“I told you we should’ve gotten the other one,” she whispered in the dark, her voice sharp and flat. “What’s the point in saving, like what, 200 pounds, when we end up having to spend the entire holiday with this shit?”
He said nothing. In the silence, he could hear the kids breathe dreamily on the dusty floor mattresses.
“Why do you always have to be like that, Philip? It’s so…”
She paused, adjusting her aim before pulling the trigger.
He could make out her contour in the dark. Her little snub nose. She was on her back, talking upwards in that low, slithering tone of hers.
“And I knew that we shouldn’t have trusted that slimy guy at the rental. I said it, didn’t I? Like word for word. We shouldn’t trust that guy.”
The room smelled of damp hay and dust and Philip wondered if his allergy would kick in tomorrow. Then he would spend the day walking around in a drowsy red-eyed haze and all the things that had to be done would be confusing.
“What are we going to do tomorrow? Can we get the car fixed or what?”
Philip also turned onto his back.
“We’ll have to get the car down the mountain somehow. The brakes are burnt, I think. Or maybe they just overheated. But we can’t risk going down without reliable brakes.”
“Tell me something I don’t know already. Please.”
“Tomorrow morning we’ll talk to Sergio. I’m sure we can figure something out.”
“But he says he doesn’t have a car. And no phone. And whose stupid idea was it to only bring one phone? That can’t even get a bloody signal when we need it?”
“Sue, you’re angry. Can’t we talk about this tomorrow? When you’re not angry?”
She rolled over on her side in one exaggerated move and sighed with pathos. He turned onto his side too and stared out the window where the pale glow from the lamp in the courtyard conjured shadows and mysteries. They lay like that for some time until she fell asleep.
He awoke in the night. He could hear her breathing, metronomic and steady like air drawn through bellows. Quietly, as quietly as he could, he got up and out the door and into the yard. The single lamp that stood in the centre of the courtyard was all but swallowed up by the crown of an oak and the white light burned chlorophyll green through the leaves. He tried the door to the house, but it was locked. He cupped his hands around his eyes and looked in through the window but could see nothing except the vague outlines of lifeless furniture. He looked around the yard. Then he stepped behind the tree and relieved himself.
As he turned around, he saw Sergio standing at the corner of the house.
“Ah. Sorry. Didn’t see you there.”
“Buenas noches,” Sergio said and nodded.
“Buenas noches,” Philip said. “Eh. Perdone por usar la… Sorry for your tree. The door was locked and I…”
“No problem,” Sergio said. “Por qué habria algun problema con eso? Así es la vida aquí. For us here, no problem.”
“Okay. Good,” Philip mumbled.
Sergio watched Philip walk across the yard, stop in front of the door to the barn and turn around.
“I didn’t mean to soil your… yard. I mean…”
Sergio shook his head and waved his hand. Philip quietly opened the door and went back to bed.
“THEO. QUIT IT!”
The words and screams pierced his sleep and pulled him out of the deep. Maria was wiping her cheek with the back of her sleeve and pulled a face. Susie sat with Theo telling him that he couldn’t go around licking his sister like that.
“But why not, mummy?” the boy said and looked at her, doe-eyed.
“Because you can’t go around licking girls, just can’t do that,” she said. “Okay?”
Philip blinked himself awake and sat up in the bed. Susie ignored him.
“I’ll go over and speak to Sergio and hear what we can do.”
The door to the house was open and Philip found the loo and sat down. A raw stench came from the hole under him and he wondered about the sanitation facilities in desolate places like these so he washed his hands thoroughly with the bar of soap that lay on the sink like a dried pear. He looked at himself in the cracked mirror, the image of his face cut in half.
Sergio was in the kitchen, smoking. In the diagonal line of daylight, the smoke danced in swirls and pirouettes.
Philip opened the door and the smoke was pulled apart by the air that came in with him. Sergio squinted at him and offered coffee from a pot on the table. Philip took a cup from the shelf, blew in it and turned it upside down before he poured the tar-black brew into it. With a pocket knife, Sergio cut thick slices of cured ham that he held with his thumb against the blade to deliver to his mouth. He chewed slowly, as if considering grave matters.
The door opened again and in with the sun came a girl in a breezy summer dress which fluttered like a kaleidoscope of butterflies around her light step. Sergio jerked upright and his smile moulded his face into a rubber mask of sorts.
“Buenos días, corazón,” he said and pulled out a chair for her.
The girl smiled coyly at Philip.
“Hello, who’re you?” she said.
“Very well,” Philip said. He wiped his hand and shook hers. “Sorry, I just washed my hands, they’re a bit wet.”
She laughed, a little sparkling breath of a laugh.
“Sorry, I asked: who are you?”
“Oh dear, I do apologise. I must’ve misheard you,” he said and blushed. “I’m Philip.”
“Julie. Nice to meet you. Just didn’t expect to see any others here.”
She sat down and the Sergio brought her breakfast: a hard-boiled egg, that rolled around on the clay plate, thick-crusted bread, slices of chorizo, a triangle of cheese that he cut out of a block for her with surprising delicacy. Sergio came and went with more things and asked her if everything was okay, if she wanted more cheese, more water, more coffee. His hands hovered over her, around her, close but never touching as if a magnetic field repelled his busy hands. She did not seem at all disturbed nor surprised by the man buzzing around her. She crossed her legs and bit into the bread as if there was nobody else in the room. After a while it seemed that it all became too much for Sergio, as if the whole escapade had drained him entirely and he left the room without further explanation.
