English Translation: Greg FitzPatrick, Stockholm, Sweden 2018
Evert Taube’s Funeral, a classic of modern Swedish prose, is a work of fiction, yet the dates and details that carry the story are for the most part accurate and often illuminating. Since much of our knowledge of history and world events comes to us not from academic texts and encyclopedias, but from the background flavoring and incidental details embedded in “historical” novels and costume drama, I would like to take this opportunity to point out the following errata uncovered in my preparative research for this English translation, thus saving readers the embarrassment of sharing with friends and acquaintances facts and figures that are controversial, questionable, or blatantly false.
- The Quatre Gats Hotel in Málaga was built in 1937, making it quite impossible for Pablo Picasso and Carlos Casagemas to have slept there in 1901.
- Picasso was not homosexual.
- April Fools Day is celebrated in Spain on the 28th of December not April 1st as Carlos implies. On the other hand, April 1st is officially recognized as the date ending both the civil war in 1939 and the reign of the Moors in 1492.
- Francisco Franco did not plan his own funeral.
- Sir Francis Drake was brought down by blood poisoning – not diarrhea (turistas).
- Though Evert Taube (1890 – 1976) enjoyed considerable popularity as the national bard of Sweden and was indeed given an auspicious farewell attended by the rich and famous of the land, there are no records to substantiate the extraordinary funeral proceedings that Lars relates for Carlos and his friends in this story.
On October 15, 1977 . . . The Accident
“God Damn Dog! God, crazy, mad, idiot dog!”
After a furious, frantic swirl of wheels and skyline accompanied by screeching brakes, whining cur, and the insuppressible La Paquera de Jerez, the Ford Fiesta came to a ludicrously precarious halt suspended on the cusp of the Barranco de Basura Ravine while an escorting flurry of rocks, pebbles and dust continued down the mountain and in dissipation revealed the tranquil azure of the Costa del Viento miles and miles below.
Lars observed his blood-drained hands gripping the car’s steering wheel – the steering wheel that would be so utterly useless in the next inevitable étape of this stupid accident: Tipping over the cliff’s edge and plummeting 120 meters to his death. Que mire usted qué gracia tiene este país?
His nostrils stung with the stench of burnt rubber topped with a strangely familiar fragrance. “That smell . . . yes!” It was the disinfectant used in horridly excessive doses by the maids at his El Molinillo apartment house. “Forget the damn smell, you idiot. Concentrate! Concentrate on what? Dying?”
“Just don’t move!” pobre mi corazón
“Figure out something.” qué solo y triste está
“Damn Dog! Should have run him over. Is this car totally dead still? Gotta get out of here, Jesus Christ, as soon as possible.”
The Fiesta’s engine had stalled. With competition squelched, La Paquera de Jerez intensified her bulería, defiantly mocking Miguel, the Lion of Cádiz – both Miguel and La Paquera callously apathetic to Lars’ peril y es tan firme el querer
“Hold on. Whoops! Wasn’t that just a slight, creeping lurch, forward? Could the zapatears and palmas of La Paquera‘s flamenco be the straw that broke . . . such an absurd thought.” que no lo puedo encontrar “Yet remember that electric fan weighing down the balance scales in the Seville jeweler’s shop when he saved one of his hapless tourists from an airborne surcharge on the price of a silver necklace? ‘Thank you, Lars! I would have never spotted that. World’s best guide you are!'”
He slowly moved his hand from the steering wheel to the car radio and transubstantiated La Paquera de Jerez into ear-ringing silence, offering up her phantasmal jaleos and desplantes to the vacunar Andalusian sky and a lonely kestrel sailing 30 feet off-cliff, falco tinnitus.
Lars followed the flight of the kestrel. It occurred to him that birds probably had no fear of falling. “To be so lucky.”
“Open the door? Are you kidding? Not a chance. Wait for help? No. Hadn’t seen a car for the last 30 miles. Still – gotta get out of this thing. If not the door then the window? Come on, the window? How imbecilic.” Lars searched his memory for an appropriate movie scene – a fortuitous fix. What would The Saint or 007 do? He recalled only Chaplin’s tipsy-topsy Yukon Gold Rush cabin. Scant comfort there.
He pulled on his seat reclining lever and leaned back as far as it would take him. Wriggling between seat cushions he inched his way towards the rear of the car until he could reach the hatchback’s safety lock. As the hatchback cracked slightly open he felt the car move and he heard the sound of, not rock or gravel, but something softer rolling lubriciously down the mountain. HIs windshield view-frame of the horizon seemed to have dropped a degree – or had the kestrel merely elevated her aerial watch?
He pressed the hatchback upwards and shimmied under it until he could touch ground, though not really ground, something more like a detergent bottle. He continued this awkward exit until he was strewn out flat on his back with only his calves and heels resting on the floor of the car’s trunk.
“What the . . . ?” He laughed aloud in spite of himself. He was lying in a foul bed of plastic, tin, and glass; a river of refuse that splayed out over the ravine edge and flooded into the valley below. Trickles of garbage juice seeped through his shirt. He had landed in a waterfall of waste.
“Lars? How come they are so trashy? How can they abuse their beautiful scenery like this?” His bus had stopped at one of the more famous views of the Sierra de Ronda mountains. The area around them was strewn with litter and his countrymen were more concerned with this man-made sacrilege than God’s original creation.
