The Incredible Ponce has a theory about house guests, which according to him is an Italian saying. He says ‘Guests are like fresh fish. Wonderful for the first two or three days but after that they start to stink.’ A few months ago in the winter he had his share of stinky fish, in the bodacious form of Mayte. Mayte appeared out of nowhere, like a stray cat. One minute she wasn’t there, the next she was, with her feet firmly under his coffee table. She was the friend of a friend who asked the Ponce if he minded helping out a mate of his just for a few days, as she desperately needed a place to crash. Could she stay at his? Just for a few days. She was really desperate. The Ponce, being a fair and generous individual, obliged, and in she moved. He was working in a bar/restaurant in Lavapies then, and was out most of the time, so even though his flat is not really big enough for two, he agreed to put her up for a few days.
The first thing you noticed about Mayte were her lips. She had the sort of lips like suction pads you could have licked and stuck her to a window-pane with. They were so full of collagen they had an overhang with crimped edges. Like most trout-pouters, she was constantly licking them, as though feeling with her tongue to check they were still there. Don’t worry, Honey, those pillows are not going anywhere. They distorted her face, which was naturally quite pretty in a long, horsey way. She also had an impressive cleavage which she showcased in tight t- shirts and plunging necklines, and it wasn’t clear whether these also belonged to her or whether she had managed to get some sucker to pay for them. Ah, or she may have paid for them herself, you might interject, but something gave me the impression Mayte had probably never paid for a thing in her entire life.
At first she seemed very grateful, and the Ponce said she was a fairly easy house-guest. This was a good job, because they had approximately ten square metres each. His flat is basically a hovel. A cosy one, but a hovel nonetheless. It’s a studio about 20 metres squared, with a tiny bathroom and a kitchenette, or what in Spain they call a Cocina Americana (American kitchen). This is an excuse not to call it a breakfast bar. Or a hob with a sink next to it. It is a cramped space with barely any natural light, as it’s an interior and has one tiny window. He has a sofa bed which he pulls open at night. And here Mayte set herself up as resident… well, I’m not sure what. Parasite, is perhaps the best description. Here she could be found every time he came home, curled up on the sofa watching stuff on the computer, or reading obscure websites, smoking grass.
‘What’s she like?’ I asked him after a few days.
‘A bit of a loca. But she seems nice as well. A bit lost, but not surprising after what she’s going through…’
What exactly she was going through was never clarified, but darkly hinted at. It had something to do with displacement, politics, family rejection, and a severe identity crisis. After a week or so the Ponce started to grumble mildly about his house guest. She was apparently eating everything in the house that wasn’t nailed down, down to the last tin of tomatoes, stick of pasta, and seven whole trays of biscuits sent as a food parcel from his mother, from the local baker’s in Calabria.I don ‘t think she realised what mortal danger she was putting herself in: stealing gourmet food from an Italian that his Mother had sent for him. It still pains him to mention it today.
‘I suppose she’s got to eat.’ he conceded. ‘Not her fault she hasn’t got any money. It’s just that neither have I. And i didn’t even get to eat one of those almond biscuits…. not one….’
‘So, how long’s she supposed to be staying, then?’
‘A few days.’ he shrugged. ‘Aw, she’s not so bad, she’s no trouble really.’
‘But can’t she go somewhere else? She’s not even your friend.’
‘I know, but I feel a bit sorry for her. I don’t think I could chuck her out at the moment, she’s got nowhere else to go.’
One evening I popped round to the Ponce’s flat before he went to work. She was there, as usual, sitting cross-legged on the sofa bed smoking a joint. She had the laptop open in front of her and was reading aloud to the Ponce, while he was getting ready for work.
‘Sit down, sit down. Listen to this.’ she said, handing me the joint and continuing to read.
She was reading from a webpage which had compiled survivors’ accounts of kidnap and torture by secret police in the hidden detention centres in Argentina during the military dictatorship in the eighties. For almost an hour she read us harrowing extracts, in machine-gun Spanish from the collection of documents, court testimonies, statements and letters. I clung onto the spliff for dear life, as I had just come from a three-hour class, and this was like being beaten around the head with a blunt instrument. My head pounded, but it was interesting so I listened. Tales of left-wing journalists and writers, poets, activists and students raided in the middle of the day and dragged away never to be seen again. Repeated rape and electro shock torture to the genitals and breasts, beatings with pipes, rods, sticks, pistol-whipping, water torture, starvation, forced confessions, threats and all manner of imaginative brutality. There were stories of people being released bleeding and barely alive to find that their partners/friends/relatives who had been arrested with them, were now ‘disappeared’. If you were disappeared during this time, it generally meant you’d been killed and your body dumped out of a military plane into the ocean, although nobody had any idea this was going on until much later. Hence the ‘Mothers of the 2nd of May’ whose emblem is a white headscarf: the faithful and determined mothers with missing sons and daughters, who still held regular protests and vigils on the Plaza 2 de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Probably the worst way to bereave someone: take away their loved one and provide neither information nor a body to mourn. Unimaginably cruel. Most of these people didn’t even know whether their relatives were alive or dead, let alone the manner, hour or location of their death.