“So what brings you to the middle of nowhere, Phillip?”
“My car broke down up in the mountains back there last night. No phone, no internet.”
“And then you found this place?”
“Well, Sergio here said he’d help us out.”
“He says a lot of things.”
She smiled to herself. Sun had bleached her hair golden and kissed the freckles on her nose. Her clear blue eyes felt almost piercing when they found Philip again.
“What did he say to you?” he heard himself asking.
She smiled again.
“All kinds of things. What he would do for me, if only I’d stay here for a bit longer. What he’d do to himself, if I I’m not going to stay here any more.”
Philip was about to ask what she was doing there in the first place, when Susie came in through the door. She paused and looked at Julie, then at Philip.
“Morning,” she said. “Wasn’t aware that there were other guests here. How do you do? I’m Susie.”
She turned around in her chair and Philip could not stop himself from watching her figure twist into new, intriguing shapes.
“I’m Julie,” she said and smiled.
“Nice to meet you,” Susie said. “I see you’ve already met my husband.”
“Yes.” She looked at Philip again. Those blue eyes.
They all fell quiet.
Philip broke the silence.
“I’ll go ask Sergio if we can get something to eat too.”
As they crossed the courtyard, Susie looked at him.
“Where’s your ring?”
She held up her hand and pointed at her wedding ring that shone matly in the sun. Around Philip’s ring finger was only a tan line.
“Oh fuck, I must’ve taken it off when I washed my hands.”
In the afternoon, Sergio got on his horse and rode up the mountain to look at the car. When he came back he shook his head and said the car was not going anywhere. He said that they were welcome to stay and later that evening a man would come in a truck to pick up some horses and they could probably get a ride to town.
They waited all day and the man never came. Sergio shrugged and said that that was the way around there.
At sunset, they sat down to eat a green lentil stew with olives and ham. Sergio opened a bottle of strong and spicy aguardiente that he poured with a smile. Everybody got a glass. Even the kids.
Sergio talked, in broken English and with big gestures, about the place, the history. His grandfather had built the house, stone by stone, and bought a strong stallion that he bred into strong horses. Sergio told them that they grazed up in the mountains and came down when he told them to come down. He talked about breeding horses. How to get the strongest semen, how best to impregnate the mares. How castrating a stallion is the cruellest thing a man could ever do to an animal.
Susie politely engaged in the conversation the best she could, while she threw nervous glances at the children. Maria tried her best to consume, spoonful after spoonful, the alien composition that had been placed in front of her while Theo had already forfeited any half-hearted attempt and was now playing around with the spoon.
Julie said little. She stirred the soup, ran her blonde hair behind her ears and with a delicate grip on the spoon, she raised it to her lips and sucked the stew into her mouth.
All of a sudden, she giggled loudly and dropped the spoon.
“What are you doing down there?” she said with a smile and stuck her head under the table. Theo laughed and said that he was tickling her.
Oh, you’re a little tickle monster are you? she said and reached down to tickle him. He shrieked and crawled under a chair out of her reach. She sat back up and pulled the chair in and smiled and they all laughed a little. Then she jerked again.
“Not again,” she said with a pantomime gesture and tried once again to catch Theo. Sergio found it very amusing and a deep laughter escaped from his gut.
“That’s enough, okay darling,” Susie said. “We’re eating now. Play time afterwards, okay?”
Theo came back to tickle Julie, but this time Julie was ready and almost caught him.
Susie stuck her head under the table.
“THEO! What did I just say?”
Philip came under the table as well. Julie’s legs slid out of that dress like poured honey.
“Theo, listen to your mother,” he said in what he thought was an appropriately stern voice. “Come out from under there.”
Theo looked up, a dark flame in his eyes and his lips a tight bloodless line on his face. Then he crawled out from under the table.
Together, Philip and Susie surfaced again like synchronised swimmers and smiled apologetically to the others at the table.
Julie just giggled and said that it was fine.
“He’s quite a little charmer isn’t he?” she said.
Susie agreed with that.
The man said that he would be a strong boy, a strong man, in this life. One with many things to do.
They were talking about horses again when Julie suddenly yelped and pushed her chair back. She held her leg up and Sergio’s eyes widened.
“He bit me!” she said and looked at Philip.
Philip dived under the table and grabbed Theo.
“WHAT DID I JUST SAY?” he shouted and pulled the boy out in the open, kicking and screaming. He put him upright and waved a finger in his face.
“WHAT DID I JUST TELL YOU THEO?”
Theo was crying and said nothing.
“YOU DON’T DO THAT THEO. YOU DON’T BITE WOMEN.”
With a swift, electric motion, Theo scratched his father’s nose and Philip felt his flat hand whip across the little boy’s face.
Theo looked at him, his emotions still trapped in the vacuum of surprise, his eyes deep and wet and then, inevitably, his face twisted into an obscure patchwork of lines and red colours and his mouth opened to let out a piercing cry. He stood frozen on the spot, his feet planted on the ground, until Susie swooped him up in her arms.
She mouthed a What the fuck? at Philip and shush-shushed Theo that hung limply in her bosom. She gently stroked the back of his head but his pain was bottomless and she walked out of the door and into the yard where dusk had called and the air was cool and the lamp’s white light fell on them serenely.
Sergio cared little for the crying boy. He was all consumed by the image of Julie who’d put her foot on a chair and was rubbing the little bite marks on her thigh.
“I do apologise,” Philip said.
Maria looked at him in a way he’d never seen his daughter look at him before.
“I didn’t mean to do that.”