“You have to remember that up until a few years ago things naturally decomposed when discarded or got reused as raw materials for tools and toys.” He spoke into his microphone without turning. “Prosperity has made what was once valuable now worthless, and things are thrown out that no longer disappear of themselves.”
“But why here, Lars? Why in this beautiful place?”
“It has always been the custom to throw refuse over cliffs. Even the slain bulls at La Maestranza were disposed of in this manner, to have their bones picked clean by the Egyptian vultures in the Tajo Gorge. In those days, everything was absorbed by nature, but modern materials are not, and it’s going to take some time before the culture will adapt. Technology, commerce – the economy; these things change faster than custom and habit.”
“We will be stopping in Gaucín for dinner in 45 minutes. If anyone would like to get out now and take pictures, you may do so.”
He removed his heels from the trunk, his final connection with the Fiesta’s balancing act, and crawled slowly through the rubbish back up to the road and, “Oh shit”, remembered his camera. Nix, he was not going to risk his life even for a Nikkormat. Better to call someone and get the car towed up onto the pavement. He remembered vaguely that there was a highway bar four or five kilometers up the road. They would have a phone. He decided to walk there and work off some adrenalin in the process.
After more than an hour’s exhausting uphill climb, the bar he had remembered turned out to be boarded shut. As he stood outside of it, musing over the posters and graffiti plastered on the building’s forfeited facade, he heard a car coming up the grind. He stepped into the road, and when a small delivery van approached, he waved it down.
“Hola señor! I have had an accident and need to get to a phone.”
“Are you injured?” asked the driver, motioning for Lars to hop in.
“I’m OK, but I guess you saw my Ford Fiesta on the ravine edge a few kilometers back? I almost drove it over the cliff.”
“If you mean at the Barranco? No señor, there was no car there.”
Lars protested. Perhaps the driver hadn’t been looking out for a car. Perhaps he had been looking in the other direction when he passed the ravine? “You see, I almost flew off that brim trying to avoid a dog. I left my car there. Right on the bloody edge of the cliff.”
“On the contrary, señor, I stopped and had a cigarette. I often pause and take in the view. There was a dog sniffing through the rubbish, but no car.”
“You don’t think we could drive back and check do you? I’ll gladly pay for the gas. I’ll pay for your time.”
“Señor, there was no car, you must believe me, please. Maybe it’s better you get to a phone and call the police. It’s probable that someone has stolen your Fiesta. Prado del Serrano is not that far from here. I have deliveries there. If you wish you can make phone calls in the town and then accompany me when I drive back down to the coast again.” He looked askance at his passenger. “From your accent I can hear you are Catalan. Here in Andalusia we are not in such a great rush as you people.”
Lars smiled, he was used to this but it never failed to flatter him. “Actually, I am from Sweden. You know Sweden? Abba, polar bears, Laplanders . . . “
“Yes – and free love!” The driver smiled the smile of one being in the know.
“Sure. All you want,” answered Lars laconically, looking out his window at the rocks.
“As we cross the southwest perimeter of the Serranía de Ronda, the highest peak of which is Torrecilla, 2000 meters above sea level, we find the most important peridot stone massif in the world, unrivaled in its geologic composition. Here amongst the rare and endangered Spanish Fir, is an abundance of richly varied wildlife; otters, mongoose, roe deer, the Spanish Ibex, and no less than 220 species of birds. So have your cameras ready.”
“There will be a festival here tonight. This is where I was heading,” said Lars as they descended into the Santa Albertine valley and the increasing frequency of white stucco fincas signaled they were approaching Prado del Serrano.
“A festival? Oh no señor,” said the driver who had introduced himself as Kiko. “Not a festival. Just some local arrangements in a poor obscure town. Nothing of interest for a traveler from Sweden, I assure you. The Feria de Nerja will be on shortly up the coast – now that you would enjoy. That is a real show.”
Lars was well aware of the backwater nature of Prado del Serrano’s fete and that he was likely be the only outsider present. As for that lamentable exercise in commercialism taking place in Nerja, he would have to be there with a bus load anyway if he couldn’t get Lisa to trade shifts with him.
“Welcome to a night of authentic flamenco; the sounds, sights and scents that convey the passion and the romance of Andalusia. Tonight you will witness the greatest dancing in southern Spain, hear the most fabulous guitarists and be captivated by the fantastic singing of renowned and legendary artists. The bus will pick us up again on this spot at twelve. Make sure you’re here on time!”
Thinking about work brought back the severity of his situation. What would he say to the office about the car? What if someone did steal it – had he taken the keys with him? He checked his pockets. “Hell, that voids the coverage – doesn’t it?”
“By the way, señor, the place where I am taking these goods – it’s run by a Swede. Not a real Swede, but a man who made his fortune in Sweden and bought himself a taberna. In town they call him El Sueco. He will be happy to see you. He can help you with your car problems for sure.”
The taberna Kiko spoke of was located in Prado del Serrano’s inauspicious plaza, next to Prado del Serrano’s equally inauspicious parish church. The town had opted for a dependable water supply and exemption from Mediterranean storms as its raison d’etre rather than stunning views and moormentos. Though its stucco walls were just as bleachy as those of the famous white villages it was not a place Lars would ever take his tours. Kiko parked the van at the front of the taberna and Lars helped him in with a carton of supplies.
The taberna of Prado del Serrano was, in Lars’ first assessment, “Not bad”. A lofty ceiling with exposed wooden beams; grease-impregnated walls sporting a decent collection of black and white bicycle heroes; the expected spate of liquor and tobacco promotions, a faux marble floor artfully cracked and worn.
