Black Hats by Chris Green
Promise and I are looking out onto a rocky outcrop in Es Calo de Sant Agustí in Formentera. We are sitting under a sun-bleached parasol outside a small café in the secluded bay. We are staying a hostal nearby. Beyond the pier, a handful of fishing boats rock gently in the shimmering sea. The afternoon sun is beating down on this modest paradise. We have not ventured far today. Most people here are having their siesta at this time of day. We had ours this morning, twice.
Formentera has been described as Ibiza’s shy little sister. For centuries it was adrift from the rest of the world, unknown and unvisited, a desert island made almost uninhabitable by pirate raids from the African coast. Accessible only by boat, it has submitted to tourism less than other Mediterranean islands. Pink Floyd pitched up here in the nineteen seventies but little else has happened since. Our sleepy resort seems especially tranquil. It is a small fishing village on the east of the island at the foot of La Mola mountain. It is built around a tiny pier where slipways carved into the rock slant to allow boats to be beached. It encourages indolence. You are already where you want to be. But we may take the bus to the hippy market at El Pilar de la Mola tomorrow. Promise thinks she might be able to buy some lapis lazuli earrings. It doesn’t look far on the map. I wonder if I might buy a hat. A Sevillano perhaps with a band or a black Cordobes.
We are the only people left at the café. Through the shutters of a window nearby, we can hear soft violin music playing. It has a melancholy air. Do violinists feel sad when they play like this or does playing sad music make them feel happy? The sun goes behind a cloud but only for a few seconds. It is the only cloud in the sky. As Promise and I sip our glasses of anis del toro, we watch a pair of feral cats scrapping over someone’s leftover escabeche, a few tables away. The singing waiter who seemed so convivial at lunchtime has not been around to clear the mess up. Might he be the source of the violin music?
‘I had a cat that liked listening to Vivaldi,’ I tell Promise. ‘His favourite was the Double Violin Concerto in D. RV511. He used to sit on the arm of the settee purring, his back arched confidently, his head tilted slightly upwards, a picture of contentment.’
‘Really?’ she smiles. ‘RV511, eh?’
‘I had to make several trips to the music library to build up my Vivaldi collection.’
‘You’re winding me up.’ she says.
She pushes my shoulder with both arms, nearly upending my blue metal chair.
‘No. I’m not. ……… You’re probably wondering what my cat was called. His name was Dave. He was black with a discrete patch of white under his chin. Forget T. S. Eliot! Dave is a proper name for a cat, don’t you think?’
Promise agrees Dave is a great name for a cat, much better than Skimbleshanks or Macavity, and definitely better than Shaun or Simon. Apparently, she knows people that have called their cats Shaun and Simon.
‘Another favourite of Dave’s was Largo from Winter from The Four Seasons. He would stretch out in front of the fire and roll over to have his tummy rubbed.’
‘A bit like you then. Except it’s not really your tummy you want rubbed, is it?’
‘Dave was not keen on jazz. If I played Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis, he slunk off to the kitchen. If I put on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, which I didn’t that often, he spat and snarled.’
‘I don’t blame him,’ said Promise. ‘I might spit and snarl if you put that on.’
‘When Tara was about sixteen, she played CDs by metal bands with names like Gutworm, and Fleshcrawl. Dave didn’t like that at all. He used to claw at the window trying to get out. Music clearly affected his mood. …… Dave disappeared last year. Just like that, one day there, the next gone. I was beside myself for weeks. He was like a member of the family.’
It seems remarkable I only met Promise a month ago. We hit it off straight away and despite both being married, began a clandestine liaison. We were perhaps less than discreet and it was not long before her husband, Craig began to suspect something was going on. He followed us on one of our assignations but rather than tackle us head-on, paid a visit to my wife, Chantelle. Without listening to whatever limp excuse I might try to come up with, Chantelle threw me out. The double-whammy was that Chantelle’s father, Trent Madison was my boss. He fired me. Craig meanwhile took to sulking in their spare room. Promise said she could not stand the atmosphere. He watched her every move and made sarcastic comments every time they met in the shared space. Out of spite he took the scissors to one of two of her dresses. She had to get away. We decided to escape to the quietest place we could find, take time out, and try to work out what we should do. After three days on Formentera, we still have no plan of action.
