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Paco at school

Bernarda had already left with the twins on the daily trudge to school. They moped behind her, mutely awaiting the day to grow upon them. She stopped and turned to them, her annoyance didn’t need to be verbalised. They didn’t quicken their pace. Not yet teenagers she wondered if, in a few years time, in their adolescence their temperament would be worse. Which of their elder brothers would they take after? She knew which one she would prefer.

Back at the house Paco was ready for school. It wasn’t even a quarter to eight, yet Sebastian was also ready to leave. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his father this early in the morning. Something didn’t feel right.

“I’ll come down with you.” His father wasn’t asking and was at the door waiting before Paco had found his mobile phone. It flashed through his mind that ‘I’ll come down’ meant that he was going to accompany him to school, which perturbed him even more. They left together in silence. At the bottom of the steps Paco closed the gate and looped over the rusted bike lock that hung from the gate post to close it. It was a custom he hadn’t lost even though there was no longer a dog to confine. 

They continued their way down the hillside towards the town centre. Sebastian walking in a sprightly manner, sharing with his usually indifferent son his plans for the day. Meet with someone or other, go to an office and discuss work for the summer. Paco started to pay attention. Perhaps this uncharacteristic excitement was just down to nerves or even the actual possibility of employment. Either way his father’s exuberance was beginning to rub off on him and he permitted himself a smile. When they reached the town the air was more dense, more noticeable in the cool morning. A few people, office workers and school children, navigated the early streets. When they reached the main thoroughfare, Avinguda de Espanya, Sebastian halted. 

“I’ll just nip in here to have a coffee,” he signalled to Paco a bar on the next corner where three dishevelled men had already gathered. Before each of them a tiny espresso cup and an empty snifter glass. The men sat together in a silent fellowship, not feeling the need to communicate. Paco looked at his father suddenly angry then walked on without uttering another word. The news from the television in the bar suddenly audible as Sebastian opened the door unaware of the change in Paco’s mood. The sense of deception and disappointment almost overwhelming, he should of known better. His father wasn’t looking for work, it was a decoy. An excuse to have an early morning drink. And he had allowed himself to be taken in by it. He walked the further 10 minutes to school with an unshakable resentment building. 

It wasn’t going to be a taxing morning for Paco. Catalan, mathematics and English, a break then Modern Studies, Social Politics and Technology Science then home for lunch. One more week of exams then summer holidays, it would be a breeze. At the end of his English class, Señor Alves, asked him to stay behind and gave him a book to read over the summer. ‘Of Mice and Men’ It was a second hand book, maybe the teacher’s own. Sñr Alves told him kids of his age in America would be reading the same. It was a compliment on his linguistic ability. He felt a surge of something inside, an elation that made him want to smile, to let his emotions show but he didn’t. He took the book with a solitary ‘OK’, thankful to be given the book in private then made his way to the recreation area outside. 

He sat alone in the shadow of a huge triangular canvas after arriving late and not able to see his friends. He pulled out his mobile phone eager to make the most of the school’s free WIFI. It wasn’t long, however, until his thoughts turned again to his father. He imagined him at home half drunk or perhaps still in that bar talking ‘business’, a personal amalgam of bullshit and invention. The aggravation that had been simmering in him all morning began to stir again. At first he didn’t notice the commotion over towards the school building, but as more children gathered the noise intensified. Paco’s curiosity got the better of him so he rose and ambled towards the rabble. 

Two senior boys were pushing another kid, passing him between them like some medieval game. Each shove was accompanied by a stifled an ‘olé’, the onlookers wary of attracting too much attention. The performance tracked at various angles by adept hands recording on mobile phones. The perpetrators focussed more on the fat boy’s slavic roots, calling him ‘Dracula’ or more unpleasantly ‘Romanian piece of shit’. The fact that the boy was actually Serbian was of little relevance. Paco pushed through the throng to get a better view. Their target wasn’t saying anything, no retaliation, physical or verbal, apart from an occasional grunt of exasperation.

“What happened?” Paco asked a girl beside him.

“Nothin, just these two being dicks as usual.”

“They’re bullying him for nothing?”

“Yeah, I think so. He don’t talk a lot, the fat kid. Don’t think he understands much.”

