The Cats of Ronda

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The Cats of Ronda by Chris Green

If you visit the historic city of Ronda in southern Spain, you are likely to notice that the cats scurrying around under the tables at alfresco restaurants for scraps are slender. While you are wondering whether to toss them the skin from your monkfish, what you may not be aware of is that despite their being small in stature, these Andalusian felines possess age-old mystical powers. It is thought that the cats of Ronda originated long ago in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians knew a thing or two about the magic of cats. The ones that made the millennial odyssey through North Africa and came over during the Moorish invasion were probably the pick of the bunch. Down through the centuries, their progeny may have inherited their ancestors’ numinous gift.

On my occasional trips to Spain, I had not come across them. It was not until one evening over dinner during a stay in the fabled city that I began to notice them.

‘That one is called Layla,’ said the stranger in the white linen suit, pointing to the small black cat at the foot of my table. We were outside a small restaurant just down from Hemingway’s famous bullring. ‘She likes slices of grilled squid. I think that if you tipped your plate up and let her have those pieces you have left, you would in some way benefit from a modicum of good fortune.’

‘Ha! You think it’s as easy as that,’ I said, to humour him, more than anything else. Why was this roué wearing that thick gold earring, I was thinking? It looked ridiculous on him. He was much too old for such adornments.

‘Try it, my friend,’ he said. ‘What have you got to lose?’

I felt I was due some good fortune. Things had not been going well of late. The very reason I had come to Ronda was to get over a failed business venture and put a jaded relationship behind me. The sunshine of Andalusia was a big attraction and Ronda, being some distance away from the teeming crowds of the Costa del Sol, seemed to have a special appeal.

Still a little concerned that my fellow diners would disapprove or that the waiter might come over and read the riot act, I slyly slid the slices of squid to Layla. She gathered them up and took them to a darkened corner of the courtyard to feast on them. The stranger meanwhile finished his Mojito cocktail and got up to leave. He shook me by the hand and, with a glint in his eye, said, ‘Layla will remember you now, my friend. You should be on the lookout out for a pleasant surprise.’

I took this with a pinch of salt. Spain, just like anywhere else today, was overflowing with charlatans. But, when I got back to my room at Hotel Farolito, there she was, waiting. A vision of loveliness. Long black hair, little black dress and a smile like daybreak. At first, I assumed I had walked into someone else’s room. I was about to apologise and take my leave when I thought to check the number of the key I had in my hand. 101. It was the right room. No doubt about it. This was Room 101. I was searching for a rational explanation and mumbling something incoherent, when she said, ‘I thought you wouldn’t mind, querido, if I joined you. I’ve put my things in the wardrobe. I hope that is all right.’

While it seemed fortunate that I had booked una habitación doble, first I had to allay my fears that this was a set-up. When you have been down on your luck for a while, it’s only natural to be a little suspicious of serendipity turning up unannounced. Especially in such a dramatic way. Besides, the shady character in the white suit who had promised the good fortune was hardly the sort you would buy a second-hand car from.

‘I’ve read about you and seen your picture in the paper, cariño,’ she said.

This was strange because the only time I could recall being in the papers was when Jimmy Jazz Enterprises ceased trading. Perhaps she was thinking of someone else, I suggested.

Somehow we got over our uneasy start and before long, we were getting along like a house on fire. A man can never be certain of a woman’s motives, but Isabella presented a convincing case that her intentions were honourable. She spent twenty four hours reassuring me in the nicest possible way, after which time I was too enamoured to care.

We talked a little about cats during this time, as you do. Isabella maintained she knew little about them but I was able to do some basic research on my laptop. I found out about the cat’s place in Egyptian society. Cats it seemed were a symbol of grace and sang-froid and because they possessed mystical powers they were considered sacred. As a result, for over a thousand years, Egyptians, the most advanced civilisation on Earth worshipped a succession of cat deities, the most powerful of these being Bastet, Mihos, Sekmet and Mekal. It was important for citizens to own a cat and well-bred felines were exhibited in shows. When a cat died the family would go into mourning and prized animals were often mummified.

