by Craig Campbell
In the weeks before he'd lost his job as a steelworker at Corus Redcar, Francis Bell had suffered a series of strange dreams. In them he was always invisible – a man staring out at the world without a shadow for company. The dreams had started off simply at first. He had found himself sat on a busy train or stood alone on a beach with no one aware of his presence.
With each passing regression however, his invisibility got him into more and more ominous situations. In one he found himself witness to a violent pub brawl where the blood splattered the walls like red emulsion. In another he was stood in a battlefield in Afghanistan where a soldier crawled in agony towards him with a leg hanging off. The latest dream always seemed to be worse than the previous one. In these unconscious moments he found himself increasingly terrified and helpless.
When he told his wife Mary about them in their kitchen one morning, she put it down to stress with the upcoming pay-offs.
'You've been there since you left school. It's bound to do something to the brain, all that worry.'
'Maybe you're right, Mary,' he said.
'You never know. It might even be saved yet.' She smiled, putting her hand on his shoulder in a way that irritated him greatly.
Francis was a shop steward. Within weeks of negotiations he already knew the steelworks wouldn't be saved. The tight faces of the Union men leaving their meetings told him that. They emerged from their conferences with company executives as though they'd been silently strangled. Francis knew their temperateness had been useless against the money men. He had pushed for industrial action from the start. His father had been a staunch shop steward too, right up to his retirement. His heyday had been the golden era of ICI and Seal Sands, the Teeside gold rush. They'd been men of action then, hitting the gate at the slightest hint of industrial injustice. His father liked to regale Francis about that age when he was starting out. It was the reason he'd got involved. If he'd known what was coming, he would hardly of bothered.
His dad had suffered a stroke in the past year ,which had been painful for Francis. The old man lived in a care home, that even in his catatonic state Francis knew he wouldn't enjoy. His dad had been a man of action. Daktari had been his nickname in the late seventies, a mantle he'd acquired as he locked horns against various firms and managers who had tried to dislodge him. They hadn't managed it and his union reign had been a long one. His proudest moment had come as the asbestos scandal broke. Teesside's chemical works had been covered in it from the Sixties onwards, and as the wave of azzy-related deaths began to filter into the industries, they had led picket lines from 1985 onwards, organising mass walkouts as both blue and white asbestos was discovered on their sites. It was too late for some. He would tell tales of workers poking holes in their masks so they could smoke a tab as they stripped it, men long dead in the cemeteries, but it was something.
'They'd have us like those poor sods in Spodden Valley if they could get away with it.' He would say, referring to an area in Rochdale where the local Turner and Newall factory had spewed asbestos dust via giant extractor fans onto the local housing community. The housewives had been forced to scrape it off their windowsills twice a day. Their death sentence resembling little more than icing sugar, the Devil’s Hundreds and Thousands really.
Not everyone wanted to hear such things of course: 'Don't be filling his head with that morbid rubbish,' Francis' gran would retort when her husband got on the subject. He would ignore her. He always felt it was important to drill the truth into the boy, even at such a young age.
'Better his head with my rubbish, than his lungs with theirs,' he would say and when he talked like that Francis wasn't scared at all. He didn't think it was possible to love the old man more. His eyes would blaze as if they had fiery coals behind them and he seemed ageless, as if the lines were scared to form on him. It planted the idea to the young man that the union representative was a romantic thing. Bigger than all the sum of men and their parts. A righteous path to follow.
By comparison Francis' own union battles paled into insignificance. It was a different age and a different industrial complexion where the shop steward screaming down corridors had been replaced with one shuffling papers. An apprentice who had lost his finger in a sheet metal roller without a guard, and a man whose holidays had been refused for a work shutdown, had been his biggest victories. He felt no pleasure in regaling them to his old man and their bond seemed to evaporate because of it. It was ironic then, that by the time of the closures, when the two men had really got something to get their teeth into, the stroke had taken his dad's capabilities away. Francis always felt it was a lost opportunity. As if he'd lost his greatest ally. Sometimes staring into his old man's eyes, as his grievances reached fever pitch, it felt as though he was exchanging glances with an ancient outhouse wall.
But who else was there for such things? Mary had long stagnated into a woman who entered competitions on Smooth FM and treated her latest illness like a status symbol, at the local bingo with the other wives. Her hysterectomy had given her enough material for a stadium tour, and she regaled the epic of her disappearing ovaries like Victoria Wood. Mary had been a dreamer once and Francis had loved her for it. The long workdays could erode your happiness. The site always smelt of ammonia and broken dreams, and there was nothing better than getting in from a shift for her to excitedly show her latest dress or fashion design.
