Chapter 1: The Police

Submitted by totil on Wed, 09/28/2011 - 18:12

November 1985, RONDA

White coffee and a 103 brandy within reach and I’m quite pleased with myself. Watched the bartender fill the glass, silently opening and closing his mouth. The slow gesture and odd mannerism reminded me of a guppy. Mister Guppy was just lighting my cigarette when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Come!” said an unfamiliar voice, quietly but firmly, in Spanish. I looked over my shoulder. The cop seemed to have materialised out of the smoke that filled the bar. I said nothing but slipped warily
from the chair, grabbed my sack and followed the officer out to the car park, wondering who the hell could have snitched me out.

We came face to face with two of his colleagues, who pointed automatics at me. I was flung unceremoniously up against a car, just like in a B-movie. One of the cops searched my pockets and found a two hundred peseta note and ten
cigarettes – which was all I had. Then they turned me round. The one who had fetched me from the bar was holding a revolver which he shoved so firmly into my stomach that I stumbled backwards towards the car. The other two brandished their automatics, ready for anything.

“Nombre?” yapped the cop with the revolver. Strange how my brain worked. At times I understood whole sentences in Portuguese and Spanish and then one tiny word would stall the translation machine inside my head and stop the whole thing – like a stick in a cogwheel. Fear finally
seized the machine up: Nombre? What the hell did nombre mean? Was I supposed to say some number? Was this maybe a nasty version of Russian roulette? He would shoot me if I said the wrong number.

I glanced down at the gun. An ordinary six-shooter like the ones the street police carried. The worn wooden butt usually peeped out from their backsides in the bar, it looked as if they had rotten
bananas in their back pockets. Sweat broke out on my forehead in spite of the cold. My Spanish
was nothing to write home about, though I was beginning to understand quite a bit. But now my life depended on it.

“Yo ... no ...” I started and came to a standstill. The sentences would not come out of my mouth. The guy with the gun smirked malevolently. This was the smirk of a forty-year-old man who gets the chance to shoot a nineteen-year-old in the stomach, having spent twenty years as a cop in a shitty little place in the back of beyond. At long last he was
on the up. He pointed at his chest with his left hand as his right one thrust the gun further into my navel. “I am Visente!” Then he pointed at me. “Tu nombre?”

Of course! Nombre meant name. Not number. I relaxed a bit. I sensed how my jaws slackened and the memory networks creaked into action.
“Þórarinn Leifsson” I blurted out.
The guy with the gun was nonplussed, and relaxed his gun hand a little.
This was a word I understood, and I handed him my passport ever so carefully from the inner pocket of my leather jacket, where it still was after I’d let the train attendant see it before I was thrown off the train. Just as well. God only knows what would have happened if I’d had to reach into my waistband for my secret wallet as I usually did. The guy with the gun would have had a great excuse to shoot me. He held the passport up to his face with his right hand while the left one aimed the pistol at me. Somewhat
carelessly, as if the gun was a toy rather than a dangerous weapon.

“Eh? Iceland? What is that? Porarinn ... Leifsson?”
I didn’t reply, I had long since got used to Spaniards pronouncing ‘þ’ as ‘p’ instead of  ‘th’.
The men with the automatics were getting restless. They shuffled their feet like disappointed hounds. I wasn’t really a dangerous enough specimen. One of them opened the car door with his free hand, and reached for the radio-telephone.
“Hey, Visente. Why don’t we call the station?”
This I could understand. Visente sighed like an aggressive kid whose game is interrupted. Took the device reluctantly and stabbed at the keyboard with his thumbs. A slight hum emerged as he put the instrument to his cheek and barked into the receiver: “Señor! We have a suspicious individual here. Could be the one we are
looking for. Over!”
“Are you talking about the deserter the idiot ...Yanqui ...” answered a weary voice over the hum of the radio. There were strange silences in between. “... were looking for?
Does he speak ... Spanish? Over!”
“No, Señor. At least he pretends not to. Could be a Yanqui.”
Of course I couldn’t speak Spanish, nor Icelandic come to that, with a loaded gun for an umbilical cord.
“Can you describe him to me?”
“Blond-looking, bit over average height, wearing jeans, leather jacket and trainers that are about to fall apart. He’s got a sleeping bag in a manky holdall; some writing materials, books and a kind of drawing pad. A tramp, or pretends to be. Oh yes, and he’s got close-cropped hair. Did I mention this? Like a soldier. Over.”

