Six storeys below, the plaza bristles with morning life. A stiff wind whips up the last of the leaves, revealing the patterned carpet of interlocking bricks underneath. We go about our business here, regardless of the conditions. We’re not all mouth and no trousers, like they are down in Andalucía. I’ll visit the library today, and make progress with my family research.
Life in the square gives me a sense of order and routine. Schoolchildren with mittens are safely deposited, and the snaking queue for the warmth of the medical centre grows. I sip my coffee out on the balcony, even though it’s four degrees.
He’s late today; the gentleman with the hat and the dog. He’s here every day at ten, to walk the dog, and take in the sights and sounds of the square.
I’ve enquired about him, in a casual manner, trying not to alert the abuelitas in the block to the possibility of ‘widow’s gossip’. He is a little older than me, but he holds himself in a way that draws me in. And, he’s always well turned-out.
Winter is not a time for introductions, even if his dog is the perfect ice-breaker even for a shy type like me. It was two months ago that I lost Blanquita, my own four-legged companion. The flat feels cold without her. I used to fill her bowl with biscuits as the coffee pot boiled. Now I just stare out of the window.
My son, José owns a labrador, but they’re not the same. Bigger dogs don’t have the sharp personalities of the miniatures. He tells me to get a new pet. ‘Mamá, you need the company, and it would get you out of the apartment.’ It takes time.
These last months have seen my family tree sprout little shoots of hope. José took me to the cemetery in Guadalajara and the municipal archives in Soria. I’ve unearthed a good number of dates, photos and even contact information for some distant cousins. When you are blessed to be in the right place, asking the right questions, these new connections come in bursts.
The characters in the square are less consistent. Shops come and go before you get the chance to forge a relationship with them. A Chino family bought out the café. I watch their children run between the stainless steel chairs in a game of ‘you can’t catch me’. Today I’ll visit their café, read the paper and try their menu del día.
The sun’s high rays are starting to bathe the white buildings. A breeze drifts over from the mountains. Down below, a gypsy with a thick moustache idles while he delivers fruit to the shop. Nobody rushes their business here, not even delivery men.
Finally, he arrives. Don Pedro. That’s the name I have given him, even though we’ve not spoken. He wears a diamond-patterned jacket, pressed grey trousers, and a short brimmed hat. Holding the lead in one hand and a cane in the other, he navigates the central garden of the square, taking shorter paces with his stiffer left leg. His sidekick, the overweight Chihuahua, hurries along behind him.
He’s the one thing in this picture that won’t be gone next month or even next year. I imagine he used to be a tradesman, something practical. Perhaps he has a gaggle of daughters who nag him to eat healthily. He likes to dance.
My coffee is now cold. Some days I don’t know where time goes. The dog sniffs the bushes and urinates on each post he passes. Don Pedro completes three laps of the gardens, buys a lottery ticket from the kiosk next to the main road, and then smokes his pipe.
Sometimes he buys a pintxo de tortilla and eats it standing outside. He doesn’t seem the type to dedicate himself to neighbourhood gossip. We’re alike in that respect. I prefer to listen, and observe town life — the clinks of glasses, the movements of families heading to church, and the changing of colours as the warmer weather approaches. This must be what Don Pedro thinks about behind his tinted glasses and pipe smoke. I wave goodbye as he departs for another day and head back inside to my books.
The clouds keep the sun at arm’s length, but there’s no breeze to speak of. This heat makes everyone sluggish. While the school is out, nothing in the square moves.
He’s late again today. Ten-fifteen comes and goes. I drink the coffee.
Last week I took the train to Madrid and visited the national archives. The documents I obtained told me some of the Garcías worked in Equatorial Guinea. Africa of all places. I suppose there’s not much difference in temperature at the moment. Today I’ll write to the addresses I found, then wait to see if anybody writes back.
Despite the heat, I wish the clouds would go. They make me uneasy. The gypsy has been replaced by a woman with a fringe and a tracksuit. Traffic fumes seem worse — cars belching out thick fumes and the buses hissing as they come to a halt. Younger families will be heading to the coast; Cantabria or Galícia.