'This one's based on the Transporter Bridge,' he recalled her beaming as he entered the front room in their younger days, full of material and stitching pins. She'd held aloft a blue chiffon number, that was cut at strange angles and indeed had a passing resemblance to the Middlesbrough landmark.
'Tomorrow I'm making leggings out of Indian silk and broadsheet newspapers. I'm thinking of getting a stall and selling them on Stockton market.'
Now Mary was like the rest of them. Permanently scrolling down an iphone as life and the march of time sidled by. Occasionally looking up from her Facebook requests and her copy of Take A Break magazine to regale the latest estate gossip.
'You know Laura from down the road?'
'You do. Her youngest, Mally, is the druggy. The one with the bleached hair and the titanium leg.'
'What about her?'
'Well, last Thursday she got caught stealing a case of Domestos from Farmfoods.'
'Dunno, but one of the lasses, Maggie, reckons they'll be doing her for bleach of the peace.'
She cackled then. Like all working-class women of a certain age do. The death of a woman Francis reckoned had nothing to do with the ageing process, but a need to be part of that clan. The one which assassinated other females and voted for Love Island and celebrated themselves because what else was there to do when your inner clock was ticking, than to herd round bus stops and coffee mornings and celebrate a kind of viciousness together.
When they'd first landed on the estate, Francis and Mary had moved next door to a young couple in Grove Hill. They were in their early twenties and of mixed race. She was a Boro lass called Maisie who'd worked in one of the bars for the summer, and Joe was a dance DJ from London, whose job had been to play long sets into the night for tourists looking for something cooler than just bar crawls and karaoke mics. They'd already been there for twelve months when Francis and Mary had arrived and quickly the two couples had become friends.
For Maisie it had been an easy transition to settle back. She'd got a job as a beautician in one of the salons in Linthorpe Road and was doing a college course in accountancy most nights. For Joe though it had been different. The brutalist surroundings of the chemical works and flare stacks had been a rude awakening. It had been the background that film director Ridley Scott had based his Bladerunner skyline on, and Joe could see why. It had a similar dystopian setting when it was lit up at night. Such existentialism wasn't just reserved for the architecture however. The bars and clubs hardly paid for his DJ work and the clientele he played for simply didn't appreciate his Technics skills. They would ask him for requests that were more Status Quo than Felix De Housecat. Quite often, and despite his financial fragility, he found himself quitting for the sake of his own sanity.
One day, as Francis was talking to Joe about his lack of employment opportunities, the Middlesbrough man had a brainwave. The steelworks were taking on labourers for a shutdown and he was sure he could get him in, given the right word in the right ear. Sure enough, a few weeks later Joe began work as a general assistant. The work was tough and the conditions were poor, but for fourteen pounds an hour he persevered, toughening his hands from constant blisters and the long shifts until he found himself more often than not enjoying it.
There was camaraderie in the steelworks and despite the curiosity obviously aimed towards his race, Joe didn't think there was any real malice intended. It tended to be the older hands anyway who put their foot in it. Those quarter of Werthers guys who were shuffling towards retirement and tended to say the first things that came into their mouths, as the younger lads shook their heads in bewilderment in the background. Joe got used to it and even joked about it himself to try and defuse the situation.
The liberals were worse, constantly trying to stick up for him when he didn't need them, when actually Joe used such stereotypes to his advantage.
'I don't need anyone to fight baby's corner,' he'd say in the locker room, cupping his crotch like Elvis.
'Not with this big old thing swinging between my legs.'
The roars of laughter that would greet such a display would give Joe a warm feeling. It made him feel clever, like he was a stand-up comedian or street seller playing a crowd to his own advantage. What he failed to realise however was such brashness masked a hidden threat. Not everyone was so receptive to him revelling in the spotlight. Scattered around the locker room were dissidents, those that weren't such a willing audience to his tomfoolery.
One day in the canteen, he looked up to see a loudmouthed scaffolder staring at him. The scaffs name was Lithgo. He was a basic bastard who looked the sum of his parts, both physically and intellectually. He grunted to communicate and had a huge scar that ran from his cheekbone to a neck tattoo that said ‘cut here’ with thin blue inkmarks below, like a tea bag perforation. Rumour was that he'd obtained the scar at a blues party after being slashed with a craft knife and that he had been a cohort of the infamous Middlesbrough gangster Lee Duffy, who'd been murdered in a street fight in the early nineties.
'Stay away from that one. He even hates his chips,' a welder called Franks had said to him one day as they watched him furiously push his dinner around his dinner plate one break time. When they caught his eye, they were both careful to look away like scolded schoolchildren.
