The night before he was killed by an electric eel, Pedro had hung multicoloured lanterns outside his hut, perched as it was in stilts on the muddy banks of the great river. Perhaps he knew what awaited him. His fellow villagers had often boasted of prescient daydreams, eerie manifestations of future events reaching back, tickling the present moment. There was nothing remarkable about Pedro except for his moustache, and a fine moustache it was, too. He was a fisherman who lived alone.
The multicoloured lanterns had reflected on the river surface from his front porch, and villagers had nodded wisely on seeing them. ‘Pedro has had a premonition’, they said. For it was completely out of character for him to show any sign of festivity. He had earned a reputation as being a sullen and uncommunicative man, no nonsense and hard to get along with. He would be seen most days, mending his nets, looking after his equipment, or selling his fish in the local market. But he wouldn’t say much. He never said much.
He was found the next morning in the brown waters of the river, face down. They hooked him ashore and the local doctor came down from the village to examine him. With a grand gesture and a flourish of penmanship, he signed the death certificate, then went to the local bat and raised a toast to Pedro. That night the lanterns on his front porch came on once more, and a crowd gathered. Poor Pedro. The river had claimed another victim. As mosquitoes and moths buzzed around the multicoloured lanterns, the mourning became a celebration and people danced and sung and someone nearby began setting off fireworks, and within three days, maybe four, most people had forgotten entirely that he had ever existed.
The local hotel was a spartan affair, hidden at the end of an alleyway of ugly concrete buildings with flaking paint and a criss-cross of electrical wires. She arrived on the twice-weekly bus, clambered up on the roof of the old vehicle herself and got her case down before the driver even had a chance. He leaned on the rear bumper and lit a cigarette, then watched as she pulled her case away from him, down the alleyway through a group of children playing football She booked into her room just as the sun started to set and a thin sliver of a moon took to the sky. The room had a tiled floor and a bed which seemed abnormally high off the ground. The plain white walls had the faint trace of a tide mark around them, three feet off the ground, and she wondered if this was why the bed was so high from the floor. She unpacked and then went straight to the local bar.
It was a ramshackle place of open sides and a corrugated tin roof. She ordered a red wine and sat at one of the wooden benches near the road. Alfonso sidled up close to her. ‘What’s a pretty girl like you doing . . .’. ‘Now just look here, buster, I’ve eaten men bigger than you for breakfast, and if you don’t want my fist in your gob, then I suggest you give it a rest.’
The barman wore a vest. Typical Alfonso, he thought. The whole episode amused him. ‘I was only going to offer you a drink’, Alfonso said. A ruddy man with a potbelly and a thick white moustache which only served to accentuate his complexion.
‘I know what you’re after’. ‘Bravo!’, the barman called.
Everyone was now looking at her. ‘Now that I’ve got your attention, what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’, she added. ‘He had a premonition’, Juan said. Juan was the youngest one there. Red sports vest and Adidas tracksuit trousers. ‘That’s why he lit the miltitoloured lanterns. Tomorrow, I will take you to his house on my motorbike’. ‘How far is it?
‘It is maybe a third of a mile’. ‘I can walk thank you very much’.
‘He was a fisherman’, said Alfonso, ‘We are all fishermen. The river brings, and the river takes’. ‘He had a boat ‘, Juan said. ‘He would bring his fish to the market’. ‘OK, OK, you lot. You’re not giving me much. Listen, I’ll be in town for a short while. If anybody remembers anything about Pedro, then let me know’. ‘And we can find you? In the hotel? In your room?’ Alfonso asked. ‘Jeez, you really are a bit of a pervert, aren’t you? I’m thinking you don’t get to see much action, am I right?’ Everyone laughed except for Afonso. The red wine made her tired. She walked the short distance down the alleyway to the hotel. At the entrance she noticed that the electric lines on the wooden pole feeding the building were buzzing. ‘That’s going to keep me awake tonight’, she shouted through the open door at the old man sat slumped on the reception desk. ‘Lady, it’s been like that for years. What can you do, eh?’
