After I had graduated in 1995, I spent two years living in Barcelona. I never really got on with this city and from the moment that I first arrived at Barcelona airport to the moment that I left again, I was conscious of feeling oddly dopey. It might have been the heat. Some vital human faculty does not seem to function in Barcelona’s climate, and you become slow-witted and lethargic. I sometimes thought that they should bomb the city with ice-cold water for several months to wake it up a bit.
I didn’t speak any Spanish but the intelligentsia, or at least the most awake part of the population, had managed to acquire some English, and so the native language was practically redundant. I was hired as a maths and English tutor in the household of a wealthy shipping magnate and I tutored both of his children, a daughter and a son aged nineteen and fifteen. We met for two hours a night on weekdays, with a further three hours on Saturday morning.
All that I can remember about the daughter was that she was bored. Somehow her whole personality seemed to have become bored, and I never succeeded in surprising her with a face which did not look bored. She would point her bored face, with its dull bored eyes, at her maths exercises and they would always, as she expected, confirm that she was bored.
I was friendlier with the son – for one thing I can still remember his name. Mateo was as thin as a toothpick and exquisitely sensitive, and, in common with all teenaged boys, he was hysterical for most of the time. One day he indicated that he wished to speak with me outside the walls of his home and I agreed to meet him on La Rambla. We spent two hours traipsing around the streets whilst he recounted his story. His English involved more gesticulating than words and so I cannot necessarily vouch for the truth of every detail in the following narrative.
Mateo, as I have signified, was a rich kid and his parents had given him a credit card by way of pocket money, which tended to impress people in 1996. One afternoon Mateo had left school and he was walking to the offices where he had his weekly counselling sessions. He would sit on a thick carpet which was strewn with ducklings and new-born kittens, whilst a woman with a shaved head and unblinking eyes would patiently ask him rather aimless, abstract questions about which of his mother’s friends he was jealous of.
On this particular afternoon, Mateo was midway to the therapist’s offices when he froze and looked sharply at a random corner of the street. An elderly lady with a lurid, beaming smile was beckoning to him. Mateo followed her up several flights of stairs, cautiously but otherwise like a donkey following a carrot, and he soon found himself a guest in a hot little room which stank of orchids, or incense, or overripe fruit.
By the second week, this had become an established detour in Mateo’s trip to the therapist’s. The elderly lady would kiss him and caress him and various unlikely parts of his body, which he had never really taken an interest in before, would end up in her confident hands. Sometimes, afterwards, she would talk to him in a rhapsody, outlining all sorts of extravagant plans. They would marry and live together in a beautiful old mansion and then she could love him whenever she wanted to.
It was a Sunday morning and entirely the wrong day of the week when Mateo, waiting outside a cinema for the family car to appear, stood suddenly aghast as this lady bore down on him in a flap. They must hurry! There was no time to lose! That beautiful old mansion, where they would live in eternal peace, was being auctioned. He must bring his credit card at once and snap up the house.
Half out of his senses, Mateo was conducted to a public auction, with the elderly lady growing petulant whenever he showed any signs of slowing down. He, or she, or one of them at least, bid two million pesetas. Mateo had never put such an amount on his credit card, but he assumed that the family’s accountants would settle the bill as normal.
The lady congratulated him on his purchase and then slipped away with a last, friendly wave. Mateo was left outside the auction house, his mind boggling. The next week, en route to the therapist’s, he stopped at the lady’s apartment as usual, but his raps and rattles at the door were instead answered by a kindly Indian family. They could not help him with his inquiry and he was, as they pointed out, interrupting their dinner.
Quite a mess to clear up, but the address gave me something to go on. I made contact with the apartment’s landlord and procured a name, obviously fake, along with some references and bank details which were potentially more helpful. The police told me from the start that they were uninterested, but they put me in touch with a private detective who turned out to be game for the case. The house had, of course, been auctioned publicly and I had assumed that it would be promptly auctioned again, leaving us with no available means of contesting the sale. Imagine my surprise, however, when we found that the property had not changed hands at all. Indeed, the detective reported that the man who had owned the house prior to the auction was still living there.
“His name’s Mario Costeja González. Some accounts say that he’s a doctor, others a lawyer, but he generally appears to be a sort of waster and layabout.”
I was on the doorstep the first thing next morning. I rang the bell and a dumpy little man waddled to the door, opening it with a glare.
“Señor Costeja? I accuse you of purchasing this house under fraudulent pretences. If you do not cooperate with my inquiry, I shall expose you.”
He was one of those compact fat men who are very nimble and energetic, and, in his dismay, he performed something resembling a star jump. “You wrong. This my house.”
“Your mother is a prostitute. You lost this house because you could not pay your debts and she has connived to get it back for you.”
“That lady not my mother. I deny everything. I deny completely that my mother is a prostitute.”
“Well, some extremely significant maternal figure in your life is a prostitute…”
“She no a member of my family.”
“I didn’t say that she was.”
“That might do. But I not a fraudster or a bad guy. I not lose my house…”
“How did you lose this house?”
Señor Costeja shook his head vehemently, as if this single act could dispel years of memories. “You not need to know that. You not need to know nothing.”
“Señor, your… friend is a prostitute. She is going to have to go down to the port and sleep with every sailor that she meets. She needs to raise the amount of two million pesetas. If my employer is not compensated, I will be obliged to put this matter before his family and their lawyers.”
“Joder!” Señor Costeja stamped his foot in anger. “Very well, but my mother is not a prostitute! And this house was never auctioned! And you forget me, you forget my face, and you never tell nobody nothing never, you promise?”
I crossed my fingers behind my back. “I promise.”