Unbeknown to Joe however, Lithgo had something planned for him. Right from the first time he'd spotted the outsider walking into the steelworks, he'd felt a sickness rising in him. That sickness had been bred from generations of hate. From his father and his father’s father before that. His old man would recite to him Enoch's River of Blood speech amongst the pictures of Union Jacks scattered around the household that had little to do with Queen Elizabeth.
He'd even took him on a National Front march in London, giving the young boy a toffee apple as they marched amongst the skinheads in their braces and Doc Martin boots. It was the first steps into his indoctrination of hatred and even though he'd fallen by the wayside at times, like when he'd become friends with a Pakistani boy called Yusuf at school or pinned one of Boro's more continental imports to his wall, the belt buckle or fist was always there to bring him back into line. Now he had boys and belt buckles of his own, the motivations had come full circle. Often when Lithgo looked in the mirror he saw his father’s face, and not his own reflection at all.
Now Lithgo had his duality with Joe, however. As the men chattered away in the canteen, making the sound of a thousand insects, he pointed ominously at him, holding his gaze long enough to keep his attention. From his pocket he then produced a banana. A sickly grin suddenly spread across his face as he peeled it slowly and measuredly, his calloused hands almost treating the fruit tenderly as he did so. Lithgo stood up from his chair, banging his hand on the table in front of him and made a sound that echoed sharply and succinctly above the conversational din.
Most were scared of him and gave him their attention immediately. Those that didn't still looked on in curiousity. As they did so, Lithgo began his routine, slowly peeling and eating his prop whilst scratching his head at the same time, all the while never taking his eyes of his intended target. Joe instantly knew the connotations of the display – it churned his stomach violently. It marked him out as something monstrous and ugly, like a bug that had been caught by a searchlight slowly crawling lopsided in fear up a wall.
As if things couldn't get any worse, then he heard it, nervous at first but picking up rhythm as it revved up around the hall. It was the sound of laughter and with it the sick reveal of the place. These men Joe realised were basic doppelgängers of each other. He stared as their faces contorted in mirth, rows of bad teeth and dirty overalls merging together like skeletons in an uncovered grave, whilst all the while Lithgo stood contented in the background – a sick comedian playing to his audience, safe in the knowledge he would be bought pint after pint at the next EDL rally once word of his performance got out.
From beginning to end, the whole performance hadn't lasted more than sixty seconds, but Joe immediately knew what he had to do. An old Glaswegian called Gregor who'd sat at his table, stone-faced through the display, put a hand on his shoulder like an old-fashioned iron as if to confirm it to him.
'Smack him lad. Smack him in front of everybody, otherwise he'll never stop coming for you,' he said.
The trouble was, stood there, no matter how much Joe had tried to shift his shame to fury and clench his fists into some sort of psychotic reaction, there seemed to be some sort of impotence holding him back. Violence was a switch he instantly realised, a brazen jolt of electricity like Tesla's thunderbolt, and he just couldn't ask upon it. He felt himself screaming inside but frozen physically, and all the while Lithgo slithered away in the distance, belly crawl by belly crawl until eventually he disappeared altogether round the corner, his reputation and Teesside snake skin still intact for another day.
Francis would hear about the incident mid-afternoon. Everyone was talking about it, even the bosses who were busy trying to round up witnesses and evidence to put a disciplinary together. By the time he got to his work station however, Joe had already disappeared.
'He's gone lad,' Gregor told him.
'If he's any pride left he won't back an’ all.'
Francis worked the furnace slowly that afternoon. The great molten bars of metal that passed through his station had more than a little sadness about them. They hissed and spat with none of their usual vigour, but were submissive somehow, passing in single file through a distant gate never to be seen again. He had never thought of their destination before, but now he almost wanted to touch them. Feel the physical part of them before the great fire on their surface pulsed and disappeared into nothing like a fading heartbeat. A brand new friend only passing through for a millisecond together.
They left the Grove Hill estate a short while later, Joe and Maisie. Mary heard them drive away in a car in the middle of the night on one of her midnight bathroom visits. She told Francis the next morning. Over an open dressing gown that revealed a winking secret, she dodged a spitting fried egg on her bare skin as she regaled him.
'I wonder if she left her curtains. They were House of Fraser. They would look lovely in our hall.' She said.
'I can't help but feel sorry for them' Francis replied.
'Her definitely, him not as much.'
'How do you work that out? The lad did nothing wrong.'
'His biggest mistake was not defending himself. He should’ve brayed Lithgo. If a bloke can't stick up for himself he's a target and a target is no real man at all,' she said.
