Canny Connie and the Piano - 1972, El Puerto de Santa Maria

Connie, the headmistress of the bilingual school where I teach is a canny businesswoman. When you first enter the school you see large framed posters of Oxford and Cambridge universities on the wall. They give the impression that she has graduated from one of these establishments.  The oh, so wealthy Terrys and Osbornes who send their children to her school are quite impressed by the headmistress being a a posh English person with a fancy university degree. If only they knew!

Connie doesn't have even an O level to her name. On top of that, she's not English. She's Welsh.

Connie is absolutely brilliant at getting whatever she wants at a reduced price, or even for free.

"It would be so lovely to have a piano.  I wonder how expensive it would be to buy one?" She announces one day with a wistful smile. "We could offer piano lessons to the students. The parents would jump at the chance."  Her eyes are twinkling as she calculates how much money she can make if she offers piano lessons.

Say what you want about Connie, she is indeed a canny business woman who works hard and whose one wish is for her school to develop and flourish. Therefore it is no surprise that things somehow tend to work out for her. It's as if the Gods themselves are working in aiding and abetting her.

You see, a group of Americans stops by. The leader is a stout man with a huge belly and huge teeth. He fumbles with his tie, playing with the knot, as he speaks.

"Maam.  We are a close-knit  group of Christians who want to meet and worship the Lord. We're in need of a place to hold our meetings."

"Oh?" Connie smiles, her eyes looking up at the ceiling as if thanking the Lord for bringing these Americans to her humble establishment.

"Could we use one of your rooms for our meetings? Please? We'd pay you of course."

Connie is now beaming. This is wonderful!

"It'd just be twice a week that we'd meet, in the evening. Would that be okay?"

"Absolutely." Connie can hardly believe her luck. Out of the blue she's going to be bringing in more money in the way of rent.

"One thing. I hope it's not a problem. But, we have a piano. We'd need to leave it in the room. We use it when we sing, when we praise the Lord."

Connie says nothing. I think I actually hear her brain plotting quickly what her next move will be.

"Not a problem at all. Not at all." Connie grins back before adding very sweetly, "There would, of course, be a tiny extra charge for storing your piano."

"Of course. Praise the Lord. Maam, you have made us all very happy and grateful." He turns to the rest of his group and hugs them.

Connie's eyes sparkle as she gets ready to use her trump card.

"Would it be all right if we play the piano from time to time?" she inquires in her best and poshest English accent.

"Feel free! We're just so happy and thrilled that you're allowing us the use of a room for our meetings!  Praise the Lord!"

I feel like muttering, "Amen!"

Connie has got her way again. Who would have thought that in a matter of minutes she's got herself the use of a piano? Not only that, she doesn't have to pay a penny for it, and, in addition, she's charging rent for the piano?! And, don't forget the money she'll bring in from the piano lessons!