Formentera wasn’t our first choice but there were plenty of flights to Ibiza and Formentera was just a short boat ride away. Our cab from the airport, an old red Fiat that kept breaking down, took us through a patchwork of pine plantations and uncultivated scrub. The ten kilometres took over two hours. Javier kept us entertained with self-deprecating jokes and let us share his empanadas. As we approached the east of the island, we were treated to an array of brightly coloured shacks, with bohemians buzzing around on funky mopeds with didgeridoos on their back, evidence of Formentera’s hippy heritage.
It is late September. Despite the blistering heat, this is considered to be out of season. The locals tell us they expect the weather to break soon. We have not come across any Brits. The few tourists there seem to be German. The locals took us to be German at first, which is unusual. Mediterraneans have an uncanny knack of spotting where you are from before they hear you speak. I have dark skin, so it must be Promise’s blond hair and startlingly blue eyes that throws them. Although they might get Promise’s blond hair and startlingly black sunglasses most of the time. I am probably the only one who has seen her blue eyes lately.
I met Promise inauspiciously at ETB. She was having a new set of tyres fitted to her Tigra for its MOT, and my Toyota had just picked up a puncture. Our fascination for the AutoCar magazines on offer in the reception area was short-lived, which meant that my gaze met hers and vice versa and we struck up a conversation. The conversation began with camomile tea. Promise was disappointed that the drinks dispensing machine suppliers had overlooked its popularity. Camomile tea led on to a wider discussion of beverages and before we knew it we were at a wine bar sharing a bottle of red. The speed at which our relationship developed shocked us both. We were both touching forty, although I was touching it from the wrong side. For our first arranged date, we watched a Senegalese quintet play a lunchtime session at The Jazz Bass. See what they’ve done there, bass/base. I hadn’t until Promise pointed it out. Our second date was at Promise’s. Craig was away and I suppose that was where it really began. I stayed over and we took the next day off work and had lunch at Soups On and went to see a Spanish movie, El Hombre del Sombrero Negro, at the arts centre.
A German couple in their fifties wearing walking boots and crumpled fatigues place themselves at a nearby table. They take off their matching khaki rucksacks and place them on the table. With an exchange of grunts, they pass the remains of a two-litre bottle of water between them. The woman makes a facial gesture to suggest that the water is warm. They both turn and look towards the café, as if this might make someone appear. I try to tell them that probably no-one is going to serve them. They do not understand my English, or in fact my German, es gibt keine herum. Not a good translation, or perhaps not a good accent. I make appropriate gestures. They ignore the gestures. Perhaps they think I am crazy. The woman takes out an H and M cigarette pack and lights one. We return to our cultural divide. Out in the bay, an incoming boat sends a gentle ripple of water towards us. A clump of cirrus cloud is forming now in the northern sky. A black dog is playing in the surf. It does not appear to have an owner.
‘When I was little, I had a dog,’ says Promise. ‘You’re probably wondering what my dog was called.’
‘No,’ I say.
‘I know you are, really. He was called Murphy. Murphy’s a good name for a dog, don’t you think?’
‘Great name for a dog, Murphy. Better than Graham. I know someone who has a dog called Graham,’ I tell her.
‘Listen, will you? Murphy kept running away, so I bought a dog whistle.’
‘A Day in the Life by The Beatles is one of my favourite tunes,’ I say.
‘And I’m supposed to guess the connection,’ Promise says. ‘What’s that got to do with Murphy?’
‘I’m told that between the final crashing E major piano chord and the backwards tape loop, there is an ultra high-frequency sound that alarms dogs. ….. I tried it out on Dave but he is completely un-phased by it. He just carried on grooming himself, or sleeping, or whatever he was doing at the time.’