Francis would think a lot of his wife's statement in the weeks after. It seemed cruel at first but the more he stewed about it, the more it made a brutalist sense. Teesside wasn't built on poetry and in the face of violence and adversity, sometimes you had to face it head-on. The alternative didn't bear thinking about. In smoggyland you could be swallowed up like the dead flowers you sometimes saw spewed out over Lackenby by the flare stacks, the fire of industry devouring nature and life within the ash of the ore.
Yes, that had been Joe's big mistake, Francis thought, well that and the fact that he hadn't joined the union. He wanted to tell him too, and even had his chance when he'd phoned up a month or two later for a reference. Instead he found himself strangely thinking of those molten bars disappearing into the furnace and the ether again.
'I'm sorry it had to end this way for you,' Francis said.
Joe had taken a long time to reply. Almost as if he was struggling to compose himself.
'It's not your fault Francis, but men like Lithgo are living on borrowed time. Their wages and ignorance won't last forever. They'll live and die in that town', he'd said.
Joe was eventually proved right They finally got word from the steelworks hierarchy on its imminent closure. For thirty years’ service Francis would receive little more than £18,000, a week and a half's wage for every twelve months he had been at the company. It wasn't even a year’s wages. Francis looked around him and wondered how these men would fare in their communities a year or so later. The drinkers who would bleed out hope and hops in urinals in the Social Clubs, which were slowly eroding too. The permanent worriers, those insect whisperers the dark whose wives would soon crucify them when they no longer brought a wage in.
Francis had read his history. From the miners to the shipbuilders, communities got mothballed when their main employment broke down. As they all worked their notice, it began to affect them all too, as if they already had a rust on them. There was pride in the men of the steelies in what they turned out – the great blocks of steel being shaped and shifted round the world like art sculptures. Like any artist however, when their worth was devalued their heads dropped and their hands ceased working. They took to shuffling around the site as if they were moody teenagers in a bedroom. Waiting for the last klaxon to sound a,s the gates shut forever.
Francis noticed the same moodiness in the clocking-out queue too. A paranoia even, as men scrabbled around secretly to acquire other work for themselves. The biggest fallacy about the working classes he realised was that there was a pure solidarity amongst them. There was integrity of course ,but there were the backstabbers and the self-trimmers too. They were all terrified of unemployment. So much so that they were willing to walk over each other's heads to repel it.
'You found anything yet?' They would whisper amongst themselves.
'Not yet. A few openings, but nothing concrete.'
'Be sure to give us a ring if you do. We’re all in this together.'
'Of course, brother.'
On their final day, they all went for a drink together, like they do when it's Blackeye Friday and all the industries and factories turn out. They all ended up at a Wetherspoons in the town centre with an upstairs toilet and a downstairs state of mind. They drank quickly and violently, and by evening the air was charged as if it had electrodes placed to it.
Francis had already decided he wanted to slip off by then. He'd liked alcohol in his early days, but realised by middle age that it was a terrible corrupter of men, the way it warped and exaggerated things. Pretty soon a man called Eyeball whose left iris was the colour of soiled milk had his top off at the entrance of the toilets, whilst two men struggled to hold him back as if their lives depended on it. Francis sighed at the inevitability of it. He wasn't even a hundred yards from the pub door before he heard the distant peals of police sirens. Their tasers would be snapping like crab claws pretty soon, he thought. He wondered if they'd have enough battery in them.
There'd be plenty of battery on the men's wives though, sure enough. By morning the clatter of kitchen cupboards and cutlery would echo in percussion from Grove Hill to Pally Park, as the men tried to fend off hangovers and vicious insults from their other halves. Those women wouldn't let their partners settle. Experience told them you couldn't let a boozer or a gambler get into a rhythm. They had to keep at them and get them back to graft, otherwise they'd be slinking into Corals and attaching themselves to the hop or the roulette with a bungee rope. Those women had to use every bit of survival knowledge at their disposal, be as cruel as African dictators. For survival and a paid mortgage, they had to be as brutal.
Not Mary. She was subtler than that. She was already playing the long game Francis knew, with one eye on River Island and Franks factory carpets and whatever else she'd already spent his pay-off money on. She'd purred as he walked through the door. He wasn't sure, but he even thought she had a little make-up applied. She had her best face on, as the lasses called it.
'Thought you'd be in later love. I can make you some dinner if you want.' She said, uncoiling herself from the sofa.
'I had a kebab from Venetia's on the way home.'
'Venetia's. Didn't they find a rodent in their deep freeze a while back? I think it was in the Gazette.'
'Well, they're back open now. So I guess they've defrosted it.'
'You shouldn't eat that rubbish, Francis. You're not getting any younger and with your cholesterol the way it is. Maybe with the pay-off money you can relax a bit. Join the gym or take up a hobby. You know you used to like the fishing and although I don't like those worms in the fridge wriggling about, I suppose I can turn a blind eye. There's loads for you to do really. A man of your age. Maybe even….maybe….'
And here came the pay-off line Francis knew:
'Maybe we could even take a little holiday together.'
They took a week’s break to Benidorm shortly afterwards. Francis had never seen Mary so excited for years. She drank cocktails in the airport bar, and then accelerated through the alcoholic gears on the Easyjet. By the time she arrived at Alicante airport she was wild and dramatic like an opera singer in the last act. She scolded one airport worker for checking her bag at customs, flexing her bare clavicles at him like flick knives as she spoke.
'It's like that show banged up abroad,' she slurred.
'You remember that episode Franny. We watched it last year. The one where the student nurse had a bag of pills shoved up her Nu Nu.'
'For Christ's sake, Mary!'
'It's nowt Pedro won't have seen before, eh lad?'
Francis watched the young customs officer mutter something in Spanish. Even though there was a language barrier, he felt they already understood each other.
Francis had felt the heat as soon as he stepped off the plane. It was the first time he'd been abroad apart from a stag do on the ferry to Amsterdam the previous winter. The sun didn't take to him. Middlesbrough men didn't belong on the continent. The sideways sleet and wind that seemed to permanently blow in from the Cleveland Hills left a film of ice on them that instantly thawed in the gnawing heat of Spain. He always knew it was a Teessider when he spotted anyone remotely uncomfortable or blowing like a deflated bagpipe at the pool.
'I understand how Woodgate had such a bad time at Madrid now,' a man with a Boro and proud tattoo written up one arm sidled up to him and said at the hotel bar one afternoon.
'I mean, even his fucking shinpads must have been sweating.'
A Spanish barman called Juan had cocked his head at that, the Teesside lilt only coming alive to him when he recognised a premiership player that had turned up in Li Liga. Especially Woodgate, who had been a pasty English disaster in the blistering Spanish sun.
'Woodgate, was how you say in England, shiiiiiiite,' He shouted across the swimming pool. Like all his brethren he was a football chameleon, someone who only supported Real Madrid and Barcelona. A glory hunter, as they were called back home.
A couple of frontline lads on a bachelor do from Eston had taken offence to his comment. Well, that and the fact that Juan had eyed up one of their girlfriends, a mobile hairdresser who'd had her breasts done on the cheap in Turkey and liked the attention, even from one who wasn't one of their own. They'd waited for Juan by the hotel exit in the early hours and when he hadn't shown they'd gone looking for trouble in Benidorm's main square instead. The Spanish bouncers were their target, as bouncers always were to types like that. The resulting melee had ended up in a mini riot. Two PR's handing out leaflets had been hospitalised and a stripper’s boa constrictor had been squashed underneath the wheels of a skidding Lambretta.
'Serves it right,' one of the Eston lads would later say. 'It should have had its crash helmet on.'
Francis had heard all about it the next day on a pub crawl with Mary. They'd got up mid-morning and made their way up the beach front, which seemed as though it was swept every ten seconds for brochure photos and was patrolled by police staring moodily out of their side windows in aviator shades. Mary seemed happy to have gotten her way. Francis had promised her a day on the lash after an argument the night before that had ended up with her crying on a balcony and saying the most poetic sentence to him that she had in years. Through running mascara and a bloody hand she'd received ramming a wine glass on a wall, the profound had found a way to her.
'There's no interference left in us. I just want to get….well….damaged with you,' she'd said.
He'd felt a glimmer of something for her then and for the first few drinks of their sesh together they'd had a good time, as if some long and distant alchemy still gave them a chance. By the sixth bar however, things began to change. Francis watched her in the Black Chicken, a pub that smelt of cheap sun lotion and meat that had been left out by the butcher for too long. She was in her element. It was like the Social Clubs back home, but as if they'd been put in the microwave. The flow of warm lager and karaoke. Mothers holding on to their children like they were cheap inflatables.
From time to time they pushed one of the bairns up to sing with a great shove of their bingo wings, but the kids weren't victims by any stretch of the imagination. They always rushed to the karaoke mic ravenous with ambition. They knew all the moves. They'd seen all the rounds in X factor. Some even wore mascara, framing innocent eyes with something Francis thought was much darker than their badly applied foundation from Boots or Primani.
The kids always sang in adult voices, trying to stretch their tiny mouths into shapes they weren't made for. It was like they were demonically possessed, especially when they tried to hit the high notes. On the makeshift stage they sang songs from the Greatest Showman soundtrack, Mary informed him but to Francis they could have all been singing in Swahili. In the background their mothers filmed it on iphones ready to upload straight onto their Facebook pages.
