3rd Prize (2009/10) - Where the Devil lost his poncho by Amanda Bartlett

Where the Devil Lost His Poncho
by Amanda Bartlett

She was Spanish and a little bit crazy. He was English and a little bit dull. Her name was Mariaje, a contraction of Maria Jesus. In the first weeks of their relationship, she coached him without cease or mercy on the correct pronunciation. It was the Spanish jota, the ‘j’ in the middle of Mariaje, that he found so difficult to manage.
          "List-en," she said, as they lay in bed together, her syllabic, sing-song English and habitual tone of command ensuring that he did indeed listen, ensuring also a certain ripple of unrest deep in the pit of his stomach. “It is Mariaje. Mariaje, with a jota. Like the ‘ch’ in you-er Scottish lochs.” But David had always pronounced ‘loch’ as ‘lock’ and though he could, with effort, produce the required sound, or an approximation of it, an effect he achieved by imagining he had a hair stuck at the back of his throat, he could do so only in isolation. However much he practiced his jotas before the mirror in the morning, he could never find a way to slide that awkward, hawked-up sound into the folds of her name. For a while he called her Marica, which was easier for him to say and still had a Spanish ring to it, a charming compromise he thought, until one day she threw a plate at his head and informed him that ‘marica’ was an insult. He looked it up in his new Spanish dictionary; the entry read: marica [1] NF magpie. [2] NM sissy. That didn’t seem such a terrible insult to him, certainly no reason to break half the plates in his cupboard. (He only had two, so technically this was no exaggeration).
          “You think I don’t know my own language?” she spat. “My mother tong.” She pronounced it tong. “Mi idioma. That I have been es-speakin’ all-my-life?”
          The real meaning, she maintained, was closer to the English ‘gay-boy’ and though she had put up with his ignorance in private, he had pushed her too far by using the nickname in front of her friends, her Spanish friends, who were laughing at her now behind their faces. Did he still think this was nothing, she demanded, nothing to break plates over. Meekly, David shook his head. He dare not tell her that in England people did not laugh behind their faces, they laughed behind their hands.
          “Abortion is a horrible, horrible es-sin.” Those were the first words she ever spoke to him. He had been a little drunk when he met her and later could not remember, or even imagine, what he must have said to set her off. Probably nothing. She was always coming out with such statements, iconoclastic in the right-on confines of the college, where being pro-choice was the only choice, unless you wanted to become a social leper.
          It was one of the things he liked about her, the way she flung her opinions around with no regard for where they might land or who they might squash. That and her eyes which seemed to flash like those of a pirate in one of his mother’s romantic novels. She was piratical altogether — at least, in his imagination — with her low, almost gruff, voice, her dark skin, and wide, swash-buckling gestures. She made the other girls, with their pronounceable names and manageable tempers, seem suddenly flat and sort of colourless.
          ‘Horrible’: that was her word, a word she made her own not just by the frequency with which she reached for it, but by the pronunciation she forced upon it, the initial ‘h’ being transformed into a jota like the one in the middle of her name, the one he couldn’t pronounce, and the ‘r’s ferociously trilled. Hhhorrrible. The weather was horrible. The food was horrible. The music, the beer, the ambience: all horrible. For the wine, she must break into Spanish to do justice to her feelings of repugnance. The English, themselves, were horrible, with their horrible marmite and their cups of tea. Maybe her words should have worried him more, worried or offended him, but just by virtue of his relationship with her, he felt himself shorn of Englishness, the woolly fleece of mumbled excuses and muddling through being lifted off to reveal a new, lithe, dynamic David, ready to take the leap into a wider, more cosmopolitan world. Besides, marmite had never been his cup of tea.
          She was longing to get away, from the moment he met her. She talked of nothing else, considering in turn every country under the sun, though strangely she never mentioned Spain. David hadn’t been planning on a year out, but he rang UCL and they agreed to defer his entry to the MA programme.
          “After finals,” she said, with accustomed finality, “we go to France. Not Paris. Paris, it will be atiborrado with the English. And Americans.” She had a particular horror of Americans, would reel back if she met one in a bar, grabbing hold of her friend Enrique and growling, “Vaya. Hombre. Que dientes!” It was her assertion that American teeth scared her, that they were too big and brick-like, that they made their owners look like horses. She invented a new brand of toothpaste called Antinamel for slimming down oversize molars. Sometimes, on a night out, she would pretend to be doing market research on behalf of this new product, would seek out the JYAs in the bar and ask them if they wouldn’t jump at the chance to achieve ‘a more European dentition’, smiling up into the faces of big, bluff guys called Chip and Stet, who responded with baffled grins, vaguely aware they were being mocked, not minding all that much.