Paco squeezed through to the front and stood arms crossed observing the scene. He stood fixed as those around him jostled for position. Then a more forceful shove, another ‘olé’ and the boy tripped and fell. Both giggles and groans rippled through the onlookers. Paco stepped forward. 

“That’s enough.” The two bullies turned to the voice. 

“Says who?” Questioned one of the boys. 

Paco didn’t answer, he stared at each in turn daring further reaction, the day’s preoccupation with his father bursting for a release. He laid his back-pack gently by his side. His normally soft eyes, sharpened and confident. He was shorter then them both but considerably wider, a bull in comparison. Paco was a daunting opponent and they knew it. The gathering looked at the three of them waiting to see where this would lead. The Serbian boy looked bewildered. The boy who had spoken took a step towards Paco but his companion grabbed his arm to halt his progress. Then the fleeting moment of tension was over. An anticlimax, mobile phones fell in disappointment. The bullies knew better than to mix it with a gitano, there were more of them in the school and they would come running. That was their way. Anyway for now they had had their fun and left sharing a smile and a slap of the hands. A girl came forward to help the Serbian to his feet and the small crowd slowly dispersed. Paco also walked away. Two words, an unswerving stare and his sturdy frame more than enough to diffuse the fracas. 

The afternoon continued without further incident. The last class of the day was given over to the students as exam preparation time. They sat in rows at their desks, a few books out but no-one actually studying. Some chatted with neighbours, others were glued to their mobile phones. Paco carefully flicked through Mice and Men. Fingered its fragile spine. Its rough, yellowing pages smelt a little stale, almost of dampness. It reminded him of the stuffy reference room in the Puig des Molins archeological museum. He didn’t want to start reading it until he was somewhere quiet, private. He sat toying with a Bic pen. Spinning it under his right hand, stopping it and spinning it again. Over and over. Contemplating his father, over and over. The soft repetitive scraping noise of the pen attracted the teacher’s attention even through the background noise of the class. Approaching Paco she was drawn towards his unkempt hands, the stubby fingers, the badly chewed nails and torn cuticles. Bitten enough to expose reddened nail beds. She hadn’t thought Paco a nervous kid. A pang of melancholy hit her, having this sudden insight into one of her brightest students. There was perhaps in her a mother’s instinct as she hovered over him. She saw a fragility that made her want to protect him. Paco felt observed and looked up at her just as the bell rang. The kids stood simultaneously, classes were finished. School was over. 

Hundreds of teenagers diverged and took their own routes home, many to the same neighbourhoods. Paco said goodbye to a few around him then started home knowing he would see them most days during the holidays. One block away from the school he paused for a second, then decided to return via the Figueretas promenade. It was only a few minutes longer but he would avoid the bar where he had left his father that morning. He surely wouldn’t be there but Paco didn’t want confirmation either way. As he waited to cross the road he felt a presence beside him. 

“Hola.” The Serbian boy was standing beside him. “I need to say thanks. For this morning.” The broken words in his eastern accent were soft and barely audible amongst the traffic. He fretted with the strap of his satchel as he smiled at Paco. It wasn’t convincing, he still looked scared. His dumpy face and pale skin looked ruddy in the midday heat. His sweat stained t-shirt was tight across his torso but the collar had been stretched and remained out of shape. 

“It’s OK.” Paco returned an equally unconvincing smile, then turned to look back at the traffic.

“Those boys do this more times,” he began but Paco cut him off.

“Look, I don’t know you. I stopped them because what they were doing was wrong. No one should bully other kids. It’s not right.”

“I. I,” the boy stammered, suddenly nervous, shrinking back and looking feeble again. 

“I told you. It’s OK.” The boy looked up at his saviour expectantly. “Look, we’re not mates. They were wrong. End of.” Paco stared again at the boy, this time more seriously. “We’re not friends,” he added more slowly. His eyes sharp again, brow furrowed. The traffic stopped and Paco felt the people around him move so he followed, crossing the road. The Serbian boy watched despondently as his hero disappeared with the crowd.

The commotion coming from the Moreno household greeted Paco long before he reached his house. Subconsciously he slowed his pace. As he reached the gate the old neighbour, Maria, hobbled out with a bottle of water and a Lidl grocery bag. She rustled it at him with her claw hand as she passed, almost defiantly, with only the merest hint of a smile. Paco braced himself then climbed the stairs, it was lunch time and he was hungry but it seemed the party was just beginning. 

Sebas exuberantly opened a can of beer and laughed as the foam spurted into the middle of the room. He then let out a vulgar cheer, which the twins repeated. Their father Sebastian sat in his chair looking pleased with himself. Paco couldn’t tell if it was alcohol induced or not. What difference did it make? There he was in his habitual position, slumped back on his armchair. King of nothing. 

“Hey, here’s the smart-ass of the family. Where you been lil’ brother?” Paco ignored him and proceeded across the room, dumping his open school bag onto the dining table. His summer reading sat on top.

“Don’t be touching the beer, lil’ brother.” The last words drawn out, an unnecessary dig at the clearly irritated Paco. He walked into the kitchen area and scanned the worktops, looking for something to eat. Nothing. 

“Paco, come back in here. Your Papi got a job today.” Paco was slightly taken aback by Bernarda’s delighted voice. He peered more closely at his mother. The wide grin across her face showed off her white teeth. She looked radiant. Genuine happiness shone out of her as she pulled one of the twins towards her. In that moment he realised he hardy saw her like this, so animated, so natural. He turned his attention to his father who had slid forward to perch on the armchair. 

“Rest of the season Paco. Hotel handyman.” He too smiled broadly and rolled his sleeve up and flexed his tattooed biceps in a mock show of strength. That morning’s apprehensions began to flood back to him; the derisive thoughts, scornful feelings, the general lack of sympathy he had for his father. His heart pulled a little inside his chest, the embryos of self-reproach. 

“All summer Papi?” The words stuck in his drying throat but Bernarda saw the smile begin to take form, she tenderly placed a hand on his forearm. Paco took a step forward, back into the heart of the family.

“Leave him be, grumpy little bastard.” Sebas snapped, with a glaring dart in Paco’s direction. 

“Sebas!” But he ignored their mother. 

“Why can’t you be happy for him? Why you always acting like a brat?” Sebas reached over for another beer and gave it to his father. Bernarda felt Paco tense and tried to tighten her grip on his arm but he flinched, forcefully breaking free. He stood in a rage not knowing how to control himself. Yet again Sebas had managed to antagonise him with just a few words. He glanced over at his father, who as their eyes met lowered his head and toyed with the beer can held between his hands. Before the lump that was forming in Paco’s throat exploded he made a retreat into his bedroom, the same one that Sebas had appropriated, slamming the door behind him. He sat on the end of his bed close to tears but denying them existence. The smell of Sebas’ freshly laundered clothes hit him through the stink of stale smoke. Mumbled voices came from a few metres away but he didn’t try to listen. His name was shouted, something hit the bedroom door and then the front door slammed. The silence that followed didn’t comfort Paco. When, soon after he heard the twins leave, he cautiously opened the door. Bernarda was bent over in front of him, as she stood she handed him a book, parts of a book. She placed the copy of ‘Of Mice and Men’ into his opened hands. Three parts of the same but yet not the whole, having been separated down the spine. 

“I’m sorry.” His mother offered an apology but it was clearly not her who should be apologising. 

Posted by Stan
14 February 2019

Hotel Grande Bretagne

Miranda thought she saw Pappy over by the huts. Her eyes were dazzled by the harsh sunlight as she looked up from her trench, and the figure seemed to glitter in an aura of rainbow lights. She blinked as her eyes adjusted. It was only Andoni, making a call in the shade of an olive tree. Pappy had been dead for more than three years now. As always, this thought brought with it a wave of sick disappointment. Miranda pushed the feeling away from her as she stretched her compressed limbs. It was well past noon, she judged. Sweat scratched at her neck and slithered down her breastbone. She straightened her back and took a swig of cold water from her flask. She pulled a kerchief from under her wide-brimmed hat and wiped the dirt from her face. There was still time to find something worthwhile before lunch. Sighing, and thinking of Pappy, she squatted back down to her work.

