By Euclides Montes
The ramshackle bar groaned under the battering of the escalating wind and the zinc-laminated roof could scarcely withstand the beating of the raging rain. It was a sorry sight as the headlights fell upon it and the car pulled into the non-existent car park. From inside the ’89 Black Willis, John could tell that this was the type of country bar he avoided like the Black Death in these parts of the country. These kinds of places were after all, in his opinion, nothing but the final amphitheatres for deadbeat adventurers who came to this land in search of mythical fortunes only to be ruthlessly devoured by the harsh reality of failure. Nothing to be done tonight though, he thought, as he worked out how best to negotiate the rain to get from his car to the bar. He knew it was going to be one of those nights and he felt it’d be better to be depressed and dry than to drive into the night whilst the Flood revisited its former playing grounds.
He looked at the bar from what he perceived as the safety of his rented car, and all he could think about was how much he wanted to just keep driving. He needed to get to Meguido before noon and he could almost feel the sands of time closing in around him. Besides, he could already picture the scene that awaited him in the bar. With the dimmed lights ricocheting shadows out of the broken lives who would be drowning their sorrows in aguardiente. The thick cloud of red skin cigarette smoke that smelt both of death and sulphur. The pictures on the walls, mementos of a more prosperous era when hope and excitement were the currency. Without walking into this specific bar, he felt he already knew everything about it. He felt he had already been drunk there. He already knew what the bar tender would say to him and he had already seen the bar tender’s daughter, in her short skirt and clownish make up bringing him his drinks. He really wanted to keep driving.
Lightning flashed in the background; the storm that prevented him from driving to his long-awaited destination clearly gathering pace and strength over the mountains, beyond the bar. He took a deep breath and fished though his pockets for his phone. He knew it wouldn’t work in this remote part of the country but still he felt like it provided him with a window into the world he left behind and whereto he longed to return. He grabbed his briefcase from the back seat and opened the car door. The wind bellowing anxiously around him. He took a step out and ran towards the bar.
The jukebox was playing one of those classic 50s Santanderian songs. They could all have been written by the same person, John always thought. The themes were the same. The wronged lover, out for revenge, who either died of love or rotted in prison for a crime they felt entitled to. As he pushed through the door the cigarette smoke filled his lungs. It also blinded him momentarily and he looked down, waiting for his eyes to familiarise themselves with the new environments.
His first impression was how deceptively big the place was. From outside it looked like a tiny hut but now that he was inside he saw it actually housed several tables and a rather generous bar. He started towards the stools by the bar but then realised that there were a few patrons dispersed amongst the tables and, changing his mind, walked instead towards the corner where the old-style jukebox stood. He sat at a small table for two and looked at his watch. 12:45 am. If the storm passed in an hour or so he could still make up the time to Meguido in his drive. He felt a little more at ease. He was starting to examine the pictures on the wall when the waitress came to his table and asked,
‘Que se le ofrece?’
‘Perdón?’ replied John, in Spanish clothed with a heavy English accent.
‘What mister wants to drink?’ said the pretty waitress, whom John thought couldn’t be a day over 16.
‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘Un tinto por favour.’
‘No, la máquina de café esta apagada. Off’ said the waitress who didn’t betray a single hint of emotion as she spoke.
John knew that apart from asking for water, he wasn’t going to get anything with less that 15% alcohol in this place.
‘Una cerveza por favour.’
The waitress walked away towards the bar and John followed her with his eyes. He had always struggled with the idea of child labour and it bothered him how Eurocentric that made him feel in a country where education wasn’t a real option for most kids. He took his notes out of his briefcase and started reading them again.
‘Searching for El Dorado.
A sociological study of the gold rush phenomena and its repercussion for modern day Santander.
By John Peterson’
He went back to his briefcase, resting on the foot of the table, to look for his glasses and it was only when he sat back up that he noticed the towering figure who was now reading his notes whilst standing by his table. John didn’t react. Neither did the large man standing next to him. John examined the man for what couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. He was tall and wearing an old cowboy hat that reminded him of a John Wayne film. A thick black moustache adorned his face below the inquisitive eyes that were fixed on his notes. His skin had clearly been pale at some point, but it had by now acquired that charred bronze look that he was so familiar with. He was still trying to come out of his surprised reverie when the waitress came back and placed the cold bottle of beer on his table.