          “We will go for three months,” she decided. She had a way of pronouncing ‘months’ with such a pure round vowel that he would have agreed, without demur, to go to the ends of the earth and not come back until she said so.
          “Yeah, great, France,” he said. “We’ll cycle. Live off chocolate and baguettes and drink coffee out of bowls —”
          But here he was interrupted by the trill of the phone. They were in bed, Mariaje’s bed, and she had to reach across him to get the receiver.
          “Papi!” Her voice gave a swoop of delight, something it only did when she was speaking to her father, and she nudged at David with her hip, edging him out of bed so she could snuggle up with the phone.
          The next day, before his calculus lecture, he stopped off at the Student Union bookshop and purchased both the Rough and Lonely Planet guides, as well as a copy of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, but before he could read them, or even show them to Mariaje, the plan had changed. France was horrible. Even in four-star hotels, the chambermaids didn’t do their jobs. Her Papi had been to Lyon on business and there was ‘e-somethin’ horrible’ in the shower. They would go to Italy, instead. Her Italian was better than her French, so it made more sense. But then it turned out that Papi had been to Italy, too — to Rome — and found it not at all simpatico. She proposed one country after another and David began to fear that the volunteers in the bookshop were laughing at him. Behind their faces, so to speak. But Papi put an end to them all. They were horrible, horrible, horrible.
          “How about Canada?” he said, one day in the library, hoping that Papi had yet to reach that snowy country. Across the table, a crop-headed girl in dungarees looked up from her book and shushed them. David gave a compressed smile of apology and lowered his head, but Mariaje was not about to be silenced by someone who dressed — as she later put it — like a lesbian carpenter.
          “No. Vaya. We get right away. We visit Argentina. Or Chile. Chile is good. We go to ‘Donde el Diablo Perdio el Poncho’.”
          And this time the plan seemed to stick. David held off on the purchase of a guidebook to Chile — already, he had half the world up there on his little shelf crowding out the Schaum’s guides and the spiral-bound notebooks — but after a week, when she was still insisting that they must visit ‘Donde el Diablo Perdio el Poncho’, he relented and made another trip to the bookshop. He couldn’t find any reference in the index, but his knowledge of the Spanish was still virtually nil, so he asked her to write it down. He wanted to check he had the spelling correct. She looked a little puzzled by the request, but lots of things he said or did produced that crinkle of puzzlement between her brows. She scribbled the words on a fluorescent pink post-it and pasted it onto his sweatshirt, smoothing it flat with the palm of her hand. He went back to the book, but still couldn’t find it. The words appeared neither in the index nor in the body of the text, but this did not worry him unduly. Mariaje had said they would be getting right away, far from the beaten track, far from the backpacker track, so it wasn’t surprising that the name was obscure.
          He took the pink post-it with him when he went to buy the tickets, open return, non-refundable, flying to Santiago with a layover in Miami. He handed it to the travel agent and she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, pursed her lips, and turned to the computer. As she tapped away at the keyboard, drew squiggles with the mouse, clicked on this and that, David saw the confidence, the projected expertise, begin to fade from her face. Nothing: no place names, no hotels, not even a backpacker’s hostel. But David did not let this setback perturb him. Mariaje knew what she was doing. He paid for the tickets in cash. He’d had to sell his car to raise the money, and though they rarely went out in it, since his timidity behind the wheel drove Mariaje into a fury and her habit of leaning over to thump the horn both alarmed and embarrassed him, he still had a hard time explaining its sudden absence from the parking lot outside his halls and an even harder time explaining the absence of a corresponding rise in his bank balance. He could have told her the truth and spared himself an unpleasant and rather thrilling interrogation, but he wanted the tickets to be a surprise. He was aware that some people — Mariaje’s friends in particular — thought him a little bit dull. He wanted to show her that he could be audacious, that he wasn’t afraid to take chances.
          Apart from the tickets, he bought: two rucksacks, two sleeping bags, two aluminium water bottles, a map, a compass, a package of water purifying tablets, fly repellent, all sort of first aid supplies, a set of stackable, lightweight cookware and a camping stove. He also bought a simple diamond solitaire in a velvet-lined box. Actually, the ring was a little more simple than he would have liked, but he had to hold some money back for expenses.
          They had reached the last month of their revision, slogging out sixteen hour days, taking breaks only for Ramen noodles and moonlit strolls around the quad. One evening, at bedtime, it occurred to David that he’d forgotten to shower. He tried to think if he’d showered the day before, but couldn’t remember. “When did I last have a wash?” he asked Mariaje, but she was deep into Beowulf and only murmured that cleanliness was overrated. As if on cue, his skin broke out in a rash of hard white pimples, spreading across his cheeks like the wings of a butterfly. It was not just the lack hygiene, he decided, but the poor diet and all the late nights. He filled page after page with his neat black symbols, kept a bin-bag by his desk to hold all the screwed up sheets of paper. He wrote till his hand cramped, then read till his eyes felt stiff and grainy and sore. His back hurt him. He fell into bed exhausted, yet as soon as he tried to sleep, cruel numbers began to dance before his eyes. Nonsense mathematics filled his dreams and Mariaje complained that he talked in his sleep. One night, he sat bolt upright in bed and shouted out in panic, “That can’t be right. The matrices are all messed up.” Mariaje was angry; he had woken her up.
          “Las’ night,” she said. “I dream a whole Shakespeare play about a mouse that went to live in Genoa. And I do not feel the need to wake you up.” She refused to believe this was something outside his control. He could stop if he wanted, she said.
          At times like these, David would sneak next door to see Gunter, a taciturn German with alarming blonde eyelashes that always put David in mind of a camel. It was Gunter who was hiding all the travel gear, and David needed only the briefest glimpse of it piled up in the bottom of the wardrobe for all the friction and the fractious bickering to melt away. It seemed a little mean to continue with his secret, for Mariaje could also have done with something to hang on to, some emblem of a life beyond exams, but he was wedded, now, to the idea of surprising her.
          Their flight departed two days after his last exam, a paper he jokingly called the final final, because her exams were over a full week before his. It was hard to watch her steal in at one or two in the morning, smelling of summer, sweet liquor, cigarettes, fun. But then, at last, he was finished too. They went out to celebrate, sat in a rooftop beer garden in the sinking heat of evening and drank from a bottle of jerez, smuggled past the bar-staff in the handbag that Mariaje had bought herself as a reward. They walked home arm-in-arm, singing a song that to David was gibberish: eye, yie, yie, yie — went the words — can tanyo your-ays, poorkay cantando say allie gran.
          When the porter phoned up from the lodge, it was barely dawn: Mariaje had a visitor. They went down together wondering who it could be and found a piratical, pot-bellied man with grizzled black hair combed back from his face in crisp corrugations.
          “Papi!” Her hand was gone from his before her voice had finished its familiar swoop. David watched as Papi took his daughter by the shoulders and planted a kiss on either cheek.
          Later, outside a pub where they had meant to eat, but now could not, because Papi found the lack of tablecloths uncouth and unhygienic, the two men found themselves alone.
          “So you will miss my daughter, yong man, when she comes home to Es-spain.”
          David gave a smug smile. He didn’t think Mariaje would ever go back, not without him.
          “Actually,” he said, “that might not be for a while. We’re going on a trip.”
          “A trip!” Papi waved his hand in what seemed to David a gesture of derision. “What trip? When?”
          “Tomorrow, actually.” David’s voice was already a little tight.
          Papi reared back, regarded him coldly. “It is a surprise,” he said, “to me.” He laid a hand on his chest. “I do not say it does not happen, I just say I am not informed.”
          “It’s a surprise for her too,” David said, feeling suddenly, unaccountably, foolish.
          “So!” Papi leaned back in his chair. “That is the essplanation. My daughter is not tellin’ me, because my daughter does not know. But, yong man, how did you choose the destination? It is a dangerous thin’ to make a choice for a woman. You might get a slap when you esspect a kiss.”
          “She chose it.” David was defiant. “She’s been saying for months she wanted to go. So I…I just bought the tickets, for a surprise. We’re going to Chile.”
          “Chile?” Papi arched his eyebrows in salty surprise. “Vaya. My daughter is a remarkable woman. Remarkable and surprising. In what part of Chile do you intend makin’ you-er trip, if a father may be permitted to ask?”
          David had heard Mariaje repeat the words a hundred times, they had become a kind of refrain for her in the last few weeks of her studies, now he must screw up all his powers of mimicry in order to be understood. He framed his lips and opened his mouth:
          “Donde el diablo perdio el poncho.”
          For two full seconds, Papi’s face remained completely blank. David’s heart sank: his Spanish was pathetic. Then Papi let out a bellow of laughter. He leaned over to place a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and would not let him shrug it off.
          “But don’t you know what this means?” he asked, looking into David’s face and laughing, genuinely tickled. “It is not a place, but a phrase. A very amusin’ phrase. South American. Quaint. Vaya. What will be the correct translation? It is like your ‘boondocks’ or your ‘back of beyond’. Literally, where the devil lost his poncho.” He interlaced his hands behind his head, leaned back. “Mariaje is a good girl. Her studies are over; her mother wants her home. An’ I —” he freed a hand to place it on his chest — “I do not say who is right, who is wrong. I only say that my wife is a remarkable woman, a woman who gets what she wants.”
          Mariaje came out of the bar and into the sun. She shaded her eyes. The two men in her life were sitting in silence. She walked towards them, greeting their smiles with a smile of her own.

© Amanda Bartlett, 2010