It was the new council estate dream. Where once working-class fathers had stood on touchlines flogging their kids like shay horses into a future trial at Boro or Sunderland, now their other halves treated their children like ringmasters in the hope of a television contract. The competition was both feverish and frightening. It reminded Francis of the time Asda had ran out of bread in the great freeze of 2009 and he witnessed a woman threatening an aisle employee with a hand basket.
'You must have a secret stash of Warburton's sliced,' she'd hissed as the chaos ensued around her.
'You shelf-stackers are all in it together.'
Francis always remembered the woman's eyes. Lopsided and mental like a rat in the throes of a pestman’s poison. As he looked around he saw the same pontoon madness in the Black Chicken. People cross-eyed and delirious with the sun and the sangria, flashing their bare torsos and blue veined breasts, with all the sensuality of pub darts. It was a bombardment of the senses all right, mixed together like a bad cocktail.
As he tried to compose himself he suddenly became part of the hedonism. He felt a bony hand nip his arse cheek like a pincer, and even before he turned he was nearly thrust into a conga line searching for the way to Amarillo. It made his head spin and not in a good way. For a horrible moment he thought he was going to throw his guts up on the mostrador. He sat down on a plastic chair warped by the sun, and was immediately nearly decapitated by a young girl showcasing her gymnastic skills. Her Nike Airs made a sound like a punctured balloon as they brushed past his ear as two women scurried behind her, clapping enthusiastically at her impromptu performance.
'Eee, your Carlie has a talent. I wouldn't be surprised to see her in the Olympics in a few years,' the first woman said.
'Never mind her cartwheel, you want to hear her Whitney,' the second woman said, gulping down an alcopop so violently, the plastic bottle popped in its middle in submission as she devoured it.
But Whitney was dead and Britney was reeling and Francis had the foreboding thought that if he didn't get out of that place in the very next instant, something nefarious eating Pringles and with back fat for Devil’s wings would devour him.
He found himself walking alone off the beaten track. It wasn't for tourists eyes. The sun had dried Spain out like an athlete’s blister. The dust and the soil stretched out way up into the hills, where the cracks formed like a bodybuilder’s veins on its surface. Francis kept going, past the old houses where women slapped their washing over balconies and the feral cats roamed like gunslingers on a range. In the distance he noticed a stretch of buildings. As he got closer he realised it was the real Benidorm. Stretches of bars and tapas restaraunts without a fried breakfast or cursing Scotsman in sight. It was the antithesis to the sunburnt dream.
In the midday sun two young boys were teasing an angry dog on the kerb. They poked a stick at it incessantly and it snapped at each of them but it was too old, its teeth rattling like a broken castanet to their impudence. The boys laughed as it did so, and after a while the dog resigned itself to them, rolling on to its belly and then its front with diminishing effort. It was only saved when an angry-faced man – Francis assumed it to be the owner – appeared from a doorway and shouted something to the torturers in his native tongue.
He nodded at Francis as the boys scurried away and over the man's shoulders he noticed the few customers inside. A group of men playing cards. Three of them dressed exactly the same, in striped shirts and slacks like a barbershop quartet. There was a woman, also, black-haired and wiry like a hungry raven. The scene seemed exotic somehow. Like a painting he had once seen at the Mima gallery, depicting an authentic siesta in the blistering, hellish sun.
'Come inside senor. We won't bite,' he heard a voice whispering to the side of him. Francis looked up to see the dog’s owner walking back to the entrance of the bar. He seemed uneven on his feet and Francis suddenly realised he was half cut, as he swayed and then corrected himself like a vine caught in the slipstream of a harsh wind. He was older than Francis had first guessed. He limped as he walked and in his fingers held a long cigarette, which he took affected drags out of, making a whistling noise as he did so. The dog trotted alongside him in perfect synchronicity, its paws kicking up tiny clouds of dust as it did so. For a moment to Francis, it seemed so traditional and elegant somehow. It could have been taking place in the last century, he thought. He wondered if he too was now part of its romance.
The interior of the bar smelt of old spices and worked timber. It was shrouded in darkness inside and Francis had to adjust his eyes as he tried to take in his surroundings. As he did so he noticed that on the walls were various religious artefacts and a series of framed photographs, inscribed with the name of Reyes beneath them. He was a matador, and each of the prints showed him at his profession, administering a different act of brutality. Most involved him skewering a bull with a long sword, which was neither here nor there to a steelworker from Middlesbrough, but meant a lot to a certain generation of Spanish males. Most notably in certain old-fashioned parts of Spain, even Francis realised, the matador and not the premiership footballer was king.