When Don Pedro shuffles into view, he clutches his stick in his left hand and his pipe in the right. The dog isn’t with him. He wears a jacket and a black tie, in this heat. It would be terrible if his dog is unwell . . . or even worse. It seems to be one friend after the other now; monthly trips to the cemetery for funerals.
Down below, the man completes his circuits of the square, smoking all the while. He has something on his mind. He stops and inspects every corner of the space, walking the routes his Chihuahua did the days and months before. The vendor in the lottery booth perks up as he passes, but Don Pedro neglects to buy a ticket.
As he taps the pipe tobacco into the bin, he catches me watching. He looks right at me. The embarrassment. I don’t want to be seen as one of those loud-mouthed grandmothers who have nothing better to do than spy on others all day. I have my family, my books, my research. Just as I lower my gaze to pretend I was watching something else, the man waves up at me and smiles. He has noticed. We have our own patterns and routines, and today, I’m part of his. We are the two constants of this ever-changing barrio. I wave back sympathetically, hoping that the black tie doesn’t mean what I think it means.
The forecast was for cool weather, but when I pull back the curtains to the balcony the square is bright, as if someone has turned up the colour settings on my television screen.
As I step out, a warm breeze and the scent of roasting chestnuts greets me. The vendors have started their season. At the school gates, children whizz around as parents try to hand them their lunches and other forgotten items.
The fruit shop opens its shutters to reveal a display of beautiful red cherries. Everything seems balanced; the barrio is back to normal. Businessmen in suits drink their morning café con leches while reading the newspapers. Today I will walk around the city ramparts then along the river, where I used to go with Blanquita.
As I take a final glance at my surroundings, I notice a familiar figure entering into the picture. Although he’s been absent this last month, he’s early today, wearing his familiar green jacket and walking at a brisk pace. He turns into the plaza and as he does, a sand-coloured ball of fur scurries past him and into the garden. The dog is back, and better than ever. God bless the little thing. A healing smile forms.
Without giving it a second thought, I take the elevator down, and step out into the square.
Don Pedro calls his dog. ‘Vaya, Arturito. Haz tu negocios allí.’ I chuckle to myself. Of course, the dog is called Arturo; the same as my fat little ex-husband. What a wonderful coincidence.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say.
He puts out his pipe. “Oh hello. You live on the block, no?”
“Yes.” I feel like the nervous teens I see outside the school. “I’ve a question about your dog.”
“Arturo? He’s been poorly.”
“Yes, I gather. It’s been a year, since my . . . well, I was considering a Chihuahua and just wondered about—”
“Oh, they’re wonderful.” His eyes brim with the energy of a much younger man. “My son breeds them.”
I laugh at the thought of his family sat around the dinner table each with a tiny dog in tow.
Don Pedro says, “Here, take this.”
The business card reads Jose Calleja Vasquez Jr. So he is actually Don Pepe. I was so close. I smile again.
“I really am interested,” I say. “I’d like a new dog soon, before winter.”
“Best to get things organised,” he says.
There’s never the perfect time for new beginnings, but each autumn feels like it’s my last chance to start something. Years go by. We share a glance, an understanding. “I’d love to chat more. To get more information,” I say.
Arturo interrupts our moment by pulling at the lead.
“He’s an impatient old mutt, like me,” he says. “When he has to go . . .”
“I understand,” I say. “Encantada.”
He tips his hat, as gentleman have done for generations, and with that, they’re gone. Around the corner and away. I feel a rush, like I do when I discover an old relative’s name. Another piece of the puzzle completed. Don Pepe.
Does he believe, like me, that things occur in cycles in this town? The square will still be here tomorrow, as will its occupants. In time, I will walk my new dog with Pepe and Arturo, and I hope that we will become part of this scene, for many seasons to come.
PHILIP CHARTER is a British writer who lives and works in Spain. His work has been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies such as Storgy, Fictive Dream and The National Flash Fiction Day anthology. Foreign Voices, his debut collection was published in 2018. You can find out more at philipcharter.com
Image via Pixabay