This is a short story, in 1340 words. It was prompted by this photo, seen on Sue Judd’s blog.
Emiliano stopped to take off his straw hat, and wiped his head with a large handkerchief. The bags he was carrying were not so heavy, but it was a hot afternoon, and he wasn’t getting any younger. It was another twenty minutes before he got home, and Conchita was sitting outside on a chair, shaking her head as she watched him walk up the hill. He dropped the bags by the entrance, and she turned to him with a resigned look on her face. “Look at the state of you, hot and bothered. I bet you walked the long way again, didn’t you? Stupid man, with your silly superstitions”.
Pointing to the corner, she indicated the small shop with the coloured umbrellas outside, just a few yards away. “You should go that way, past Pablo’s shop. But no, you always have to go the long way. People laugh at you, you know. It’s embarrassing for me. They mutter as I walk past, or speak in the queue behind me at the market. I bet they are saying that I am the wife of stupid Emiliano, the grown man scared of a small shady street”. He ignored her nagging. He was used to it, after fifty years of marriage. Picking up the bags, he trudged up the stairs to their apartment on the second floor. He would have himself a cold beer, standing on the balcony. Get some breeze, if there was any.
Sipping the beer on his tiny balcony, Emiliano turned away from the corner closest to his home, and stared down the hill in the direction he had just walked. Let them laugh, he didn’t care. He knew better.
More than fifty years earlier, the town looked much the same as it did now. Pablo’s father had run the small shop back then, before an electronic cash register replaced the old wooden box Mr Rodriguez kept under the counter, and all the fruit and vegetables stacked outside were now kept in cardboard boxes. It was the summer before he and Manolo were due to report for military service. A hot summer, one that seemed to drive Manolo crazier than usual.
His best friend appeared to be trying to do everything, before the two years they would be away in the army. He had tried to persuade Emiliano to accompany him to the town of Santa Anna, so they could pay a prostitute, and lose their virginity. But he had no money for such things, and he was too scared that his mother might find out. Instead, Manolo went to see Dona Martina, waiting for her as she returned from her outhouse. She wasn’t called ‘the friendly widow’ for nothing, and she eagerly accommodated the wishes of the excitable young man.
He came to tell Emiliano about his newly-confirmed manhood, boasting as they wandered down the street. “I’m sure I was the best lover that old lady has ever known”. He slapped his friend’s back, before beginning the story all over again. Right from the part where he hissed to her from his hiding place behind her house, and she smiled her welcome.
As they approached the shady corner just beyond Mr Rodriguez’s shop, Manolo suddenly turned, grabbing some fruit from the stand outside. Now old man Rodriguez was a tolerant soul, and knew everyone in their small town. But he didn’t tolerate theft. If Manolo had asked for the fruit, he would have probably have given it to him. But when he saw the loudmouth just take it and carry on walking, he ran out from his shop, shouting angrily. Emiliano stopped still, eager to tell the shopkeeper he had done nothing. But his headstrong friend ran off into the shade laughing, and flinging the fruit away as he ran. Mr Rodriguez gave chase, but he was a fat man, and not used to running. They both disappeared into the darkness around the corner, leaving Emiliano wondering what he should do.
He waited in the hot sun for what seemed like ages, before venturing around the shady corner, into the familiar street. It wasn’t a long street, giving way to the road out of town in just a few hundred yards. It felt unusually cold that day, and even allowing for the shade, the small street should still have been stifling. And it was deserted too. No shoppers, nobody just strolling, every house and apartment shuttered for the coming siesta. Neither of them could be seen. Hard to imagine that the corpulent shopkeeper would have carried on running until the main road in those temperatures, and Manolo would have easily left him behind, long before that.
They were never seen again. The police were alerted, and concluded that Manolo must have done some mischief to the older man, then run away after hiding the body. Despite the frantic appeals of both families, only a rudimentary search was conducted, and the case left unsolved. Mrs Rodriguez had to tell Pablo to finish High School early, so he could run the shop. And when he went into the military, her cousin came down from Garancha to help her. Emiliano searched high and low for his friend. He covered the whole district, right up until the time he had to report for his army service.
After that two years was up, he returned to the town, and was introduced to Conchita by his uncle. It seemed the thing to do, to marry the girl, and he got a decent job at the brick works outside the town, working in the office. So he rented the apartment where they still lived to this day, and they had the church wedding that was expected.
No children came. She blamed him, but back then, nobody went for tests. Instead, Conchita sought the advice of busybodies, old women who sold her foul remedies. None of them worked, so she continued to blame him, and he ignored her, as he had become used to doing. He worked at his job, and she kept the house. But he never once set foot in that shady corner again, or the street beyond. After he retired, they hardly spoke any more, and Conchita seemed to delight in mocking him at every opportunity. So many wasted years, and never a mention of his close friend, or old man Rodriguez.
Emiliano finished his beer, and stood up. Putting on the bright blue baseball cap that his wife hated, and a light jacket, he went downstairs and walked past her without a word. Gathering speed, he turned into the shady corner, and walked into the street without hesitating. It was cool, just as he remembered. And there was nobody around, the houses shuttered and silent. He set a good pace, and was soon approaching the junction with the main road. His heart skipped a beat as he saw Manolo waving to him from the end of the shady thoroughfare. He was smiling, young and fit, carrying a small suitcase in his left hand. He shouted, “Come on, Emiliano, we will miss the bus for the army”.
Looking down, Emiliano recognised his own clothing from decades earlier, and the small suitcase that his mother had packed for him. He walked to meet his friend, and they grasped hands. Manolo turned, hearing a throaty engine sound. “Here comes the coach. We will soon be soldiers, my friend. Let’s promise to try to stick together, yes?” He nodded, and they climbed onto the waiting single-deck bus. He would do his service once again, this time with his best friend. And when he came home, he would tell his uncle that he didn’t want to marry Conchita.
They sent young Rosa to get Conchita from her chair. The girl grabbed her hand, leading her around the shady corner. Halfway down the street, some people were standing around the lifeless body of Emiliano. He was lying on his back, still wearing that silly blue cap.
And he was smiling.