Consuelo has always regarded herself as a fortunate woman. Just look at my life, she’d say, if anyone asked her. She’s spent her seventy years living in the same corner of the same Spanish city. Let other people roam the world, she thinks, if she catches a travel documentary on television. Let other people rush off to China or Africa and deal with danger and uncertainty. Is there anything wrong with being a person who thrives on routine and familiarity?
Nowadays she lives alone in the family apartment. The ceilings are plastered with elaborate patterns, and the windows look onto a museum courtyard full of palm trees and succulents. A mountain looms up at the end of her street, and at night she likes to gaze at the floodlit Moorish castle high upon its summit. Her home is ideally located for keeping her close to the pulse of other peoples’ lives; as passers-by walk along, conversations rise to her window: discussions about whether to buy shampoo, olives, mothers admonishing their children. Shall we have croquettes or octopus for dinner? For the most part she finds what she hears tedious.
Her late father’s umbrella is still in the stand in the hallway, and the mirror where her mother checked her hair is still the focal point of the entrance foyer. Consuelo appreciates the etching of a woman on the mirror and she’s glad to have the umbrella in case it should rain, which happens infrequently in this part of Spain, but although she thinks of her parents with fondness, she enjoys the fact that she’s free to do as she pleases.
Every morning she takes a lengthy wander along the promenade where doves sweep through the air between date palms. Sometimes she’ll stop at the market to buy fruit from Juan, who’s offhand with most customers but likes to make a fuss of her. Try these strawberries, they’re exceptionally sweet. Juan knew her parents, and although he must be twenty years her junior, takes an avuncular interest in her well-being. Consuelo can always read the same expression in his eyes; she’s a piece of clutter he’d like to see tidied away.
‘It doesn’t bother you to live on your own?’ he asked her once. ‘Why don’t you live with your cousin Pilar?’
‘What, that grumpy, penny-pinching old miser? I’d poison her paella within a week!’
Consuelo’s best friend is an Englishwoman who lives in the next building: desiccated, sun-shattered Marjorie with her reddened, peeling skin and eyes milking over into cataracts. Marjorie has spent most of her adult life in Spain and speaks reasonable Spanish. They met through Consuelo’s efforts to learn English. Together they sit by the beach or stroll along the esplanade to where white yachts glisten in the marina, amusing themselves with alternating flashes of comprehension and incomprehension, observing sun-starved Northern Europeans, children dressed in their weekend best, couples at every stage of life.
Half-consciously Consuelo rates the quality of the relationships she sees. That couple: in need of stimulation but contented overall. The couple there: the man bored to exasperation, his wife oblivious. As for those people! The wife’s full of knowledge and even more full of resentment: the husband’s clueless that his wife knows and despises him. The cheerful couples, whose steps are in harmony, their conversation easy, Consuelo watches with approbation, savouring the spectacle as if they were unicorns, although she’ll admit marital harmony is not that unusual. But when she sees couples like that one – not speaking a word in three hours, both staring glumly at the snapdragons – she’s filled with gratitude that her own engagement was never fulfilled.
Ramón became a notary. He’s long retired now. She catches a glimpse of him from time to time, coming out of a department store or restaurant, wearing one of his immaculate suits and a red wine stain on his upper lip. He never sees her. He’s been successful, due in no small part to his decision to jilt Consuelo in favour of a woman with more useful connections. She can barely remember what it was like to have her heart and groin aflame, but she does recall the agony he inflicted on her. How grateful she is never to have been afflicted by love again!
As for children and grandchildren… Marjorie’s experience of life has done nothing to lessen Consuelo’s prejudices. Sometimes Marjorie will bring out photos of her one-time husband, The Bastard alias Hijo De Puta, and her grandchild, Melody, who never says thank-you for presents, and Neil, her only son who lives on the other side of the world and has no time for Marjorie because she dislikes his vulgar, outspoken wife, Jodie The Tart. Consuelo has never understood why Marjorie refers to her archenemy as a cake, but how glad she is to have been spared the dilemmas of parenthood!
‘I’ve always been so lucky,’ she confides to Marjorie one day. ‘My good luck began in being born an only child.’
‘That was good luck?’ Marjorie asks dubiously. As the last surviving sister of five, she often declares how much she misses her siblings.
