I went for a chinese meal with the Incredible Ponce on Saturday night. We were marooned at a center table in the silent restaurant, waited on by ghostly chinese who materialised, grinning, to misinterpret our orders. Bright, fake mother-of-pearl was embedded in the glossy table-top. On the wall, a back-lit picture of a waterfall had a lazy barber’s pole turning behind the image of the falls, simulating running water. On the bar a red and white ceramic cat gave us a fascist salute or a worker’s clenched fist, depending on how you took it.
‘If there’s one word the Sudokus use, which I can’t stand, it’s ‘ahorita.’ The Ponce informed me, while shovelling tallerines (noodles) into his mouth. The words came out heavily accented, a more open ‘a’ and an ‘i’ sound, a lingering over syllables where there shouldn’t be, ‘non’ instead of ‘no’, the ending ‘atta’ where it should be ‘ado’. He glanced pointedly at two South American men who were pulling out the chairs around a table near us.
‘Why don’t they just say ‘ahora’? They already speak Spanish, so why not just speak Spanish?’
‘It’s just the way they talk, I suppose.’
He must have been in a good mood because he only berated the waiter on a couple of occasions,
‘- the lemon sauce separate please, yes, salsa aparte, no sauce on the chicken, thank you, could I have soy sauce, please? Er… would you mind not bringing everything at once? It just gets cold, you see – yeah, gets cold, cold…. I’m trying to eat my rollo de primavera as a starter, first course… not yet. I don’t want it sitting on the table just getting cold.’
Over his lemon chicken no lemon sauce, I said on the side, please, no salsa on the chicken, just fried chicken, he became a little morose, until a fit of gloom descended over the table.
‘You know,’ he confided in me, his black eyes staring at me across the table, pupils dilated as usual like bullet holes,’I left Italy to get away from the Right Wing. The PP will be in next year, then who knows what will happen? Fachas everywhere.´ He spread his palms out before him, over the embossed table-top, as if it were self-explanatory.
´Some punk kid came up to me at a club the other night, and he said – you’re best off not staying here in Spain, it’s full of fascists. Ha! I told him – listen kid, we invented them, Italy invented fascismo, ok? I think we’re heading for a world war anyway. Then we’ll all be screwed, nobody will survive a nuclear war, not when nutty, crazy countries like Pakistan and Iran have nukes. We’ve all had it, then. It frightens me.´
He said this last, with a furtive glance left and right around the semi-deserted restraurant, widening his eyes for effect. This meant- hey, I’m serious, I really am scared.
‘It used to scare me too, but my generation have been three decades now with the nuclear threat, and it hasn’t happened yet. Didn’t we order another dish?’ I glanced round, searching the place for a silent, smiling ghost; there were none. From the bar, dumb, its mouth curved into a red-tongued grin, the lucky communist/fascist cat saluted us.
The Ponce is not the only one who’s frightened. A couple of days ago Mohamed the baker said pretty much the same thing. He looked diminished, his eyes were hollower than normal, his narrow shoulders sagged beneath their white baker’s apron. He said he was working hard and carried on hoping the country would crawl out of this crisis in another year or so.
´Here we all are, surviving, at least, eh?´ I replied, sick of trotting that platitude out on an almost daily basis. ´Like cockroaches.´I added. He nodded and bit his lip. I smiled encouragingly at him over the arab sweets and croissants, biscocho and calzone, baklava and tea biscuits. I like Mohamed. He looks like a little fawn or a satyr, his tufts of blond hair sticking up, and his pale yellow eyes. There is no way Mohamed looks Moroccan. But he is. He let out a long breath and turned away from the bread ovens.
‘I dunno´,’ he said, ‘I don’t like the way things are going. It worries me a bit… look at the elections- the Socialists are going to be out next year, aren’t they? The PP’ll get in and Spain will head off back to the Right, like most of Europe, and I don’t like that. ‘
´No… me neither.’
´Then policy starts to change, everyone starts blaming everything on the immigrants, we’re an easy target, they’ll cut all the ayudas (state help) and then…. we’ll see.’
I wondered which government handouts he was getting – seeing as I am getting sweet f.a. But I agreed with him, and with the sentiment expressed.
‘It seems to be cyclical, doesn’t it? Swing to the left, swing to the right, boom, bust…. this sort of shit happens every time, in modern European history, that there’s a major economic crisis.´
‘Yes, but…’ Mohamed lowered his head and fiddled with a basket of rolls on the counter, ‘the Right in Spain are really crazy, you know what I mean?’
I did, and I nodded, smiling ruefully. A flash of memory: of fur-coated matrons marching across Sol in their court shoes, clutching expensive handbags as they gave the fascist salute in unison.
´They scare me. They’re not like the Right in the rest of Europe, they’re…. you know….’
I knew. The lethal little man with the moustache, he wasn’t an isolated incident. People brought him to power, he didn’t just vapourize out of the ether and into Spanish society. Is Mohamed right to be scared? Are we heading for race riots? Spaniards torching cashpoints and cars, going crazy and smashing up language schools and English VO (version original/non-dubbed) cinemas? Seems unlikely, although smashing up Moroccan bakeries, Bangladeshi grocers’, hallal butchers, all those conspicuous chinese corner shops?…. beating up the occasional ‘puto imigrante’ who’s stolen your job, one you’d never get up at 4.30 in the morning to do anyway for a salary of under 1,000 euros a month…… wiping elderly arses for a living, flipping burgers, lowering a chip pan into hot fat, babysitting, cooking, sweeping, scrubbing, serving….but what the Hell, they’re here to take our jobs and they’re always first in line at the doctors’ or every time there’s a State handout going, pushing into the queue before the Spanish….. I shrugged and turned to go.
´Let’s just wait and see, eh? See what happens.’ I’m tired of saying that as well. I left him surrounded by warm, comforting bread, mounds of cakes, pastries and sweets. From the back of the shop, and the bread ovens, a faint smell of something left a little too long inside, a slight, black smell of burning.