‘I suppose it’s all down to the frequency of the sound,’ Promise says.
‘I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Dave seemed to be most in tune with the sound of the fridge door opening. In D minor, I think.’
‘But what about Murphy? Don’t you care what happened to Murphy?’
‘I expect he kept coming back when you blew your dog whistle.’
We walk around the bay. It is now late afternoon. There are a few more clouds in the sky and a stiff breeze coming in off the sea. It will be dark around seven and we are looking for somewhere to have our evening meal. If we time it right we will catch the sunset. We pass two mature agave plants. They have magnificent flower stalks several metres high.
‘It is an agave Americana,’ I explain to Promise. ‘It’s sometimes called the century plant because of the time before it flowers. In actual fact, it is nearer to twenty years.’
‘Still, that is a long time to wait.’
‘It stores up enormous food reserves in its leaves, flowers, and then dies.’
‘In Mexico, they make a drink called pulque by cutting off the flower head and collecting the rising sap, as much as a thousand litres per plant! They distill pulque to make the spirit mescal.’
‘That’s like tequila, isn’t it?’ Promise says. ‘That’s deadly.’
‘Mescal’s more so. And it has a worm in the bottom of the bottle which you can eat.’
‘Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.’
‘If you’re not sick first.’
‘And others claim it is a hallucinogen.’
‘But it’s just a marketing gimmick, right?’
‘Probably. Most people who are going to drink the stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max?’
We watch a pair of seagulls dive in and out of the water. Quickly the whole flock catch on that something worthwhile is happening below the surface and the air is alive with squeals.
‘Seagulls are very clever,’ I say. ‘They learn behaviours, remember them and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.’
‘Has anyone ever told you, you’re a bit like Google,’ Promise says. ‘You have an answer for everything.’
‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘I never said it was an attractive quality. You can be a know-all sometimes. I bet you were one of those nerds that were always top of your class that no-one wanted to play with.’
‘For the record, I was always near the bottom,’ I say. ‘And I had lots of friends.’
‘I had a dream last night that I was lost,’ Promise says, after we have finished our gazpacho manchego.
The remains of the sunset turns from red to indigo on the western horizon.
‘It is nighttime and you and I have gone for a drive and the car is not handling well. I’m not sure which of us is driving, but the car is going all over the road. There are tramlines and potholes, and barriers where there should not be. I think that it’s you and me in the car but I’m not sure as your identity keeps changing. One minute it is you and the next minute it is someone else. We are on the outskirts of town in a place that is half familiar but at the same time, it is not. The dream narrator says I have been there many times before. I recognise the places although they have changed, and try to bring to mind what they are called. There is no-one else about. It is as if there is actively no-one about, like an energy of there being no-one about. Like you can feel before an electronic storm. It is high up and I can see over a precipice where it is light. It is a yellow-orange light and it has sharp edges. Everything is cast into silhouette by the glow. I can hear the hum of distant traffic but it has a strange echo like you get in the cinema. The whole dream has this rumbly echo. I am scared.’
I see a break in her narrative and start to relate my recurring dream about the man with the black hat who wants to steal my fly-fishing rod.
‘Shut up for once and listen,’ she says. ‘Now you have gone off with the car and I am alone or I have gone off with the car or there was no car and I am walking around in a big old stone building that I do not know. I think I have been in the building before, but I don’t know now what it is. It has many floors and stairways that only go up one floor at a time and I am walking along a long dark corridor and a hollow voice says you should not be here. I have to get out of the building but I cannot as the stairs do not take me to the exit and I keep coming back to the same place and I’m frightened and when I do get out of the building I am even more lost and now there is a dark wood. The wind is whistling through the pines. Over here says a voice and then a man in a black hat grabs me from behind and ties me up and I am unable to move. I think I have been kidnapped. ……. And then I wake up. And you have your arm around me. What do you think it means?’