I don’t know how we ended up going to the restaurant I had been at the previous evening. It’s possible that it might have been Isabella’s idea. I was not sure what to expect. While I had mentioned the strange encounter to her in passing, I had kept my cards close to my chest with regard to the detail. This time, it was late, nearly eleven, and there was no sign of the stranger in the white suit, but there were plenty of cats still skulking around. Towards the end of our fried calamari in tartare sauce starter, a slinky white one, so white it was almost luminous, came over and sat expectantly at the foot of our table. My thinking, perhaps helped along by the second bottle of wine, was, if black cats, traditionally thought of as a bad omen, brought such bounteous good fortune, then who knew what delights white ones might bring. I tossed a couple of the fried rings down and the cat gobbled them up.

‘You really shouldn’t have done that,’ said a dark figure emerging out of the shadows. He had long, uncombed black hair and was wearing skin-tight black trousers and a ripped black t-shirt with white lettering in an unfamiliar script. He could have almost been auditioning for the part of Bob in Twin Peaks.

‘You will regret it,’ he said as he stepped into the light, his sinewy tattooed face trembling with menace. He continued in Spanish. ‘No todos los gatos de Ronda traen buena fortuna. Ese gato es malo. Muy malo.’

A bad one? I wanted to challenge him on this. Who was he? How did he know the cat was bad? He clearly intended it to be a short conversation. He said I would find out soon enough. Muy pronto. Adios, amigo. He was gone like a thief in the night. He probably was a thief in the night. He was certainly not Santa Claus.

My attention had been so totally taken up with Twin Peaks Bob that I had not noticed it. But, when I turned back around, I couldn’t help but notice it, There was no-one at my table. To my alarm, Isabella too had vanished. I looked frantically around but she was nowhere to be seen.

‘Did you see where the woman who was sat with me went?’ I called out to the young couple at the only other table that was occupied. ‘La señora? Has visto?’

‘No había mujer. Estabas solo,’ said the man. ‘Hasta que ese hombre llegó.’

No matter how absorbed with one another they were, how could they have not noticed Isabella?

‘What about the man who came up to us?’ I said, ‘El hombre de negro.’

They had not noticed him either. Were they blind, or something?

None of the staff at the restaurant or any of the neighbouring bars could shed any light on what had happened. I didn’t say anything about the cats, as I was still thinking that there might have been some kind of chicanery and clearly, I couldn’t go to the police. I went back to Farolito hoping against hope that Isabella might be there. She was not. I spent the night worrying about her and about what the man in black had said. Was something terrible going to happen? When would it happen? Could he merely have been referring to Isabella’s disappearance? Maybe I was taking a pessimistic view, but I thought not.

What made me decide to return to the restaurant the following lunchtime, I cannot say. Maybe I thought Isabella might re-appear but quite honestly I had to admit I was clutching at straws. I had not been there in daylight before and although there was the distinct possibility that I was courting danger, there was the possibility that revisiting it might offer some clues as to what was going on. When strange things have occurred there is a natural urge to solve the mystery. I realised that I had either been badly distracted or woefully unobservant because I did not even know what the restaurant was called. As I approached in the light of day, I could see the sign, in bold lettering. It was called Los Gatos de Ronda. This somehow put a different complexion on things. The restaurant was a celebration of the contribution of the cat to Andalusian culture.

If I hadn’t been staring so intently at the display graphics, I might have been aware of the rider of the Kawasaki motorcycle bearing down on me. I might have stepped out of the way and avoided the accident which left me with multiple head injuries. Dr Hernandez thought it was too early to tell if there would be lasting brain damage, but he said I needed to stay in hospital for three or four days so they could keep an eye on me.

