CREATIVE Dan Anthony

NWR Issue 103

The Collector

Photo by Vita Vor

To: The Editor, New Welsh Review
From: Oscar Morales
Unversidad de San Vicente

Dear Gwen
Almost three years ago I was asked by a colleague to attend a production of a play at the Taverna Tabarca in San Antón, Alicante. I enjoy visiting Alicante, it’s bigger than Elche and an outsider, such as myself, can drift enjoyably, with a refreshing sense of anonymity. We drove the thirty odd kilometres to town together and arrived in good time for the evening performance. In fact, the play didn’t get underway until past eleven. By the time we left the place neither of us felt confident in driving: Mr Rhys, because he had drunk too much, and I, because I do not have a licence.

We both have friends in Alicante so I called Carmena and asked if I could sleep at her apartment. She was out, but she told me to wait for her on Calle Padre Espla. Her flat sits three stories above a new bar, an empty shiny place, full of fruit machines and cheap furniture. It was called Plata. I decided to wait for her there.

It must have been about three in morning when I arrived in Plata. Aside from the bartender and an old man watching the TV, I was the only customer. I bought myself a cup of coffee and sat at a new, wobbly, lightweight table near the window. I remember a truck pulled up at the Mas y Mas supermarket a couple of doors down the road, filling my bar with growling engine noise and flashing lights. I waited and watched a fork-lift truck driver unload box after box of supplies. I fiddled with my phone, untied and re-tied my shoe laces, pushed the beer mats around the table, and, feeling obliged to seem occupied, I took to adjusting the serviettes. They were not ‘sitting pretty’, to use the English vernacular. I can be a little ‘obsessive’ about order. I become very preoccupied with things. I tried to straighten the serviettes by stuffing my finger inside the silvery dispenser and pushing them, but that just made their wrinkles more definite. In the end there was nothing for it. I had to remove them all. Holding them in both of my hands I gently encouraged their edges to straighten on the table top. Then I noticed the root cause of problem.

Someone had entered the dispenser before me. The serviettes must have been removed and pushed back into place by an earlier customer because there was a message, or, as I prefer to say, a commentary, neatly written in black pencil on the bottom serviette. I read it. I popped it into my wallet. Soon after that I saw Carmena step out of a taxi.

The next time I visited Alicante I was attending a conference on pedagogic assessment held in the local government buildings in the city centre. When the event had finished I didn’t make straight for the railway station. Instead, I walked up the hill behind Santa Barbara castle and back onto Padre Espla. It was about six in the evening and Plata was not as quiet as before. A couple of men leant on the bar drinking and talking quietly, three middle-aged ladies with stiff hairdos sat sipping coffee, eating uninteresting cakes. I bought myself a coffee and wandered around the tables until I found one with a suitably suspicious-looking serviette dispenser. I sat down, and, taking care not to draw attention to myself, I removed all of its contents. There, at the very bottom of the pile of papers, was the familiar handwriting, it was another commentary. I took it.

In my office there is a pin board. It is covered with timetables, memos from the head of department, notes concerning students’ work and the names of books I should read. Without these aides memoire I lose track of what is going on. I attach other objects to the board: bus tickets, old concert programmes and cards from restaurants which I have liked. They remind me of things I should not forget. In time, when they lose their significance, I remove them and throw them away. I began to pin the serviettes to my board.

My instinct was to revisit Plata immediately, to see if I could retrieve another commentary, but I held back. I decided to remain in Elche for at least a week because I was wary about my tendency to obsess over ephemera. When, eventually, I returned to Plata, I was not disappointed. There, at the bottom of the serviette dispenser, was another commentary. From that moment I took every opportunity I could to travel to Alicante and visit the bar. I became a collector, consuming the serviettes with increasing urgency. Before long my wall was covered with messages on serviettes.

I still wonder why the documents were placed at the bottom of a serviette dispenser. In the end none of my answers seemed convincing, although I was always aware of the fact that they were probably no more than an intelligent prank: alluring messages in bottles penned by a tricky character from San Antón wishing to lodge an incongruous shard in some passer-by’s imagination. However, as the stories accrued I began to detect unsettling undercurrents within the documents. I began to see myself reflected in thin pieces of paper. It was as if they had been waiting for me, like a tiny hook in a huge rock pool. I think this is why, eventually, I shied away. I have not visited Carmena or collected any new serviettes for some time and now I am removing them from my pin board.

