and that dinner would be ready in an hour. They agreed to take the underground together, as he had also to take the Piccadilly line to go back home.
They entered in silence the lift for the platform, they were alone. Sometimes even in big chaotic cities as London appears every now and then strange islands of loneliness, materialising suddenly from nowhere. The lift moved, and they were silent, for the first moment since they met in the street. He was leaning on the metallic walls of the lift, with his arms crossed, holding his coat, observing her with a queer smile. His eyes, which were blue under the sun light, were now deep grey as the steel around them. He came close to her, saying in a low, deep voice. “So. Here we are…” Suddenly the lift stopped. A bell rung and the doors opened; a noisy group of Spanish students entered the elevator as they left and she could not help but laughing when she heard the appreciative commentary that one of the girls made about John’s ass. They did not talk either when they were waiting for the train. She felt, for the first time, uncomfortable; she was feeling that something was happening between them, she was no longer a young girl, she was even good looking according to what most people said and, that was the moment which, according to all the manuals of courtship spoken or written since Man left the caves, he had to make something, launch a signal, make an approach as a few moments ago in the lift. But he did nothing, or said nothing. He was just standing there, watching her.
When the train arrived they sat together. He took the Jane Austen’s book out of one of his coat’s pocket and put it on her lap.
– “You can’t say no anymore. Please.” – He said watching her, with a plea in his eyes. She put one hand on the book, touching his fingers for a moment, and stared back at him.
– “OK” – she replied – “but… do you want something from me?” – She continued, coquettishly.
– “Oh, yes…” – he whispered in her ear leaning towards her while he was taking something from the inside pocket of his jacket. He showed her a fountain pen, a black Parker riveted in gold; he took from a pocket of his black jeans a small white card, of a restaurant in Soho. – “Write your address”
– “My e-mail address?” – She replied, more radiantly than she wanted to.
– “No, your home address. I want to write you letters”.
She took the pen with a perplexed and a little bit disappointed expression in her face.
– “I’m an old-fashioned guy” – he said winking an eye. – “Hurry up, next stop is ours” – he said. She returned him the card and the pen when the train was braking and they joined the river of people that crowded Piccadilly Circus junction. They walked the corridors and the stairs to the blue line, commenting every now and then the posters of the West End plays. When they took the second train she felt her heart heavy. He would get down four stops afterwards, in Russell Square. They stood together, he was behind her, gripping himself to one horizontal bar while she held a vertical one besides her. He was so tall that had to low his head a little; she could feel the soft touch of his beard caressing her temple. Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Holborn… she watched the names of the stations without reading them, and she closed her eyes. The train moved brusquely and he put a hand on her side.
– “It’s been a pleasure… Penélope” – he said kissing softly her temple before leaving. She opened her eyes and recognised his short and dark chestnut hair in the crowd, moving along the platform. She followed him with her eyes as long as she could, and when she could not see him any longer she realised that she had never felt so lonely in all her life.
When she sat in the train she took out the book from her purse, skimmeing it through. She found a small piece of paper, one of the Coco Momo Café napkins; something was written in it, with elegant, capital letters: “ONE DAY…” The paper was placed in page 337, chapter 49, when Edward Farriss finally confesses his love to Elinor. “His heart was now open to Elinor, all its weaknesses, all its…” – was the line that Penélope read over the white napkin with John’s writing in it.
The sound of the mail alert of her mobile phone woke her up from her reveries. She pressed the button nervously and when she saw one of the many spam messages she received daily she almost threw away the phone in anger. She touched the recall button but the mechanical voice said, as before, “the number you have dialed does not exist”. She moved her legs nervously, she could not live with that uncertainty, dying every time her phone made a beep. It was Friday evening, she turned on her computer and half an hour later she was printing her plane tickets. She paid a fortune for them, it was mid-August, high season for Spaniards but it didn’t matter. She didn’t even book a hotel; if everything would go as she wished she would have not needed it, if not, she had a business seat with British Airways booked for the last flight of the evening.
That night, awaken in her bed, she remembered his letters. The first one arrived ten days after she returned to Spain. “Dear Penélope, I have just arrived to the land of the Lotus’ Eaters”. John started all his letters referring to the countries he was as one of the many lands that Ulysses visited on his long voyage back to Ithaca. The stamps in the letters changed every now and then: Tunis, Greece, Turkey, Iran, India… She replied to a P.O.Box in London and he received them two or three letters later than she received his. They went along for twelve months with this kind of strange de-synchronized conversation. He told her about the countries he visited, or the objects he bought there. He referred to the hours they spent together in London with tenderness or continued one of the many arguments they left open. He confessed he observed her movements in Daunt Books since she entered the shop and that he queued behind her to talk to her as soon as he could.
