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Authors: Derek Robinson

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The Eldorado Network

BOOK: The Eldorado Network
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THE ELDORADO NETWORK
Derek Robinson

©1979

'Scratch a Spaniard and start a fire.' Old Spanish saying

PART ONE
Chapter 1

When Luis Cabrillo awoke he did not open his eyes.

It was seven o'clock; the sunshine had just reached his face, easing him out of sleep and warming his skin most pleasantly. He knew what he would see when he opened his eyes: a sky of such a clean and tranquil blue that it would seem illuminated, lustrous, a soaring reminder that heaven was indeed more than a priest's promise; not that Luis believed in heaven, but in Spain even agnostics acknowledge that God makes a good case for His existence. Good, but not good enough.

The sunlight bathed his eyelids while he enjoyed the excellence of the sky in anticipation. It was going to be another good day: no cares, enough comforts, all the enjoyment and entertainment he wished. His eyes opened and he saw, through the high, half-open casement window, a sky of infinite sweep and tenderness. He stretched his arms above his head, grasped the brass rails of the bed-head, and breathed the beautiful air deep into his lungs.

Luis Cabrillo was twenty-two years old. He was securely locked in an apartment on the third floor of a house in the middle of Madrid. It was 27th May 1941, and he was as happy as any young man who had been locked in a third-floor Madrid apartment for over two years could be.

Distant feet sounded on the stairs, climbing slowly. To Luis Cabrillo the sound was as comforting as an old, familiar tune: he recognised the steady rhythm, the pause for rest on the landing below, the slowing of pace as the stairs became steeper, the change of tone when linoleum gave way to wood. There were five steps to the board that squeaked, then three to the one that creaked, and two more to the top. (That final foot-fall always came slightly later and heavier, as if to celebrate its arrival.) Shuffle. Clink of crockery. Pause while one might count to six, before the key rattled into the lock. A click, a clank. The door opened. In came breakfast.

'I finished Stamboul Train last night,' Cabrillo said. 'Excellent, most enjoyable. Get me more Graham Greenes if you can.'

The old man put the breakfast tray on the table, carefully, so as not to spill the coffee. His breath was whistling softly in his throat, and he could see little red sparks drifting across his eyeballs. 'She told me to tell you something,' he wheezed. 'But I've gone and forgot.'

'I still have a few of Ernest Hemingway's short stories to read,' Cabrillo said. 'Try and get me some more of his stuff too. Hemingway. Can you remember that? Also a man called Joyce, James Joyce. Can you remember? I'd better write them down.' He got out of bed.

'I can remember, I'm not that stupid.' The old man went over to the window and looked down at the street. His body, once thick and powerful from a life of labouring, was now thin and shrunken, so that the front of his trousers had to be gathered in a big tuck under his belt. Only his fists remained their old size, and the skin on his heavy fingers was mottled like the margins of an old book.

'I'll write them down,' Cabrillo decided. 'There's a couple more I want you to look for. Russians in translation. You can't be expected to remember them.' He sipped his coffee. 'Hey!' he said. 'No eggs. You forgot the eggs.'

'That's it. That's what she told me to tell you. You don't get no eggs today.' The old man perched on the window sill and rested his head against the glass. 'I told you I'd remember it.'

Cabrillo looked for an explanation. None came. 'What went wrong?' he asked. 'No eggs . . . That's never happened before. Did somebody drop the bowl, or something?'

'Drop the bowl?' The old man chuckled wheezily. 'Nobody dropped the bowl, my lad. We've got plenty of eggs downstairs. You're the one without the eggs.' He yawned as the sunlight warmed him.

'What d'you mean? I don't understand.' Cabrillo split open a roll and buttered it. Rolls and coffee: that was all the tray held. 'You know I always have eggs for breakfast. What's up? What's the matter with you all?'

For a long moment they looked at each other. Both were chewing: Cabrillo on his buttered roll, the old man on his gums. Cabrillo was puzzled, a little annoyed; the old man was thinking. 'Nothing the matter,' he muttered.