She gave the wooden pole a hefty whack with her handbag and the buzzing stopped. ‘Simple’, she said. Slowly, the old man reached behind to the key rack, where the room keys were kept, both of them, took hers off the wall and passed it to her. ‘What time will breakfast be? He laughed. His shoulders convulsed. He didn’t say anything. He leaned against the reception counter and looked out the door.
The next morning was very hot. She spent the first half hour looking out the window of her hotel room. She was on the ground floor and she had a very good view of three or four wooden huts around a muddy courtyard. People lived in the huts. She could see them at the windows. There was washing hanging on a line, and a skinny, long-limbed dog tied to a pole in the courtyard. She locked her door and handed the key to the old man on reception. ‘Is everything alright with your room?’ he asked.
‘There’s a dog tied to a pole in the courtyard’, she said, ‘I don’t think this is right’. ‘It’s not our dog. It belongs to a neighbour’. ‘Does she have to be tied up like that?’ ‘I will have a word’, he said, ‘with the concierge’. ‘You haven’t got a concierge, have you? ‘No’, he said. The fish market was a large space covered with a flat corrugated tin roof. It was slightly cooler, although incredibly busy, with fish laid out on tables or in plastic tubs on the floor. People were haggling. Some of them stopped as she walked through and watched her progress. They nudged their neighbours and pointed. In the corner of the fish market was a small café, where she found the village doctor sipping coffee sat at a small round table. ‘What can you tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’. ‘Ah, I had forgotten all about him’. ‘How did he die?’
‘’His heart stopped beating and he stopped breathing’. The doctor laughed and sipped his espresso. ‘You examined him?’ ‘Yes. And I filled in the death certificate. I have, as it has often been remarked, beautiful penmanship. Maybe in a former life, I was a monk’. ‘How did he die?’ ‘Lady, such matters are not for . . .’. ‘Yes? Were you about to say, women?’ ‘Electrocution followed by drowning.’
‘And did you notice anything unusual about his body?’
‘It is not usual for someone to be electrocuted, lady. He had a very fine and bushy moustache. In all other respects, he was completely untouched’. ‘And you conducted a proper examination? Right here, in the morgue?’
‘Dead centre of town’, he said. ‘The morgue is there’. He pointed to a building in the corner of the covered fish market. ‘It is also the fish store. You know, nobody came to the funeral because he had no family, and people had forgotten all about him.
That’s what happens in this town. People can see the future, but they forget the past. We must have done a deal with the devil at some point.’. ‘The river brings, and the river takes away’, she whispered. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Nothing. Listen, what can you tell me about him? Anything at all.’ ‘He was a fisherman. He had a boat. The night before he died, he hung multicoloured lanterns outside his house.’ ‘I’m getting nowhere’, she sighed. ‘Pedro is gone’, the doctor said, ‘And he is already forgotten. If you stay here long enough, then you will be forgotten, too. That’s the curse.’ He smiled, and drained the last of his espresso. ‘That’s the curse of this place ‘And the death certificate?
‘Great’, he said, ‘Penmanship. ‘ Juan’s upper lip was perspiring in the heat. It was one of the few upper lips that didn’t have a moustache covering it. He saw her as she came out of the fish market.
‘I will take you down to his house’, he said. ‘You don’t give up, do you?’ ‘Neither do you’. She smiled. The heat was intense as they walked, and the road from the main village to the river bank passed through areas of marshland that had subsequently dried. Flood plains, she told herself. Havens of insects and creatures. Downhill they continued to the river, which was swelled by the first rains of the season a few days previously.