The previous day I had visited a barber who reeked of
Old Spice. The guy sheared off my hair and shaved my beard
with an old-fashioned razor which he stropped on a wide,
black belt. I spent most of my money on this whim.
“Hm ...” purred the radio voice. “Could be one of the
deserters. What about the passport? Is that in order? Over.”
“Yes, I think so. An Icelandic passport. Over.”
“Ice ... what?”
“Islandia. Over!”
“Visente! For Christ’s sake! ... krrr ... What sort of
idiocy ... is this? Over!”
It was as if the guys with the automatics had been waiting
for this remark. They shouldered their weapons, quizzical
expressions on their faces. The one who had handed the radio
to Visente grinned lop-sidedly, the other one shook his head.
“But Señor,” Visente wailed. “He looks extremely suspicious.
A short while passed before the voice answered, more
wearily than before. “Now listen ... krrr ... bring the
bugger down to the station. We’ll have a better look
at him. Over!”

The police car drove howling through the blacked-out city,
blue lights flickering aggressively in through shop and
restaurant windows. I summoned up the courage to ask the
cop sitting next to me about the power cut. He was young,
not much older than me. He shrugged before replying in
broken English: “This isn’t the first time we have a
power cut here.”

The guy with the revolver turned round in the front seat.
“Don’t talk to the prisoner!” he barked. My seat-mate
heaved a sigh, swore something into his chest and lit a cigarette.

I was made to wait on a bench in a dark corridor in the
police station, a gloomy building from the Franco era.
The young cop was supposed to watch me while the older,
more experienced ones disappeared into the nearest bar.
He soon made for a telephone which hung on the wall,
and seemed to forget me. There was still no electricity
and I wondered how the telephone worked despite that.
I was absolutely freezing. There is nowhere colder than in a
southern country up in the mountains in deepest winter. The
cold pierced my bones, it slipped in everywhere underneath
my clothes. Impossible to divest oneself of it. Dim candlelight
seeped through the half-open door of an office halfway down
the corridor. Tick tack tick tack came from an old typewriter
somewhere, mingled with the murmuring of the cops. In the
semi-darkness I began to think about the Spanish Inquisition
and then about the civil war. Was I the last sentence in Spain’s
colourful history, alone here on the bench?
I pushed these fanciful thoughts out of my mind. Everything
would be all right. The young guy didn’t look as if he was
waiting for a warrant to take me out for execution. If the
worst came to the worst I would be locked up until money
arrived to pay for the train over the Spanish border.
Humiliating but not lethal.
This was exactly what had happened to me during my first
wandering the year before. After two grey weeks with friends in
London I had suddenly had the idea of cashing my last
traveller’s cheque and taking the bus right across Europe
to Greece, where I worked in grape-picking for a few days
before hitch-hiking back home. I got across the Adriatic
and up the whole of Italy in one day, before being caught
completely skint without a ticket by a train attendant in
Switzerland. The cops locked me up until Mum sent me the
money for a very expensive sleeper to Amsterdam where
a plane for Iceland was waiting for me. “We can’t let you
out on the streets without any money in your pockets,” the
cops had said. “You’d be bound to go stealing.”
On the way to the railway station the cops had been
joking with another prisoner that my mum was bailing
me out. I was so pissed off that I got blind drunk at the
station. A group of interrail-idiots watched me open a
beer-can and get froth splattered in my face, a fraction
of a second after I had shown I didn’t give a shit
about them by giving meaningless answers to all their
questions. A sleeper full of spoiled school kids exploded
into laughter. Shit! What an imbecile!