The San Ferminer Gentleman, Pamplona, 1973

"You wanna go to Pamplona?"
"I'm meeting up with some Australian friends there." It was 1973 and I was hoping to somehow make it to Pamplona to see the Running of the Bulls. The American boy stationed at the Naval Base in Rota was a friend of a friend, someone I really didn't know very well. He was going to be driving to Pamplona as part of some grand tour of Spain and France he had planned.
"I can give you a lift." That poor guy with the big grin probably never thought that he'd come to regret his generous offer.
"I'll stay with my friends. They're camping. And they'll bring me back to Cadiz."
"Great! After Pamplona, I'm going over the border to France."
Sounded like a plan!
When the American boy and I arrived in Pamplona people were sleeping on the streets, the bars were full and there was a general air of party time gone wild. We climbed over people and looked for the places that became so famous because Ernest Hemingway had hung out there. Obligatory touristy thing accomplished, we started looking for the Australians. Yes, where were they? I had been assured they'd be downtown at the bars, or on the outskirts of Pamplona where there Winnabago would be camped. How to find them? We drove everywhere looking for them. Guess what? They were nowhere to be seen! Where was I to stay? How would I get back down to Andalucia?
"Gee. What a bummer. But don't worry, you can come with me to France."
What a nice, pleasant and generous person he was. Slight problem was I didn't have much at all in the way of money. Nor, did I have my passport with me.
"I can't leave you stranded in Pamplona."
I must have looked awfully pathetic, for he added, "I don't have to go to France. It'll be there for along time, anyway. Why don't I just hang around Pamplona with you? We can always sleep in my car if need be."
Gosh, what a noble gesture!
"I'll still see the sights of Spain. We can go back a different route." He smiled broadly.
Okay. What the heck? Even although I hardly knew this American boy, he did seem polite and quite unassuming. One might even have described him as a gentleman.
Now, gentlemen do lie. And words are cheap. That's what I had always heard. But still.
That night, we were dancing on the streets with all the crazy people who were boozing it up and singing away as if this was their last day on earth. All the hotels were fully booked, so we just knew that we'd be sleeping in his car, or on the street. No rush, the night was still young. We kept dancing along one street and then another. People were hugging us, complete strangers were grabbing our arms and walked with us, laughing hysterically.
The American boy called out to me, "I'm gonna run with the bulls!"  He didn't seem the type who would run with bulls. In fact, he didn't seem the type who did any running at all, chubby as he was. "Did you hear me? I'm gonna run with the bulls!"
"Really? It's dangerous!  And, you don't have the red hat and scarf thing, do you?"
"I'll figure it out!." He cackled loudly like a dog about to throw up or someone who had accidently got beer up their nose. Come to think on it, he wasn't just a chubby fellow, he was also quite ungainly and very clumsy. Whilst calling out about how he'd run with the bulls he stepped off the narrow pavement, tripped over someone's feet and fell down with a thud. His lovely grin was no longer visible as he writhed in pain,
"Ouch! Oh! The pain! It's awful! It's like childbirth!"
Well, really. A slight exaggeration to say the least.
"Are you okay? For heaven's sake, what happened?" It's so obvious what happened, but I asked anyway. He looked like a such poor soul lying there on the street in Pamplona. And if it hadn't been for me he wouldn't have been dancing and falling.
"My ankle hurts! Ohhh!"  He managed to stand and then hopped over to the pavement where he plonked down. "Ohhh, my ankle!  My ankle. It really hurts! I don't think I can walk!"
Well, all those new-found friends we had just met disappeared down the road all the while skipping and dancing. They probably didn't even know that we were lagging behind, so intent were they on making merriment. I suddenly got a headache. All this Pamplona stuff was becoming one big nuisance. No Australians with their camper, no hotel rooms, and now this, the American boy damaging his ankle, unable to walk.
"I need a hospital." He whined, his head held between two hands. "I think my ankle is broken."
"I'll go get help." I ran into a bar and asked the barman where the nearest hospital was. Turned out it wasn't not too far.
"Can you make it to the hospital? It's close by."
"I'll try. I sure will." He really did seem in a great deal of pain.
He hopped along, hanging on to my shoulder, and somehow we made it down the road.
"One thing. Can you do me a favour?" He stopped hopping and stared at me as if what he was about to ask would change the course of human history, or be a dreadful imposition. We hardly knew one another, but there again he had done me the grand favour of driving me to Pamplona and then accompanying me when I had no place to go. So, it was only fair that he asked me a favour in return.
I froze. What could he possibly be about to ask? I hoped it wasn't that he had to do the toilet and that he wanted me to help him. Gosh, I hoped not!
"Promise that you won't tell anybody what happened here tonight."
"Okay."  What a relief. He didn't want me to help him do the toilet.
"I'm going to tell people that I hurt my ankle running with the bulls."  He grimaced, obviously in pain. "You keep quiet about it. Okay?"
"Yes, yes. I promise."
"Everyone sure will be impressed when I tell them I got injured in Pamplona, running with the bulls." His eyes glazed over as if he were imagining the praise and admiration of his friends.
Now, maybe it was just me, but I felt he'd be lying if he were to tell this story. And here was I thinking he was an unassuming gentleman. I wonder who else related tall stories about running with the bulls in Pamplona?

for short story collection in spain The Crazy Lady and the Mama Dog

In 1981 my husband, small son and I were living in Urbanización El Casalot, Miami Playa, Tarragona located some 3 kilometres from the Mediterranean.  It was quite common to see stray cats and dogs meandering throughout the urbanizacion. They'd simply turn up on the road in front of the house and continue meandering deep into the woods. Most of them were like migrant workers who went about their own business, never staying too long in any one spot.
    Two dogs, however, did remain and I got to know them quite well. This is their story.

    Urbanizacion El Casalot was a brand new development where there was still ongoing construction.  Across the road from our house workmen yelled and babbled among themselves, in between peeing on the street, spitting and blowing their nose on the ground. Their transistor radio would be blaring forth loud advertisements for Galerías Preciados, condensed milk and Camel cigarettes - 'El sabor de la Aventura!'. Occasionally the workmen would burst into song, imitating Julio Iglesias singing "De Niña a Mujer" and "Hey". They were actually pretty good singers, not that I'm an expert, but Julio Iglesias himself would have been happy, I'm sure, to be listening to this open-air concert.