Francis wanted to ask the old man about it, but the septuagenarian seemingly had other things on his mind. As they walked towards the bar to order, the waiter looked up from his stool. He muttered something moodily in Spanish to the old man, who pretended not to hear him. Later Francis would find out that he was under the curse of woman's heart, as his wife had left him for a younger man a few months earlier.
'He's a good guy and good barman, but get him on the subject of his wife and he's a miserabilist.,' whispered the old man.'
'Maybe I should buy him a drink.' Francis said.
'No, put your money away. The first round is on me, and after that….' he laughed, as if he was thinking of his drunken possibilities…..'well, after that, I'm open to your hospitality.'
Francis would find his wallet flapping like a wizard’s sleeve from that moment on. He didn't mind. There were men like his new drinking partner back home too, workshy and bullshitters, but always the best company and storytellers you could ask for. As they drank, the old man told him of his time as a merchant seaman, his great adventures sailing on a fishing boat to faraway places like South America and the coast of Ireland.
He told Francis of his four wives too, and the terrible spiritual and financial pain they had inflicted on him, most notably his third wife who had made him have a vasectomy and then reverse it, just for her own masochistic pleasure. Like all great raconteurs he saved his best anecdote till last, however. As he sunk a particularly severe shot of Tequila, the old man suddenly and dramatically pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a picture of a bull being danced around by a matador. He glanced up reverentially to the picture of Reyes on the wall.
'Lets raise our glasses for Reyes.'he hollered.
The whole bar, even the mysterious woman instantly held their glasses aloft.
'He was my hero,' he said to Francis wistfully. 'It's a terrible shame what happened to him,'
'Was he killed by a bull?' Francis enquired.
'Oh no, the trouble was a lot more self-inflicted. You see, Reyes was the most naturally gifted matador in Spain, but he suffered from terrible flatulence. In his most aroused moments, when he had the Bull’s throat to the sword, he would fart like an oboe. Hemingway said it was because he had an arse like a President’s watermelon. The purists would never take to him. He died penniless after that.'
For the first time, the blac- haired woman in the bar raised her head up from the shadows and laughed like a docker. Her black curls seemed to dance around her face like thick, androgynous snakes. It was a momentary thing however. In seconds she went back to her gin and her seclusion, like she was beyond redemption from it.
'What's her story?' Francis asked.
'That, my friend, is Estrella Lupo. The greatest female wrestler Benidorm has ever seen.'
'She doesn't look like she could arm wrestle a tea towel,' Francis said.
'Don't underestimate her appearance. She's a demon in the square circle. As a baby she used to suckle bark not the tit.'
As they talked, Francis noticed someone else staring at her. It was one of the three men he'd noticed when he first glanced into the entrance of the bar. He was middle-aged and overweight and reminded Francis of those bus drivers that you always saw being cruel to pensioners on busy routes. He seemed agitated and angry and suddenly began trying to stand up at if he was on the verge of announcing something. Every time he did so however, his friends pushed him back down, like they were parents to a naughty child trying to get its own way.
'Sit down Gerald. You're making a scene,' one of them said.
'Yes, please not this again. You know what she's capable of,' his other friend insisted, putting a hand on his shoulder and driving him back onto his stool with increasing ferocity.
Gerald however was having none of it. There was something behind his eyes, like a rabid dog, an appetite for both violence and performance that couldn't be extinguished. With a sudden great gazump of his flabby shoulders he burst free of conspirators and clapped his hands overhead to make sure everyone in the bar was listening to him.
'I think I can take her today.' He barked, as his friends both shook their heads.
At those words, the old man sitting next to Francis, suddenly came to life. A childish grin spread across his face like an excited conspirator.
'Sounds like our man is throwing here is throwing down a challenge ,Estrelle.'
All eyes turned to Estrelle Lupo. There was a glorious silence before she emerged from the silence with an inquisitive eyeball and eyebrow arched like it was already mocking the challenge.
'Pah, his arms are like a sickly child. I'll break his back.' She said.
'Fifty big ones says you can’t.' Gerald said.
'Thrown down your Euros then, Porky Pig. I could do with some skipping exercises.'
As Gerald duly complied with her request, the waiter jumped from his stool to make a kind of ring in the centre of the bar. He seemed happy for the first time, as he arranged various stools and tables to form a squared circle. As everyone started to gather round, the two competitors began their preparation. Gerald quickly began doing a series of exaggerated and complicated stretches. As he did so he emitted a number of grunts and hisses like a broken water boiler, as he psyched himself up for the bout. Estrelle simply took a swig out of an open bottle of gin and stripped to her bra and knickers, rolling her eyes sarcastically at the man's aerobic display in front of her.
