Sona called one day. “¿Sigues pintando?” (“Are you still painting?”)
Her folks have a rental apartment in nearby Cáceres. I painted the place about a year ago.
“Los últimos inquilinos han dejado el piso hecho una mierda y han desaparecido del mapa.” (“The last tenants wrecked the place and skipped town.”)
“Qué guay.” (“Lovely.”)
A couple of weeks later I drove to Cáceres, parked in my old neighborhood of San Blas, and hoofed all my things up the narrow pedestrian-only lanes of the old walled city. I rang the bell and the old woman who lives on the third floor poked her head out the window.
“¡Buenos días! Soy un amigo de Sona y -” (“Good morning! I’m a friend of Sona’s and…”)
“¡El pintor que pinta con amor!” (“The painter that paints with love!”)
She remembered me from last year. She lowered the spare key down to me in a little basket attached to a string.
I was going to be there a few days so I checked the place out. No cockroaches, a significant improvement from last year. No hot water, but that wasn’t a problem. In July, in this part of Spain, hot water isn’t necessary. Then I opened all the closets to make sure there was no axe murderer waiting to make his move.
I was not happy to see the nutjobs were still living in the hovel out back, across the trash-strewn interior patio. They blasted Spanish Top 40 (David Bisbal, Alejandro Sanz, Soraya… check them out on YouTube if you want your faith in humanity completely destroyed) and shouted at each other all day long. I could see them down below from the kitchen window. Last year the husband got all chummy with me one day when I was painting the entranceway. He was a real pain in the ass, but he finally got to the point.
“¿Quieres comprar algo de coca?” (“Wanna buy some cocaine?”)
After a scorching hot day of painting, wearing only boxer shorts and flip flops, I sat down at the kitchen table with a can of fabada asturiana (sort of like the Spanish version of pork and beans, but with more chunks of mystery meat and lard). There was an old TV on top of the fridge. Only two channels had decent reception, the 24 hour news channel and Canal Extremadura. The 24 hour news channel was going on about the scandal of the day. In Teruel a 29-year-old Spanish bullfighter, Victor Barrio, was gored on live TV. He died shortly after in the ring’s infirmary. He was the first bullfighter to die in Spain in 30 years. Animal rights activists took to social media with a vengeance.
“Well done, that bull.”
“Let us hope many more cowardly matadors meet their maker this way.”
And this being Spain, the police were warning people posting anti-bullfighting messages online that they could face charges under the country’s hate crime laws.
I flipped over to Canal Extremadura, the regional channel. I was greeted by twenty year old grainy footage of extremeñan villages set to classical music.
This is more like it.
The name of a village wobbled across the bottom of the screen: Calzadilla. I’d driven by it a few times. It’s situated in the Valle del Alagón, about half an hour from Plasencia, but I’d never stopped to have a look around.
After the standard footage of humble whitewashed houses with sagging terracotta rooftops, old women dressed head-to-toe in black, an old man riding his donkey sidesaddle across the square, I was totally caught off-guard when they showed a large sculpture of a man fighting a giant lizard in the local park.
What the hell is that?!
The video cut awkwardly to the inside of la ermita del Cristo, a local church. A nervous young female reporter and an old man were standing next to a glass case which appeared to contain some mummified chunks of scaley, reptilian meat. She began asking the old fella about la leyenda del lagarto de Calzadilla, the legend of the lizard of Calzadilla.
Who is the old man? Is he the mayor? Is he a priest? Is he an expert on lizards?
We’ll never know since he wasn’t properly introduced. The reporter glanced directly at the camera a couple of times when she realized the folks back home couldn’t hear what the old fella was saying. She kept forgetting to put the microphone up to his mouth after asking him questions.
sculpture of the lizard of Calzadilla
A significant part of the thrill of watching local programming is the sheer incompetence, the feeling that the entire thing is a student project that is going to collapse into chaos at any moment.
From the bits and pieces of the interview that were audible, I believe the legend of the lizard of Calzadilla goes something like this:
Roughly 400 years ago there were a lot of reptiles in the area. One of these lizards grew to an abnormally large size and began eating the local shepherds’ sheep and goats. The locals were angry and a bit scared. One day a shepherd by the name of Colás came face to face with the beast which promptly killed and ate one of his dogs. Colás got down on his knees right then and there and prayed to el Cristo de la Agonía (the Christ of Agony).
Well, whaddaya know, a miracle occurred. Colás’s walking stick immediately turned into an escopeta (shotgun) or a trabuco (catapult) or a ballesta (crossbow) (accounts vary) and he killed the beast on the spot. As soon as the giant lizard was dead the weapon fell to pieces and Colás heard a voice from above say, “¡Rota quedarás para que a nadie mates más!” (“You will remain broken so you don’t kill anything else!”)
Another version of the story goes like this: a local man went to the Americas in the 16th century and made a small fortune. He returned to Calzadilla with a baby crocodile or alligator or caiman (again, accounts vary) and, as it grew to full size, it started eating the local livestock. It was eventually killed by frightened locals. The reptile’s head has gone missing, but a few remaining pieces of the animal are still housed in la ermita del Cristo to this day.
The program ended and I turned off the TV. I got stuck into Bulfin’s Rambles in Eirinn, but I couldn’t concentrate because now I desperately wanted to go see the remains of that damned lizard.
remains of the lizard of Calzadilla
My phone rang.
