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Authors: Alli Sinclair

Under the Spanish Stars (11 page)

BOOK: Under the Spanish Stars
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Her voice was silky and her Spanish was so clear that Charlotte didn't have a problem understanding. Maybe her school Spanish wasn't so bad. Mateo kissed the woman on the cheeks, wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug, then lifted her off the ground and spun her twice. He deposited her back on the earth and they yabbered at a million miles an hour while Charlotte wondered when her presence would be noted.

The moon highlighted the woman's face as she turned and narrowed
her eyes at Charlotte. It was Cristina, who now screwed up her nose like she'd just experienced a bad smell.

‘What is she doing here?' Cristina's glare cut through Charlotte's minimal confidence.

‘I'm—'

‘Charlotte is here to see
El Jefe
,' Mateo interrupted, and raised his eyebrows at Charlotte. Indignation rose in her belly, but she had to play it Mateo's way, so if that meant shutting up then so be it.
Damn.

Cristina grabbed Mateo's arm and marched him off into the distance. They glanced at Charlotte every so often while she shifted from foot to foot, catching words in Spanish such as ‘foreigner', ‘no right' and ‘no way in hell'.

As they threw their arms in the air and raised their voices, Charlotte tried to reassure herself that some nationalities had a penchant for drama and what sometimes looked like an argument was, in fact, a friendly conversation. But when Cristina shot her a well-aimed death stare, Charlotte's hopes plummeted.

Cristina shoved her finger in front of Mateo's face a few times before he threw his arms out wide and strode off, leaving a self-righteous, smug Cristina behind him. Grabbing Charlotte's elbow, Mateo steered her back towards the car.

Wrenching the door open he sat with a thud and motioned for her to get in the vehicle. ‘It is a no. I am sorry.'

‘We'll see about that.' Charlotte reached in and grabbed her handbag, bolting towards Cristina, who stood with her hands on hips, perfecting her stink-eye. Rummaging in the bag as she ran, Charlotte seized the copy of the painting and unrolled it. Pulling up in front of Cristina, she said, ‘Please. Look at this.'

Cristina turned her head and stared across the empty field.

‘
Por favor
.' Charlotte reached into the recesses of her mind, willing her memory to grab onto her Spanish vocabulary. ‘
Mí abuela
… very sad …
gran-abuelo
painting …' but the words fell away in an overwhelming sense of defeat. Hanging her head, Charlotte let her arms fall by her sides, the copy of the painting hanging limply from one hand. This was a useless endeavour. For some crazy reason Cristina had a hate on, and couldn't care less about Charlotte or her grandmother.

Staring at the ground, Charlotte studied her boots. In her line of vision
appeared a hand with long, manicured nails beckoning her attention. Looking up, Charlotte found Cristina's expression had softened slightly as she motioned for the piece of paper to be handed over. Charlotte did as the woman wished and Cristina held the copy at different angles to allow the moonlight to capture the shades and shapes.

‘
¿Que es eso?
'

Charlotte replied, ‘
Una artista
.'

Cristina tilted her head to the side, eyes focussed on the image.

‘It's from—' Charlotte stopped herself from mentioning Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez. ‘
Una artista
from
clan de Giménez
. My great-grandfather gave it to my
abuela
and now—'

‘
Sí, sí. Entiendo
.' She cocked her head in the direction of her community. ‘
Ven
.'

Cristina rolled the copy of the painting, placed it under her arm and marched into the forest. Turning to face Mateo, Charlotte waved for him to follow and he raced towards them, his eyes wide.

Mateo leant over and whispered, ‘How did you change her mind?'

‘I don't know. I tried to talk to her in Spanish … Maybe she felt sorry for me or wanted me to stop mangling her language.'

‘Cristina feels sorry for no one.' Mateo squeezed her shoulder. ‘You have done well.'

They traipsed through the forest, music and laughter growing louder the further they progressed. Branches and leaves scraped against her skin and caught on her shirt, but Charlotte pushed on, not wanting to lose Cristina. They broke free and arrived at a clearing, but Cristina continued. Charlotte hesitated, feeling like a gatecrasher. Men and women sat around a massive fire, chatting and laughing while a pod of kids ran in between caravans and makeshift houses. Just like in spaghetti western movies, they all stopped what they were doing and silently watched the newcomer amble by. Her heart pounded, sweat pooled at the base of her spine and she wished the ground would swallow her whole.

As if sensing her apprehension, Mateo whispered, ‘Do not worry.'

‘I know I shouldn't but …'

‘They are interested to know who you are and why you're with me, but they will not say anything to you until we have spoken with
El Jefe
, the chief. He will decide if you stay or go.' He placed his hand gently under
her elbow and steered her between two houses.

Cristina wove through the community until she arrived at a caravan, the moonlight casting a peaceful glow on the lime green walls and red trim. A rainbow of carnations in boxes lined the stairs that led up to a bright yellow door. Cristina knocked twice, then turned and held her hand up.

Cristina entered the van with the rolled-up copy of the painting while Charlotte crossed her arms and rubbed her skin.

‘You are cold?'

‘Just nervous.'

‘I understand.' Mateo placed his arm around her shoulder, then withdrew it quickly, as if realising what he'd done.

A moment later, Cristina reappeared minus the painting, a scowl darkening her attractive features. In Spanish, she said, ‘You can stay, but you cannot talk about your grandmother or the artist.' She mumbled something else, then threw her arms up in the air and strode off, heading towards the group surrounding the fire.

‘What was that last bit she said?'

‘She's unhappy because she was expecting no, but got a yes instead.'

‘But she was the one who let me into the community and spoke with the chief.'

‘Like I have said before, Cristina is a complex woman.' Mateo rubbed the back of his neck as if struck by an intense pain.

‘Maybe she wanted to impress you by appearing to help me.' The moment the words fell between her and Mateo, she instantly felt ridiculous. ‘I'm not suggesting that she thinks we're … you know …'

‘Lovers?' Mateo laughed as if it was a ludicrous idea and Charlotte didn't know whether to be insulted or relieved.

Embarrassed by her faux pas, she said, ‘I don't mean to sound rude, but what's the point in staying?' Disappointment tugged at her heart.

‘Did you think you could come here and find information straight away?' Mateo tilted his head to the side.

‘I guess … I …' She'd been silly to think it would be so uncomplicated. Blood from stones would be easier. ‘I guess not.'

‘First, they must decide if you are trustworthy. Much like I did with you. Accept their hospitality, join in the fiesta and work your charms. Then maybe you have a chance. But you must be genuine;
los gitanos
, they are very good at knowing when a person is fake.'

‘So am I,' Charlotte said, even though she knew it not to be true. Well, it certainly wasn't the case when it came to choosing men for long-term relationships. Take her last relationship for example … she shuddered, refusing to let herself be drawn into the misery that always surfaced when she thought about Drew, her football-playing ex. Five years of unwedded bliss had resulted in a broken heart and a debt larger than a small African country. That experience had cured her of putting herself at emotional risk. No risk equalled no trauma.

‘You are okay?' Mateo placed his hands on her shoulders, his dark eyes intense.

‘Yes, yes, fine.' She encouraged her lips to kick into a smile. ‘So what happens now?'

‘We join the fiesta. Come.' He guided her through the tangle of makeshift homes, potted plants and kids' bicycles. Because of all the bad press about
gitanos,
she'd never contemplated visiting one of their communities but with Mateo by her side, her concern had diminished.

The aroma of freshly cooked onions and garlic, along with vegetables and meat, greeted them as they stepped into the centre of the community. Cristina stood chatting with a group of women who turned to stare at Charlotte. Even if
El Jefe
had agreed for her to stay, she got the distinct impression Cristina, and possibly others, were not willing to go the extra mile to make the intruder welcome.

‘Mateo!' A short, bald man jogged up to them. He nodded towards Charlotte, then said to her companion, ‘I must talk with you.'

‘Please excuse me,' Mateo said, reluctance in his eyes.

Charlotte stepped away, not sure where to place her hands. She tried at her side, but felt like a goof; she clasped them behind her back, but it pushed out her boobs. When she placed her hands in front, she created a barrier between her and the people she needed to impress. It wasn't until now, standing awkwardly and alone in a community full of strangers, that she realised how much she relied on Mateo as a security blanket. This reliance, no matter how fleeting, disconcerted her.

Visions of Abuela hooked up to multiple machines in the cardiac unit at the hospital came flooding back. Sadness weighed down on Charlotte, reminding her that Abuela needed answers quickly and no matter how uncomfortable Charlotte felt, she had to suck it up. The odds of winning over the
gitanos
were long, but right now, she had no choice other than to
stay and hope for the best. If only she didn't feel like a massive interloper.

Mateo was in deep conversation with the bald man so Charlotte backed into the shadows, taking in the scene before her. The people chatted and laughed, hugged, patted each other on the back, shared fruit and bread. The camaraderie and caring they showed for each other was nothing like what had been depicted by the media. How could they get it so wrong? Witnessing the warm community before her, Charlotte knew she'd been right in not believing everything she read.

The bald man pulled Mateo towards the campfire, handing him a guitar. Mateo glanced at her, as if to apologise for leaving her stranded, and she smiled, trying to convey that she understood people wanted his attention. Inside, vulnerability bubbled up, and she did her best to quash it.

The rowdy group quieted the moment Mateo sat and started strumming the guitar. Cristina and a couple of other women moved closer to the fire, while a group of older men with wooden boxes and guitars joined Mateo. Leaning against the tree, Charlotte happily faded into the background, observing Mateo connecting with this clan. She'd yet to figure out how he'd become part of the inner circle, but judging by the friendly way in which he was greeted, he'd known them for some years and they liked and respected him. After only knowing him for such a short time, she could understand why people felt that way about him.

An older lady sat next to Mateo and a deep, raspy voice floated through the cool night air. Dancers stepped up onto a small makeshift stage and, as the music overtook them, they wove their hands upwards, arching their bodies, flicking their long skirts. With minimal knowledge of what one
palo
was to another, Charlotte tried to decipher the rhythm by tapping it out against her leg.

‘He is very good, no?' A younger version of Cristina snuck out of the shadows. Her English was perfect with only a faint accent.

‘Yes.'

‘I am Leila. I believe you have met my sister Cristina.' Leila held out her hand while Charlotte leant in to give her the customary Spanish kiss on each cheek. Leila didn't appear ready, so Charlotte grazed the poor woman's ear with her lips.

‘Oh, I'm so sorry!'

Leila's laugh was warm, not patronising. ‘Do not worry. I had planned to do the handshake like the English do.'

‘And I had planned to do the Spanish kiss! By the way, I'm not English, I'm Australian.'

‘Oh? Kangaroos! Koalas! They are so cute and fluffy.'

Charlotte didn't have the heart to tell her that the supposedly gentle and fluffy creatures had tempers as sharp as their claws.

Their attention turned to the performance and Charlotte studied the dancers as their lithe bodies swayed and turned in time with rhythmic clapping from some of the musicians. Cristina's talent stood out from amongst the others as she twirled and dipped, her long arms reaching for the sky. It took immense talent to dance flamenco while also angling glares at Charlotte.

‘I don't think your sister likes me.'

‘She hates you,' Leila said in a matter-of-fact manner.

‘She doesn't even know me. Is it because Mateo is helping me?'

‘It is many things, but none is your fault. I do not hate you. Not yet, anyway.' Her light laugh made Charlotte relax a little, happy someone in the community didn't judge her as an annoying outsider.

‘Your English is very good.'

‘I like English, it is an interesting language. Strange, but interesting. Not many people in my clan approve of this pursuit, but I do not listen to them. I do not care what they think and that gets me into trouble. Often.'

‘Will you be in strife for talking with me?'

‘You are our guest tonight. Come.' She motioned for Charlotte to follow and they made their way to the circle of people around the fire. They squeezed into a small gap and sat on the ground where there was a perfect view of Mateo. His fingers moved easily across the strings, as if the guitar was a natural extension of himself. Whether it was his connection to the music or his charm and looks, Charlotte was drawn into Mateo's moment, the hairs on her arms standing on end once again. A chill ran down her spine and warmth grew in her chest as his love for flamenco reached out and pulled her in. Why couldn't she surrender without fear to her passion like Mateo did with his?

BOOK: Under the Spanish Stars
3.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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