Sitting between a small Osborne bull at one end of a long dark-wooded bar and a large Osborne bull at the other, were the rooms only inhabitants; a thin, stooped woman in black crepe who chose not to look up from her silverware polishing, and a short, burly man in his forties.
“El Sueco,” Kiko called out, “come and meet a real El Sueco! He has misplaced his automobile and needs to borrow your phone.”
The proprietor, wiped his hand with a dish towel before offering it to Lars. “Du är svensk?”
Lars introduced himself in Spanish while the proprietor continued in rusty Swedish. “Välkommen till min restaurant, Lars. I’m Carlos. You’ve really lost your car? Who do you plan to call?”
“The police I suppose. And then my office in Málaga. Is there a police station in Prado del Serrano?”
“The Guardia, yes, but now is siesta.” Carlos looked at his watch. “In another hour you can walk over there in person. How on earth did you lose your car? Please, use my phone – call whomever you wish. Let me just stow away these articles our friend has brought us and then I will join you for a chat. It is not everyday that one has the honor of greeting a Swede in this town.”
Lars, after several unsuccessful attempts at calling his office, sat down at a table and drank a cold mosto served by the silent woman. He continued to survey the taberna, this time picking out the lowlights: The purple neon piping on the jukebox; the lack of convincing patina on the liquor bottles shelved behind the bar; the pretentious pink tablecloths; the oil & vinegar dispensers in the form of copulating dolphins, and of particular perturbation for Lars, at the far end of the room, a blue and yellow flag, a collection of red wooden ponies, and a framed photo of their royal majesties, the King and Queen of Sweden.
“Kiko is leaving soon,” Carlos shouted from the kitchen. “He will take you back down to the gorge if you wish, but then what would you do if the car wasn’t there? I suggest you wait here and talk to the police. Kiko will call us from Estepona if he sees anything on the way down the mountain.”
Lars could think of no better alternative.
“Carlos, I think I will go out and wander around a bit before going over to the Guardia.”
“As you like,” said Carlos, “Kiko says you came to Prado del Serrano for our festivities. I am afraid you will be disappointed. There is an Arab tivoli in town and there will be a procession and some dancing tonight, but all very unexciting, very provincial. Would you like my assistance with the police? Lieutenant Méndez is a relative.”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“Immediately to your left is the Church of Nuestra señora de la O. Why ‘O’? Because it was the first word spoken by Maria upon the birth of Jesus. Designed by master builder Alonso Rodríguez, by order of the Count of Medinaceli in commemoration of the victory of Jean Belmonte de Sevilla over the Marmadukes, construction began in 1486 in the rococo fashion predominant for that era and very much inspired by Flemish lace designs. Keep together please!”
A first walk in Town
By fording upstream against a trickle of weary children being shepherd homeward by big sisters and duennas he found the tivoli at the north end of Prado del Serrano’s market square. It was, as Carlos had said, a modest affair. A half dozen mechanical divertimentos, a few vans with their sides open offering games of chance, one food cart selling buñuelos, another pestiños.
At the La Gran Autopista, three men in smudgy green overalls sat smoking Bisontes and complacently watched a boy with unusually large ears looping a purple and white Maserati round a creaking plywood track. It was all somewhat sad.
Sad too – in tears, in fact, the little girl in a blue school uniform standing beside an 12-piece merry-go-round. Crying perhaps for lack of the 50 pesetas needed for a ticket. Lars remembered his camera. And the car. Shit, the car.
On the other end of the square, a stage had been erected for the evenings events. Someone with an accordion hanging over his shoulder was uno, dos, tresing an uncooperative microphone. Around him workers were putting up colored lights. A girl, with long black hair and a scar on her cheek stood on her toes to attach a lolly of pink and green balloons to the top of a wooden stage post. She caught Lars’ stare and returned it with a blush.
“On your right: the town hall built by Antón Manuel and Leonor Gil in 1786. It was here that Joana Trastamara, ‘Queen Juana the Mad’, shared her bed with a dead man for 19 years – her beloved husband Philip I, The Handsome. Joana never losing faith that he would one miraculous night rise from the dead and take her into his arms. I will remind you again to keep your bags, cameras and other personal belongings tightly about you.”
The Guardia Civil office was closed despite it being a quarter past five. Lars sat on the bottom of a short flight of stairs and waited. In the narrow street in front of him a dog, bearing a strong resemblance to the casus belli of his misfortune, scavenged about, taking her time, refusing to make way for the impatient driver of a pickup truck loaded with folding chairs. It occurred to him that dogs were probably more insolent in Spain than in Sweden.
The door behind him opened and a tall, sleepy man in a rumpled blue uniform beckoned for Lars to come into the station. The interior was cramped, moldy and sparsely lit. There were stacks upon stacks of paper binders tied with strings on shelves and tables. Framed photos of Juan Carlos and the Generalissimo, the latter draped in black bunting, occupied a central position over the lone desk. Oddly, there was no photo of Adolfo Suárez. Lieutenant Méndez took his seat at this desk and put his report sheets and pens in order before formally acknowledging Lars’ presence.
“Well señor, if you were so precariously parked at the edge of the ravine it is very unlikely somebody would steal your car merely for the pleasure of riding it over the cliff. Of course they might have had a rope and pulled it up to the road.”
“It could still be where I left it,” said Lars.
“May I have your insurance papers, your passport and your driving license, please?”
