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A Matter of Latitude

A Matter of Latitude

Book excerpt

Celestino

The ocean heaves to its own pulse, angry and insistent, forcing its bulk against the rock; my wet and salty companion, silent, even as it roars. The tide runs high, the wind cyclonic, waves spill their spray into the fisherman's hut through the window cavity. The boom as each wave hits sends a lesser boom through me.

I'm using a wooden table with a missing leg as a barricade. Also occupying the fisherman's hut are two backless chairs and three wooden crates, their slates rotting and brittle. In a cracked plastic bucket are short lengths of frayed rope, discarded as useless by their owner, along with scraps of fishing net, tangled and no good to anyone.

I huddle in the back corner of this cold cell of a room with all the detritus, for all the good it's doing me. I can hear the canine, sniffing and whimpering outside: my stalker. The cavity should have been boarded up against the wind and the spray that coats everything in salt. My only comfort, it's too high for the dog.

The cavity must be too high for the dog or it would have leaped in for the kill by now. Unless it's building up the courage or figuring out its approach. I don't care to think about it. The barricade would be useless against that snarling beast, but I'm not crouched down here on the cold stone floor hiding from a four-legged enemy.

I reassess the condition of my body. I'm not in good shape. The dog bite on my left calf is bleeding through my jeans. I can feel the blood, sticky and warm. My left arm is a mess. Broken at the shoulder, it hangs, limp and unusable, the pain throbbing in time with my heartbeat. If I move, even a fraction, daggers of agony radiate through the whole of me, eclipsing the searing pain of the burns I received exiting the car, burns on my face and my hands.

I managed to get far enough away before the whole crumpled metal carcass went up in a ball of flame, despite the rain that had started teeming down. The wind that came with the rain sent the flames my way, scalding patches of exposed skin, singeing my hair.

The dog can smell my blood, my weeping flesh. Hungry, feral, it shouldn't be out here where there is no other food but me.

I'm as hungry as you are, buddy.

The accident is stuck in my head on replay. It was a miracle I got out. How the hell I managed to grab my rucksack is anyone's guess, but I was motivated by its contents, or one particular item among the rest, my daughter's birthday present. What happened? The storm happened. I knew it was coming, it was the talk of the island, but I thought leaving at midday would give me ample time to drop off a painting to a regular customer, a Swedish doctor with a smart villa in the little village of Mancha Blanca, and make it back up the mountain to my wife's parents before the birthday party. Erik was insistent he wanted the work this weekend. And I needed the cash, not least to recoup the cost of what was inside that pretty wrapping paper. I was on my way to the party when the impact occurred.

That stretch of road is narrow and flanked by dry stone walls. Drivers shouldn't put their foot down, but enjoying the lack of hairpin bends, they do. I didn't see the vehicle that ran me off the road at the intersection and slammed my car into a wall. No, I definitely didn't see it coming. It was a large vehicle, that is all I recall, much larger than my own little car that flipped over and spun and came to a rest upside down.

The driver sped away and I was alone in the wind and the rain. I got out as fast as I was able, a sixth sense telling me that was no accident and the driver would come back to make sure of his success. Paranoid thoughts maybe, but then again, maybe not. I wasn't taking any chances.

Besides, the stink of petrol was strong and the hiss and sizzle under the bonnet augured only one thing. My car was going to explode.

Nursing my bad arm, I walked, heading off up the road and into the rain and the wind, following a natural sense of direction away from the village and down a lonely track that led as far from other people as it's possible to get on the island. I trudged along, determined, not thinking straight, my instincts telling me to head in a direction no one in their right mind would head in a tropical storm. The dog joined me as the farmland gave way to lava scree on both sides of the road, or at least, that was when I became aware of a scrawny, bedraggled-looking mongrel trailing behind.

I ignored the dog and kept walking, arriving at the coast and a fork in the road about half an hour later. My mistake was to pause to get my bearings. I was assessing the best way down to the cluster of fishing huts when the dog seized the moment and attacked me from behind, sinking its jaws into my calf. I hurled the rucksack at the dog's head, it was the only weapon I had, and it was sufficient to startle the dog. It released its grip, giving me enough time to reach down and fumble around in the grey light for a rock hoping there'd be one. My hand curled around hard stone and I hurled it at the beast's flank. I detected a thud and a yelp. Taking no chances, I found another rock and then another. The dog scuttled off. Heaving the rucksack on my right shoulder, I limped down the track to the east and pushed on doors until I found one open.