‘I don’t know baby,’ I say, wondering if I should get back to explaining my recurring dream. I decide against it.
We arrive back at the hostal. We have had quite a lot of wine and we lurch up the stairs and fall onto the bed. We left the windows open when we went out and the shutters are now rattling. It seems that the locals were right, the wind is getting up. A storm is brewing. Who would have thought this afternoon that the island’s weather could change so quickly?
We lie on the bed, silent for a while, listening to the wind.
‘What do you want?’ Promise shrieks, suddenly. ‘We have to behave like grownups sometimes, you know. Everyone wants something from someone. What do you want from me?’
This has come out of the blue. I am taken aback. I think about a reply, but I’m not sure where to pitch it. I want love, affection, approval, understanding, and lots of sex. I’m not sure this is the appropriate answer. By the time I have composed a suitable reply, she has passed out.
I lie there for a while wondering what she might be trying to say. Is there something I have missed? She has been behaving strangely this evening. The lightness of our usual rapport has been absent. Do I not listen to anything, she said. You are completely self-obsessed, she said. Am I solipsistic? Are we all solipsistic? Am I so unused to emotion being expressed? Perhaps we have had too much to drink. The Fundador brandies after the meal were probably a bad move. Have I misjudged the intensity of our relationship? Could it be I have made a mistake investing so much faith in Promise? Should I maybe have stayed with Chantelle? Could I have stayed with Chantelle? Could we have made up? It crossed my mind I had probably been self-obsessed most of the time with Chantelle, constantly putting up a front or dismissing her suggestions to hide my insecurities. These thoughts go round and round in my head before finally, I fall asleep.
I wake at 5 a.m. with a head like a Birkenhead building site. Hard rain is pounding against the window. It is still dark. A rumble of thunder is followed a second or two later by a flash of lightning that lights up the room. Promise is no longer with me in bed. …… She is nowhere in the apartment. I open the window to the balcony. The driving rain forces me back. Why on earth would Promise have ventured out in this? It would be suicidal to go out in this. She must be somewhere in the building. I call out her name over and over but get no response.
Our hostal only has about eight rooms and most of these seem to be vacant, probably due to the early end to the summer season in Formentera. There are no night staff so I am unable to ask if anyone has seen Promise. I put on my parka and begin a search. It is still dark and the powerful rain makes it even more difficult to see but I manage to make round it to Punta Grossa where Promise sketched the rocks on the first day we were here. She could see faces in the rocks, she said and pointed some out. She told me how Salvador Dali used the figures he saw in the rocks at Cadaqués, when he was a boy, in his later paintings. Despite all logic, I call out her name in the hope that she might have come here. Even if she were here, she probably would not hear me. The waves crashing against the rocks sound like an avalanche. I am wondering already if I will ever see Promise again.
As I push against the wind, a succession of images of the past few weeks flash through my mind, snippets of our brief time together. The time we caught the wrong tube from Victoria late at night and ended up in Brixton. We got home just in time to see the sunrise. The time at The Black Hat Café when Promise knocked a bottle of wine over and it went all over the waiter. Somehow she managed to get us a free meal because a little of the wine had spilt on to her dress. The way she smiled when introduced to someone. The warmth of her skin, the touch of her fingertips. The way she flicked her hair back when she was excited and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous. The time I remarked how organised she was, and she said ‘I write down tasks after I have done them so I can cross them off my list.’ All this gone.
A slither of daylight appears on the horizon, beneath the banks of black clouds. I carry on around the coast to Racó de s’Anfossol, where Promise and I sat on a bench looking out to sea. I took photos of the sunset. For a moment, I think I see the silhouette of a figure in a black hat and go over to investigate, but it is a rock sculpture. There are several others nearby. Balancing rocks on one another is a local pastime here.
By 8 o’clock, I have searched the bay area and I am absolutely drenched. The hostal reception is now open. Serafina who has just started says she has not seen the senora today but says she will ask the others later. What others, how much later, I enquire. Serafina is the only person we have seen behind the counter since we have been here.