In translating these examples of the commentaries I am grateful to my colleague, Mr Rhys at the English department at Juan Hernández University, who was responsible for our first visit to Taverna Tabarca. It was he who suggested I send some examples to you.

Oscar Morales
[PAGE 2]

Serviette No 1
Luis is awoken by the morning’s overture: the rush of a flush; the gurgle of the lift mechanism; the fizz of fat spitting; the taps of dooty shoes; news leaking from old radios and, creeping into his room, music from the front of the small apartment block on Calle Barcelona. He shoves white feet into borrowed brown slippers and slumps up, shifting at a patient’s pace from one shuttered room to another. He sees a fat man with a bald head on the arm of his sofa. It is Karl-Heinz, he is peering through a gap in the blinds. He is masturbating. Luis says nothing. He shuffles on to the kitchen where he finds his tobacco and searches for the dog food, then the little dog, Pepito.

Before Luis woke, Karl-Heinz rose up from the sofa, torn from his dreams by the sound of a PA system. When he saw the dancers outside, his eyes lit up. The women were practising their routine with their roller skates on the basketball courts overlooked by the apartment. He recognised their number: ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, from The Jungle Book. He saw that film in Unterstufe one Christmas. He found himself dancing, with a manatee’s bounce, through the silty air of the apartment to the kitchen where he took the dog food and pirouetted back. He poured a little pile of pellets onto a bowl with a transfer of a Doberman’s face on it, before returning to the women on their skates.

Now Karl-Heinz sits on the perch and pushes the chink in the blinds further open. One in particular attracts him. Her round hips and wheeled feet scoop alluring curves in space. Her bright red hair leaves a trail of colour in his imagination. If he had a little bit more to offer, maybe someone like that skater, three stories below, could be the one for him. He guesses that she’s around forty years old. The same age as he is. But Karl-Heinz can’t skate, and no doubt he would frighten the woman and her children.

Luis is a leaf drifting between caves along a subterranean stream. He lodges at the entrance to the living room. The tune ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ keeps stopping and starting as the dancers on the basketball courts rehearse their steps. He watches Karl-Heinz, then he sees the dog.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

Karl-Heinz spins and topples onto the floor, fumbling at his trousers.
‘Nothing,’ gasps the fat fish on the marble, ‘I’m sorry, I thought everyone was asleep. I just got carried away.’

‘Fuck you,’ hisses Luis, kicking the Doberman plate, ‘It’s the dog – you idiot. You fuck with dog brains and you fuck them up. Pavlov shows us dogs are impressionable. You wank, you feed Pepito. That means every time you wank, Pepito expects food. That means either much more dog food or we end up with a disappointed dog that gets neurotic. Don’t ever feed the dog and wank again. He already thinks he’s a Doberman because of that ridiculous bowl.’

‘It was the music,’ bleats Karl-Heinz, scrambling to his feet.

‘So we got a chain reaction: The Jungle Book makes you horny, the dog gets fed, the dog feels hungry every time it hears Louis Prima. That’s even worse. Do you know how many times they play that Disney American crap on those basketball courts?’

‘A lotta times,’ confesses Karl-Heinz.

[PAGE 3]

Serviette No 2
Karl-Heinz stands at the foot of the hospital bed, watchful. A woman lies behind him, plugged into a dialysis machine. She reads a magazine, bullying her nerves into shape. A doctor walks in.

‘Who are you?’ asks Karl-Heinz.

‘I’m the doctor,’ says the doctor. Karl-Heinz’s odour is too strong to be ignored in disinfected air of the Hospital Provincial. The doctor hurries to the corner and casts a critical eye over Maria and the machine.

‘You not going to try no funny stuff?’ mutters Karl-Heinz, fear and menace seasoning his voice. He tightens his arm muscles and rubs his shovelly hands together.