But, suddenly, the letters did not arrive anymore. The last one was dated February 20th, exactly a year after they met. After that, silence. She had already made the usual google researches when their correspondence was still on, curious to learn more things about him. But the results were always the same, references to the literary character he shared name with, the actor who played the role in BBC’s adaptation, and, many pages later, men who were definitely too old or too young to be him.
Some hours later, she was in a London black cab, too nervous to distinguish what was she seeing. The city was a blurred colourful movement, until she finally recognised the neo-classical architecture of the British Museum; a few minutes later, the cab stopped in Bedford Square. She paid the fare, cash, she did not go outdoors anymore if not with a good quantity of bank notes in her wallet, not as when she met John.
She stood in front of his door for a few minutes, gathering what remained of her courage and her faith. Observing the old Georgian house, with the main entrance gallantly framed by an arc of brown and white stones, and the downstairs one for the service, she realised how different their worlds were. She was the daughter of a bus driver, her mother worked all her life as a secretary in a small company; she calculated that with the money necessary to clean the windows and polish the brass of that house, her parents would have paid the monthly rent for the small flat in Chamartín where she grew up.
She climbed the stairs, read the name in the plate, “John Thornton”, and rung. She heard the sound of steps approaching, the door opened and she saw his eyes again.
Bedford Square – London
Her smile froze in her face. Indeed the eyes she had in front of her were John’s, as she remembered them. Of a very peculiar shade of blue, like the ice of a mountain lake melting under the rays of the spring sun, but she had in front of her an elderly lady, elegant, rather tall, with her beautiful and white hair combed in a chignon.
– “You must be Penélope” – said the woman with a warm, velvet voice. – “Please come in. I’m Helen, John’s mother”.
She opened the door and let her in. She indicated a drawing room in the left side, illuminated by one of the big window glasses which faced the gardens.
– “Please take a seat. I will prepare you some tea. Earl Grey without sugar nor cream, right?” – She looked back at Helen and muttered – “Yes, thank you.”
The drawing room was not excessively large, but it was very comfortable and elegantly furnished. There were two armchairs near the window with a small table between them; a book was open, with a pair of glasses on it. Probably Helen was sitting there reading when she arrived. There was a big chimney piece in one side of the room, with two silver framed pictures on it. In one of them John, smiling, was kissing his mother. He looked exactly like he was when they met. In the other one a slender John, paler and with longer hair fixed his eyes to the camera, with a serious grave pose, as in a Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait. There were other objects in the chimney piece, she smiled, recognising them; the small bronze dolphin statue John bought in Greece, a tiny Turkish teapot that cost him almost nothing after a five minutes bargaining in a bazaar on the shore of the Black Sea. In the opposite wall, an African tribal mask, a Japanese engraving… As her eyes examined the objects a strange feeling grew within her. Everything was so neatly disposed, so perfectly displayed. The books in the library were perfectly rowed and dusted. She compared that symmetry with the chaotic mess of her own library in Madrid. She moved a little to see the entrance of the house from where she was, she saw a single female mac hanging from the coat stand, surely Helen’s. There was no warmth in that house, everything looked like… a mausoleum.
She sat, defeated, in the opposite armchair, telling herself that it could not be true. But surely it was… that’s why the letters stopped arriving.
Helen entered the room at that moment, carrying a tray with a teapot, a couple of cups and a small dish with some tea cookies in it.
Penélope opened her mouth, unable to speak until she heard her own, hoarse voice saying: “Is he…?”
– “Dead” – finished Helen putting the tray on the table. – “Yes, he is.”
– “When?” – replied Penélope, two big tears rolling down her cheeks.
Helen took her time to reply, she poured the tea and lean back in her chair. She started talking, watching outside the window.
“It was the end of March. He had returned to London just two days before. I came here to say hello; he was there, unpacking those objects from several cardboxes, he was very nervous. He had already talked me about you in his letters when he was away, so I understood what he meant when he said:
– ‘Mom, she has not called, I have no news about her, I hoped to receive a phone call after I sent her the letter telling her I was coming back home, but she didn’t, no e-mails, nothing. Something has happened’
– ‘You and your extravagances, John. Why didn’t you give her your phone number from the beginning?