This was summer: heat, dirt, digging in a hole with Pappy. He used to say she was born in a trench with a trowel in her hand. Holidays at other times of year were spent visiting ancient sites or as guests of his many friends. At Knossos she learnt to deride Arthur Evans’ fantastical restorations. At Mycenae Pappy pointed out where the golden mask had been found, taking her from the hot windy hilltop into the cool dark tomb there. There were trips to dusty old-fashioned museums and forgotten ruins. Even with nowhere to go, Pappy never left her in school for the holidays. One summer when there were no invitations they had lived for several weeks in a cave by the sea. Pappy made a great adventure of it, fishing, swimming, building fires and cooking on the beach. At Christmas if they were not invited to stay with one of his admirers, someone would lend them a home. A primitive mountain hut, an air-conditioned villa, it was all the same to him. One year they spent Christmas in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, the guests of Mrs Darling. With his sun-bleached hair and tanned skin, Pappy was terrifically handsome. No wonder women loved him.

Miranda was never jealous of his lady friends. Some sought to endear themselves to Pappy by petting and spoiling her. One of Mrs Darling’s favourite treats was tea in the Winter Garden, which she insisted Miranda take every afternoon. Others didn’t bother to hide the fact that her presence was an inconvenience to them. There was a Deirdre somebody, an English poet, whose house at Areopoli they shared one October.

‘Bugger off, squirt,’ she would say, ‘and don’t come back for at least two hours.’ Miranda spent the twilight hours wandering from the dusty streets to the quiet olive groves, or watching old men play backgammon in the square. Pappy could make himself at home anywhere, and Miranda understood that these passing friendships meant little to him.

Like Pappy, she preferred her love life uncomplicated, and found married men much less demanding. When the dig closed she would go back to her university in England and Andoni to his family in Athens. This was their third season together at Iklaina. She watched him pocket his phone and cigarette packet. He went to speak to some American students who were supposed to be excavating a Cyclopean wall. Always enthusiastic at the beginning of the season, by now they were bored and it was hard to get much work out of them. They treated the project as a kind of summer school, partying all night on the beaches and spending their mornings comparing hangovers. Andoni humoured them for the funding they brought in. He spent most of his time trying to balance keeping them happy with making them productive. Pappy would have sent them packing; he had nothing but contempt for dilettantes.

But he would have handled many things differently. Last week a boy called Josh had been caught smuggling out a potshard with some painted decoration on it. He wasn’t going to sell it, he said, he just thought his mom would like it. Andoni gathered the students and lectured them on the seriousness of taking objects off the site. He explained that he could, and perhaps should, have Josh arrested, that the Greek police treated such matters very seriously, and that a Greek jail was a very unpleasant place.

When Miranda was twelve years old Pappy was supervising a dig near the Taïgetos Mountains. A workman had been behaving suspiciously, so Pappy said. He watched the man all day, and as the sun set and the workers left, he waited near the exit. When the man looked up to say goodnight, Pappy grabbed him, pinning his arms to his sides. He shouted to Miranda to take the man’s bag, which she did after a brief struggle. Inside were some beads and medieval coins with the dirt still on them. Miranda flinched and covered her eyes as Pappy viciously punched and kicked the man. The offender was allowed to flee after his beating, but it was days before Pappy’s fury abated. Miranda was terrified. He was like some awful ancient god, raging about precious objects going onto the black market and into private collections instead of museums.

Miranda preferred the quiet rhythm of working alone. She had a hunch there might be graves in this corner of the site. In spite of her training she still relished her childhood fantasy of making some astonishing discovery. Perhaps not as spectacular as a golden mask or a royal tomb, but something that would make her name and make Pappy proud. Early in the day she had discovered a few pottery fragments and some of the doughnut shaped loom weights that littered the site. A little later she found a piece of clay tablet. This was more worthwhile. She gently brushed the dirt away to reveal, as she had hoped, the characteristic angular scratches of Linear B. She knew better than to attempt a thorough cleansing in the trench. It would have to go to the lab for a more delicate handling, but she could discern the symbols for ‘barley’ and the number ‘17’. She labelled it and placed it in the tray, then squatted back down to scratch in a likely spot. Sure enough, after a few minutes of careful excavation, she loosened the other half of the tablet. Now she could smile, as she gave it a soft dusting and checked that it matched the first fragment. Perfect. She was hot and dirty, but at least she had achieved something from her morning’s work.