‘English?’ the moustachioed man asked.
‘In that case you won’t mind if I join you.’ And taking his hat off he turned to the waitress and added, ‘la botella Martica’, and blew a kiss her way. She walked to a different table and grabbed a bottle of cheap whisky and brought it to the table placing it next to the beer. The man then sat down.
‘It’s not every day that providence brings me an Englishman to save me from these savages.’ The man said as he put his hat on the table.
John looked at him and didn’t say anything. In fact, he knew that his face probably wasn’t speaking volumes either so he struggled to get a few words out. ‘American?’ he finally muttered.
The moustachioed man laughed.
‘Does it really matter over here? I’m just glad I don’t have to ignore these pigs in Spanish for the evening.’
John felt uncomfortable. He looked out of the window and could see the rain getting heavier outside. His heart was slowly sinking.
‘Got some place to be then?’ He heard the man say. He turned in time to see the smile on his lips as he added, ‘it ain’t gonna happen tonight my friend. That’s what this place does to you. Plenty of places to be yet really nowhere to go.’ The man grabbed the bottle of whisky and bringing it to his lips took a big gulp. ‘This might not be the end of the world, y’know, but this is certainly where the world ends.’
John was perplexed. He realised he hadn’t said much and tried but, failing, decided instead to take a drink from his beer. The man took this as an invitation to keep talking.
‘So, John, what brings you to Santander, the Promised Land?’
‘Well I’m really just passing through.’
‘No shit! Like anyone actually came here on purpose’, he stopped and laughed to himself. ‘We’re all just passing through here John.’
For reasons that he couldn’t explain John found himself on his feet. He didn’t know what to do or say. He just stood there.
‘Well’, said the man. ‘Since Armageddon is gathering pace outside, you can only be going one place and that’s through that door on the left.’ And he smiled as he winked at him.
John washed his hands after using the toilet. He hated these places and the washed up people who frequented them. He wanted to curse his luck but he didn’t dare test it as he had one of the most important interviews of his career the following day. He splashed some water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror. Momentarily he tried to picture himself with a big black moustache and a cowboy hat. He smiled and walked out of the toilets.
As he got back to the bar he saw his companion taking swigs of the whisky bottle. He almost wished he was a man of faith to pray to someone for this storm to pass. No matter, he thought, have a drink and see what happens. You might even get a good anecdote out of this.
He walked to the table, and starting to feel he was regaining control of the situation, said, ‘where are my manners? I don’t even think I caught your name.’
‘Ha, my friend, names matter here as much as places of birth!’
It was like taking a blow to the stomach. He felt helpless again and considered for a second gathering his things and taking his chances with the storm. It was then when he realised the man was talking.
‘I said, are you going to sit down or what? There’s no need to be rude!’
John sat down and gathered his papers.
‘You leaving?’ said the man. ‘Try and drive in this weather and the police will be picking up your body with cotton buds tomorrow morning.’ He stopped and smiling said, ‘go on, have a drink. It can’t hurt.’ And then added, ‘at least not as much as driving through this storm!’
John took a gulp of his beer. He knew he was stuck here and felt a rush of anger. He looked at his watch. 1:05 am.
‘So where are you headed in such a hurry then?’
‘Ah, Meguido. Beautiful place. Great brothels.’
John was disgusted by this man. In fact, it was this kind of man that had made him fall out of love with his paper. The foreigner who came to Santander feeling entitled to riches and treated everything and everyone as playthings. He had known he’d hate this man as soon as he saw the hat.
‘So John, what’s your business in Meguido?’
‘I’m on my way to interview someone.’
‘A former employee of Gerard Holdings.’
‘Hey John, careful man. One shouldn’t flash that name around here so easily. Not after what happened anyway.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘It might be your lucky day though’, and leaning towards him whispered softly, ‘I worked for them as well, y’know.’