Lars had his license, but nothing else and he couldn’t remember the plate number. “It belongs to my company – a Ford Fiesta – practically brand new.” He suggested politely that perhaps they could drive to the ravine in the constable’s car and survey the situation for themselves. Or maybe there is a mechanic with a tow truck?
“My apologies, but I don’t have a vehicle available at the moment, señor. And though there is a garage in town, the mechanic who runs it is quite busy with tonight’s celebrations. Soon it will be too dark to see anything anyway. The bottom of the ravine is in the national park and under the jurisdiction of the guardabosques. I will make some phone calls and see what can be found out, it would help if you could provide the license plate number.”
“Yes, I realize that,” answered Lars.
“Under the circumstances you might have been wiser not to have left the gorge.”
“What is that pink building, Lars?”
“That is the world famous Morería Prison, a jewel of neo-meridian art, destroyed in the earthquake of 1783, and restored once again by Nicolás de los Servitas. Inside are the well preserved skulls of 7,000 heretics arranged in order of their heterodoxies. Tomás de Torquemada. Philip V, Ferdinand VI and Charles IV all played here as young children. And Oscar Wilde wrote several of his most famous stories sitting in that very same chair over there. No, you may not sit in it.”
Carlos was out doing errands when Lars got back to the taberna. This time he succeeded in getting through to Lisa on the phone.
“Oh-oh, Lars.” Her tone was not encouraging. “That doesn’t sound good at all. Björkman is going to flip his top.”
“Well, the car could be fine, Lisa. I’m just having a little trouble getting back to it and it’s pretty dark right now. Looks like I might have to spend the night. And, oh, I need the license plate number. Thanks. I’ll keep you posted.”
When Carlos showed up he invited Lars to taste his favorite Manzanilla. He asked how things had gone with the benemérita.
“Lieutenant Méndez had heard nothing about the car, but he will call me here if anything turns up.”
“He can do that in person for I have invited him to dine with us. You will be staying for the night I assume?”
“That is very kind of you, but –
“My pleasure. I have a room available. And there is a bus that can return you to the coast tomorrow morning. Relax and take your mind off this.”
“I’m trying to,” said Lars. “Maybe if you tell me what you were up to in Sweden?”
“It was an account of a Swedish family,” Carlos began. “A family who stayed regularly at the hotel I worked at in Marbella. They ‘discovered’ me and invited me to come and help them at their restaurant in Västervik. I was there about half a year and then I moved to Stockholm.”
“Västervik didn’t agree with you?”
“You know Västervik? Ingen trivsel utan ordning. That is the motto of that horrible town.”
“Yes, I know it. Are you originally from Marbella, Carlos?”
“No, I am from Ardales – an insignificant town.”
“I know Ardales as well. I take tourists to the El Caminito del Rey. Ardales is a beautiful place.”
“You seem to know a lot about Spain.”
“My father imported citrus fruit from Valencia. I accompanied him on some of his trips. I studied Spanish in school and got my first job as a tourist guide when I was only 19. Now I live in Málaga.”
“My father died in Málaga,” said Carlos. “An accident on the very last day of the war – April Fools’ Day it was. He was shot off a balcony by a celebrating soldier aimlessly firing his gun into the air.”
“I am sorry about your father.”
“After military service and a few odd jobs, an uncle got me work as a busboy at the El Fuerte hotel in Marbella. I worked hard – was a good learner, and eventually I was promoted to full-fledge waiter. Our guests were mostly English and German, but also Swedes.”
“Yes Swedish tourism is increasing rapidly all along the coast.”
“Well, this hotel world was quite a thing for a young man from the countryside. I was naïve and knew little about the world. I saw all those tourists with seemingly unlimited wealth and frightfully little cares. Of course they were on vacation and I should have realized that they couldn’t act like that at home, but I really had no idea of what a ‘vacation’ was, or what their ‘homes’ could possibly be like. It didn’t occur to me that they had ordinary, dreary lives like the rest of us.”
“From this corner you will have the most advantageous view of the Al-Andalus Cathedral, erected by the sultan of Almohades in the late twelfth century. Notice the Greek inscriptions inlaid in 24 carat gold – gold that was originally collected by Francisco Pizarro as a ransom for the Inca King, Atahualpa. Inside you may purchase curios, garments, articles of leather, silver, olive oils and local wines.”
“I need a bathroom, Lars.”
“Lucky you. In this square we have the oldest municipal servicios on the entire Iberian peninsula.”
“It was at the El Fuerte that I met the Silversvärds, who came there regularly every year.”
“The family that owned the restaurant in Västervik?”
“Yes. They made sure that I was always the waiter at their table. I have a gift for language and they enjoyed teaching me theirs. Eventually they invited me on excursions in their rental car, though it was against the hotel policy. Their restaurant in Västervik had a Spanish theme. It was called Viva España and they would collect souvenirs and other bric-à-brac to decorate it with. They said I could be their guide to Andalusia, but since I had been almost nowhere myself – they were in truth mine.”
“In the third year of my employment at the El Fuerte, señor Gunnar Silversvärd asked if I would like to come to Sweden and work in their restaurant. They arranged all the details, advanced money for a ticket, and in September, 1967, I flew in an airplane for the first time in my life.”
“What a coincidence,” said Lars. “That is the year and month I began to work full time in Málaga.”
“Señora Silversvärd, Helena, she met me at the airport. I was so grateful to her and Gunnar. I was sure God had hooked me up with the most sophisticated, exciting, kindest couple in the most remarkable nation on earth.”