‘They have more places to go when the river gets wider’, Juan was explaining. ‘Electric eels. They hide, possibly. I don’t know. Mysterious creatures. But in the summer months you are more likely to come across them. Or unlucky.. It was unfortunate”. ‘Yes, very’. She guessed his age to be late teenage, perhaps twenty one at the most. ‘Are you a fisherman, too?’ ‘We’re all fishermen’. ‘Please be careful, when you’re fishing. It isn’t very safe”. ‘Generations of my family have made their living this way. It’s all they’ve ever wanted to do’. ‘And you?’ ‘Unless I go to the city ‘Is that likely?’ She walked in the shade of a tree where it was cooler. The road was dusty and rutted, the ruts having dried into ridges which could easily trip. ‘Maybe’. They came down to a wooden jetty, and then walked along the riverbank to a row of houses, little more than wooden shacks, elevated above the river on stilts. The second one along had been Pedro’s.
‘Someone has taken the mullicoloured lanterns’, Juan pointed out. ‘I already noticed.’ The shaded area underneath the house looked tempting but she knew that there might be spiders, or snakes.
‘People have taken his boat, his nets. They weren’t his’, Juan continued. ‘They’re in use already. We are not superstitious.’ She climbed the ladder and stood on Pedro’s front porch. She looked in through the screen window. ‘He led a veny sparse existence’, she said.
She then turned and leaned on the railings, looking.
‘Have you ever had a premonition?’, she asked. ‘No’, he said. ‘And you say that you villagers are not superstitious, yet you all believe in premonitions?.’ ‘Yes’. ‘Might it be possible that he just put up the multicoloured lanterns because he wanted to see and enjoy some multicoloured lanterns?’ ‘He foresaw his death.’ ‘If I had foreseen my death, I’d do everything I could not to actually die. I wouldn’t waste my time by going out and buying some multicoloured lanterns.’
‘They were pretty…’ She clambered down the ladder and stood with Juan at the water’s edge. She looked over at the opposite bank, thick jungle vegetation teeming with birdcall and the hoot of errant monkeys . The river looked angry, swirling with unseen currents in its depth, the water itself the colour, she thought, of hot chocolate. She was sweating. It reminded her how they had a long walk ahead of them uphill back to the village in the midday heat. ‘We should have used your motorbike’, she said.
And Juan smiled, excited by the idea. ‘I haven’t got one’, he said, looking down at the ground. I just wanted to impress you’. The whole village shut down for an afternoon siesta. She walked the empty streets, trying as much as she could to keep in the shade. The church was as devoid of decoration as everything else that she had seen, whitewashed and plain with a bronze cross on the altar, and it was at least slightly cooler in there. The roof was corrugated tin. She had never seen so much corrugated tin. She figured that it got nid of water quickly, once the wet season started. She wondered why Pedro couldn’t have died at a cooler time of the year. By late afternoon people were out once more. Alfonso was at the small bar near her hotel, as was the hotel manager and the doctor. She sat at the same wooden bench that she had used the night before, and sipped cola from a glass which sweated, feeling the coolness of the moisture on her fingers. ‘This won’t do’, she told herself. She stood up and advanced on the customers. The bar manager stopped what he was doing and he leaned on the counter because he could sense that something interesting was about to happen. ‘OK’, she said. ‘What is it that everyone is hiding from me?’ They looked up. She could see a row of moustaches. Astonished moustaches. ‘The lady’, Alfonso said, ‘Is playing hard-to-get’.
‘And that’s the only thing round here that is hard, isn’t it?’ she replied. There was a ripple of laughter. ‘Everyone’s being very coy. Very evasive. Lots of talk of premonitions, and of forgetting There’s no real sense here, is there? No real sense of loss, or of shock.
One of you has died, and yet really, nothing has changed’. ‘Does it have to?’, the doctor asked. ‘It doesn’t have to, Doctor Penmanship, but it does. It’s a certain fact of life. Now what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’ ‘Moustache ‘. ‘Fisherman’.
‘This all very infuriating’.
