by Michael E. Lloyd
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Chapter 2: Bilbao, Spain
But I’ve had a new friend for many weeks now. She lives here, in Bilbao. Her name is Lisa ...
... and I’d only been there five minutes when she walked in and sat down right opposite me. She was wearing a lovely red silk scarf ...
Toni Murano put down the letter he had just finished reading, and stared blankly at his own reflection in the mirror.
Exhausted after his overnight train journey from Madrid and a morning spent being gently grilled at the Bilbao Police HQ, he knew he was not in good shape to handle Paula’s astonishing revelations. But his body rescued him from the dilemma of what to do next. He flopped down on his familiar old bed and fell sound asleep.
He awoke in late afternoon. His parents would both still be at work, but not for long. Without trying to formulate any plan of action, he picked up the phone.
‘Is that you, Paula??’
‘No, sorry — she’s in the kitchen.’
‘Oh! So who is this?’
‘Ah. Right. OK, I’ll call back another time ...’
* * *
The Domans on the orbiting star-craft Mater had of course ensured that Toni would recall nothing of his grand tour of duty across Europe over the preceding three weeks. And he would have no recollection either of Quo or Carla themselves, or the Mater’s own grand Mission. He would remember only his new “true story”, the one of his pretended “kidnap”, which he had been given by Quo and had recounted with complete self-assurance to the police inspector, that very morning.
Something deep inside him (he put it down to tiredness, nothing more) was suggesting it had all been a dream. But Paula’s letter was all too real, and the idea evaporated completely when he began to unpack his rucksack.
Lots of unwashed clothes — tangible enough! A book of fine art drawings, and five little sketches that he now recalled doing on his long, enforced stay in the Italian forest (how strange, he thought ... he’d never been able to draw before — the trauma of the kidnapping must have triggered some hidden muse!). Toilet bag and shaver, both looking rather in need of a clean-out. And no mobile phone: they took that away from him, of course they did.
But then finally, tucked safely in among the clothes, his favourite Janis Ian CD — which was now, amazingly, signed by the artist herself, with a kindly personal message just for him! How that had happened? Ah, yes ... he must have specially requested it when he’d ordered the CD from her web site, three years earlier. Fancy forgetting that!
No, it had been no dream, he was certain. But he was very keen to put it all behind him, as fast as he possibly could ...
* * *
His mother and father came home for the weekend within ten minutes of each other. Anna Murano’s joy and relief at her son’s unannounced return was soon diluted by her husband’s angry reaction on hearing of the “kidnapping”. But Toni’s response was prepared and ready to serve.
‘Look, Papá, I do not want to pursue it, OK? I’m twenty years old, it’s my life and my affair, and you have no right to get involved — and least of all, to get angry with me!’
Murano senior, strong-willed lay preacher but loving father too, was so shocked by this outburst — utterly untypical of their usually mild-mannered boy — that he dropped the subject at once, and the family made a pale, near-silent attempt at a celebratory drink and a special early dinner. Toni said not a word about Paula, changing the subject abruptly when his mother once cautiously mentioned her name.
After the meal, Toni went straight back to his room for a blessed early night, and his mother, always the cool, chic Italiana in public, sat in her armchair silently weeping and praying for the return of the family’s previous happy calm.
Federico Murano, however, retired to his study and telephoned the special branch inspector, as he had done several times over the past three weeks. She calmed him down with no small effort, and then repeated to him what she had told her sergeant that morning: that she fully accepted Toni’s story, providing a lie detector test corroborated it the following day; that he was fit and well, in the official opinion of the police doctor; that there were no outstanding suspicions of his being involved with terrorists; that he had been in Rome quite legitimately, and the sighting of him there had clearly occurred just before his apparent kidnap; that they would report Toni’s safe return and his full story to the Italian police; but that, por fin, she anticipated no benefit in continuing to pursue the matter in Spain.
The still-angry father held his tongue, to avoid weakening his position further, and waited to see what the weekend would bring.
* * *
In the morning, the policeman stationed on observation outside the apartment was ordered to bring Toni in for the lie detector test to which he had unconditionally agreed at the end of his long interview.
He passed it with flying colours.
The inspector drove him home personally. And in an atmosphere even chillier than she had anticipated, she promised the family a “without prejudice” letter of apology for the original mistaken identity and the associated inconvenience, but insisted there would now be no further police action.