'What if he tries to molest her?' Francis asked.
'Believe me. It won't last that long,' the old man replied.
As they all watched on, the waiter retrieved a small bell from behind the bar and rang it. As the match began, it was instantly noticeable how both competitors had differing styles. Gerald decided to make himself as big and as physical in the makeshift ring as he possibly could. He clenched his fists as white as teachers’ chalk, and planted his feet to the floor much like a good goalkeeper would, ready to spring into action at the first opportunity.
Estrelle on the other hand was the complete opposite. She prowled on the outside of her opponent like an electric spider, offering feigns and half attacks, hopping from one foot then the next in smaller and smaller circles. Trying to suck Gerald in with her surprising agility.
'She's trying to get on his inside,' the old man said to Francis.
'That's where she always defeats him.'
Estrelle however had made one crucial mistake. As she skipped around the floor, a nearby by table was being shaken and disturbed with increasing ferocity until it was able to stand up no more. As she shuffled into position one more time, it went crashing into her, sending her surprised and sprawling to the floor. Gerald immediately saw his chance. He dived instantly onto Estrelle's back and bent one of her legs outwards at a horrible angle, looking for an instant submission.
'Ask, her referee. Ask her,' he shouted excitedly, looking for a tap out.
Estrelle, however, wasn't quite done yet. Beneath Gerald, she began to squirm and shift like a earthworm pushing its body through the rain soaked dirt. She gained millimetres at first as her opponent still applied his attempted submission but slowly but surely she gained momentum, and with cunning guile began setting up something of her own with it. Without realising it, Gerald was being moved into position and he realised it too late as suddenly and ruthlessly she swept out from underneath him like a black wave and dug her nails into his shoulder blades like they were eagles’ talons.
She wasn't finished there. As he cried out in pain, she began to charge him from behind, across the makeshift ring towards a closed window with increasing velocity. Faster and faster, as everyone watched open-mouthed, only releasing him as they both threatened to crash through the glass like a pair of runaways. She exited just in time but it was too late for Gerald. He exploded through the frame and into the street without an almighty roar. As everyone rushed towards the broken glass, he lay dishevelled and motionless, like a freshly discovered corpse on the floor.
'Is he dead?' Francis asked.
'I think so,' the waiter said. 'I can't see his chest moving.'
Within minutes, the scene had other spectators, as various customers and bar owners crowded round to see what the fuss was about. They were inquisitive at first, jostling for position with good humour as they tried to get a good look at the man motionless on the ground. Meanwhile, Estrelle had got dressed and went back to her position in the bar, like a great black chameleon.
As Francis tried to spot her through the broken window however, suddenly he felt a few eyes trained on him and it wasn't hard to see why. With his pasty complexion and supermarket shorts, he had English written through him like Blackpool rock. As the bad feeling rose, he then heard a man say something angrily in Spanish and then another as the waiter stepped forward to remonstrate. As he did so, the old man from the bar nudged him, a worried look now spread on his face.
'Time to slip off my friend. They think because you're English, the trouble has something to do with you.'
As the distant sound of police sirens took everyone's attention, Francis seized his chance. He walked quickly and silently to a side street and slipped around it without anyone even noticing he had gone. He walked vaguely back in the direction he had come, his heart racing in worry that a braying mob might suddenly appear behind him, looking for revenge. The sun had disappeared by now, leaving behind the sticky heat of mid evening, and that added to his paranoia.
His shirt stuck to him and every so often he had to brush away a sentry of insects that seemed to converge around him in increasing clusters. As he swatted them away, he felt his energy sapping in sickening waves. His earlier intake of alcohol and the heat had started to bring on the first rushes of dehydration. He began to feel dizzy and disorientated, as if he were about to fall into the path of the oncoming traffic, whose headlights seemed to blind him with their full beams.
After a few moments it passed. He could see the same hills he had walked past and on the horizon the flickering lights of the high-rise hotels that their owners crammed the English into like fresh sardines. He didn't think he'd ever been so happy to see a Union Jack hung over a tenth floor balcony, nor the inflatable penises that rose to attention for the hen parties like the Queens perennial soldiers. As he got closer, the smells of the English invaded him: Joop perfume, Femfresh, Blue Wkd and the familiar battle cries that went with them. The tribalism of football chants, the chorus of the latest Rita Ora number and the banshee-like screams of sudden violence, which usually grated on him, now were like Beethoven's fourth symphony to his ears.
In many ways in fact, Francis thought, it was so good to finally be home.