Ask someone Spanish to translate it into English, and they become tongue-tied. In a fat enough dictionary, they'll tell you it can mean Goblin or Sprite. If so, the only duende in the bar was the owner. A Sevillano? No, not on the other side of the Big River. A Trianero. The man was a wizened little creature whose chip on the shoulder had grown into a hump. It was 11 in the evening: early for the bars and clubs along the Calle Betis. I had liked the look of the bar's owner the minute I saw him. The way he spat into the spitoon just as I passed him on the terrace made me want to stay.
The tourist traps further up on Betis had not appealed. The digitised Flamenco coming from the docked mp-3 players was distorted by the PA systems until you couldn't tell the feedback from the doleful wails of the singers. Despite this, the music seemed flattened by the process, as though turning Flamenco into zeros and ones had drained it of 'El Duende'.
In the Hobgoblin's bar, there was no music at all. Just a woman of an age with the owner sharing a table with a much younger man who was picking idly at a guitar; an occasional arpeggiated dischord that even the most dedicated jazz fan couldn't claim as music. The room wasn't full by any means. Maybe half the tables were occupied. There was no-one even as young as I, apart from the gitarrista. I took a straight-backed wooden chair facing into the bar, enjoying the comfort of a stained wall behind me. No-one spoke. Everyone but me had a drink. There were occasional whispers and several people went outside to smoke on the pavement. In the darkest corner I spotted the olive green uniform of a Guardia Civil, which accounted for the slavish obedience to the letter
of the law. The policeman seemed unconcerned about the haloes of recently exhaled smoke around the dim lights. There were candles on a few of the tables, offering feeble help to the dull bulbs overhead. The Guardia shoved back his bar-stool and strode out, catching the eye of no-one at all on his way to the night outside. As he cleared the threshold the flames in the candles guttered and flared and one or two backs stiffened while some customers breathed in.
El Duende. Spirit? Maybe. Afro-Americans once upon a time might have called it Soul. Whatever, it had entered the room and we noticed when the guitar player strummed a loud and extravagant chord. Before it had faded, the woman stood. I'd like to say she was transformed, but she was not. She remained a woman nearing sixty who had endured hardship. A woman fighting age with rouge and lipstick. Nevertheless, her back was straighter than I had expected.
She began with a howl of impotence and rage, stamping her feet as though every man who had let her down was supine on the splintered floorboards of the bar. The song lasted two minutes or twenty. There were yips and cheers of appreciation from the bar's customers. I saw a red-light in the owner's eyes. Stray tufts of hair threw shadows like horns on the wall behind him.
The song finished, the woman sat down. People began speaking, one or two even caught my eye and nodded. The owner finally came over and poured me a drink. I finished it in one. It was time to leave, El Duende was on its way to another bar, and so was I.
Footnote: El Duende