John didn’t want to continue with this conversation. He had heard the stories before. The chancer in a bar who could tell you all about the massacre in the gold mine for a few drinks. ‘First hand knowledge’, they’d tell you, and then you’d find out they were simply deadbeats, out to get a few drinks out of you. That’s why he had spent the last 2 months arranging an interview with a reliable source and now he was stuck in this god forsaken bar, his one golden opportunity slipping through his fingers with every sip of his luke warm beer.
The man was looking at him straight in the eyes, as if trying to read what he was thinking. ‘So, what do you wanna know anyway?’ The man said. ‘You know people don’t like answering many questions about it.’
‘I’m writing a paper on the gold rush and the massacre is an important part that I’d like to get documented.’
The moustachioed man looked around and nodded absent minded.
‘All these big companies came here John and we all came with them, thinking we were going to turn rich overnight, y’know?’
John was surprised to hear the man talking about it uninvited. His suspicions were starting to gain ground and he started planning his leave. The man didn’t seem to notice and continued.
‘But it wasn’t going to be easy. Land needed to be bought’, he gestured inverted commas as he said the word bought. ‘People needed to be convinced and a lot of people were going to get angry.’
John found himself starting to listen to the man.
‘And then Gerard Holdings came around and they seemed to have the perfect key. And it worked. People were convinced and land was bought and mines were dug and signs were promising. But people get angry John. And that’s where the muchachos came in.’
‘The security group?’ asked John, suddenly getting interested in what the man was saying.
‘They weren’t so much a security group but rather a team of enforcers, y’know? When things needed protecting, they protected. When people needed convincing, they convinced. When things needed to get done, they did.’ He stopped and then added almost as an afterthought, ‘and they were very good at it.’
John suddenly found himself fishing through his briefcase for a pen and started taking notes.
‘So, what did you do for them?’ he asked.
‘John, I’ve told you that asking questions is not good, haven’t I?’
‘I’m sure you’ve heard all about it John. How the men of the area got organised and how tensions started to rise. The muchachos needed to get prepared and they did.’
‘That’s when Michael came in?’
The moustachioed man winced. John realised that he had jumped the gun and mentioned a name that he had been advised not to utter whilst in the country side. He had heard the stories and was beginning to get worried about what could happen now when the man started speaking again.
‘You know people have been killed just for mentioning that name? The assumption is always they’re looking for him, to kill him or arrest him and that just doesn’t wash around here John. Careful.’
John took a sip of his beer, trying to disguise his growing concern at the conversation. He had even failed to notice that the jukebox wasn’t playing anymore and that everyone in the bar was quietly listening to them. The moustachioed man took out a red skin from his pocket and lit it. He took a drag and blew the smoke out. All the while, the man kept his eyes straight on John’s face.
‘The muchachos tried hard but then your man Michael had to choose sides and he went for what felt right, y’know? Some people see him as a Robin Hood figure, some people see him as an opportunist killer, some people see him as a crazy fundamentalist who lost his way, and some people just refused to believe he actually exists and claim he’s a boogieman invented by Gerard Holdings to cleanse their hands from all those deaths.’
‘And what do you think?’
The man took another drag of his cigarette. He didn’t say anything else. He smiled and stood up, picking up his bottle after him. He walked away to the bar and John couldn’t hear what he said. John took a sip of his beer. He looked down at his notes and he could hear the storm raging outside at its strongest. He didn’t know what to do next and then he heard the man talking to him again.
‘Are you a religious man John?’
‘Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walked naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying: It is done.’
12 April 2006
The family of John Peterson have renewed their calls to the government for an inquiry into the disappearance of their son.
Peterson, of Bethnal Green, disappeared whilst researching his Phd in the volatile gold region of Santander.
Peterson’s family from London haven’t ruled out the possibility of foul play and refuse to accept the official version of Santander’s government that Peterson may have died in a car crash due to bad weather.
A government spokesperson declined to comment on the issue at this stage.