I knew once I'd settled into my damp corner of the hut that I was trapped. That the moment I headed back up the track I would be exposed, visible, vulnerable to a second dog attack. I also knew that whoever had run me off the road would want to make sure I was dead.

Or maybe they thought I was dead.

I soon would be.

The dog, my companion, had made me a prisoner. It can't get in and I can't get out. How long can I ride this out?

I have water, at least I have fresh water, a whole two-litre bottle, unopened. It added extra weight to the rucksack. It was the primary reason that first blow hurt the dog. I have snacks I carry with me on the road, chocolate, protein bars, nuts, treats for Gloria, a picnic of sweet delights now my rations.

I have two options. I can walk back, or I can stay here, eating and drinking what I have, and wait until some holidaymaker or fisherman comes by, and hope they do before whoever ran me off the road arrives to finish me off.

What am I thinking? No one comes here in winter. Not in weather that brought the ocean right up to the fishing huts. No one would think to come here. Only me. I wish I could turn back the clock and tell my feet to walk in another direction, towards the village, towards safety and civilisation. But I had my reasons and those reasons still hold true.

I am cold, my clothes are drying on my body. I huddle, trying to trap my own heat. The only parts of me that are generating warmth are my burns, my shoulder and my calf.

The calf wound bothers me. I need to bandage it to stop the bleeding. What else is in the rucksack? I reach in and pull out a little scarf. I hesitate. Part of me doesn't want to tie my leg with Gloria's dress ups. But it's silk and will tie tightly so I use it.

Satisfied I've done all I can, I sit on the cold concrete, bring my knees to my chest and lean against the wall. I shiver. My teeth rattle. Every movement sends red hot pain through my shoulder.

Delirium takes hold. Sleep comes in snatches. When it does, I dream. I dream the dog has my leg in its jaws and chews at my living flesh as though I am already dead meat. Part of me watches on in terror as the demon dog salivates and moans and growls and licks at the gash in my leg, savouring the taste.

With dawn comes fresh fear. The rain has gone. The dog has not. It guards my hut like a beacon to anyone passing.

Paula

I repress a moment of irritation, wishing I hadn't agreed to have Gloria's party at my parents' house. It was so much larger, they said, and tidier—something else I can't dispute. Yet it's the last house on the northern edge of Máguez and although scarcely two kilometres from Haría, no one will want to risk the drive. A tropical storm, a rare event on Lanzarote, has chosen this very afternoon to lambast the island.

All I can do is wait and hope. I've no mobile reception and I never thought to give the guests my parents' number.

There were numerous warnings. The weather bureau saw it coming for about a week. The little supermarkets at each end of Haría's plaza were both busy when I drove past earlier, locals stocking up on essentials before the storm struck. By then it was already raining. The media advised people to stay at home once the storm intensifies, avoid the roads, and if the road to Yé is any indication, so they have.

Perhaps we should have cancelled, or postponed. I considered it, but Celestino questioned the veracity of the warnings, and my parents said they would never cancel a birthday party over a bit of inclement weather.

The guests were due at two and it's gone half past. I stand at the guest-bedroom window, peering into the grey for cars emerging from down the road. The thickness of the wall, about a yard of basalt, affords some comfort. I lean against it, the stone cold against my skin. An irascible wind funnels through the gaps in the casements. The shutters, open and fastened to the façade, judder and clap. I'm reluctant to venture out to close them. It would be too much like sealing myself in.

Gloria is in the kitchen, oblivious to my concerns. Her ebullient little voice bounces around the farmhouse walls, off the concrete ceilings twelve feet high, fragmenting into a confusion of numerous little voices, her simple bold talk obfuscated by its own echo.

Angela and Bill are keeping her entertained.

I should join them and make the best of things, but I can't help holding fast to my post at the window in the absence of Celestino.