‘He’s not the one,’ says Maria, ‘Let him be.’

The doctor completes his observations. ‘I’ll send a nurse, you’re done.’

Maria smiles nervously.

‘No nurses,’ Karl-Heinz growls, ‘One of them’s trying to kill her. That’s why I’m here – to make sure there’s no funny stuff.’

The doctor ignores Karl-Heinz.

‘On her last visit he said he’d fill her full of petrol,’ adds Karl-Heinz.

The doctor pauses. He looks at his watch. He hasn’t got time to explain that Maria is wrong about the nurses – they frighten her because she is already frightened. Without a word, and rather roughly, he disconnects Maria and leaves.

Outside the hospital, on the golden concrete, Maria hands Karl-Heinz his ten-Euro note – his ‘security fee’.

‘Thank you,’ she says, ‘Can you come next time? They won’t try anything with you around.’

Karl-Heinz thinks for a moment, he has a lot on his plate.
‘Yes I guess so; those bastards in there are dangerous.’

Maria kisses Karl-Heinz on both cheeks, even though she has to lean across his belly and avoid breathing in. Then she turns and hurries towards her sun-drenched bus stop.

Karl-Heinz makes his way back to the bank where he finds a shoe.

Luis had positioned Karl-Heinz’ hat in its usual place outside the BBUV bank on Pope Pio XII square. Nobody from the barrio would steal the pitch, but drifters from out of town were everywhere and shifting them could be messy. Luis was supposed to make sure this wasn’t necessary. He loitered near the hat, too shy to sit behind it, but close enough to make sure no kids stole it. The empty space behind the hat was enough to intimate the familiar presence of Karl-Heinz. A few pedestrians had already dropped coins into the hat and Luis passed the time by making polite conversation about the hot weather to anybody that cared to listen.

In a flat somewhere above Luis’ head, a couple had started screaming at one another. Luis’ eyes flicked up at the sound. He saw a mobile phone flying downwards, twisting and turning like a sycamore seed, twinkling as sunlight dawned and set on its surface. As far as Luis could see, the phone seemed to hang in the air for hours, twisting and turning. Eventually it crashed onto the pavement a few meters away, outside a deserted bar called Plata.

A second missile hit the ground and bounced and rolled so that it came to a halt next to Karl-Heinz’ hat. Then the argument from the flat above abated. Louis didn’t notice any of this.

Louis concentrated on the phone. Passers-by avoided it, intimidated by its data. But Luis took it up and presented it to the barman inside Plata, asking him to hand it to the owner from above, who would inevitably want it back.

By the time Louis returned to the pitch, Karl-Heinz’ hat and all its coins had gone. But a shoe had appeared in its place, or almost in its place.

Luis didn’t wear a hat. He figured the shoe, a man’s shoe, size 41, brown, well looked after and recently polished by an owner who was presumably rather obsessive about his footwear, could replace the hat.

So he adjusted the shoe, ensuring that it occupied the precise spot of Karl-Heinz’ hat.

Karl-Heinz looks at Luis, the painter, reproachfully.

‘I can’t beg with a shoe,’ says Karl-Heinz.

Luis shrugs his shoulders and looks at the concrete.

Karl-Heinz gives Luis the ten-Euro note and tells him to go and buy him another hat.
[PAGE 4]

Serviette No 3
It was early evening and Luis was thinking about the rubber trees in the Plaza Gabriel Miro in town. How their trunks were so otherworldly, how their blanket of shade was so soothing, and how it was a poor show that there were so few of them around. He was in the kitchen, Pepito had been fed. Karl-Heinz was out with his new hat.

A distant television vented comforting babble into the room and he could hear basketballs thudding like heart beats on the courts nearby.
Luis lifted some rice from the bubbling pan with a fork and tasted it. Satisfied, he strained the rest and dolloped it into a white bowl. He put the bowl on the tray and filled a glass with water from a bottle which he kept cool in the fridge. He added a spoon, draped a dishcloth over his arm, took up the ensemble and slid from the kitchen down into the long dark corridor, following the thread of sound.