– ‘I didn’t want to pressure her. I was absolutely sure she was the woman for me the first moment I saw her but I knew I would be away for long, I didn’t want her to feel obliged to me. You know I was going to some very dangerous places, I didn’t want her to be my widow before even kissing her’
– ‘John, she will call, I’m sure. Where did you send your last letter from?’
– ‘Oh my God, John, it will be a miracle if she would ever receive it!’
– ‘Indeed. You’re right!’
He left what he had in his hand on the floor and left the room. I heard him going upstairs, moving hurriedly in his room. After less than five minutes he was back again, with a small backpack, his black leather jacket on and a helmet in his hand.
– ‘Where are you going?’
– ‘Heathrow. There will be some plane leaving today for Madrid, I guess.’
– ‘John, are you sure of what you are doing?’
– ‘I’d cross an ocean for her, mum. Kiss me luck. I will call you when I arrive.’
We kissed and he left. I heard him turning on his motorbike then he went. He was like that, he made everything by instinct and everything usually turned well. I used to call him ‘my lucky charm’. My phone rang two hours later, it was the police. He lost control of the bike when he entered the highway to the airport, it slipped but at the same moment he fell a big truck arrived. He died instantly. The police told me that he didn’t even have time to realise what had happened.”
Helen stopped talking as she took the cup of tea between her hands. Penélope looked at her, unable to utter a word. A thousand ideas crossed her mind but one single notion bumped into her head; her tea remained in the table, untouched.
– “You knew about me, about us… Why didn’t you try to contact me?” – She asked, with a quivering voice.
– “I guess it was some kind of revenge, dear Penélope.He was constantly in danger, for so many years. He worked for the Government, but, as you can see” – Helen said moving her hand as indicating the house – “he didn’t need tax-payers money to live, but he was like that. He wasn’t completely honest with you; he had indeed cotton mills, but not in Europe, in India. Among other things, companies, corporations. He left his…- she hesitated here for a moment – late father’s assistant to take care of everything. He joined the army when he finished college, then the last five years he worked for MI5. The day you met him he was about to leave, for another year of service abroad, the last one. Then it would be over. I had spent fifteen years dreading a phone call and when it arrived it was due to a stupid motorbike accident. Because of you.”
Helen’s voice broke while she spoke, staring at Penélope. But, contrary to what she would have expected hearing her discourse, there was no hatred in her look, but a kind of resignation. Indeed after a few moments she continued to talk, with the same caressing tone she was using before Penélope asked her why.
– “Therefore, the only thing I was able to do those first two months was to try to hate you. I gave instructions to the mobile phone company to cancel John’s number, I did the same with the P.O.Box in case you should write again, and I moved here. I have a small apartment in the basement, and have devoted my days to prepare the house for this moment. Because I knew that you would come, someday. I realised, alone, in this house, where we all were happy once, that maybe there was a reason for all the pain I was suffering. Maybe God, if He exists, designed everything before hand for a reason we don’t know yet. But, I am sure of one thing, my dear. Should John be still with us, you would have been very happy together. You can go upstairs if you want to see John’s room.”
Penélope got up from the armchair and approached Helen, kissing her gently in the cheek. She went upstairs. When she entered the big bedroom she felt strangely in peace. There was a big mahogany closet; she opened two doors and caressed the sleeves of the jackets and the shirts. She recognised the coat he was wearing when they met; she took it down and wore it. She closed her eyes, remembering that afternoon, tucking herself in the big and warm fabric. She sat on the bed and saw in the bedside table her letters, meticulously piled, with his fountain pen in top of them. She took the pen and grasped it; when she was hanging his coat back in the closet she heard voices and the noise of steps in the stairs. As she closed the doors she saw something reflected in the mirror inside the shutter that made her scream. John. Not the one she knew but the other slender and more fragile copy of him portrayed in a silver framed picture on the chimney piece.
– “Thomas!” – She could hear Helen coming up the stairs – “What are you doing? Do you want the poor girl to have a heart attack?”
Penélope stared at the man, he was indeed the exact copy of John, although different. Whereas John had the body and the look of an athlete, he had the aspect of an accountant; his hair was longer but perfectly cut, he was shaved, thinner, as tall as John but less bulky. He wore eye glasses, those lenses that changed colour under the sunlight. They were fading now, revealing the eyes, of a very peculiar shade of blue, like ice melting in a mountain lake.