    There was something else the workmen got up to besides hammer and bang and make lots of noise. They would play with a puppy. He looked like an Alsation or a German Shepherd pup, based on his colouring as he frolicked about and had lots of fun playing with the workmen. They played rough with him, forcing him to the ground, preventing him from standing. They'd toss left over bocadillos to him then tap his hind legs with their feet as if telling him to go away.  It was difficult to see if they were actually kicking him but since the dog didn't yelp, I can only assume they never did hurt him. All seemed well until they stopped work for the day and went home. Guess what they did with the pup?

They hid him inside the house they were constructing. They basically bricked him up so that he couldn't get out. How did I know all this, you might be wondering? At night I heard him howl his little head off. He was a poor wee soul. I couldn't stand it any more, so one Sunday when I knew the men wouldn't turn up I searched for him inside the house. The howling was coming from a corner where there were bricks stacked up. I pulled the bricks away scraping and scratching my fingers in the process. Lo and behold, there he was! He jumped up and down, his tail wagging, his tongue hanging out. He was absolutely filthy, covered in dust and cement and who knows what else.

I picked  him up and took him across the road to my house and gave him a lovely bath. I fed him and offered him water. I really wanted to keep him, but reluctantly I decided that that wasn't practical. We didn't know for how long we'd continue living in the area, and anyhow, presumably he belonged to one of the workmen. I had no choice but to take him back across the road, place him in the corner and pile the bricks up around him so that he couldn't escape.

That night as I heard him whine and howl I wanted to rush over and cuddle him. I couldn't wait until morning when the workmen would be back for at least then he'd have company. On Monday morning the workmen arrived, making as much noise as a herd of elephants stomping around. I spied on them from behind the lace curtains to see if they would let the pup out. They did, thank goodness. Out he came, leaping up and down, his tail wagging furiously. He looked over at our house as if ready to visit me and have another bath, maybe some tasty food.

The workmen stared perplexedly at him, scratching their foreheads. How did the pup get so clean?!
Did someone give him a bath?! I think my secret was out for the workmen turned and gazed over at our house.

"Señora loca! Crazy lady!"  they called out and laughed loudly.

Thank goodness they were laughing and weren't annoyed that I had removed the pup. Maybe they really did care for the dog after all?

The other dog that I got to know I met when we first arrived in Urbanizacion Casalot, when the whole place was abuzz with cheery tourists laughing and drinking until the wee small hours. People would walk about with towels around their shoulders as they made their way to the swimming pools. You could sit on your front porch and listen to live music at the restaurant just down the road.  It was one long holiday all summer long.

But, come the month of October, and the place became deserted. Even the German tourists disappeared. From one day to the next, the 30th of September to the 1st of October, everything changed as the mass exodus took place. Shops  and restaurants that were bustling in the summer close down for the winter.  All that remained was an eerie silence as I rode my bike or went for a walk. I so looked forward to the week-ends when the Spanish from Reus and Tarragona would come back and spend Friday and Saturday nights in their holiday homes.

There was a visitor, however, who had stopped by every day. It was a large friendly dog who seemed to be constantly pregnant. I had seen her many times meandering about with her pups. But then, the next time I'd see her she would be all alone.  Before you knew it she would be pregnant again and then the cycle would keep on repeating itself.  I would feed her, give her water and pat her on the head before she'd plod off slowly.

One cool autumn day I was walking briskly when three dogs started to follow me. I always found it best to ignore stray dogs for you never knew how they would react. I continued walking, hoping that my uneasiness wasn't sensed by them. They caught up with me and walked by my side. All the while I tried to keep my eyes focused on the horizon as I hastened my pace. The largest of the three dogs began to bark at me and I glanced over it growled and snarled, showing its teeth. The other two dogs were watching closely as if to see what I would do.

I was scared. With all the tourists gone, there was nobody nearby to help me. This was before the days of cellular phones which meant I couldn't telephone anyone either. I could have been attacked, mauled even. Just then, a fourth dog turned up. Now what was going to happen?

You'll never guess what the fourth dog did.

She whacked  the dog barking and growling at me with her front paw, placed her teeth on its neck and pushed it down to the ground. I was astonished. She whacked the other two dogs as well as if to tell them not to even considering growling and snarling.

Guess who the dog was?  It was the friendly one who visited me each day! I believe that the the three dogs may have been from one of her many litters. She was chastising them for she recognized me as the one fed her and gave her water.