He knocked the door with his free hand then opened it, pivoting into a cacophony of game show glitz. He turned off the television, positioned high on top of a chipboard wardrobe. Silence filled the room, punctuated only by the popping sounds of basketballs.

There she lay, sleeping as usual. He placed the tray on her bedside table and gently rested his hand on her bird-boned shoulder. Her eyes opened. He leant over, his mouth was as close as he could get to her ear. His whiskers tickled her ear-lobe.

Que aproveche,’ he stated in a loud voice.

Gently, as she stubbed her elbows into the bed, Louis pulled her up and settled her back against her pillow. He shouted as he tucked the dishcloth under her chin, ‘It’s rice today, good for toothless old birds.’

She didn’t hear much, she didn’t see anything.

‘Thank you, Roberto,’ her voice sounded faint as the rustle of Rizlas, ‘You’re a good boy.’

Luis laughed loudly, knowing that the vibrations would indicate comprehension.

When she was upright, after he had pressed the spoon into her hand, he left her to eat.

Her new room was small, a child’s bedroom; her old room was big, the master bedroom. Luis slept in there on a huge heavy bed surmounted by a cross, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, photographed and framed long ago. The eyes of a disapproving family glared at him as he opened the doors of the great cupboard. He rummaged, his fingers testing fabrics, his eyes toying with colours. He pulled out a man’s jacket, dark and sombre, a little short in the arm, but, more or less, a good fit. He wanted to look smart for the evening. And the family could get stuffed, he was the responsible one.

After a session in the bathroom on his moustache he returned to the old woman. She’d eaten her rice and drunk her water. Gently, he removed the dishcloth from under her chin. He felt her hand on his arm.

“Thank you Roberto, what a good boy,’ she crinkled.

‘Telly on?’ said Luis, extracting himself.
[PAGE 5]

Serviette No 4
It was market day, Thursday, and Luis was choosing carnations. The bunches were piled high, stuffed into plastic buckets in a stall surrounded by people. He settled for golden brown, sandy orange and sunlight yellow. He was determined to bring some real life into his old lady’s bedroom. The scent of the freshly cut flowers, would, he hoped, encourage her to imagine their colours. Her television depressed him, it glowed like a blast furnace and it smelt of electrocuted dust.

Carolinas market was one of Luis’ favourite constructions: a cornerstone of the week. Thursday morning in the market was a gift and Luis never failed to unwrap it slowly and deliberately. At eleven, he treated himself to a coffee and a tortilla in the tiny cafe wedged in front of the glass doors that lead from the street market into the airy concrete crib of the fifty-year-old market hall.

Luis liked to surf the waves of shoppers that flowed around the stacks of tomatoes, the aubergine reefs and the pepper cliffs. As he progressed he would make miniscule decisions, which made him feel successful and happy, because they were always right. He would buy himself cheap treats: a newspaper, a new pencil, a cake.

He sailed, his eyes rolling over hands, arms, fingers, ears, noses, pimples, hairs, liverspots and teeth. He saw them all as if they were already trapped on canvas. Only occasionally did he get a fleeting glimpse of the other stories, the undercurrents. These were sensations rather than images, shadowy shapes reflected in windows, which disappeared on inspection. They were the ghosts of the market, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Carolinas Market was a little younger than Louis, which is probably why he liked seeing the spirits shimmering in the windows.

Louis washed up by the hardware store, crossed San Mateo and walked, in his dead man’s socks, down Ignacio de Loyola into the relative tranquillity of Padre Espla, where shoppers were diligently wheeling empty trolleys to the market and full ones away from it.

Karl-Heinz sat behind his new hat.

‘I’m getting a lot of turrón,’ he said.

Karl-Heinz produced two gold-bar sized slabs of nougat, bearing the gaudy trademark of one of the local turrón manufacturers.

‘They’re selling it off cheap to the tourists,’ said Luis, ‘People can’t get rid off the stuff – it’s out of season.’

‘It’s a bad sign,’ said Karl Heinz, ‘If more people ate the damn stuff they wouldn’t give it to me. They’d give me Euros.’