– “I’m Thomas, Thomas Thornton” – he said, holding out his hand.
Helen entered the room that very moment.
– “I’m so sorry, Penélope. I was about to explain you that John left everything in the hands of his brother, his twin brother. But I didn’t know that Thomas was coming today, and I had not the courage to tell you.” – said the woman, with an apologetic glance in her eyes.
Penélope realised that she had not said more than a few words since she entered that house.
– “I guess the best thing we can do now is going downstairs and finish our tea. Maybe, if Thomas could join us…” – he smiled at her. She felt a sudden pang of pain, somewhere inside her. When Thomas smiled, all the differences she noticed when comparing him to her memories of John disappeared.
They talked for several hours in the drawing room. Helen told stories of the times when “her boys” were little kids and Penélope talked about Spain and her childhood; they had lunch together and Thomas offered himself to drive Penélope back to the airport. When she said goodbye to Helen they embraced.
– “I am sorry, Penélope. Please, forgive me. I’ve made everything worst. I sincerely hope to see you again, my dear”.
Twenty minutes later, Thomas was driving, in silence; he had not said a word since they left Bedford Square.
– “What time is the boarding of your flight?”
– “Oh, quite late, ten p.m.”
– “It’s still five, there’s a beautiful weather, the sun shines. Let’s go for a walk to the riverside, what do you think? I bet you did not see a sun like this the last time you were in London” – he suddenly changed expression and knocked the steering wheel with his right hand – “Tom, you’re a bigmouth!” – he told himself in a loud voice – “I’m sorry, I had not realised that the last time you were here…”
– “Don’t worry, it’s fine” – replied Penélope – “Indeed the weather was terrible, I just saw the sun when I was with your brother in Regent’s Park”.
Both remained silent for a while. In the meantime they had arrived to Victoria Embankment and he parked his Smart. When he turned the engine off Penélope said.
– “Is it true what they say about twin brothers?” – he looked back at her. She could not read his eyes hidden behind a dark pair of sunglasses that gave him a hawkish aspect. – “You have cared about my feelings but it was me who should had asked you how you feel”.
He took his sunglasses off and smiled shyly. This time he held his tongue in time, when he was about to say that he was starting to understand what John saw in her.
He said instead “we will have time to talk about that, but now, let’s get out of this sardines’ can!”- They got out of the car, and walked Waterloo Bridge to the other side of the river, strolling slowly under the shadows of the trees near the National Theatre. They stopped, and faced the Thames, leaning their arms on the rail.
– “I feel like there’s something missing in me since he’s gone” – he said suddenly. – “I spend sometimes the whole day in the office, as the Company is the place which reminds me less of John. I guess my secretary hates me cordially” – he ended, smiling.
– “You should smile more, Tom. We all should”. – replied Penélope, holding his hand.
She landed at Barajas very late that night, or rather, early in the morning. She switched her mobile phone on, and after a couple of minutes, it started to beep and buzz. She thought that after almost twenty-four hours without data coverage she should have at least a dozen spams in her inbox. When she finally checked her mail she was in the taxi and the radio started to play her favourite song of Chambao, the new 2013 re-mix of “Ahí estás tú”. There were just three spams and seven e-mails from Tom. She had given him her card when he left her in the airport. Six of them consisted just in a smiling emoticon, the seventh one said: “I hope you had a safe flight back. Excuse me for spamming your inbox, but someone told me today that I had to smile more 😉 ”. She smiled when closing her phone and started to sing the song of the radio.
De esa pregunta que te haces sin responder / Dentro de tí está la respuesta para saber / Tú eres el que decide el camino a escoger / Hay muchas cosas buenas y malas, elige bien / Que tu futuro se forma a base de decisiones / Y queremos alegrarte con nuestras canciones
Ahí estás tú
(Inside you there is the answer to your unanswered question / You are the one to choose your path / There are many things around you, good and bad, choose well / Because your future is made on decisions / And we want to cheer you up with our songs
There you are)
The End… or the Beginning?
Many thanks to my friend Sissi for editing the text, to Veronica for being the beta-tester and Alana for her warm comments. Pictures from my trip to London. Short story inspired by the city of London and by a beautiful man with a beautiful calligraphy, who still reads paper letters.
John: But we are late, my dear. The Slicktons receive today and he made me promise to call. Pray, tell me.