‘I was so lucky in never having to share attention or toys, never having to be a jealous sister, never having to set a good example or grow up in anyone’s shadow. And then, you see, Papa was a successful businessman, so we never went without anything, even in the difficult times. If I’m careful and live modestly, I’ll be able to survive on the money my parents left for the rest of my life.’
Marjorie snorts. They’ve known each other long enough to have a certain ambivalence about one another’s characters. ‘I’m sure you will, dear, since you never go anywhere or do anything! I can’t even persuade you to go on a day trip with me.’
Consuelo shrugs with a hint of apology. ‘I can’t help it – I love my city. Every paving stone, every fountain or statue is the location of a happy memory.’
‘But tell me honestly: don’t you ever feel lonely? Or afraid? Of death? Or dying? Keeling over when you’re on your own and pegging out on the cold stone floor? Because I certainly do.’
‘Keeling? Pegging?’ Consuelo echoes, but she’s only puzzled for a moment, because Marjorie’s meaning is clear in her eyes. ‘Afraid?’ Consuelo says blankly. ‘Hm… No.’
Most of the time she can’t relate to the worrisome preoccupations which weigh upon other people. If anything, she’s embarrassed by her own happiness. She goes to church sometimes, with others her age, but it wouldn’t do to reveal her true motivation for attending, which is simple sensual delight. The gleam of gold, the aromatic incense, most of all, the beautiful solemn countenance of the priest. Gazing around her at the fervent faces she can’t help feeling what luck it is that she’s free of the tyranny of fear. How wonderful to be able to enjoy every moment of her life without dread of judgement or long-term consequences, not to feel stood over by some cosmic presence. As for death… She doesn’t know why, and maybe there’s something wrong with her, but she doesn’t give a damn about death! Nothing would induce her to change places with any of the people around her!
‘I always regretted having to give up my job when I was married,’ Marjorie remarks another day, and Consuelo shifts a little in her seat and emits a subtle sigh. ‘It wasn’t even as if my husband was worth it.’ Marjorie’s faded blue eyes, which are focussed on the sea, cloud over.
Now it’s Consuelo’s turn to look doubtful. She never had a job beyond caring for her parents, but scenes of office life on television have convinced her she’s been better off far away from the workplace.
‘I’ve seen it all on television!’ she exclaims. ‘Stress! Demanding bosses! Competitive colleagues! Romantic intrigues and horrible fallings-out! I’m so glad to have been spared all that.’
‘You ought to take more interest in the world,’ Marjorie says, looking like a jaded eagle. ‘You live in a bubble. I suppose it’s an achievement, but I can’t say it’s one I admire. I’ve never managed not to be affected by external things.’
‘Well, work, no work – you’d feel the same either way. You’d worry even if there was nothing to worry about.’
‘Did you see that interesting documentary last night? The one about those shocking financial scandals, and the dreadful consequences for all of us?’
Consuelo looks shifty. How can she admit she spent the evening sprawled on her comfortable bed, watching Latin American soap operas, then devouring chocolate by candlelight whilst listening to Italian opera? She doesn’t care if she gets diabetes; she’s naturally scrawny and there’s a health centre across the road. How can she admit that that morning she sang and danced around her flat, listening to the songs of her neighbour’s birds from across the interior courtyard of the building, and tending her begonias, which bloom with fanatical abandon?
She’s privileged to have so much space to herself. She has a choice of three different bedrooms and moves from one to another so that no room ever ‘feels neglected’, whilst homeless people are sleeping in the plaza and camping in the woods around the mountain, people who peer into rubbish bins in search of food. How has this come about, she often wonders – why is she able to have a kitchen full of delicacies to choose from, and no obligation to share her crème caramel or jamón, when other people can’t manage to scrape together so much as a sandwich?
Even Consuelo with her inner equilibrium is not immune to currents of alteration, and Marjorie has poked at her conscience.
She’s eating lunch in a café one day, a roll containing delicious Manchego cheese, when she notices a well-dressed man lurking nearby, eyeing the remains of customers’ meals. She’s seen him before on street corners, clutching a file and trying to look as though he’s on his way to work, but she’s never been taken in, and has felt moved by the dignity of his attempted subterfuge.
Suddenly, as if there’s been a flip in her body chemistry, Consuelo makes a decision. It takes her by surprise even as she makes it. She has so much; why not share her good fortune? She orders a plato combinado of fish, fries and salad with an egg, a proper meal for a hungry man, pays her bill, and walks away. A short while later, peering around a corner, she’s pleased to see the man digging in with gusto.
In bed that night she enjoys reliving that moment and feels change swirl within her like a vortex. She wakes up consumed by a new idea: she’s attached to the memory of her parents, but not to their possessions. She gathers up their mothballed clothing, antique dolls, costume jewellery and a rolled-up carpet, and telephones a charity needing donations.
Two men arrive in a truck. One is young and friendly, a smiler in the background. The other plants himself in Consuelo’s hallway, eyes her with severity, and introduces himself as Paco Jiménez Sans. Consuelo is amused by his formality, but that feeling soon changes. Like most middle-aged men in the city, he’s dark and stocky, distinguished only by his protuberant eyes. There’s something menacing about the expression in those eyes. ‘You live here alone, Senora?’
Consuelo says yes, then regrets it when she sees his stony disapproval. She wonders whether he thinks it’s unsafe for her to live alone. Crime is something she seldom thinks about. Or ought she to use Marjorie-style sarcasm and show him the modest monthly allowance on her bank statement? I’m not a rich person who feeds on the misery of others. As much as he may appear to disdain Consuelo and whatever she represents to him, Paco and his assistant carry away the small mountain of objects, as well as a Chinese figurine and furniture from her storage room on the roof, and Paco utters a few terse words of thanks before they drive away.
A few days later, Consuelo gets a smile on her face as she passes the charity shop and sees her parents’ belongings arranged in the window.
The experience gives her such a good feeling that shortly before The Day Of The Kings, she buys a shirt for an elderly man whom she sees sitting in the sun every day. This purchase is followed by a box of eggs – at his request because he no longer has teeth – then socks, trousers, and eventually shoes, although Consuelo draws the line at buying men’s underwear.
Shortly after this she begins delivering a weekly food parcel to the couple who sit in front of the supermarket with a sign saying, ‘No food, no work. God bless you.’
Charitable acts become a kind of default. Sitting beneath a banyan tree with a newspaper one day, she notices a young, weeping woman surrounded by suitcases. Consuelo plants herself in front of the woman. ‘What’s your name, guapa?’
Visibly torn between wariness and respect for an elder, the woman answers, ‘Ana.’ A few minutes later, the whole story has poured out of her; she’s unemployed, newly evicted, abandoned by her boyfriend, and can’t afford the fare home to Asturias.
‘Do you have a family to return to?’ Consuelo asks. Ana nods. ‘Then go home before the wolves eat you.’ And Consuelo presses a wad of cash into Ana’s hand. She takes her to the railway station and watches as the train bears her away, and for nights afterwards, Ana’s tears of relief replay in Consuelo’s dreams like a happy rain.
A momentum builds up within Consuelo, something like a fever, something she can’t account for even to herself. It’s intoxicating. She can’t understand where it has come from, so out of the blue, or why she needs to feel it, but finding no explanations, she abandons herself to it. Perhaps this is a bit like being drunk or taking drugs, she thinks: she feels transported, out of control in a slightly frightening but mostly agreeable way. She half-admits to herself that the appeal might simply be the feeling of being needed. That month she spends so much on alms that by the end it’s a struggle to pay her electricity bill.
She’s sitting in a café with Marjorie one day when a man stops at their table.
‘Good day, Señora,’ Paco says, his tone softer than at their previous encounter. ‘I wanted to tell you we’re grateful for your donations. They sold very well.’ His ingratiating tone is at odds with his threatening eyes, but Consuelo believes his gratitude is genuine. ‘You’re gaining a reputation in this neighbourhood!’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Marjorie, who’s been staring at Paco in horror, digs her nails into Consuelo’s arm. ‘I think you do know, Señora,’ Paco says. ‘People are talking about your generosity, your compassion… Very soon, people will start calling you “The angel of the barrio”.’
‘Oh, really!’ Consuelo laughs. ‘What nonsense!’
‘You won’t forget about us, will you?’ He leans so close it seems he might kiss her, then abruptly leaves.
‘Have you lost your mind?’ Marjorie demands. ‘Consorting with a man like that?’
‘He’s not that bad,’ Consuelo says with rebellious airiness. ‘He’s just a man from a charity.’
‘A conman as well as a thug!’
‘It’s possible to be too prejudiced.’
‘Promise me you’ll have nothing to do with him!’
There’s no doubt that Marjorie’s warnings, even if not always perfectly understood, keep Consuelo somewhat in check, but generosity keeps oozing out of her at unexpected moments.
‘One day you’ll be taking off your dress and handing it to a stranger,’ Marjorie complains. ‘You’ll end up standing in the street starkers!’
‘What is “starkers”?’
‘Naked! Bare-arsed! Just don’t do it when I’m around, please. I haven’t the least desire to see your bits and pieces. Mark my words, they’ll be battering your door down if you keep this up!’
A year after Consuelo has launched her mission, Marjorie dies of a stroke. After the initial shock has worn off, Consuelo misses her companion and celebrates the friendship, but, as she admits to herself, there are advantages in not having someone to act as a human brake, to see the dark underside of every pebble and call your vocation foolish.
A few weeks after Marjorie’s demise, Paco waylays Consuelo on a street corner. ‘Señora, may I speak to you for a moment?’
‘Your friend didn’t like me. Now she’s gone we can speak freely. I’m going to say something to you that I’ve never said to anybody in my entire life.’
‘Oh…?’ Consuelo says, suddenly nervous.
‘You’re a good person, Señora. Your friend was not so good. She was an ordinary person, like all the others who think more about themselves than other people.’
‘Erm…’ Consuelo begins, wanting to be loyal, but she finds she doesn’t have the power to contradict him, especially when he’s pinning her down with that grave bulbous glare of his.
Another day, although Consuelo’s not sure how it’s come about, they end up lunching together, and after a glass of wine she allows him to suck her into his life story. She’s becoming accustomed to the perennial hint of anger in his voice, like distant thunder at the end of a mountain range. He delivers his tale in growling undertones, with his own peculiar mixture of entreaty and animosity. It’s the darkest thing anyone has ever told her. The cruelty and depravity inflicted upon him. An addiction and an infection he inflicted upon himself. He won’t tell her what he did to get himself sent to prison. He uses words Consuelo doesn’t understand. ‘Prison slang. You don’t want to know what those words mean.’
Whenever Consuelo is in Paco’s presence she feels as if he can see every hesitation, every flicker of ambivalence in her being. She feels the blood circulate around her aged body, quickening and flowing. Once it occurs to her to ask herself, ‘Am I attracted to him?’ But she doesn’t deal in sexual attraction. She last came close to it many years ago: a surprise kiss planted on her by a cousin’s friend, a widower, after a long family lunch in a restaurant. Rodrigo invited Consuelo out, but although he was attractive, Consuelo disliked the taste of fish and alcohol on his mouth.
She also asks herself whether Paco might be attracted to her, as ridiculous as that might seem. Glancing at his fingers resting on the table, she tries to picture them exploring the blur of a woman’s anatomy, but the vision refuses to form. Then she tries to imagine two hairy male hands groping their way towards one another, but once again the image eludes her. Instead, she sees his hand reaching out and connecting with… no-one at all.
His fascination for her grows: Paco has a twitch in his right eye, and long after they go their separate ways, it will continue to make something within her contract and expand. She asks him about it. He replies: ‘If you’d lived on the street for years and nobody gave a damn about you, if you always had to worry about being mugged by somebody even worse off than you, you’d have a few tics as well, Señora.’
One day, as they drink coffee together, the knowledge explodes within her that Paco has taken a life.
Paco laughs at her expression. ‘I apologise, Señora, if you’re shocked. Only you would be sitting here talking to me like this! I don’t live the way I used to anymore, but I am a dangerous man. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Yet you’ve turned yourself around, haven’t you? You feel regret.’
‘You think? Let me tell you a secret, Señora. I hate bad people. I hate good people. I hate everybody.’
‘I don’t believe you. You’re on your way to becoming a new, better person.’
‘Think that if you like. I’m always going to need the support of people like you.’
Consuelo has run out of items to donate, so that day she goes out to buy some.
Neighbours begin to suggest, only half-jokingly, that she may end up canonised, and a newspaper reporter turns up at her building. Consuelo grants him a bashful interview. A few days later she’s passing a magazine stand and is amazed to recognise a picture of herself. The headline jumps out at her: ‘The Angel of the Barrio’.
The article marks a turning point in her life: not only does she receive embarrassing bursts of attention from strangers, but the more she follows her vocation, the more precarious her finances become. One day she may lose her flat. But the truth is, her crusade has made her feel more alive than anything she has done in the preceding forty years. She can’t stop now.
One evening she hears knocking on her front door. Startled, for she receives few visitors, she hesitates to open it. The knocking grows more insistent. She can imagine what Marjorie would say: Don’t open the door, you silly woman! She peers through the peephole and sees a luminous eyeball.
Paco’s voice is harsh. ‘Open the door, will you? Let me in!’ Consuelo stays very still, hoping this will make her problem go away. ‘Señora! You’re not going to ignore me? You’re not going to let me down?’
‘No, no. Calm yourself.’ She pictures herself perched on a narrow path between a deep crevasse and a tumultuous sea. She has no idea what sort of dark forest it might lead her into. She tells herself that every situation in life has a positive aspect; the same will apply this time. And if it doesn’t, well, life ends for everyone sometime. She takes a deep breath and opens the door.
‘Here,’ Paco says, and puts down a large cardboard box. Inside it, Consuelo sees coffee, noodles, magdalenas, sunflower seed breadsticks, tins of sardines and stew, a bottle of olive oil. There is even a bunch of grapes. ‘You have no family to support you.’ The words burst out of him with such vehemence that Consuelo feels as if she’s being sprayed with pus. ‘I was going to come here and take everything you had left, Señora. And make you feel guilty for having it. As for this –’ He taps the box of groceries with his foot. ‘I was going to steal it.’
‘You can still take it,’ Consuelo says gently. ‘I won’t tell anybody.’
Paco shakes his head. ‘I used to enjoy robbing and cheating people,’ he says, his eyes poisonous. ‘Until you interfered. I’m not myself anymore! I don’t know what to do with myself! I lie awake at night worrying about the things I’ve done and whether God will forgive me, and it’s all your fault, Señora!’ He points a grubby forefinger at her. ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it to me! I love you like my mother or my aunt, and I will until the day you die! And I hate you like the dogshit under my shoe! Now every time I want to do something, I can hear your nagging old witch’s whine in my head. You’ve ruined my life!’ A long string of expletives follows. Consuelo feels as if he’s aiming a blowtorch at her. ‘I hate you, you stupid old bitch, your skinny body, your bumpy knees… That stupid gap in your teeth…! And your stringy hair! Mother of God, why don’t you go to the hairdresser? A woman of your age ought to look elegant and dignified!’
Consuelo’s eyes fill with tears. She manages to choke out, ‘Thank you, but this food should go to somebody who’s poor.’
‘Well, I’ve got news for you, Señora! That’s you, now! What else do you expect when you keep giving everything away?’ He stands there, swaying slightly. Then he pulls himself together with a jerk. ‘Stay out of my way or you’ll get what’s coming to you. Do you understand me? I know myself well. I look at you and I can feel a knife in my hand! I can feel it entering your flesh!’ With that, he stumbles away down the stairwell.
Every few days Consuelo finds them, little tributes left on the landing outside her flat: roses, a loaf of bread, a blanket. She ought to worry that he finds his way into her building undetected by the neighbours, but she doesn’t dwell on the fact. He leaves enough food to keep her going; she doesn’t need much because her appetite for anything except chocolate is declining.
Sometimes he leaves her clothing. He’s surprisingly good at guessing her size. One day she finds a length of material and turns it into a skirt. She parades it around on the seafront on a Sunday afternoon, and senses Paco’s approval as she does so.
Every month there’s an envelope marked ‘Hairdressing money’, and sometimes a note: ‘Your coiffure is looking good now! I told you Carmen’s a better hairdresser than Maite!’ Or, ‘Don’t walk along Calle de San Andrés on your own after dark. It’s dangerous!’ or: ‘Don’t go to the butcher on the boulevard. Know anybody whose cat or dog is missing?’
At Christmas a box of pastries lands on her doorstep, the kind which remind her of celebrations with her parents, along with a gentle reprimand: ‘Eat these for a change. You buy far too much chocolate!’
Occasionally, she’ll feel his eyes observing her, although she never sees him directly. She doesn’t even know how he accomplishes this feat, which seems otherworldly to her. She just knows that as long as Paco’s around, she’ll never die of starvation or exposure, never feature in a news story about old people left to fester in their flats. She knows this as surely as she knows the jacaranda trees will sprout purple-blue blossoms in the spring. As long as Paco’s around, he’ll keep a watchful eye on her. And Paco is always around.