Walls have ears
By Parson Thru
“What have you been saying about us, old man?”
Javier put down his drink and turned towards the voice, feeling himself immediately hemmed against the counter by the three large men. They were much younger than he, but had themselves lost their youth. They all wore similar leather jackets over broad well-fed bodies, which gave them a particular look, and they smelled of what seemed to Javier to be cheap after-shave. In fact, it was expensive cologne bought in the city. To Javier, its proximity was overpowering.
He acknowledged them - being sure to catch each man's eye. "Buenos dias, amigos. Is there a problem?"
“You speak too loudly, viejo. And of matters that do not concern you – of things that are the preserve of your betters.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Why do you threaten an old man like this?”
“We are not threatening you. We just want to know who you have been talking to – where you get your wild ideas.”
“What am I supposed to have said? You should know better than to treat me this way. Everyone is watching.”
The three men looked around them. The barista was drying glasses a few feet away, seemingly unaware of the conversation behind him. The two men playing backgammon out in the morning sun were engrossed, and the lady lately seated by one of the cafe's whitewashed walls had left El Pais behind for someone else to read.
“Walls have ears, old man, and they have been listening to you. These walls are old and have been supporting this town for a very long time. And they have been offended by what they have heard.”
“What am I supposed to have said?”
“You have been disloyal.”
One of the men took a tooth-pick and began to pick away at a particle that was annoying him. Another pulled up a stool and drew himself close to Javier. The barista continued to dry glasses. Each glass had now been dried several times. The third man picked up El Pais from the table and began to leaf through it.
“So who have you been talking to, old man?”
Javier knew precisely the conversation they were referring to. It had occurred two nights ago in this café. He was probably a few glasses the worse for wear and Paco's latest news had been the spark. He had been ready to explode for months and Paco ignited him.
Javier was born and bred in the town, though he had spent many years at sea and now saw the place through the eyes of an outsider. He felt that the people were held back – crippled by small-town vested interests - and that bothered him. He saw no future for youngsters, just as it had been for his generation decades ago. The cabal that had controlled the town then still held sway. The cabal and the Church. They were one and the same.
“Give us a name.”
The breath of the man nearest was particularly bad. When he spoke, Javier felt sick.
“You didn’t dream all this up yourself. Who told you these things?”
Alfonso walked in through the door with his wife’s small ornamental dog on its ridiculous pink leash.
“Hola! Buenos dias!”
He made it half way to the counter before recognising the three men around Javier. He quietly turned around and walked back out into the street. Today they could socialise in the park.
Javier was feeling uncomfortable. He took off his hat and fanned himself. Outside, the basilica bells began to ring from the tower in the far corner of the plaza. It was mid-day. He began to feel confined.
“Gentlemen, I am sorry, but have to leave.”
The man who had been reading El Pais took one step over and blocked Javier’s exit from the counter.
“Just tell us who you have been speaking to.” said the man with the tooth-pick.
“This is the town of your birth – of your ancestors. Why do you say such bad things about us, viejo? How have we offended you?”
“I already told you. I don't know. Perhaps I had a few drinks. Whatever it is I'm supposed to have said, I don't remember. Por favor, I need to leave.”
The three stared implacably at Javier. They seemed to have all the time in the world. And, in fact, they had. Their influence was a constant in the lives of the inhabitants of the town and was, indeed, as old as its walls.
“We are watching you, Javier. We know your friends. We know where you hang out. We know more about you than Carlos does. Tread carefully, amigo. Be careful who you speak to and what you say. Maybe you should drink a little less. It is bad for your health.”
The man on the stool stood up and moved to one side in a graceful and elegant gesture.
Javier realised that he had been gripping the bar. He released himself and edged sideways out through the gap.
Quietly, he was pleased with himself that he had not given anything away and had compromised neither his friend nor his principles. His manner remained deferential. He'd experienced worse in the ports, but this was his home-town – at once the safest and most dangerous of settings. He and the men were quite probably related. He knew each by name.
He knew he'd been given a warning.
As he reached the door, Javier turned around and nodded a farewell to the three.
He placed his hat back on top of his unkempt grey hair. “''Luego! Raul.” he called to the barista, but Raul continued to quietly dry the glasses.