“But you hadn’t?”
“Well at first I really thought I had come to Paradise. Everything was so perfect – so clean. ‘Where do the poor people live?’ I asked señora Silversvärd. ‘There are none’, she answered and laughed as she always would at all my silly questions.”
“The Viva España was in the center of Västervik, smaller than I had imagined. We served mostly lunches, bland, unexciting, even worse than that of the Marbella hotel factories.”
“Nevertheless, they say the food in Sweden has gotten much better thanks to immigration,” said Lars.
“They can say what they will . . . On the weekends we would serve dinners, trying with various garnishes to disguise the same dishes we offered as lunches, since we charged twice as much for them in the evening. And alcoholic beverages were so expensive guests would drink their own at home before coming – or outside in the parking lot – or even in the lavatory.” He shook his head.
“I had my own little apartment with a pantry in an extension to their house. I had expected to be introduced to their friends – to get to know people. Turned out the Silversvärds had no friends. They would work in the restaurant all the day and in the evenings watch TV until it was their bedtime.”
Lars shook his head sympathetically.
“All the gaiety, the joyfulness, of those two in Marbella was gone. We had nothing to talk about. We had nothing in common. They took me on a couple of car trips to some historical places – that was it. I was stranded in a town in a country without soul – without duende.”
Lars had heard similar tales from other foreign workers in Sweden, but seldom told with Carlos’ intensity. “It sounds as if you got off to an unlucky start. Sweden is not all that bad.”
A short, chubby man entered the taberna shouting excitedly. “Carlos! Have you heard? Somebody has abandoned his car on the Barranco de Basura. A brand new Ford. I wish that somebody had abandoned it my hands.”
“Well, you might be in luck Benito, because here is that somebody himself, a very nice fellow from Sweden. If you ask politely, maybe that car could be yours.”
“You mean what is left of it by tomorrow,” answered Benito. “I hear the wheels are already in some farmer’s garage and the gitanos are having a party down there right now with their torches, their wrenches and their hacksaws. Happy to meet you señor. I hope you have good insurance.”
Lars’ stomach muscles tightened. “Where did you hear all this?”
“Everybody knows,” said Benito with a shrug.
Outside the taberna sporadic fireworks punctuated the cacophonous warm-up exercises of a brass band.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any more vehicles to give away at the moment. If you gentlemen don’t mind, I think I will go out and see how the festivities are coming along.”
“Sure Lars, just be back in time for dinner,” said Carlos, “Benito will also be joining us.”
El festival de Prado del Serrano
Lars stepped out into the plaza as eight of Prado del Serrano’s brawniest males emerged from the church shouldering a litera with vividly colored statues of Jesus and – kneeling before him in audulation – the Virgin Mary.
The bearers momentarily paused in the plaza for blessings from a priest who then proceeded to lead them in the direction of the market square. The brass band which had an unproportionally excessive number of tubas filed in behind the litera bearers and struck up an oddly ungodly seguidilla. Last in this parade were the town’s citizenry, their ranks temporarily swelled by a solitary visitor from the far, far north – Lars. From open windows and balconies, villagers held torches to light the way for the procession’s passage through the streets. Long before they’d reached their goal, Lars discerned the irresistible odor of almendras garrapiñadas and castañas asadas.
In the frugally lit market square the augite-black night was hosting a masquerade. The faces and forms of its guests were hidden in the shadow-masks drawn by charcoal fires, refreshment stand lanterns, Zippo lighters, and a yellow three-quarter moon that haunted the peaks of the Sierra Bermeja mountains.
The area adjacent to the stage was now filled with townspeople. Small children darted in and out of constellations of families and their allies – allegiances of blood and obligation. Watchful eyes sought out the clues to the mysteries of small town society. Who spoke, avoided, danced, drank, laughed with whom? Emblematic hints of impending arrangements. Family affairs, business affairs, affairs of romance.
From the stage, a band had begun to play and girls were dance-school foxtrotting together. Their clothing was varied, some in jeans, some in hand-me-down heirloom dresses. Watching them were shy, harmless men in brooding poses. The shy, harmless men drank wine dispensed from monumental wooden barrels mounted on wagons to which patient mules remained hitched.
There had apparently been some speeches earlier. A row of chairs were lined up on the stage and distinguished greybeards with sashes and medals could be seen here and there in the crowd.
He caught sight of the girl with the balloons from earlier in the day. The thin red cicatrice on her cheek gave an aura of courage and Lars considered for a brief moment approaching her. He chuckled thinking what Björkman would say if he could see his employee cavorting about at a feria while the company car was being ransacked in a ravine. Would he lose his job? Possibly. At nine o’clock he made his way back to the taberna. Perhaps Méndez would have some news.
“Where will we eat, Lars?”
“Dinner will be served in the fifteenth century Torre de los Lujanes, famous for Gómez de la Mora’s nine arched gateways erected to celebrate the Spanish victory over the English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake, who incidentally was to die of an acute case of ‘turistas’ – a reminder to all of you to watch what you eat and drink.”
“Ha ha, very funny, Lars.”
“Before dinning you will be served what are considered to be the most authentic Sangrias in all of Spain.”
The taberna was empty with the exception of Carlos, Benito, and Méndez.
“Dinner will be ready soon, Lars. Please join us for a glass while we wait.”
“Thank you Carlos.” He turned to the lieutenant. “Any news about my car?”