While I was lying there, the question I kept turning over and over in my mind was whether there was any justifiable reason to connect the Kawasaki ploughing into me with my having fed calamari to the white cat. No matter what the madman in black had said, such a proposition seemed to belong to the world of hocus-pocus. For one thing, I was not superstitious. I never had been. But, there again, rational thought seemed somehow to have jumped ship at Malaga. Whether there had been a causal connection or not, I could not deny that the accident happened in the wake of his warning. Or earlier that Isabella had appeared shortly after the lounge lizard had said something good would happen.

When you are in hospital, time hangs heavy on your hands, in foreign hospitals, even more so. You hear all this chatter going on around you in a foreign language. Admittedly my Spanish had improved of late, and I could make out some of what was being said, but I felt I needed to talk to someone in English. Out of the people on the ward, Javier was the only one who could speak good English. He had spent many happy months, he told me, as a marketing manager for a biscuit manufacturer in Ashby de la Zouche. He was gay, he said but sadly it was not yet fashionable to be gay in North Leicestershire so he came over to Ronda, where there were more opportunities to meet like-minded people. Javier’s tale of how he came to be in hospital was a strange one indeed.

‘You are probably not going to believe this,’ he said. ‘I’m in here because I fed the wrong cat at a restaurant. A tortoiseshell tabby. It looked hungry and I offered it some of my carabineros. A thug dressed like Benito Mussolini shouted something threatening at me and shortly afterwards I was viciously attacked by a Cambodian monk with a prayer wheel.’

I told him about my experience with the Twin Peaks Bob figure warning me something bad would happen after I fed the white cat and afterwards the Kawasaki running into me. Then I told him about feeding the black cat and the fellow in the white suit predicting good fortune followed by my finding Isabella in my room.

‘That’s uncanny,’ he said. ‘I shared my halibut with an Egyptian Mau cat. Pope Francis appeared out of nowhere and said I had done a good thing and would be rewarded and I found a Marlon Brando lookalike in my room.’

‘Early Marlon Brando, I trust,’ I said.

‘I take your point,’ he said. ‘It was The Wild Ones era Marlon Brando. The Godfather version wouldn’t get me going.’

‘So you are saying there is something of a pattern.’

‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Fernando over there fed some of his mackerel to a Siamese and was rewarded with a Euro millions win. But after he let a short-haired Burmese have some of his crayfish, he was struck over the head with an Abba statuette by a dwarf in a wheelchair.’

‘Astonishing,’ I said.

‘I believe the whole ward is full of people who have met with misfortune after feeding cats,’ he said.

‘What do you think is going on?’ I asked him.

‘You must have read about the special powers of the cats of Ronda by now,’ he said.

I confided that I had found out a little.

‘Well! Clearly, there are two distinct groups of cats,’ he said. ‘One group uses its special powers for good and the other uses them for evil.’

‘Good is usually associated with those that are group minded and evil by those who have broken away, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Civilisation is based on rules and conformity.’

‘But this is all subjective. There are different thought systems, different cultures, different religions,’ he said. ‘There is no consensus.’

‘That’s right,’ I said ‘But, within each of these the notions of good or bad are based on conformity.’

‘I can see what you are saying, but this is still a simplistic view,’ he said. ‘Animal instincts promote survival and aggression.’

‘And in our scenario, we are talking about both people and cats,’ I said. ‘So how does it work?’

‘I can’t explain the supernatural elements,’ he said. But, I think that we ourselves might have a bearing on what happens to us. What each of us considers good or bad comes into play. For instance, I have always gone for hunky men like Marlon Brando, so it’s only natural that my visitor should look like Marlon Brando and I was brought up as a Catholic, hence Pope Francis. On the other hand, I have never liked military uniforms, hence Mussolini. Mussolini was obsessed by military uniforms.’

‘So far, so good,’ I said. ‘But, what about the Cambodian monk attacking you with a prayer wheel? How does that fit in?’