‘She was talking with man in black hat two days time.’
‘Two days ago?’
‘Si, two days ago. You were in sleep, I think’
‘Black hat, you say?’ I think back to the phantom figure I saw earlier but dismiss the thought.
‘Senor, senora has iPhone? You could call her perhaps.’
Why hadn’t this been the first thing I thought of? Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of a signal on this end of the island. I phone her now. Through the open door, I can hear the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme start up, so Promise has not taken her phone. For some reason, Promise has allocated me this ring-tone. What is it with black hats? Serafina goes through the motions of looking in the rooms that are unoccupied and knocks up the two gay Germans in the room across the corridor from ours. They don’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There is no sign of Promise.
All manner of possibilities raise their heads. I really do not know all that much about Promise’s history. Does she have any enemies? Who is the man in the black hat? Has she been kidnapped by hippies? Does she have suicidal tendencies? Or has she just walked out on me? Had I missed clues? Were there signs I should have spotted? If someone was planning a disappearance, they would be likely to go about it in a systematic way. The same applies to finding someone who has disappeared. Blind panic will get me nowhere. I need to be methodical.
I check the room. She appears to have taken nothing. Her money and passport are here. All her clothes so far as I can tell are all still here along with her floral tote bag. Her makeup, her toiletries, her jewellery are all still here. The only thing I cannot account for are her sunglasses. Why would she just take her sunglasses in the middle of a raging storm? I check her phone. It is a relatively new phone. She only has a few numbers on it. Craig trashed her old one – with extreme prejudice. Apart from the call from my number just now, there are no calls in or out from the last three days. Contacts contains several of her friends whose names I am familiar with but have not met, her doctor and dentist, Ticketmaster, and Donald Finch. Is that the Donald Finch, the Wizard of Weird?
There are just ten messages received and sent, all about a week ago. I note that all of my texts seem to have been deleted. There is an exchange of messages with her friend Cadence about the dialogue from Pulp Fiction. You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris, Royale with cheese, etc. Is this some kind of secret code I wonder, before dismissing the idea. Promise talks about movies a lot. She used to teach Film Studies. I understand Cadence was her colleague at the technology college. Still very odd, though, not a very girly conversation. And, there is a message from Donald Finch which says cryptically, the man with no name wears the black hat.
All in all, I don’t have a lot to go on. Is it time to call in the police? Or would they just laugh at me saying something sarcastic like: ‘Dios mío, ella se ha ido por seis horas, es mejor que Interpol contacto.’ Although my Spanish is passable, it would be difficult to convey the gravity of the situation. How many British couples have a row after drinking too much in a Spanish bar and get separated? I’m not even sure there is a police station on the island.
When someone has gone missing, do you stay where you are hoping they return or do you go looking for them and risk missing them if they return? There are strong arguments for both. Clearly, if there are more than two parties involved, the remaining parties can make an arrangement and you can take both courses of action. But here there are not more parties, there is only me, and I am beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything concerning Promise’s disappearance. Easy explanations are out of the window. It is as if some occult force is at work.
It is 11 o’clock before I come to a decision. The storm has now blown over and the wind has died down. There is a calm and it is as if the storm never happened. Waiting here in the hope that Promise may return also as if nothing has happened is driving me nuts so I think I may as well go the hippy market in El Pilar de la Mola as we talked about. It is a longshot but I’ve nothing better. I discover that for some reason there is no bus to the market today and begin to walk. I have a map.
I am heading inland. It is mostly uphill through a wooded area. After a few hundred metres I run into Jesus with a guitar across his shoulders where the cross should be.
‘Buenos dias senor.’
I show Jesus a photo of Promise that I have on my phone. It is a full face one, complete with sunglasses that I took yesterday. ‘¿Has visto a esta mujer?’
‘Probablemente ha sido llevado a S’Espalmador por los cultistas,’ he says.