‘The river . . ‘, Alfonso started saying. ‘If you’re about to say that the river brings and the river takes away, then I’m going to knee you in the groin’. There was much laughter. ‘Hey!’, the barman said.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at him. His moustache had never seemed more earnest . ‘A man has died. We keep forgetting that. And it’s something in our history. We keep on forgetting and people keep on dying. Sometimes people die in the most tragic of circumstances, they leave behind widows and children, and the village is in shock. And sometimes people die and there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about them. And life goes on as normal. Pedro was such a man, it is true. He lived alone and we hardly knew him when he was alive. The fact that he is now dead, and that he died in such a way, means that we know more about him now than we ever did, We know his ending. Not everyone has that privilege.’
The bar was silent for a while. ‘Good words ‘, she said.
The barman nodded ‘But let me ask you this. Where did you get these new multicoloured lanterns from?’
She gestured above to where the new lanterns were strung just below the corrugated tin roof of the bar. They hadn’t been there the night. before. All eyes swung back to the barman. ‘I thought they would. . . . Spruce up the place’. ‘It’s a premonition!’ Alfonso yelled.
‘Death is in our midst!’, the doctor confirmed. ‘Bloody hell’, the hotel manager whispered. He drained the last of his beer and then got up and departed, hastily. ‘Everyone, calm down’, she yelled. ‘I see what’s happening here. And I’m sorry, I truly am. You want to forget but I’m not making it easy. And I think I know what it is. The river floods, every year, doesn’t it? The waters come up the hill and they stop. It’s an annual routine, it’s why the houses on the river bank are on stilts. But lately, something else has been happening, hasn’t it? The water is coming in to the village. I’ve seen the tide marks on various walls. The hotel room has a line about three feet off the ground. The village floods. And you know that it’s going to happen again. The river is changing, it’s a living entity, and it washes everything away. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? The bad news, the pain, the suffering, and memories, each year they will be washed away so that you can all start anew.. That’s what’s happening here. It’s not a premonition at all. It’s forecasting. It’s the seasons. The whole village will eventually have to move and you’re just letting everything nun its course.’ Everyone was silent for a while. ‘And the forgetting’, she whispered, ‘helps’.
She turned and walked away from the bar, and went back to her hotel room. It had been a long day. She borrowed a small fan from the hotel manager. It was obvious that he didn’t want to move from his desk. As ever he was sitting leaning at the counter, looking out through the open doorway at the alleyway and the gathering darkness and the moths. She noticed that the other room key was still hanging behind him, unused. The manager went to a cupboard and brought up this old thing with a wire covering over the blades that was so sloppily put together that you could easily put your fingers through and get them chopped off. And once she had it plugged in and stood it on top of the chest of drawers, all it seemed to do was recirculate the warm air.
Before bed, she fashioned the mosquito nets, but then she couldn’t sleep not only on account of the heat, or of the lone mosquito she could hear somewhere in her room, but also because she could hear the chains of the dog tied up outside her window, moving throughout the night.
The electric fan was noisy, too. It didn’t hum, like some that she had used. This one rumbled and spluttered and ticked and she was worried that it would catch fire, because it’s cheap plastic casing got ever so hot. She would get out of bed and turn it off, then she would get hot again and she would tum it back on again. The room and the bedding smelled constantly of damp. She reasoned that nothing could possibly catch fire in such a damp atmosphere. Just after two in the morning she heard a moped in the village street. It was the first motorised vehicle she had heard since the bus had left. She listened as the moped pulled into the alleyway beside the hotel and stopped. This ought to be interesting, she thought. Soon afterwards she heard a soft knock. ‘Juan . .’.
‘I have a motorbike’. ‘Sounds more like a moped.’
He was wearing football shorts and a yellow tee shirt with flip-flops. ‘Don’t you have a helmet?’