“The guardabosques will make an excursion to the bottom of the ravine tomorrow. If you take the morning bus they will meet you in Casaras. For now there is nothing more to do than to try to think of pleasanter things – like, for example, our local beauties. Come on, now that you have been out there – what do you say about the young ladies of Prado del Serrano?”
“Exceptional,” replied Lars gallantly.
“I hope you got to see Beatrisa Flores dance a fandango verdiales,” exclaimed Méndez. “You would have recognized her by the swarm of young men gathered about her.”
“But in Sweden – right Lars?” said Benito. “In Sweden there are more beautiful women than anywhere else in the world. Is that not so, Carlos?”
“Pretty, oh yes,” answered Carlos, “but frigid as the snow – soulless as store window dummies.”
“To each his own opinion,” said Lars, offering cigarettes to everyone.
“Celtas! My gosh. Don’t they pay you a decent salary, these travel agency people? Here, have a real cigarette,” said Carlos, taking out a pack of Marlboros.
“Actually, I prefer unbleached tobacco, but thank you anyway,” said Lars.
“I’ll have one of yours, Lars, if you don’t mind,” said Benito. “Do they smoke Ducados and Celtas in Sweden?”
“I’ll show you how they smoke in Sweden, Benito,” said Carlos. “First you must have your cigs hidden in a trouser pocket. Never in your shirt where they can be seen. Then you open your package under the table and take out a cigarette like this.” Carlos demonstrated with his Marlboros. “When the attention of your friends is averted, you quickly pop the cig into your mouth, light it, and pretend it came to you from outer space.”
Benito looked to Lars for confirmation. “Are Swedes really that stingy?”
“Cigarettes cost five times as much in Sweden. If the prices were as high here I am not so sure how far Spanish generosity would stretch.”
“Before you came in,” said Méndez, “Carlos was just telling us about the generosity of señora Silversvärd. Apparently Swedes are not that stingy with everything. Carlos, you must share your story with Lars.”
“But first we shall eat,” said Carlos. He called to the woman in the kitchen and she brought them a thick lamb stew made with lentils and chickpeas, alfacar bread, and a salad made of tomatoes, spring onions, olives and green peppers. Once they had eaten and the table cleared, Carlos told his tale.
“As I told you earlier, Lars, I was living in a small extension to the Silversvärd’s house. One night when I was reading in bed, I heard a knock on the door. It was Helena. She had come to discuss some details about the next week’s menu, but she was wearing only a negligée, which was very improper to say the least. The negligée was rather transparent and beneath it I could see her panties, which were red, but she had no bra. She was older than I, but nevertheless pleasant to look at.”
“You don’t say,” said Benito, grinning.
“She came and sat by the side of my bed. I was very uncomfortable about this as you can imagine. I had never noticed the slightest impropriety on her part. She had the notes for the menu in her hand and as she leaned over to show them to me I could see the naked fullness of her breasts.”
“Aye, aye, aye,” said Benito.
” ‘We are going to have to raise the price of the paella,’ she said and laid her hand . . . “
Carlos made a circuitous movement with his index finger in the general direction of his penis, as if pointing directly at that organ would exceed the limits of decent conversation.
“I squirmed, I wiggled, I tried to turn on my side but she held on.”
“‘Carlos,’ she said to me, ‘I want you to know that we are very happy with you. Both Gunnar and I. You have done so well working here and the customers all think you are marvelous. You have made our restaurant something special. Tell me, are you happy with us?'”
“‘Yes,’ I told her, ‘but I think this is terribly wrong. Please, Gunnar is my friend. You are my friend.'”
“And she said, ‘This is about friendship. I want to do something for you, Carlos. Just relax . . . we are all friends.’ And she lifted my covers. I protested. ‘This is wrong Helena. Please!’ but she ordered me to lie still and I did as she told me.”
“What a good boy you were Carlos. Well mannered indeed,” said Lieutenant Méndez gaily.
“I forgot myself I suppose. I stopped thinking about señor Silversvärd. And I . . . “
At this, he looked around as if someone in the taberna other than those seated at the table might overhear him, but with the exception of the thin, stooped woman who was now somewhere in the kitchen, they were the only people in the room.
” . . . and I let her do with me as she wished. And she took me into her mouth and she sucked on me.”
Carlos’ narrative talents increased with the intensity of his story and his cronies listened eagerly though Lars imagined it wasn’t the first time they had heard the story.
“And after I had released myself,” Carlos declaimed artfully, “she laughed and said, ‘That’s a good boy.'”
“What did you say to that, Carlos?” asked Benito.
“I said . . . thank you! I had no idea what to say, so I said, ‘Thank you.'”
The men laughed heartily at this. “So polite. Es todo un caballero. Carlos is a credit to his race.”
“And then as if nothing had happened she picked up the menu again and asked what I thought about the new layout and I, like an idiot, continued the conversation and said I would rather we put this item here and that item there and we talked about what to call this and what to call that and then she removed all of her clothes, pulled off my comforter once more and this time she straddled me and we f-o-l-l-a-m-o-s !” Carlos spelled out the verb with due poignancy.
“And then when we were done, she kissed me on my forehead and walked out of the room and back to her husband with the sweat of my thighs glistening on her buns and my sperm dripping from between her legs. Just like that, she returned to their bed.”
“My God!” said Méndez. “Didn’t she even bother to put her clothes back on?”
Carlos ignored the question.
“I was of course shocked. I got up and began packing right away. I knew I couldn’t stay in that home another minute. Yet there was no way to leave town in the middle of night – and, of course, I had nowhere to go. For sure señor Silversvärd knew what she was up to. And I suppose he accepted it – condoned it, or . . . ” Carlos paused dramatically, ” even encouraged it. I could no longer look that man in the face.”
“After that night she would come to me 2 or 3 times a week. I had gotten to know a girl from town and I would have liked to have brought her home, but the possibility of señora Silversvärd busting into my room at any time made that impossible.”
“Wait a second . . . we just heard you say you couldn’t stay another minute?” said Méndez. “Sounds like you learned to live with this torture.”
Carlos shrugged. “It took time to arrange for somewhere to go and a job. They didn’t put up much of a protest when I told them I was moving on. We just said goodbye – handshakes at the bus station. That was all.”
“To make a short story even shorter, I went to Stockholm and worked there for three years. My goal from then on was to make as much money as I could and get out of the country – to come back home and buy my own restaurant. I worked hard and I was good. They made me the head waiter of the Catalan in a matter of months. I’m sure Lars knows that famous restaurant.”
Lars nodded. “And you broke off all contact with the Silversvärds?”
“Of course! I never spoke with them again. But about a year after I had left, I ran into someone from Västervik and he told me that one morning they had found señor Silversvärd hanging from the ceiling in the Viva España kitchen.”
“Oh, ghastly!” said the policeman. “But it just goes to show . . . you know tiny Sweden has more suicides than all of Spain and Portugal put together.”
“Yes horrible,” added Benito. “Why is that, Lars?”
“Maybe because Catholics can’t count,” said Lars dryly.
“Maybe because Swedes can’t pray,” said Carlos. “Anyway, it can run in the family. Señor Silversvärd’s father had emptied a shotgun down his own throat. And, get this, my friend also told me that two weeks after Gunnar’s death señora Silversvärd won a huge prize in the national lottery – millions! Now that is fate for you.”
“And even then you didn’t contact her? You silly man!” scolded Benito.
“Some of us know the meaning of honor, Benito. I returned home in April of that year. On the same day Pablo Picasso died.”
“El honor es mi divisa, and good riddance to that Málaguéno misfit,” said Méndez.
“But surely Carlos, there must be some things about Sweden you miss? And why all these decorations on the wall over there if you detest the place so?” Benito pointed to the Swedish flags, horses and monarchs.
“I’m a good judge of character,” said Carlos, ignoring Benito’s question and addressing Lars. “I saw right away that you were a good decent man – not a typical Swede. After all you have made our country your home. So when I talk about Sweden and the inhabitants of Sweden, I know you will not take it personally. I am sure your views coincide with my own.”
“Actually, I’m not sure that people really are that different,” said Lars. “They’re all sorts of people everywhere. I’m sorry you found things so miserable.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that Sweden is a nation of virtueless women, hypocrites, and drunks, Lars, but . . . ”
“Olé!” exclaimed Benito, amused by the innkeeper’s insults and looking to Lars for some entertaining resistance.
“Well I can’t tell you that you didn’t experience what you did, Carlos,” said Lars, “but I don’t think you should put down a whole nation – an entire people – based on your limited time there. After all, you only saw a small part of the country. And as for señora Silversvärd, well, she was obviously lonely – she needed something. She had no intention to hurt you – only to make you happy. It seems to me that she was quite brave doing what she did. She adventured your friendship and risked your contempt.”
“Helena Silversvärd was a whore, Lars, and if señor Silversvärd had been a real man he would have cut my throat and hers and fed us both to the Egyptian Vultures, as Pedro Romero threw his Elena off the Rondo cliffs into the void of the Tajo gorge.”
“That true story is the inspiration for the opera Carmen, Lars” added Benito.
“Thank you, Benito. I know the legend,” said Lars.
“Come on Lars, don’t let Carlos push you around.” Benito was disappointed by Lars’ reluctance to take up the challenge. “So what if the girls are like shop-front dummies? All the easier to seduce them – right?
“Well, I’ll tell you something about Sweden,” said Lars, “if you are willing to listen.”
“We are willing to listen,” said Benito, “if señor innkeeper is willing to fill our glasses.”
Carlos poured them what he purported to be his finest sherry and the men leaned back in there chairs to hear Lars’ story.
The Great Troubadour Himself
“I assume you all know who Evert Taube is,” said Lars.
The men drew blank faces with the exception of Carlos.
“I would have expected you to have heard of him,” said Lars. “He is famous even in this country. One can see his music in stores down on the coast.”
Méndez and Benito still shook their heads.
“I have heard of him señor, and not only that – I have seen him in the flesh,” said Carlos. “He came to our restaurant in the Old Town in Stockholm where he would eat and drink like a prince, only he seldom had money to pay for himself. Someone else would have to foot the bill – sometimes even guests from other tables.”
“It would have been an honor for them. He was a great Swedish artist . . . ”
“He was also a scoundrel who stole the songs of Latin America and claimed them for his own,” said Carlos. “What were you going to tell us about this rogue?”
“I wanted to tell you is that there is a side of Sweden that you never saw, Carlos. One that we Swedes hardly see ourselves because it is hiding beneath the surface of our everyday lives. That is what I wanted to say about Evert Taube. He helped us to bring out that spirit. That was his mission.”