He usually keeps good time, although when I went to the studio I understood he wanted to complete the island landscape on his easel, a commission for a Swedish doctor who owns a villa in Mancha Blanca. Finding him crouched over the work, I arranged my face into something I hoped appeared accommodating, but he didn't look up. It's a complex piece, a dance of earthy tones in the style of Matisse's fauvist period, Celestino yet again shunning as a source of inspiration the Picasso-inspired works of Lanzarote's beloved César Manrique in favour of Picasso's rival. Even then, behind his back I observed the work with grudging admiration. When he said, 'Quiero terminar esta esquina,' and pointed at the bottom left corner, adding a polite but firm, '¿Vale?' I knew it would have to be okay, the Swede is keen to take possession and we need the cash, even though I also knew he'd be late for his only daughter's birthday party. Leaving the studio, I struggled to hold back my displeasure.

The storm intensifies as I watch. The soft branches of the shrubs in the front garden, normally sheltered from the prevailing wind by arcs of stone wall, are receiving a lashing. In the field across the road some newly planted maize is already flattened. It's a harsh irony that a storm, with its deluge of rain, damages the island more than the long dry spells. All that rainwater lost to the sea. Taking in the thick cloud hanging low, the volcanoes shrouded in grey, it's a scene anathema to the bright blocks of sunny colour found in those depictions of the island in paint and photograph alike, depictions coveted by the tourists. I fold my arms across my chest, shove my hands up the sleeves of my dress and pinch my flesh. Cheap and cheerful, isn't that what the world wants? A cheeriness reflected in Manrique's abstract artworks. But not in Celestino's. Instead there's a brutal truth in his paintings; he refuses to sweeten the pill. Celestino, where the hell are you? I stare into the grey harbouring a vain wish that the sun will shine for my little girl's birthday.

Gloria comes bounding into the room in the pretty dress Angela insisted on buying, holding up her drawing gripped in two hands. 'Look, Mummy! Look!' I make my lips stretch wide. 'How gorgeous! Aren't you clever.' I ruffle her hair. She's a bright and animated child. She has her father's thick dark hair and proud face atop the fine-bone frame she inherited from me. Her eyes are large and inquisitive, yet she's as content in her own company and in that of her family, as she is playing with the other toddlers in the neighbourhood.

Gloria gives me the painting then takes my hand and tugs. I allow myself to be led away. Satisfied her mother is following, Gloria lets go and runs back to join her grandparents.

'I don't suppose …' Angela says upon my entry into the kitchen.

'Nobody is going to drive up here in this, Mum.' I gesture past my father and the windowed doors, to the patio where the rainwater pools, repressing my annoyance that my earlier misgivings over the wisdom of holding a party in a tropical storm were overridden.

'But Celestino should be here. It isn't like him to be late.'

'He's finishing the commission,' I say flatly. 'I imagine it's taking longer than he thought.'

Angela smooths her hands down her apron and turns away to the sink. She's a petite woman, a little stooped, her short grey hair thinning around the crown. Beyond her, the depths of the kitchen look gloomy. An unusually long room lined with flat pack shelving units and makeshift benches, the challenges of installing a modern fitted kitchen too much for the previous owner. Maybe it's her way of proving to the world she's assimilating to local ways by choosing not to renovate. The only change she's made is the acquisition of a large dresser with cupboards top and bottom, positioned at the table end of the room. The landline is perched at the end beside a silver-plated letter holder.

Angela follows my gaze. 'Have you tried his mobile?'

'Last time I tried it went straight to message bank.'

I survey the table, strewn with paper and crayons. Bill has drawn up his chair close to Gloria's, her chair's height raised by a plump cushion. Gloria leans forward and reaches across for the bowl of potato crisps. I push the bowl closer and watch the grabbing hand, the mouth opening wide, turning away at the crunch and chomp.

Angela goes to the fridge. 'What should we do?' she says, more to the contents than to me.

'Wait, I guess.'

Out on the patio, the rain sloshes down; the drain in the far corner failing to cope, the water around that end already ankle deep.

'You did tell them all two o'clock?' Bill says.

'They're not coming.' Exasperation rises. 'I know I wouldn't be. Not in a deluge like this.'

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