But the abuse didn’t end there. Mayte informed me that often whole families were taken, and if the parents ended up dead, it was policy to farm the children out for adoption with families that would provide a ‘civilising influence’. There was a theory at that time that activism, rebellion, Bohemianism were all inherent, present in the genes, so the best thing to do with these children with the hippy gene was to raise them in strict authoritarian families who would beat it out of them in the end. Families connected to the State and the Establishment. Often military families.
‘A lot of times,’ Mayte informed me, ‘the bastard General who’d tortured and murdered someone would take their children and adopt them into his own family. So you could end up growing up with your biological parents’ murderer as your adopted father.’
The Ponce had gone to work looking suitably solemn. Why, I wondered, was Mayte so engrossed in this disturbing topic.
‘You don’t know?’ she asked me, running her tongue over those huge, corrugated lips that looked like worn leather sofa cushions.
‘I might be one of those children.. I didn’t tell you before because I find it very difficult to talk about. I’m in the process of investigating it all.’
‘Yes, yes, of course, I can only imagine. Listen, you don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to.’
But apparently she did want to tell me. All about it.
Mayte was brought up in a right-wing military family to which she never felt she belonged. Her father was distant and strict, her mother cold and aloof. There was never any filial bond between them. As she grew up she began to exhibit signs of bohemian rebellion, eventually becoming a real tearaway, and one day she was told the truth-she was in fact adopted. The details of how and why were not revealed.
‘I started to look into it then, to try and find out who I was. I found out I may be Argentinian, the child of disappeared parents. The day I called my ‘parents’ to ask them if it was true, that I had been sent over here from Argentina to live with them after my family had been arrested, that day they broke contact with me. They refuse to talk to me now.’ she said, rolling another joint from the Ponce’s stash.
‘My mother answered the phone and I could hear my father in the background telling her to hang up. Hang up on her! Put the phone down, do it now! he was shouting. She was crying. She hung up on me and I haven’t spoken to them since then. They won’t have any contact with me. An agency is helping me to try and trace my real family. I know my mother is alive, I just know it. I can feel it. I’ve always felt it somehow. She’s alive and I’m going to find her. I might even have brothers and sisters, or aunts and uncles, who knows? They’re DNA testing me soon, that’s why I’m back here in Madrid.’
‘Yeah, then they can check it against the databases in Argentina and see if there are any matches. They’ve been compiling all this information for years- agencies, charitable organisations. It’s a charity that’s helping me with all the legal stuff and the testing.’
Poor girl. Cast off by her adopted family, alone in the world, possibly an orphan anyway, no idea who she was and not even sure what nationality she was. No wonder she was having an identity crisis. I felt desperately sorry for her. Sure, there was far too much pouting collagen and plunging cleavage for me to have taken to her instantly, but now I could see why she had done these things to herself. Now I could see why she had a constant need to be off her head, why she was apparently drifting with no cash, why she was so slutty-looking and attention-seeking. Anybody would be confused under the circumstances.
‘I don’t know what to say. That must have been awful for you.’
‘Do you know there are stories of people having recurring dreams in which they hear a melody being sung over and over. Kind of haunts them. And then years later it turns out that when they finally track down their mother that was the lullaby she used to sing them to sleep when they were a baby, even though they had no recollection of her at all. They remembered the song. All those years they were told they were somebody else, but they had a feeling they weren’t. Isn’t the human spirit magical?’ said Mayte, her eyes filling with tears. ‘I know my mother’s alive. I can feel her.’
She finished the spliff. The idea of a haunting babyhood lullaby embedded in your dreams sent shivers down my spine.
‘Listen, you couldn’t lend me a couple of euros, could you? It’s just that I’m really hungry and I’d love to go and get some fresh fruit and veg, you know. I’ve been holed up in here not eating very well. I stayed over at Javi’s last weekend and he gave me a yoghurt and a kiwi fruit, but I don’t think I’ve had anything fresh since then and I’m craving something healthy. Only if you’ve got it.’
I emptied my purse. There were only a few euros there but I gave them to her. Then I invited her round to mine and sent her back to the Ponce’s with a bag full of pasta, tinned goods, a bag of oranges, milk, whatever I had lying around. You can’t let someone starve like that. She was very grateful. She promised that next time she saw me she’d read my tarot cards for me, as a symbolic gesture.
‘I don’t think you should get things for nothing.’ she said. ‘I’d like to do something for you in return.’
Except she never did read my tarot cards. She seemed to be there for ages, festering in the Ponce’s flat, running the heating and the internet all day long, every light in the place ablaze. She ate and ate, she smoked all his gear in a way that suggested you’d have to prize the spliff from her cold, dead hand, and she never seemed to get off her arse and do anything to find another place to stay.