Me: John, there’s another man.
Me: I have here his portrait, look. His name is Lucas.
John: What are these signs in his skin? Is he a sailor?
Me: No, he’s not. Those “signs” as you call them were made when he was kept prisioner. In Russia.
John: The Tsar would never detain against his will any subject of His Majesty.
Me: It was not the Tsar… Well, at least not the one you know.
John: Who cares about the Tsar anyway. Are you telling me that you prefer a sailor, a convict or whatever he is to the most prosperous manufacturer in Milton? You have always been rather eccentric, madam, but… Six months. Only six months have passed since we made our acquaintance… THIS is something I will not tolerate!
Me: But I’m not abandoning you for him. I mean, I always thought that you would be my favourite one, I can’t explain it to you, but…
John: But what?
Me: He is as special as you are. I know you won’t believe me but you… and he… are the same person.
John: Indeed, according to this weird moving portrait…
Me: a gif… it ‘s called a gif
John: Yes, I must confess that there is a certain similarity.
Me: And I promise you, nothing will change between us. Trust me.
John: Well, you would not expect me to remain indifferent to this most extraordinary piece of news.
Me: Believe me, I was surprised also. And I have seen just two chapters…
John: Enough! Save me the details. If you say that nothing will change between you and me…
Me: Promised. So… what was Slickton so anxious about?
John: He wants me to invest an absurd quantity of money in a new project, something about mixing chemicals with fabrics… “Synthetic fibers”, he calls them.
Me: You should accept that proposal.
Me: I can’t explain you that either. Just say yes.
Sangre. Por todas partes. Mis dedos están pegajosos, creo que si quisiese moverlos no me sería fácil soltar la espada: la mano se ha pegado a la empuñadura. Demasiada sangre. No es mía, o por lo menos no toda. Advierto un picor desagradable en el muslo, veamos. Sí, ese riachuelo de sangre es mío. Habrá sido Agelao, era el más valiente de todos. Tengo casi cuarenta y tres años, y he deshecho a tantos*. Ni siquiera veinte guerreros juntos durante toda su vida han masacrado tanta gente como yo. El Hades me espera, para ofrecerme una pesadilla eterna y sin esperanza. Sí, mis manos han deshecho a tantos, pero mi inteligencia aún más. Ya no se oyen gritos, Telémaco ha seguido mis instrucciones. Le he pedido que me deje sólo unos momentos. Después, mi anciana nodriza llamará para anunciarme que el baño está listo. Penélope no puede verme así. Penélope. He estado con otras mujeres, intentando averiguar desesperadamente si sus abrazos eran tan suaves como los suyos. No lo eran. ¿Por qué te fijaste en mi, Penélope? Te he causado dolor, nunca te haré feliz porque nunca estaré contigo, ni siquiera cuando esté a tu lado. Ésta es mi maldición. Nuestra maldición: la tuya esperarte, la mía, añorarte. Te echaré de menos incluso cuando mañana despierte entre tus brazos. Y me esperarás otra vez, cuando vuelva a dejarte. Sé que lo haré, que pasado un tiempo, dentro de un año, o puede que diez, subiré a la colina más alta de nuestra pequeña isla y miraré el mar, y me preguntaré qué me espera al otro lado. Me iré, y no volveré nunca. Y te recordaré como te vi ayer por la noche. Cuando mi diosa me transformó en un viejo pedigüeño y viniste a hablarme. “Cuéntame, qué ha sido de mi marido, extranjero”. Tu marido no debió haber nacido nunca.
 dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.
(Y detrás [de Caronte] había una fila tan larga de gente, que nunca pensé que la muerte hubiese deshecho a tantos – Dante Alighieri – Infierno)
I wrote this small piece a couple of months ago, originally in English. Nevertheless, as I will never be Joseph Conrad, capable to write masterpieces in a language which was not his own and that he learnt when he was already an adult, I have decided to publish it the blog, in order to remind me never to write fiction in other language than my own, Spanish (in my opinion the text in Spanish is definitely better than the one in English). The picture portrays Italian actor Alessio Boni as Odysseus or Ulisses, protagonist of a tv series co-produced by RAI but that has still not been aired in Italy, although it has been broadcasted by French tv channel “Arte” almost a year ago. It seems that there are too many nudities. Almost five hundred years after, apparently Italy still needs a Braghettone
Some days ago I tried to translate into English a fragment of my very loooooong fan-fic (based in the times of the Roman Emperor Trajan). The result was… embarrassing, I have to admit it. A very dear friend has been so kind to translate it into decent English, so, here it is. This is the second appearance of a character I have created inspired by-you-can-easily-guess-who.
