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.