“He brought us out of the loneliness of our dark, cold woods and woke us up to the sunrises and sunsets of our own shimmering lakes and seas. He let us breath in the warm moonlit nights of the socolos of Central America, the pampas of Argentina, the ramblas of Barcelona. and when he would return to Sweden and tell his stories Sweden listened, and though we could not all live like him, we could at least dream with him. He taught us that we too had duende” He was in some strange way, I guess … our Jesus.”
At this the Spaniards laughed resoundingly.
“Why can’t you Swedes have the same Jesus as the rest of the world?” asked Méndez.
“Because they’ve given up religion. It suits not their practical nature,” said Carlos.
“And Helena Silversvärd is your Mary Magdalena I suppose,” filled in Benito to more laughter.
“He was not always practical. Though he must have made tons of money he spent it like water. He was always broke. And yes, Carlos, perhaps he had debts at every other restaurant and bar in Stockholm, but it wasn’t because he was stingy or inconsiderate – money meant absolutely nothing to him.”
“Salud for Evert Taube,” said Benito, crossing himself with his wine glass in hand. Lars hardly noticed.
“OK, quite the chap, but– ” said Carlos, trying unsuccessfully to to put a stop to Lars’ monologue.
“Well, anyhow he died last year . . . “
“You crucified him I suppose,” said Benito. The men all laughed, even Lars.
” . . . and he had a last wish. He wanted his funeral to be a party – the greatest party the country had ever seen. He had planned every detail and written it down in his testament.”
“Like Al Caudillo,” said the policeman and the other Spaniards nodded.
“Evert Taube was 85 years old when he died – no longer an artist with records on hit lists or standing-room-only performances, but his aura, his mission, had touched every Swede.”
The serving woman came out of the kitchen in an overcoat and walked out the door without speaking to the men. Carlos looked at his watch.
“Taube laid out in in an open rosewood casket and his cortège drawn through the streets of the city, escorted by a band of Gauchos on horseback who were flown in from Rio de la Plata for the occasion, courtesy of the Argentina government.”
“Hmm, they could have saved some money and rounded up those fellows in Seville instead,” said Méndez. “They could have visited the insides of enough Swedish pockets to pay their own way and then some.”
Lars continued on resolutely.
“His catafalque was followed by over ten thousand revilers. This parade was witnessed on its journey through the city by an estimated crowd of 450,000. There were bands and orchestras on every street corner. Everyone danced. Everyone sang. There was that feeling of freedom – even love – I don’t have enough words to describe it.”
“On the contrary. Even the washerwomen of Jerez would be jealous of your gift for prattle,” said Mendez.
“Sounds to me like everyone was drunk,” said Carlos, tipping his glass to the others with a wink, but Lars took the comment seriously.
“Well, many people drank, and the authorities had made special exceptions with the laws to allow restaurateurs and bartenders to sell their fare on the sidewalks and streets, but very few people were actually drunk – not with liquor, anyway. Perhaps drunk with the occasion – with the spirit of that night itself.”
“I have never heard of this celebration, Lars,” said Carlos, “and it certainly does not sound like the Sweden I knew.”
“Do you know how it feels to sense that no one around you wishes you anything else but happiness and that their happiness is enjoined with yours. That happens for lovers, sometimes amongst friends, but, of course, it is not supposed to happen for entire nations.”
“Nor are men made to live in such a happy state,” said Carlos.
“Perhaps,” said Lars, “but for some limited period of time – a day, a night, a few appointed hours . . . and that is what happened on the night of Evert Taube’s funeral. And I am sorry you missed that Carlos – I’m sorry you all missed that.”
The men sat in silence letting the music from the Feria be heard through the doors and windows of the taberna. They stared into their glasses.
“Bingo Crosby!” said Méndez.
“What?” asked Lars.
“Bingo Crosby,” repeated the policeman. “The Americano, you know . . . “Navidad Blanca”. Perhaps he is the Evert Taube of Hollywood. The Jesus of the estados unidos. He died in Madrid the other day. You must have seen that in the papers. Bingo had just finished an excellent game of golf. They say he beat two Spanish professionals. They say he sang a bit for the spectators who had gathered to see him on the fairways . . . and after his last shot at the end of the game he just fell down and died. I don’t know anything about his funeral, but, who knows, they might be planning a great party like that of your Swedish Jesus.”
Lars looked at Méndez, unsure if he was mocking him. Bingo Crosby? Had these men grasped anything of what he was trying to tell them?
“And where will we sleep tonight, Lars?”
“Well after such a hard day’s work steeping yourselves in the history and culture of this amazing land, you certainly deserve to rest at one of the most famous hotels in Spain, the exquisitely charming Quatre Gats in the Plaza Merced. And, surprise, the luckiest of you will actually sleep in the very same bed as Pablo Picasso and Carlos Casagemas. It was in this hotel that Picasso exposed his beloved companion to the joys of wine, women and song in the hope of curing him from his unrequited love for the beautiful Parisian courtesan, Germaine Pichot. But alas Casagemas shot himself shortly thereafter.”
The party was over. Benito wished Lars luck with his car. Méndez reminded him where to meet the guardabosques in Casaras, and when they both had left, Carlos showed his quest to his room.
At first he thought of going out again. The music from the fairgrounds and the shouts of people in the street beneath his window indicated that celebrations were still in full swing. Maybe a chance to meet with that girl . . . Instead he went to bed hoping to dream about her. But the dream turned out to be all about the dog, Björkman’s Ford Fiesta, Bingo Crosby, and his own sad self swimming in a bed of blue, yellow, red and green plastic.