She looked around for Andoni. It was not quite two, she estimated, but already students were drifting away. She spotted him in front of the huts talking to a girl. She was an ambitious student and took every opportunity to get Andoni on his own. What the hell, Miranda thought, the dig would be over soon. She went back to her work, which was, after all, what mattered. Soon she was absorbed and imagining Pappy was in just the next trench. As she scraped away at the soil her trowel loosened a lump. Taking it in her hand, she speculated that it might be another ceramic fragment or a knucklebone die. She rubbed the encrusted dirt carefully with her finger and stopped dead as she saw the glint of yellow metal.


A golden bauble sparkled with reflected light as it slowly turned in the draught. Miranda sat close to the Christmas tree in the Hotel Grande Bretagne. She crossed her ankles and tucked her feet under the chair to hide her scuffed shoes. She tried to cover her skinny knees with her hands. They always looked dirty, no matter how long she spent in the bathtub. Pappy said Mrs Darling would buy her some long trousers, but Mrs Darling thought a dress would be more suitable. Mrs Darling was not aware of the knee problem.

‘Your tea, Miss,’ the waiter smiled as he placed the silver teapot in front of her. There were three pieces of loukoumi, thickly coated in icing sugar, on a little china plate. She put a slice of lemon in her cup and poured tea onto it, mingling their fragrances. She loved the amber translucence of tea without milk. She took a bite of the pink loukoumi then a sip of tea, letting the hot liquid melt the sweet jelly in her mouth. She would save the green one till last.

‘It’s really quite scandalous.’ A shrill voice from the other side of the Christmas tree. ‘People like that shouldn’t be allowed in a decent hotel.’ Miranda licked icing sugar from her fingers.

‘I know what you mean,’ her friend responded. ‘But keep your voice down, Mary.’

‘Every afternoon,’ Mary continued in a stage whisper. ‘They’re up there right now. At her age.’

Her friend chuckled. ‘You have to admire her energy.’ Miranda picked up the yellow sweet and licked some of the sugar off.

‘I mean, I know he’s good looking if you admire that primitive style, but really, he’s no better than a gigolo.’

‘Worse. He acts so superior, like he’s doing her a favour.’ Miranda wondered who they were talking about.

‘And she’s not the only one. He goes from one to another, dragging that child behind him.’

‘Cap in hand.’

‘Oh, yes, always needing money.’

Miranda squirmed in her seat. Only the pistachio loukoumi left. A sip of hot tea swirled around her mouth to freshen her taste buds. Nibble by nibble, she could make it last for ages.

‘He calls himself an archaeologist. No credentials whatsoever. Banned from every official site, I heard.’

‘Of course, she worships him, won’t hear a word against him.’

‘And he’s nothing but a charlatan.’

The loukoumi didn’t taste right. Miranda felt acrid juices flowing into the back of her mouth. Knocking over the tea things, she ran through the foyer and into the rainy square. She spat out the sweet, then folded her legs under her. The rain mingled with her tears as she squatted on the wet pavement.


‘You haven’t forgotten we’re going to the beach for lunch, have you?’ At the sound of Andoni’s voice some reflex made Miranda close her hand around the object. As they talked she slowly slipped the hand into her pocket.

‘No, I just feel like doing another ten minutes,’ she said. ‘I’ve found a tablet. From a grain merchant I think.’

‘Hmm, pity it’s broken, but not bad otherwise,’ he turned it over. ‘Look, don’t be long, I’m hungry. I’m going for a shower.’

‘OK, I’ll catch you up.’

She watched him walk away then squatted down for a closer look at her find. She carefully brushed off as much dirt as she dared, then used the last of her water to clean it. She could hardly breathe as she turned it over in her hand. What she held was an astonishingly beautiful, intact, gold seal ring. The seal itself was superbly crafted with a tiny but delicate depiction of an archer mounted on a chariot aiming at a fleeing deer. Tears blurred her vision. It was the most beautiful object she’d ever held in her hand. She imagined the impression it would make in hot wax. Perhaps at last she really was on the brink of discovering a royal tomb or a lost treasury. Wait till she told Pappy, she thought, he would be really proud of her this time. She carefully wrapped the ring in her bandana and placed it in the tray with her other finds. Then it hit her. Pappy would never know. All her joy evaporated in an instant. Miranda took the ring from the tray. She lifted her head and scanned the site. Everyone had disappeared. She put the ring in her pocket.