Because it was Thursday morning, Luis offered Karl-Heinz a coffee. He handed him the carnations which he placed on the pavement next to the turrón and ducked into the nearby bar, Plata. Although the bar was expensive, the barman was familiar with Karl-Heinz and, provided one didn’t ask too often, he only charged a few cents for a shot. He liked having the big man outside, just in case.

As Luis left the bar with the coffee (who was only allowed in the bar when he wasn’t smelly), a young woman rushed out into the street from the flats above Plata. Shrew-like and suited, she clattered into Luis, not looking where she was going. It was only Luis’ foresight that saved the coffee. As he shielded it, she apologised sincerely, touching his arm with her hand. Luis told her not to worry and she hurried off, pushing her neat bob back into place.

As Luis recovered control over Karl-Heinz’ coffee, a man stepped out of the building, blinking in the sunlight. His slightly ponderous manner made him easier for Luis to avoid than the darting lady. It was almost as if Luis had been expecting him as he had glanced at the space in the entrance a second before the lugubrious fellow appeared.

The man slipped into Plata and sat at a table, fiddling nervously with the serviette dispenser. Louis couldn’t get a good enough look at his feet to say that he was definitely wearing new shoes. But he was wearing new shoes.
[PAGE 6]

Serviette No 5
Luis watches. Gabriel Miro, with its unbelievable rubber trees, its fountain, its old-world charm, is full of painters from the local art class. They appear like flies on a piece of old meat, at first it seems there is just one, but on closer inspection the square is filled with flesh gobblers. Every crevice has its own fly with its own easel, its own point of view.

Luis has set his easel in a dark alley, facing the square, with his back to the sea. He is alone in the shade, drawing, in his precise way, the huge trees that mask the shutters of old buildings. He is not part of the art class, and, because nobody notices him, he is almost absent from the spectacle. He sketches the painters. He sees them translate the golden light, the unbelievable light, the light that shines so bright, into colours on pieces of paper. Luis has a black pencil. He never uses anything else.

Occasionally a tourist couple will cut down the alley and look over his shoulder at the television-screen sized paper he is scratching on. Louis doesn’t speak to them. He seems to be preoccupied with his work, which he is, when they are not there.

A little before two in the afternoon the artists leave as one. And, because he is also a fly, a fly’s fly, so does Luis. Since it is a Sunday, he walks to Calle Doctor Sapena where he finds Karl-Heinz sitting on a bench near the Hospital Provincial, close to the museum, the former lunatic asylum. Pepito sleeps in his shade. The smell of rice and fish drifts in the garlic breeze.

‘I saw that guy last night,’ says Karl-Heinz.

Luis hands Karl-Heinz a bocadillo wrapped in silver foil. ‘The one who goes to Plata and messes up the serviettes.’

Luis knows the guy, his reader.

He enquires about the hospital. Karl-Heinz shows Luis his ten Euro note – the nurse is still trying to murder his friend, or so she thinks.

Karl-Heinz hands half the bocadillo to Pepito before they hide, like everyone else, from the light, which is burning the backs of their eyes.

‘Would you like a beer?’

‘Is that a silly question?’
[PAGE 7]

Later, Luis unlocks the flat. He allows himself to drop into the dark corridor and he drifts aimlessly past the doors, not knowing which one to open. He can hear the television in the old lady’s room, the chatter of voices echoing up from the courtyard and the sound of a child, somewhere in the block, practising trumpet. Like waterlogged driftwood, he lags behind the old currents in the corridor.

Then the music starts, blasting from the speakers above the basketball courts which this flat overlooks: ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, from The Jungle Book. Catching the drift, Luis pushes off. He opens the door to the living room and hurries to the window to see what the dancers can come up with.

Pepito appears and waits patiently by the Doberman bowl.

Dan Anthony’s latest book, for children, is Steve’s Dreams – Steve and the Sabretoothed Tiger. His radio plays have been broadcast on the BBC, he helped S4C developed its successful children’s series Y Meees and was a scriptwriter on CBBC’s Tracy Beaker series. His first children’s book, The Rugby Zombies, was nominated for the Tir na n-Og prize by the Welsh Books Council and he has since completed the popular Rugby Zombie trilogy, also available in Welsh.


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