She has probably been taken to S’Espalmador by the cultists.’ he says, in English ‘Los Elegidos, The Chosen Ones.’
His delivery is so deadpan, it is hard to tell if he is joking.
‘Where?’ I ask.
‘S’Espalmador, it is an island to the north of Formentera. At low tide, you can wade across to it. es deshabitada tal vez.’
He lights a joint, takes a pull on it and offers it to me. I take it. Things can’t get much stranger, can they?
He sits down on a rock in a clearing and starts playing a tune. I’m not sure I know it at first then I recognise the line, don’t think twice it’s alright.
‘Perhaps she needed to get away from you to find herself. Did you think of that,’ Jesus says, when he has finished playing.
I hand him back the joint. I have not smoked dope since about 1941 and it may not have been so potent back then. My thoughts are racing like a chariot while time itself has come to a standstill. Everything around me is changing colour and dissolving into fractals. It takes me a while to respond to Jesus’s question, if indeed it was a question.
‘What?’ I say.
‘She may have thought you were robbing her of her spirit,’ he says and with this starts strumming again. This time, it is Cat Stevens’ Wild World. The same sort of theme really, goodbye and good luck with your new life. I thought I was Promise’s new life.
What is Jesus trying to do and why is he doing it? Does he know something about the situation that I don’t, or is he just playing with my head? I have the joint back now. The jangling guitar chords are echoing around my head, doing cartwheels and somersaults. It is as if a small orchestra is playing. After another toke, the landscape takes on the appearance of a blurred impressionist painting but at the same time, has sharp clear edges. I am transported back to a time before the big bang. What is this stuff we are smoking?
There is another tune coming from my pocket. I finally realise it is my phone from back in the twenty-first century. My heart stops. It will be Promise calling to let me know what has been happening. But it is not Promise, I see from the display. It is Chantelle. Calling from the old planet. What kind of conversation can I have with Chantelle over such distances?
I am talking to Chantelle but I have no idea what I am saying or what she is saying. I’m not even sure if it is friendly or unfriendly; I left these concepts behind on Earth. We talk about something or other for several minutes, but afterwards, I have no recollection of what it was. When we have finished talking, I am alone again. There is no sign of Jesus. He has vanished.
A trickle of holidaymakers in cars and on mopeds pass me on their way to the hippy market and some of them beep their horns or wave in a friendly manner. The sun is nearly overhead already. The chirping of cicadas reverberates in the still air. I remember reading that this is the mating call of the male and can be heard by the female a mile away. Ahead, in the distance, I can see colourful hints of a festive gathering, but as I move towards it, it seems to get further away. A bent old crone in widow’s weeds appears out of nowhere and approaches me. Up close, her skin is like leather and her wrinkles look as though they might have been furrowed by a shoemaker.
‘You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘You’re looking for Promise.’
I wonder if I have unwittingly entered the twilight zone.
‘Have you seen her?’ I blurt out.
‘She’s no good, you know,’ the crone continues. ‘She’s trouble, that one. Sold her soul to the devil, she has.’
It is hard to see what connection there might be between this hysterical witch and Promise.
‘Do you know where she is?’ I ask, resisting the urge to grab her by the throat.
Harpy ignores my question and carries on with her tirade. I stride off purposefully to put distance between this nonsense and me. When I was very young I remember having nightmares about a hag like this. Night after night I would wake up in a sweat. I hear her ranting now until her chatter gets drowned out by the sound of music from beyond. The music is getting louder but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. They are playing Dark Side of the Moon. I recall that Dave loved Pink Floyd. I can picture him clearly, on the rug in front of the fire, purring contentedly when I put this on. I might not get the chance to mention Dave’s love of classic prog-rock to Promise. I seem to be going backwards in time and space. I may never reach the market in El Pilar de la Mola.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved
One thought on “Black Hats”
Things are not always what they seem, are they Chris. You certainly played rings with the smoke in my mind! Very well written and absorbing.