'Well . . . For God's sake go and get me my eggs, then.' Cabrillo pulled off his pyjama top. A seam split. He bundled the garment and tossed it in the old man's lap. 'And get me some more pyjamas too, while you're at it.'

The old man opened the bundle and found the split seam. His fingers clumsily fitted the edges together. 'It'll mend," he said. 'Besides, you can't have new pyjamas. That's what she told me to tell you. The money's all gone.'

Luis Cabrillo stopped eating. For a few seconds he stopped breathing. So did the old man, startled by the impact of his own remark. His words seemed to fill the room, expanding in power and meaning until they made him afraid of what he had said. 'That's why you got no eggs,' he explained nervously. 'No money, see. All gone.'

'But that's impossible!' Cabrillo put down his cup without looking and slopped coffee over the table. 'I gave you enough to last for three years, at least. What have you done with it all? Where's it gone? You can't be serious, I don't believe you, it's too ..." He began pacing about the room, searching the walls for an answer, pounding pieces of furniture with his closed fist. 'Three years! God in heaven, what's become of it? I gave you a fortune, you said yourself when . . . This is absurd, it's crazy. How can you have the gall to try and tell me  -- '

Cabrillo turned angrily, accusingly, and saw that the old man was gazing absently at a little dribble of coffee running off the edge of the table. Cabrillo slammed his palm against the spillage and made it spatter everywhere. 'Listen!' he shouted. The old man twitched and turned his head. 'What the hell's going on here? Three years, we agreed! Now you wander in and park your ancient backside on my window sill and casually tell me my money's all gone! Where has it gone? Because it certainly hasn't all gone on me, has it?'

'Yes,' the old man said. He eased himself from the window sill and used the pyjama top to mop up the spilt coffee. 'Yes, my friend, it's all gone on you. Every last peseta.'

'Gibberish! Junk! Poppycock! That's utterly impossible, and you know it.' Cabrillo found himself gasping for breath. His heart had started thudding like a badly tuned engine. There was a taste in the back of his mouth which he had almost forgotten: panic, or fear, or was it the excitement of risk? 'Go and fetch my eggs, damn you!' he ordered.

'Every last peseta,' the old man said. Slowly he refolded the pyjama top so that the dry part was outwards, and he polished the table. 'See . . . things have changed while you've been here. Prices have gone right up. Food's not as cheap as what it was. Oh no. Nothing's cheap any more. It's the war, see. Money won't buy what it used to, not even yours, and you can't blame us for that. Blame the war.'

'Blame the war? You think I'm feebleminded?' Cabrillo cried. 'The silly bloody war's been over for years, you doddering old fool!'

The old man licked a finger and tried to rub out a scratch. 'No, no, no,' he said patiently. 'Not that war, not our war. I'm talking about the one they've got going on now. The Adolf Hitler war. The big one.'

'My God,' Cabrillo said. 'Is that still happening? I thought the Germans beat everybody. I thought it was all over.'

'Oh no,' the old man said. 'It's still going on. They say it's only just really begun.'

'I'll be damned.' Cabrillo sat on the bed and massaged his face.

'It's your own fault, isn't it? If you won't read a newspaper or listen to the radio, how do you expect to know what's happening?' The old man shuffled towards the door.

'Has the money really all gone? Truly all?'

'Every last peseta.'

'Jesus . . . You might have given me some warning.'

'Well, funny you should say that. I've been meaning to mention it. As a matter of fact she kept asking me to tell you there wasn't much of it left. Every morning she mentioned it.'

'So why didn't you?'

'Must have forgot,' the old man said. Cabrillo listened to the sound of his footsteps going downstairs: an old, familiar tune, being played backwards for the last time.

He went over to the mirror.

'No money,' he told himself accusingly. 'So what the hell are you going to do now, idiot?'