‘Good point,’ he said. ‘I can’t work that one out. Anyway, it was just an idea. I think perhaps we have a long way to go before we come up with a solution.’

‘It probably doesn’t help being in hospital,’ I said. ‘We can’t even get the internet in here.’

‘I’ll see what Pedro can find out,’ he said. ‘He has an iPhone.’

Unfortunately, this was the last conversation I had with Javier. Dr Hernandez wouldn’t tell me but I think Javier may have been discharged early. I never did find out who Pedro was.

My injuries must have been more serious than first thought, because each time I asked when they were going to let me go home, Dr Hernandez told me that I was not ready yet, but as long as I kept taking the medication, he was optimistic that it would not be more than a month or two. During this time, I had dozens of conversations about the cats of Ronda. They followed a similar pattern throughout, some good experiences mixed with some bad experiences, all of these happening after they had fed cats. Luis found himself on a paradise island but was then bitten by a poisonous snake and Maria Elena landed a modelling contract but was badly scarred when a UV light exploded. Diego was hit by a train. Diego seemed to have missed out on the good experience or perhaps he just couldn’t remember. I think they had put him on extra strong medication on the basis the injuries he sustained from the collision. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was but I couldn’t help but notice that everyone on the ward seemed to experience complications with their recovery and be kept in for longer than you might expect.

Juan Pablo didn’t think that Dr Hernandez was a real doctor or that we were in a real hospital. He thought that we were being held captive against our will. I told Juan Pablo not to be a fool. Of course we were in a real hospital. They gave us medication every day to make us better, didn’t they? In the end, Dr Hernandez had to restrain Juan Pablo once or twice, which was not at all pretty.

Eventually, I was discharged. It was a fine day and once I had got my bearings and checked back in at the Farolito, I went along to Los Gatos de Ronda. I sat there all afternoon but the strange thing was, despite the menu now consisting entirely of fish dishes, I didn’t see a single cat. What on earth could have happened to them all, I wondered? After my third Alhambra Mezquita, I plucked up the courage to ask the proprietor where all the cats were but he did not seem to know what I was talking about. He told me he had only recently bought the restaurant. He did not even know why the place had been named Los Gatos de Ronda, he said, it was a ridiculous name.

‘I have a painter coming in to change the sign,’ he said. ‘I’m going to call it La Cocina de Pescado.’

I was not sure of the exact translation but it was to do with fish. Something about it was definitely fishy. …… Perhaps all of it.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

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Concerto

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Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of Spain. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s piano sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. At this stage, fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concert No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copy writers. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

‘For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

‘But I thought it was alright now,’ says Nia. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

‘It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many it is a hand to mouth existence.’

‘I did see a few beggars.’

‘Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

‘I see.’

‘But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised, it has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

‘That’s nice,’ says Nia. ‘Where is that from?’

‘Satchmo,’ says Red.

‘That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ says Nia.

‘Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

‘It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ says Red. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

‘Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

‘It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

‘Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

‘You mean …… the big chords?’ says Nia, taken aback by the image.

‘Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at a lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

‘That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

‘That’s cool then,’ says Red. ‘You’re hired.’

‘But it can’t last,’ says Nia, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

‘Nothing’s incurable,’ says Red, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older that you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

‘Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

‘That’s the common myth isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

‘How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

‘I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

‘What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there. ‘I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

‘Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

‘You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

‘In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ says Loup.

‘I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ says Nia. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

‘Its impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

‘And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

‘Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

‘And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

‘France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

‘So the French were the worst,’ says Nia.

‘No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

‘Not a lot of comfort, really.’

‘Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ says Loup. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

‘I know,’ says Nia. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

‘Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

‘Fire away,’ says Nia.

‘I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ says Loup. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

‘With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ says Nia.

‘I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

‘I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.

‘I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

‘Does he have big hands?’

‘Yes, he does as it happens,’ says Loup. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

‘Blacksmith,’ Nia finishes his sentence.

‘How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved