The old man blinked. The only sign that he was conscious or even alive. Otherwise, in the full heat of the day, he was motionless, like a lizard on a rock, his skin the same knobbed and gnarled texture, and as dark as a dried tobacco leaf.
That was Enrico, his son-in-law, somewhere to his left. Priding himself on catching the sound of the engine before anyone else, peering up the road to get the first glimpse. As eager as ever to grasp the dollars from the hands of the gaping tourists, although elderly himself now, with a heart that raced and skipped and even sometimes stopped for seconds at a time. At such moments, Enrico would tum grey, death brushing his face with her soft lips. Time, the old man thought without emotion, for his son-in-law to prepare himself to meet his ancestors, instead of greedily continuing to heap up worldly goods.
‘Get up!’ Enrico was urging, but the old man only sat still and blinked.
‘It’s you they’ve come to see. Don’t disappoint them.’
Slowly, slowly the old man pushed himself to his skinny legs. Enrico thrust the two sticks into his hands and the old man started his perilous wander down the street. This walk he’d had to do several times a day for forty years, near enough, ever since the tourists started coming. Forty years ago, and he was an old man even then, or at least, that’s how he was known.
He kept blurry eyes fixed to the ground, muttering a prayer to the orisha that he would not fall. He could still just about see enough not to stray off the path and anyway he knew that Enrico was behind him, ready to put him straight if necessary. And now he could hear the bus himself, its low growl as it crept down the hill into the village.
Miguel from his spot behind the bar heard the bus, too. He looked back into the darkness where five shadows were lolling in the comparative cool, took a deep breath and called out, ‘Music!’ The shadows stretched long limbs lazily. Then, as if indifferent, moved slowly over to their instruments: guitar, mandolin, claves, drums, maracas.
Meanwhile Miguel was busy. The thirty or so glasses lined up in front of him already contained sprigs of mint that he had pounded with sugar for the mojitos. He dropped three or four ice cubes into each glass, passing along the rows with a practiced speed. Next he upended the bottle of white rum and put a small measure in each glass. Then the lime juice. Finally, just as the first tourists came through the door, he filled each glass to the brim with soda water.
‘Welcome,’ he smiled warmly, to the accompaniment of a popular tune. But then he saw that these were elderly Germans, which was bad news. They weren’t known to be generous tippers and often left the musicians complaining. Once there had even been a nasty scene when a tourist tried to take back his money and he’d had to intervene. Miguel sighed. Life could be hard. Through the window he was at least relieved to see the old man shuffling along on cue. Such an old man, but still with a certain dignity. Which was more, Miguel thought, than could be said for the clown stumbling behind him.
The tourists were sipping their drinks and exclaiming at the photographs of fishermen on the walls of the bar and at the life-size bronze head of the great writer on its plinth and at the huge stuffed marlin in its case, which legend (and only legend) had it that the great writer himself had caught. But Miguel could see that they were puzzled. Why had they been brought here? They had thought there would be more. Even the drink, supposedly one of the great writer’s favourites, was a disappointment to them and was laid aside by many.
Miguel judged his moment, pointing out the door.
‘That’s the old man from the photograph there with the great writer,’ he said. ‘The one he wrote about in the famous story.’
They all turned to look and of course the old man was summoned into the bar and made to sit down on a seat where they could stare at him, so very old he was. Enrico bustled about as usual, unashamedly collecting money from the tourists. When he had stuffed enough into his pockets, he would call on the old man to speak. Miguel had observed this circus often enough. It was the same as ever.
Or not quite the same. Even after Enrico had given the signal, the old man sat still and silent, as if in a trance.
‘How old is he, anyway?’ one woman asked. She was thin, with skin as white and crisp as paper. In her seventies, her lips tight and lined as if they had been sewn together and only recently cut aparte·
‘More than one hundred years, maybe already one hundred and three,’ replied Miguel. And the tourists oohed at the dinosaur and started popping their cameras.
A thick-necked bald man, bursting purple as an overripe plum, was glaring down into the old man’s face. ‘What was he like then, the writer?’ As if he cared. Miguel doubted whether he or any of them had read a word of any of the books.
The old man stayed silent and gradually the questions trailed off. Everyone watched him, Enrico with concern. He’d have to give the money back if there was no performance.
But finally the old man started to speak, his voice low and harsh. Miguel translated the story. How the writer used to moor his boat in the village, at the pier they could see for themselves if they cared to take just a short walk. How the old man himself, much younger then, had frequently gone fishing with the writer. How his own solitary battle with the sea one unforgettable day and night had given the great writer the inspiration for a prize-winning story.
‘He was a great man, a good man,’ the old man chanted. ‘I will never forget his goodness to me. Even in the dark days, he never let me or mine go hungry.’
And Miguel saw how Enrico grinned as his fat fingers closed over the wad of dollar bills in his pocket.
The old man had been feeling strange all day. It was as if the words he uttered came from a place beside him and not from his own mouth. He knew the lines well enough-he had been reciting the same ones all these years-and could think of other things even as he spoke. Of Josefa, his long-dead wife, with her flat face and flat body, like a tortilla. Of his four children, all dead now too. Of the wide flat waters, glistening turquoise in the hard tropical sun, that could change in a moment into churning swells under riven black clouds. As they had on that day when the great writer had clung to the mast of the boat screaming, ‘I can’t die yet. Save me. I’m a genius.’ That was the day the old man had muttered promises to the gods of the sea and of the storm until they relented and let them sail home. No one more surprised than he to learn later how the writer had turned the episode into a famous story, writing his own inglorious part out of it.
By now the old man had finished his recitation and was answering a few questions-always the same questions-even though Enrico told the tourists that he was tired and should be left in peace. Gradually, their curiosity sated, most of them moved off, some to listen to the music, some to have another mojito, some to wander down to see where the writer’s boat had once been moored. There was nothing else in the village to keep them and they would soon be gone, like all the others. Blown in and blown out again, torn-up scraps of paper. But slowly the old man basking on his rock of stillness became aware that another old, old man was sitting beside him, smoking a cigar and watching him.
‘What you said, that’s all balls,’ the German muttered in coarse Spanish. ‘I met him, too. He was a shit.’
The old man grinned, a crocodile smile.
‘Buy me a drink,’ he said. ‘But don’t let on who it’s for.’
‘One of these?’ The German indicated his barelysipped mojito.
‘No,’ the old man grimaced. ‘That’s a woman’s drink.
Reserva and ice.’
The German crossed to the bar and placed his order.
Miguel glanced sharply at the old man, who, however, was staring into space. The barman shrugged. It was a sale. What did it matter to him who drank it? With any luck he’d soon be gone from this god-forsaken place, like these visitors, never to return. He served the two drinks, rich amber liquid flowing over ice in longstemmed glasses. Enrico, talking animatedly to a group of tourists-trying to hit them for a few more dollars no doubt-was too busy to notice a thing.
As soon as the German returned to the table, the old man grabbed his glass by the stem and swallowed its contents in a single gulp. He flicked a pale tongue over dry lips.
‘Yes, mein Herr, you are absolutely right. He was a shit.’
The old man felt exhilarated as the forbidden alcohol charged through his veins. Another drink appeared in front of his blurry eyes. The German had pushed his own glass across to him.
‘I’m not allowed,’ the old man said, as he gulped it down. Then he started to talk again.
He stayed in the bar after the tourists left. The music had stopped and the singers had flopped back into the cavernous dark, smoking cheap cigarillos and counting their takings-not bad after all for half an hour’s work. Miguel stood rinsing out the glasses.The old man still felt invigorated. He could see! He could hear! After the two drinks, everything suddenly had become sharper: sound and sight and taste. He could for example make out every detail of a stocky man sat slumped at the bar, a sea-green shirt stretched taut across the muscles of a wide back, a grizzle of grey hair.
And if he could see and hear, then perhaps he could also remember? For someone who was making a living off his memories, he didn’t after all recall very much. The fiction had blurred into the reality, just as tourists thought the story the great writer had written was about him, the old man, and not just a sum of inky markings on a page. The tale he told every day on cue might be true and it mightn’t. He couldn’t say any more than that. Or else he’d told it so often that it had become the truth. Until the moment when another old man came along and ripped the pretty fabrication apart with a word and then gave him dark rum so that he also could see and hear clearly.
The writer was indeed a shit. The old man knew that much, at least. Perhaps a great shit. Maybe the greatest the old man had ever met, even including Enrico. One minute he’d insult your mother, the next he’d want to kiss you. Then you’d say something and he’d swing a punch. Not that he’d ever connected with the old man. He needed the old man and knew it. He’d wept on his shoulder many a time, and not just after swallowing a skinful of rum. But even if he claimed you were his best friend, it made no difference. He’d still sleep with your flat-bodied wife, your three lovely daughters, maybe even your curly-haired son. And think nothing of it. He was a genius, right? A genius could do anything. Make love to anyone. Kill anything, kill anyone. Even kill himself. What a shit!
One more drink would make all the difference, but the old man was sure Miguel wouldn’t give it to him. After all, wasn’t he the goose that laid the golden eggs around these parts, even if he got precious little benefit for it. Enrico claimed that he was putting the money away safe for harder times, but the old man knew Enrico had got himself another woman and even a new child, since his first wife, the old man’s daughter, had died. Did the fool think he was too deaf and blind to know that much? That no one would say anything to him? Enrico was tight-fisted and gave the old man little more than his dinner, mixed beans and rice-Moors and Christians-and fried pork with plaintain on Sundays. For a quiet life, the old man said nothing. But it wasn’t good enough.The old man couldn’t even get a drink when he wanted one. Never mind a cigarette. Then there was that long walk, long for him at least, back up the village street to his tiny house. He wouldn’t attempt it yet. Not yet. Maybe in a moment he’d even get up and go to the bar and ask Miguel face to face for a glass of rum. On account. Dare Miguel to refuse him.
The old man sat for a long time. Then his eyes closed where he sat and, ah, he could feel again the battle with the sea, ah, the great waves lashing over him, the blinding whip of salt water across his eyes, the bitter taste in his mouth, the water pouring into him and the man shouting, ‘Save me, I’m a genius!’ He felt again how with a huge effort of will he’d coughed out the waves of water and how he’d risen up as big as the mast of the boat itself and bargained with the god of the sea for the life of the man. He remembered how the god had said, ‘If I save him, you will never die.’ And he’d agreed, because after all, it’s a great thing for a young man to live for ever. But now he knew the bitter edge of the bargain, how cruel it is for an old man never to hope for the release of death.
He suddenly opened his eyes wide and the blurry veil was ripped apart. So that when the stocky man slumped over the bar turned at last to look at him, the old man recognised who it was had come back, beard crusty with vomit, eyes red with despair, raising the gun to his mouth and shooting himself, again and again. And the old man knew at last what kind of a bargain he’d struck and with whom.