‘If I was stupid enough to fall off, then my brain has proven itself unworthy of protection’, he replied. ‘Good shout’. ‘Come with me’. It was a dark and quiet night. The sky was filled with stars. There was enough room on the back of his moped for her too, and she clung on, arms wrapped around his sweaty, thin waist. He took her down to the river. The sliver of a moon hung low as he shone the headlight of his moped on to the wooden jetty and the surface of the river. ‘The bar has multicoloured lanterns’, she said, as he turned off the engine. ‘That’s a shame. I’ll miss him’.
‘It doesn’t mean anything’.
‘But still. Premonition in retrospect . . ‘. The night river looked black and silent, a void. She thought about all of the creatures that it had in it. Juan stood on the wooden jetty. He kicked off his flip-flops and then removed his tee shirt. ‘Don’t’, she said. ‘It’s safe’, he replied. ‘Stop that this instant’.
He sat on the jetty, his feet dangling in the water. The light from his moped threw a long shadow version of himself which stretched away from them.
And then he made a sudden forward movement, into the water, straight under with barely a splash, and he was gone for quite a long time. She stood on the bank of the river and watched intently, the water seemed so fast-flowing. Why would anyone do such a thing? Suddenly his head broke the surface a short distance away and he was laughing, playful his voice echoing all around them.
‘It’s fine’’, he shouted, ‘It’s absolutely fine! I needed this! It’s completely fine!’ ‘Get out this instant’.
‘There’s nothing to worry about!’
He swam, and lay on his back, and swam some more, and ducked under a few times, and every time he came to the surface he was grinning, and she understood that he was still a kid. They were all children. The only difference was the size of their respective moustaches. ‘Get out now, you ve had quite enough fun!’
He climbed up on the muddy bank, laughing, running his hand through his wet hair. ‘Nothing bad happened’, he said. ‘Nothing bad. And now we can all get along and live again.’
‘Juan . . .’.
‘Nothing bad happened. Life can return to normal. Properly. .Normal life!’ He picked up his tee shirt and dried himself with it, and then he picked up his flip-flops.
She was up early the next morning. A glorious sun poked in through the window of her room, through the moth-eaten curtains She packed her suitcase and then ran her finger along the tide-mark around the walls of the room. It’s funny, she thought, how little mysteries always seem to sort themselves out. She went to the reception desk. The manager wasn’t there and the desk didn’t have a bell to ring. Fine, she thought, suit yourself.
It was good to be moving before the heat of the day started again. She wondered how long ago it was that this village had been a jungle. And how quickly it would take for the jungle to retum. She walked out of the hotel and paused for a short while, She put down her suitcase in the alleyway, then wálked left, to the courtyard out the back. She had to open a gate but she knew that the gate led to the courtyard, because she had seen it enough tunes from her window. There was nobody around in any of the wooden shacks.
The dog growled at her. She bent down and she untied its collar from the chain which was attached to the wooden pole. The dog growled at her as she did this.
‘Just hold on a moment, will you?’, she said, as it struggled.
The moment that the dog was freed from the pole, it ran away from her, out of the gate, up the alleyway, and then into the village.
‘Well isn’t that the most ungrateful thing?’, she said, to nobody in particular. She closed the gate, picked up her suitcase and walked to the main road, just as the bus arrived. It stopped outside the bar and the driver got out to help her with the case, but she clambered up onto the roof and wedged it securely where it couldn’t fall off. The driver lit a cigarette and watched her. He nodded as she climbed on the bus. He had a moustache.
The driver got back into his seat and started up the bus. They moved forward, taking the road down to the river where the bus would then tum left and head off into the jungle. She looked out of the window to her right just in time to see two or three men, fishermen pulling the barman’s body out of the water.
‘Well’, she said. And then the bus turned left and off it went.
Robert Garnham has been performing comedy poetry around the UK for ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had two collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV quiz show Pointless. Lately he has been writing short stories for magazines and a humorous column in the Herald Express newspaper. In 2021 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted as Spoken Word Artist of the Year by the Saboteur Awards.
Image via Pixabay