Although there were only a couple of hours left to sunrise, Cneus Cornelius Gracchus was still working in his study, writing letters. A slave informed him that the man he was waiting for had arrived. Although he heard him entering the room he did not lift his head from the paper, and kept on writing. The only sound in the room was coming from the sharp goose feather faintly scratching the papyrus; suddenly, another sound hit senator’s ears, the metallic whoosh of a dagger ripping through the air. It nailed the paper to his desk, just half an inch from his fingers.
– “I don’t like your games, senator. You’ve called me, tell me what you want”.
Gracchus raised his eyes. There stood a strongly built, dark haired man in front of him, tall and with piercing blue eyes. He wore an immaculate travelling gown and was armed with a gladius and the dagger he was tearing out from the table.
– “Where were you last night? You were not with your men” – said the senator.
– “I’m not stupid. I didn’t want to get my throat cut. Chances were nobody would survive, and nobody did”.
– “You have another mission”.
– “The price has risen, Gracchus”.
The senator crossed his arms over his prominent belly.
– “Don’t you want to know what is it about?”
– “The price has risen. If you agree, I will”.
– “Tell me” – answered Gracchus.
– “I want the same deal you have with Osroes” – answered the man putting the dagger back in its sheath, watching the bewildered expression on the senator’s face.
– “What deal? I don’t have any agreement with the king of the Parthians”.
– “You don’t fool me, Gracchus. You are not like us; Trajan or myself, we are cut from a different cloth. Your business is not war, you enjoy the good life and comfort too much to bother with visiting the frontiers or pretending to be interested in the expansion of the empire. You are not fond of battlefields, you prefer machinations and plots. Sitting down comfortably while your empire prospers surrounded by neutral kingdoms” – the man didn’t take his eyes away from the senator while he spoke, with a deep voice.
– “I think I’ve missed something… you aren’t the king of anything, Furius Vipsanius. Or do you prefer me calling you Drachir?”
– “In Rome you can call me Furius Vipsanius. In Britannia I’m Drachir and I will be the first king of the Britons. I will unite all the tribes of the island: brigantes, picts, cornovii, caledons, parisii… Boudica united just a few tribes and made you tremble, all the tribes of Britannia united can get rid of Roman hegemony”.
– “And do you expect me, the future emperor, to help you throw out the romans from the island?” – answered Gracchus opening his arms, with an expression of incredulity on his face.
– “Britannia will continue to be a province. To Rome I will be the governor, to the Britons I will be their king. We need more roads, water pipes, to build cities from stone and marble, not mud huts. I want my people to thrive under Rome’s protective wing”.
– “And afterwards? What will prevent you from rebellion?”
Drachir searched the room. He saw a polished bronze tray on a little table, bright as the sun. He took it and threw it to the senator’s table.
– “Gracchus, watch yourself. How old are you? How many more years do you think that you have left? When Britannia is ready it won’t be your business anymore”.
The senator took the tray and set it away, he knew perfectly well how he looked and that the man who stared defiantly at him was twenty years younger.
– “So be it, then. Governor of Britannia and the king of your numerous and loyal subjects. Your island will flourish caressed by the sun… I mean, by the fog and the rain, more precisely”.
Drachir smiled; he had always detested senator Gracchus, but he had to admit he enjoyed that subtle irony he was so fond of.
– “So, what’s the mission about?” – asked the senator.
– “You must go to Antioch, as soon as possible. And kill a woman”.
– “What?!?” – Drachir laughed out loudly – “Anybody can do that! You don’t need me for this”.
– “It must be taken care of by someone I trust, Furius Vipsanius. Moreover, this morning the commander of the praetorian guard, following an order from consul Sura, has sent his best man to protect that woman”.
The senator moved several papyrus and wax tablets he had on the table until he found what he was looking for.
– “A certain Quintus Terencius” – continued the senator with pretended indifference.
– “Quintus Terencius? The one who served in the Ninth Legion in Eburacum*?” – replied Drachir with a spark in his eyes.
Gracchus read the table again.
– “Yes, the same”.
Drachir laughed again, and clasped his hands.
– “Give me the details, I will leave immediately”.