Trapped, in his own living room, between the inspector’s resolute stand and the unspoken pleas of his wife and son to let them “forget and move on”, Federico Murano decided, against all his principles, that it would be fruitless and too painful to press the sorry issue any harder.
* * *
Late that Saturday afternoon, Toni plucked up his courage and called Paula’s number again.
Yes, she was on her own — her parents were out shopping. And yes, he could come over, if he was certain he wanted to ...
He hurried downstairs and grabbed a taxi.
* * *
‘... so it’s really just like I said in the letter, Toni. You’re a very sweet guy. You don’t have a lot experience of women, and that was always fine — I was no man-eater either, was I? But now I’ve discovered my true self, and neither of us can argue with that. Lisa’s just what I need. She makes me feel complete. I don’t know if you can understand that — but I hope you’ll try.’
He mumbled something non-committal. She took it as a provisional ‘I will’.
‘But what about you, Toni? Why did you just walk out on everybody? That really wasn’t fair on us, you know! So unlike you ...’
And he had to tell his “story” all over again, from the moment he sat down at that Monday morning café.
Paula was as shocked as he expected. He kept reassuring her that he had never been mistreated by his kidnappers — no, not even once — and that he didn’t understand any of it either, and that everyone else had agreed to try and forget the whole thing, so maybe she could try too?
And then they realised that each of them was begging the other to try — to really, really try. Paula burst into tears, and Toni instinctively took her in his arms and held her in a tender, heartfelt hug ...
‘Hi, baby, it’s me!’
Toni turned towards the front door as it opened to reveal an unforgettable figure. And that beautiful, so beautiful figure’s jaw dropped at the sight of her new lover in the arms of ... a man!
‘What the hell ...?’ shouted Lisa.
‘Oh no, not you again!’ cried Toni.
‘Huh?’ sobbed Paula, rapidly detaching herself from Toni’s caring embrace. ‘Do you two know each other??’
‘Never seen him before in my life!’ puffed the lovely Lisa, ‘but you obviously have!’
‘What?’ shouted Toni, very angry now. ‘That’s a lie! You’re the woman down at the café, three weeks ago. You stared straight at me ... you smiled at me — twice! You made me follow you. You can’t have forgotten me!’
‘What are you talking about, loco? Wait a minute — so you’re the bastard who got me arrested outside the salon and taken off to that café ...’
Paula screamed a very long scream.
When silence had reigned for more than twenty seconds, she spoke again.
‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it. Lisa ... talk to me!’
‘Paula, baby, I don’t understand. Who is this kid?’
‘It’s Toni, you idiot! I’ve talked about him enough over the past few months!’
‘Oh, hell! I’m so sorry. But why on earth is he accusing me ...?’
Toni was losing it, and fast. ‘Look Paula ... I’ve just explained how I followed the woman from that café — and don’t ask me why I did it! — and how she just disappeared ... and then I got caught up with the police. Well, this is that woman!’
‘But this is Lisa! She told me all about what happened to her that day — she was never anywhere near the café, and she had witnesses to prove it, and the police had to agree, and they let her go with a big apology ...’
‘Stop this, Paula. Give me time to think.’
Toni Murano had been obliged to forget all about the Doman radimote to whom he had unwittingly been drawn, and the unspoken call he had followed on that recent, bright April morning; to forget that he had later christened her “Carla”, and that she’d admitted she had modelled herself by chance (or fate) on a woman entering a Bilbao beauty salon. The woman standing in front of him, here and now. The very woman who, unknown to him at the time, had already stolen away the heart of his beloved Paula ...
Since he had had to forget all this, he was now a very confused and angry young man. And then, just as in Prague, after the jazz club debacle with dear Eva, he simply flipped.
‘OK, I’ve had enough. You — what’s your name? ... “Lisa”, is it? — you sucked me in to something awful, and now you’re denying it. And Paula ... you obviously don’t believe me. That’s a change I never expected.’
‘Toni, wait, this is all wrong ...’
‘No, I shouldn’t be here. I’m sorry I came.’
And giving up hope of ever understanding anything in this world, particularly two strong-willed women working in tight concert, he simply fled the scene.
It was a long walk from Paula’s house, but he never even considered taking a taxi. And by the time he reached home, he had re-focused at last, and decided that on Monday morning, after three full weeks of unapproved absence, he would need to start the job of re-ingratiating himself with his tutors at the Bilbao Conservatorio.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd