The hatch opened with an ominous creak. Cautiously, I pushed my head through and waited whilst my eyes adjusted to the gloom. Generally, I had no reason to go into the attic. I rarely needed or even thought about any of the objects that had accumulated over the years.
“Come on Auntie Jess! Let me up!”
Shaken from my thoughts, I clambered up the rest of the ladder and stepped to one side to allow my nephew free access.
“Now, what is it we are looking for Charlie?” I said, teasing him a little.
“You know!” he responded, indignantly, for our hunt was the only reason we were up there. “Jack’s scalectrix.”
“I’m not really very sure where it might be,” I offered lamely but already Charlie, with a child’s nose for treasure, was sniffing out items long lost to history.
I heard a zip being unfastened and suddenly Charlie had an old, shabby looking guitar in his hand.
“Cool!” he said. “Was this Jack’s?”
“No,” I replied wistfully. “That belonged to someone that I knew a long time ago. He’s dead now.”
Charlie, losing interest in the instrument placed it respectfully back in its case. As he continued to rummage, I settled down on a packing case to watch and gingerly allowed myself to visualise that night, testing my response as I delved deeper into my memories. I hadn’t thought about the guitar for years. Of course, I hadn’t really known its owner. I hadn’t known him at all.
The sun went down many hours ago but the air is still sultry. I feel completely at my ease and my brown, bare shoulders hold no tension. I sip slowly at my wine and watch the people around me over the rim of my glass. The bar is full, mainly locals and, at this late hour mainly men, the womenfolk having been escorted home to bed. Any who remain are either foreigners, quietly soaking up the atmosphere or those who are there as part of what is to come. Either way, they are ignored. The bar is a male domain.
The voices around me are raised but not in anger. My rudimentary Spanish would allow me to follow the conversation but I choose not to focus on translation and instead lose myself in the unfamiliar cadences and tones. The men speak with such passion that they could be discussing a matter of life or death. In fact it is probably football that occupies them.
Time passes and then, as the clock in the square chimes one, a new figure comes in through the open doors. He has the gait of a man who knows no urgency. He is taller than the other Spaniards, his raven hair tousled and falling in front of his eyes. He wears a long black coat though the night is warm and carries a dark case strung casually across his back. As he approaches, someone calls out to him and he lifts his hand in recognition, cigarette dangling between yellowing fingers, but he doesn’t reply.
I am fascinated by him. The others in the bar, though just as animated as before, now hold no interest for me. My eyes are drawn to him and seem quite powerless to look away. He sits at a table near the edge of the room and, unbidden, a young boy brings him a beer. He nods his thanks and takes a long drink before placing the glass back on the table. Then he opens the case and takes out a guitar. The light is too dim to make out much detail but I can see that the instrument is battered, the lacquer on its edges chipped, the red strap frayed. He hugs the guitar to him, resting his foot on a stool and begins to tune it, paying no heed to the cacophony around him.
Another noise forces its way into my consciousness and I look away from him to see tables and chairs being scraped across the tiled floor and stacked in a precarious looking pile to one side. And then suddenly, the room is silent. As I move my head quickly, trying to discern what is behind this sudden change in mood, I hear a crack somewhere distant and then another, louder and louder, until the insistent beat of the castanets cannot be ignored. And then another sound: the clicking of heels on marble. I turn to see where the noise is coming from and there, in the centre of the newly created space, is a woman.
She is magnificent. Her dress, red with white polka dots, is long to the floor and cinched in at the waist by a wide, black belt. Red lace cascades around her long, elegant neck, across her shoulders and down her sinewy arms. Her hair, inky black and shining as if wet, is held back from her face by a red silk rose that quivers as her feet tap. Her eyes, dark and deep set have an intensity about them that I find almost threatening. I want to look away, cast my own eyes down into safety but she draws me in like a sorceress. There is no hint of a smile across her ruby lips. I search her face, trying to identify her expression. Sadness? Indignation? Anger?
And then the guitar is playing, gently, quietly, its soulful notes resonating around the room. The dancer begins to turn on the spot, slowly at first, her arms above her head twisting like snakes, her feet tapping, persistent, unrelenting. Those in the crowd begin to clap, rhythmically but with a pace that is slowly increasing, taking their lead from the guitar.
And now she is dancing, no longer the delicate pirouetting from before but with a passion and excitement that makes it feel almost voyeuristic to watch. But I have to watch, so mesmerized am I by the power of her movement.
The music is devouring everything around me and I feel my heart thumping with the pounding beat. The room is pulsing as the blood races through the veins of those who watch. All hands are clapping. All eyes are on the dancer. But the dancer’s eyes are focussed intently on the guitar player. As she spins, her hips twisting and writhing, her head whips round so that her gaze never leaves his face. I look towards him and see that, whilst his fingers fly across the strings, his dark eyes burn into her and the red of her dress is reflected in them. I feel like I am intruding on some private passion, which, although being played out now in a room full of people, will be revisited on dark satin sheets later.
Suddenly, I am aware of a movement to my left. A man in white is pushing through the crowd and towards the guitar player. I catch sight of the glint of the blade only as it slides effortlessly into his chest. The guitar player looks up at the man and in that look I see astonishment and then understanding and a plea for forgiveness before he slumps, silently over the guitar.
The dancer leaps towards her lover uttering a scream that hardly sounds human. At once my blood turns from fire to ice in my veins. Gradually, the crowd begins to understand what has happened. The clapping stops and is replaced by shouting and the breaking of glass as tables are moved to make space for the body, for he is clearly dead already.
I sit there undisturbed and watching as a makeshift stretcher carries the musician out into the square. The dancer is weeping and trying to wipe the blood from his handsome face with the lace of her beautiful dress. Everyone seems to be outside, shouting and wailing. The man in white is being restrained by two others but shows no inclination to flee. He looks shocked, pale, horrified by what he has done. Inside I am quite alone. I walk to the table where the musician had been sitting and carefully pick up the guitar which has been forgotten in the horror of the murder. His blood is on it, cold now and congealed like day-old gravy. I wipe it away with a white napkin and see that it is still rosebud red. I place the guitar tenderly back in its case and close the zip. I am sure the rasping noise will alert someone to my presence but no one comes. Who wants to be bothered with an English woman when one of life’s great dramas is unfolding in the street? Who will nurture and love the guitar now? It mustn’t lie here forgotten. I pick the case up, place it carefully over my shoulder and leave.
My recollection of that night is still vivid, as bright in my mind’s eye as the blood that was shed. I returned home with the guitar fully intending to take lessons, to try to do justice to its provenance. But life got in the way and the guitar remained locked away in its case. Over time it became buried deeper in the mountain of memories that I subsequently built around it.
Charlie spoke and spell was broken. He had uncovered the sought after toy and was ready to leave. I closed the hatch and left my memories zipped up with the once treasured guitar where I felt they were safest.