Chapter 2

On this day -- 27th May 1941  --  Louis Cabrillo was certainly the best-read 22-year-old Spaniard in Madrid, probably in Spain, possibly in Europe. Throughout the previous two years and one month he had been in hiding, never leaving his third-floor apartment, and reading on average a book and a half a day, say ten books a week, which came to about eleven hundred books in all. The old man  -- he was the building's caretaker  -- bought the books for him at secondhand bookstalls or from foreigners he accosted outside hotels or railway stations. All the books were in English; Spain's censors automatically banned anything in Spanish that seemed interesting, whether it was subversive or not; or perhaps they defined subversion as anything interesting; so Cabrillo read whatever British and American books the old man brought him. The old man knew no English, so the result was extreme variety: everything from Zane Grey to Bertrand Russell, and from P. G. Wodehouse to Walt Whitman. In one memorable week Cabrillo read sixteen novels, plus an 1896 book on how to play rugby football, a veterinary guide to pig breeding, and the Royal Automobile Club's Handbook for 1923. Of them all he found the pig-breeding manual by far the most interesting. He was impressed to learn that a boar's penis is shaped like a corkscrew, and the more he read about the sexual habits of the domestic pig the more he came to understand that animal's challenging yet slightly cynical expression.

This two-year feast of reading was an attempt to repair his education, which (he now saw) had been a disaster.

Luis's father had been a traffic manager with Spanish railways; a restless, questioning, dissatisfied man who wanted to make sweeping changes in the running of the whole Spanish railway system. His ideas were good but his manner was abrasive; he was too impatient to spare the time to try to persuade people; he had a talent for turning a discussion into an argument and an argument into a scathing denunciation. What's more, he was bad at his job. Routine work bored him. He let the daily chores pile up until the backlog created an exciting conflict which was worth tackling, at which point he tackled it with enormous skill and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, rail traffic in the rest of his section moved sluggishly in fits and starts. Whenever this poor performance was pointed out to him, Luis's father struck back with an angry, brilliant analysis of how superbly the entire railway network could be operated once his ideas were adopted. He was not a popular man.

The trouble with Luis's father was that he was too difficult to be tolerated and yet never quite incompetent enough to be sacked. (Also he had an uncle who was a director of the company.) So he constantly got transferred.

The Cabrillo family rarely stayed longer than a year in any one town. By the time young Luis was fifteen they had lived in Barcelona, Seville, Cadiz, Ayamonte, Badajoz, Cordoba, Bilbao, Madrid (twice), Valencia, Valladolid, Alicante and Zaragoza. Luis had been to twenty-seven different schools in thirteen towns, and he had been kicked out of twenty-three of them. The other four schools were actively considering expulsion at the point when Senor Cabrillo announced that he was transferred yet again and thus saved them the trouble of deciding.

What was wrong with the boy? 'Luis is highly original,' wrote one headmaster, 'and this must be curbed if he is to make any progress.' Many tried; all failed. Trying to curb Luis's originality was like trying to train a butterfly to travel in a straight line.

He had inherited his father's restless, questioning nature. There were many aspects of education which he refused to accept, starting with history. When he was nine he wrote an essay on the Spanish Empire which pointed out, amongst other things, what good luck it was that the U.S.A., not Spain, got California, because now America made all those terrific movies in California, and everybody agreed that Spanish movies were fucking abominable. This was a phrase which Luis had just picked up without bothering to examine its meaning too closely. His teacher beat him and burned the essay in the school yard. Luis was hurt, not so much by the cane as by the school's refusal to discuss his case or even to define his crime.

From that day on, he knew that school was a battlefield, and he was determined never to surrender.

The battles were fought in every classroom. When he was twelve, Luis refused to read Don Quixote because, he told the teacher of Spanish literature, he found Cervantes unreadable.

'How fascinating!' the teacher said. 'And how privileged we are! Luis Cabrillo, despite his inky fingers and his scabby knees, knows better than Spain's greatest writer!'

'I didn't say that, sir,' Luis replied. 'I said I can't read Don Quixote, because it's boring.'

'But this is a revelation!' the teacher said. 'One wonders how all those millions of intelligent men and women who have read and enjoyed Cervantes' masterpiece could have been so mistaken, so misled, so misguided.' The class tittered 'Were they all just poor hoodwinked fools, Cabrillo?'

BOOK: The Eldorado Network
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