Someone nudged me. The young cop saved me from these
terrible memories. He escorted me into a small windowless
office which reeked of cigarette smoke and coffee.
A number of wax candles threw long shadows, lending a
ghostly appearance to two men sitting at separate desks.
The desk in the middle was covered with police reports and
papers, but mainly with husks of pipas: the dried and
salted sunflower seeds which some Spaniards ate all
the time. Behind it sat a big, fat man. He looked slowly
up from my passport with a cat-like grin.
A decrepit old guy lurked at the desk in the corner, an
ancient typewriter in front of him. It was the one I had
heard in the corridor while I waited. The typewriter
should have been in a museum rather than an office.
The same applied to the old guy.
“Bueno,” sighed the fat guy languidly, before continuing
in halting English: “Well, sonny ... I see you wandered
over from Portugal a few weeks ago?”
I recognised the voice from the radio immediately.
This was the one the cop with the gun had called Señor.
The Chief of Police himself. The strange silences
came about while he shovelled pipas into his mouth
and spat the husks out.
“And where are you heading for?”
I explained that I had been drifting about down town
when the electricity was cut in the city. I had dived
into the railway station bar to wait for the next train.
Next he wanted to know whether I had a job.
“I’m at art school ... or actually on holiday...”
“You’re going to be an artist?”
“Artist. Fancy yourself a bit, do you?”
I bit my lip. The old man squeaked something in Spanish
and muffled a shrill snigger by making the typewriter ping.
The police chief repeated his question, his mouth full
of words and nuts, rolled his eyes, belched and flung the
next question at me: “And drugs?”
“You heard what I said. No need to look like an idiot.
Have you got any drugs on you?”
“You haven’t?” He looked at me suspiciously,
waiting expectantly for me to say something.
“Iceland is an island, no drugs get as far as there.”
“Islandia es una isla,” he copied me in Spanish,
a grim smile spreading over his whole face. “Puuueees,”
he huffed. “So is Ronda! We are a small island
in one great big pile of shit!”
The young cop and the old man burst into laughter
and this flew back and forth for a while in rapid Southern
Spanish, accompanied by appropriate sniggers. The
repartee overflowed into the corridor, where the joke
was repeated. It echoed on grey walls until it died away
somewhere in the distance.
“Bueno,” said the Chief of Police finally. “If you are an
artist you must prove it!”
He ordered the young guy to fetch a blank piece of
paper and a biro. He then leant as far over the desk
as his pot belly allowed and created an empty space
on the desktop by brushing reports and pipa-husks aside
with a movement suggestive of breast-stroke. Having
done that, he leant back in the chair, making himself
comfortable, and lit a brand-new Ducados cigarette.
“Bueno, young artist,” he said as he blew out the
black tobacco-smoke. “Now you shall draw me!”
I set the paper down at the edge of the desktop and
flourished the biro. It’s not at all easy to draw a portrait
just like that without any warming up. It’s much easier
after a few hours of life model drawing in school.
The police chief made himself look cute. His eyes
were like two pearls of sweat in the big, ruddy face.
The nose was like a shrivelled potato. The cheeks
hairy melons. The mouth was easy: a single line above
three double chins. Finally the hair, dark and sticky
from frying- oil and lack of sleep.
I was finishing the picture when I noticed the silence
that surrounded me. The only thing audible was the
scrabble of the pen: Krs-krs-krs ...
I looked up. The model tried to peep at the paper. The
old man had got up from his typewriter and was now
looking over my right shoulder, reeking of garlic
bread and red wine. To the left of me the young cop
shuffled his feet, poker-faced, before pronouncing his
verdict: “He’s done quite a good job. Hasn’t he, García?”
“Eh? I suppose so,” answered the old man reluctantly.
“Let me see!” shouted the police chief suddenly,
snatching the picture “Is this monster supposed to be me? Well
I never! In a hundred years’ time, maybe? Is this a picture of
the future, young artist?”
He was right. It was not a good drawing. It was much
too stiff, and the proportions were wrong. And yet there
was something in the police chief’s voice that told me
I had passed the exam, whatever it was supposed to be
about. As confirmation he now burst into a belly laugh.
He laughed for a long time. When he had recovered, he lit
another Ducados, blew the smoke into the air and said:
“Bueno, you have a lot to learn, young artist ...”
“Have you got any money on you?”
“You haven’t, eh? There are not many nineteen-year-old boys
wandering round the world like that without any money. Perhaps
I should send you ... where are you living, by the way?”
I didn’t know how to reply, so I waited for him to
do it for me.
“Nowhere! Right? Fine! Go to a hotel or something.” He
handed the young cop my passport and ordered him
to take me out.
I was very relieved. We had, however, only just reached
the corridor when fatso barked the order for us to
come back. This was trouble! He had surely decided to
send me in a Christmas parcel on the next plane to Iceland.
The Chief of Police looked at me pensively for a moment.
He then took a form, scribbled something on it and
passed it to the young cop.
 “There! Make sure our artist catches the train to Seville
or Algecíras, where it is at least a bit warmer! We can’t
let the bugger die of cold on the streets of Ronda! Then
the fucking communists from Madrid will come and
beat us up! Won’t they?”
“Yes, señor.”
“And here are two thousand pesetas for the picture. Don’t
let anyone say that the people of Ronda are not civilised
people. Get him out of here before I change my mind!”
I could hardly believe it. Must have looked like an
idiot, because the Chief of Police buried himself into his
double chin and squeaked: “Get out!”
The young cop escorted me to the railway station and
bought a ticket to Seville. Handed me the ticket and my
passport before giving a military salute. The guppy behind
the bar seemed somewhat surprised to see me alive.
So it was that I was sent back to Seville after having drifted
aimlessly around Andalucia for some weeks. It was actually
thanks to the Ronda Chief of Police that I got to know
the street painters in Seville.