‘She’s pissing me off now.’ said the Ponce. He had taken to staying round at mine, sleeping on my sofa or spending the night with me, having dinner together then going back there.
‘She’s smoking all my fags, she’s cleared me out of everything in the cupboards. I mean, everything. I haven’t even got any ketchup left, she must have been drinking it.’
Still the succubus remained in residence.
‘Why don’t you ask her to go? I mean, you’ve been really kind, its’ been what- three weeks now? Nobody could blame you.’
The Ponce sighed and ran a hand through his mohican.
‘I can’t chuck her out though, can I?’ he said. ‘Poor bastard, after everything she’s going through… ‘
A mutual friend of ours had to drop something off for the Ponce and he called the landline to speak to him. Instead Mayte answered.
‘Yes, but who are you?’ she insisted when he explained.
‘What do you want? I’m not sure I should open the door to you.’
‘I’m one of his best friends. Who are you?’
‘A friend who’s staying.’
‘Look, I just need to drop something off for him. I’ll be round in twenty minutes, will you be in?’
‘Suppose. Oh, listen, you don’t have a sandwich or something you could bring me from your house, do you? It’s just that I’m a bit hungry and there’s no food.’
‘No I haven’t got a sandwich.’ replied our friend, perplexed by the surreal request from a total stranger.
Mayte herself provided the final straw one night when she came home smashed and accompanied by a stranger. The Ponce was asleep in bed when the key went in the door.
‘Oh, he’s in!’ she hissed, ‘Sorry, I thought he would be out tonight.’ The Ponce decided to play asleep and see what she would do. Mayte and her new friend took a seat and helped themselves to his stash.
‘Oh well, let’s have a spliff anyway.’ she slurred.
‘So… er…. isn’t there another room we could go to?’ asked her gentleman friend.
‘Nah, this is it. Sorry, mate.’
After they’d smoked and talked for a while she went out with the man and didn’t come back again until the next morning, when the Ponce threw her out. Orphan or no orphan, it was time for her to go. Bringing tricks back to his flat was not part of the deal. She protested, she pleaded, then eventually, reluctantly, she left. That night it was raining heavily, and at three in the morning the buzzer went.
‘What is it?’ he grunted, woken up from a deep sleep.
‘It’s Mayte, let me in, it’s raining out here, let me crash there tonight, please, I haven’t got anywhere else to go.’
‘Mayte, I told you, that’s it, go find somewhere else to stay. We’re done.’
Then the phone went. She stood outside in the rain and phoned him repeatedly and then buzzed at the door until finally he let her in.
‘Fine. Stay here tonight and that’s it. Never again. You need to leave.’
In the end Mayte hauled her inflated lips and her inflated chest out of there and was never heard of again. Over time the Ponce discovered various trinkets missing from his flat. A month or so later he got the electricity bill which was sky-high, and then, even worse, the phone bill. She had been there on Christmas Eve, when he had been working, and she had racked up over 100 euros in phone calls in one night only. It looked as though she’d called everyone she knew for a forty minute chat. The total bill was astronomical. But the Ponce was philosophical about it. If your philosophy is nihilism.
‘All that bollocks about her family background? That’s a pile of shite, that is. That’s her ‘hook’ story or whatever they call it. She read about it online and thought she could use it. She’s just a stupid whore who scrounges off people and spins them a sob story.’
‘She was good, though. I believed her.’
‘Oh yeah, she was pretty good. Not as good as me, though. If I ever see her again I’m going to make her face like a house.’ (This is one of the Ponce’s cheerful little Calabrian idioms meaning I’ll give her a good slap, from a colourful collection of sayings- well, for ‘sayings’ read ‘threats’ that always to me, seem somewhat maffia-based…always the face as well: I’ll break your face, I’ll make it like a house, like an arse, I’ll spit in it and so on ad nauseum. Just about everything unpleasant you could think up to do to someone’s face).
‘She fleeced me. That’s the last time I do a good deed for anybody. Serves me right for being so ‘nice’, see where that gets you?’.
Luckily the stink of fish began to recede after a few more days, the Ponce had his hovel back to himself and no-one rooting through his cupboards or hshafting his phone bill. Mayte? She was good though, you had to hand it to her: all that stuff about torture and murder, creepy military generals, mothers singing lullabies and blood being thicker than water. She had a natural ability to spin a good yarn, or to elaborate on one. There may have been some truth in her story after all, but it was clear that she was milking what sparse factual details there were for everything she could get. Like Sinead O Connor she also possessed the talent to squeeze out perfect teardrops on demand. I envied her nonchalant flair for fiction. Seemed such a waste to use it to scam a couple of hundred quid and the occasional bag of groceries. It also seemed pretty disrespectful to all the people out there who really did lose their parents, identity, and half of their lives trying to get them back without turning it into a clever sob story.