“¡Cabrón! Tu mujer me ha mandado un mensaje diciendo que estabas por aquí. Pásate por casa en un rato y salimos a tomar algo.” (“Bastard! Your wife sent me a message saying you were in town. Swing by in a little while and we’ll go grab a drink.”)
Before I had a chance to decline the offer, Raúl hung up on me.
Shit. I’m not in the mood for other people…
Raúl and his wife, María, live only a few streets over, but in the maze of dark little alleyways that make up this part of town you would never find their place if you didn’t know exactly where you were going.
Half an hour later I was in their kitchen drinking beer and trying to participate in the conversation, but their two little boys were making it extremely difficult. They were tearing the place apart, shouting and dancing and bashing each other over the head with sharp, heavy objects. Raúl and María seemed completely oblivious to the chaos. They continued the conversation as if we three adults were the only people in the house.
The seven year old was desperately trying to show me his new handheld video game while the five year old, in an heroic attempt to divert my attention away from his older brother, started performing a pretty spot-on Elvis impersonation with a battered, one-stringed ukelele. (I showed him how to play a C major chord. It’s only one finger, it’s not rocket science. He briefly feigned interest because he now had the ever-elusive spotlight.)
When María went to put the boys to bed Raúl made his move.
“Cariño, vamos a salir un rato.” (“Honey, we’re gonna go out for a bit.”)
“No me despiertes cuando vuelvas.” (“Don’t wake me up when you get back.”)
That was going to be difficult. The three-story house only has one door. (Health and safety regulations be damned.) And that door is right next to the garage, where the entire family was sleeping on a couple of mattresses thrown down on the grotty cement floor.
As the boys were giving me hugs, handshakes and goodnight kisses, in an effort to prolong the going-to-bed ritual, María informed me, as if slightly embarrassed, “Es el sitio más fresquito para dormir en verano.” (“It’s the coolest place to sleep in summer.”)
Raúl and I strolled over to the main square. The town had changed quite a bit in the seven years since Lola and I had lived there. I spent the two most god-awful summers of my life in Cáceres. Who builds a city in a place with no river? A place where the temperature normally reaches 40°C (100°F) on a daily basis for two months straight? Who does that?! (Well, the Romans actually, in 25 B.C..)
The town hasn’t been full-on gentrified yet, but it’s getting there.
“The town’s looking good,” I lied.
“The council has screwed up everything. El Partido Popular, greedy bastards. There are no more free parking spaces on the street… There are endless busloads of tourists… Rent has gone through the roof… And look at this shit.” He pointed to a TelePizza and a kebab joint right in the main square. “And there’s talk of building a second McDonald’s. You don’t have any of this shit in Plasencia.”
“Está llegando. Poco a poco.” (“It’s starting to creep in. Bit by bit.”)
It was a Tuesday and I was thinking it’d be a quiet evening, a couple of drinks and off to bed. It turned out Raúl had other plans.
“With the two boys it’s difficult to get out of the house much these days.” He slapped me on the back. “You being in town gave me a good excuse!”
Over the first beer it was a load of depressing talk.
“The doctor’s got me on cholesterol pills.”
“Well, my doctor’s got me on valium. I’ve been grinding my teeth in my sleep. He thinks that will help.”
“We’re getting old.”
“We’re starting to fall apart.”
The crusty hole-in-the-wall bars in the old part of town were abuzz, absolutely jam-packed with people. Around midnight it finally started to cool down. A slight breeze picked up. The air was filled with the reek of stale urine and hashish, the smell of nightlife in Cáceres. I can’t say I missed it all that much. After a couple more beers we started coming back to life.
“Remember that bottle of aguardiente your friend in Jola made? I took that with me to London a few years ago. At a dinner party everybody thought it was terrible stuff, except for this Jamaican guy. He drank half the bottle himself and fell asleep on the sofa before the food was even ready!”
“I’ve got a few more bottles. You’re welcome to them.”
“Hey, have you ever been to Calzadilla?”
“I worked there one summer about 15 years ago.”
“Have you seen – ”
“The giant lizard?”
“There’s not much to see. The only reason to visit Calzadilla is for the torreznos in Rafa’s bar just off the main square.”
Torreznos: thick strips of bacon fried in olive oil
Raúl stepped inside the bar to grab another round. I was bummed he thought the lizard wasn’t worth visiting. When he returned I knew I was in for it. He had two bottles of beer in one hand, two shots of whisky in the other, and a pack of cigarettes in his mouth.
Things got a bit hazy after that…
At 4 a.m. we were in a smoke-filled bar shaking our asses to some crazy flamenco-techno-fusion. I was stumbling around trying to tell anybody who would listen about the giant lizard when Raúl appeared with his new friend, a Moroccan guy who was selling fake IDs. As we flipped through a stack of driver’s licenses – they actually looked pretty authentic, but that may have been due to the alcohol – it took us a really long time before we realized the obvious.
“I don’t think these IDs are going to do us any good!” Raúl shouted over the music.
“Why not? The dates are good! Not expired!”
“The guys in the photos! They’re all black!”
“What, are you racist?”
“What? No! But we’re not black!”
The guy was just having a laugh. We offered to buy him a beer.
“No, thank you. I can’t drink alcohol. I am a Muslim.”
“But you can sell fake IDs?”
“There is nothing in the Koran that says it is forbidden to sell fake IDs.”
The next morning, not only was my head destroyed, my ribs were sore from laughing so hard.
Recounting the story to Lola two days later I finally remembered the name of that last bar.
“Bartolo? That’s a gay bar.”
“Well, that would explain some of the things I witnessed in the men’s room.”