Gracchus handed him a roll, sealed with the image of the god Janus. Drachir left the room without uttering a word.
– “You will not live forever neither, Briton” – said Gracchus in a low voice while getting up from his chair to rest for a couple of hours.
Lizzie sat on the bench, looking at the bay. She went there every afternoon, after leaving her job. Watching the ships coming and going from the harbour soothed her. It was strange, not having to run away anymore, to be over with lies. She yearned for years for her liberty, and now that she finally had it, that Frankie was save, that everything was over, she didn’t know what to do with it. She felt that there was something missing, she knew what it was, who it was, but she didn’t have the courage to say it loud. As she had not the courage to ask Marie about him.. “My brother”, replied Marie when Lizzie wanted to know who the stranger was. And she didn’t ask about him anymore, not a word. She didn’t even ask his name and Marie did not utter a single word about him after that day. He kept on being “the stranger”. That was their agreement, a man with no past, no present, no future, who had only to pretend for a few hours to be the father that Davey never was. And he had been for Frankie, during that hours, more a father than the man that died in an hospital cursing her and yelling to have his son back.
She heard steps approaching and she felt her heart beat thick. She asked herself afterwards why was so sure that it was not simply someone passing by. She closed her eyes for an instant; she had not forgot that smell, that faint perfume of tobacco and leather. He sat beside her, but when she opened her eyes she had not the courage to turn and watch him.
– “Marie told me you were here.” – she closed her eyes again and when he held her hand she finally turned.
He hadn’t change a bit those months, even his clothes were the same. As if knowing what she was thinking he said:
– “I have other clothes… I was just afraid that you didn’t recognise me. I even have my hair cut yesterday, just to look as when you met me. Are you at least happy to see me? Please say something.”
Lizzie smiled and assured him that everything was alright.
– “I have something to tell you, let me tell you everything and then you decide if you want me in your life or not. If you don’t want me I’ll go but I swear you that I really care for you and Frankie, I really do.”
He sighed deeply, as if taking courage and he started to tell his story.
– “That period I was in jail, Lizzie. I was on leave, for three days, I had just a few months of my sentence left to serve and I came here to see Marie. I finished inside for a drug problem, I was a dealer. I hadn’t seen Marie for a long time and she had talked me about you, in her letters. When I called to tell her that I was to come to see her during my leave she told me your problem and she asked me if I wanted to do it; she told me also about the money you were to give me. I accepted because I really needed the money and had to start looking around to know what to do when I would leave the jail. Nobody knew me here in Glasgow, I just had to come, meet you and the boy, take my money and leave. I remember when I met you at the bar, and you gave me Frankie’s letters… you looked frightened as a mouse but there was something in you, you had courage. That morning with Frankie was one of the best ones of my life. Being with him was like peeping through a lock and have a glimpse of what my life could have been, a normal, quiet life. My plans were to spend with him just Saturday but I wanted more. And I wanted to know you better. So I went back to Marie’s that night and didn’t leave her flat, although I had to meet some people, for business. Not legal ones, of course. But I changed my mind, that night I kept thinking that maybe it was not too late for me. Sunday morning I went to the quay, Frankie should see me getting down from the ship, to make the story more reliable. I convinced one of the sailors to let me in first hour in the morning. And we spent the day the three of us together. When later that afternoon Frankie saw Marie and his boyfriend Ally at the ballroom door… When you said you and Frankie had to go away I was terrified, I wanted so badly to spend more time with you and the boy. But not so terrified as when Marie asked me in front of him since when I rolled my tobacco… Oh my God, our faces! I just could start breathing when I realized that Frankie has not understood her.”
Lizzie interrupted him for a moment.
– “You’re wrong, he did. Frankie knew you were not his father. He told you in a letter he wrote you, when his daddy died.”
He laughed for a moment, and kept on talking.
– “When you went to the bathroom I put back your money in the pocket of your jacket. I didn’t want it. Then we went strolling by the bayside, and you told me that you spent the last years running away from Frankie’s father, that his deafness was “a present from his daddy”. I became mad with rage, and anger. I promised myself that very moment that I would come back, for both of you. When I kissed you goodbye I felt myself tearing apart but the more pain I felt the more I was sure of what I had to do. So, here I am.. I’m a clean man now. I’ve come back to stay, Allie has offered me a job. Please let me be part of your life.”
Lizzie took his face in her hands, and wiped with her thumbs two small tears that were rolling down his cheeks.