Romance is not something that is want of afflict me too often in my life but I have to say that I have seen it’s effects on others a great many times. This has been on occasion good, bad and indifferent and in one very interesting case, downright dangerous.
I had handed in my notice on the Eastern Star and was once again a free agent. I had served on different boats for over five years and I had grown tired of the constant travel, no settled location and the constant movement of the floor beneath my feet, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to try something new.
My final voyage on the Star ended in the port of Valparaiso on the coast of Chile, South America. It was a bustling port, with a mix of naval, fishing and regular good old fashioned cargo shipping constantly going to and fro. There is always something going on in port cities and I have found that there is always work for those with the gumption to take it. Having no intention to take a job on a ship again for the foreseeable future I decided not to hang by the walkways by the docks where the casual sailors would frequent but instead went further into the town to the main plaza.
No matter where you go in the world. There is always a place, be it a square or a bar, or just a place on the street where young men, and the occasional woman can stand and wait for someone to come round with work going. It is a form of advertising and I have found it considerably cheaper and often much more effective than any of those fancy agencies.
There were young boys, strong men and wizened old men all standing around the ratty benches and dusty trees of the Plaza, we were all waiting for the signal, be it a nod or a hand gesture or anything else that would signal that someone had use for our services. Usually this can take anything from a couple of hours to even a few weeks, patience is a virtue in this game, but I found that this time, my wait was very much shorter than I have ever experienced.
Within a minute of me joining the ranks of the hopeful there was the screech of tires as a truck came to rest right in front of me. The door opened and a shortish man, in fairly nice clothes, came out and walked straight in front of me. “Extranjero?” he asked, wondering if I was a foreigner. I looked at the line of black-haired, dark-skinned men around me and my own pasty white skin, already developing a hint of red under the blazing sun and I was about to say something along the lines of what gave me away but I thought better of it and instead replied with “Sí”, I was. He grinned broadly and asked “Tienes profesion?”, if I had a trade. I nodded and replied “Cocinero”, that I was a cook. The grin grew even broader and he said “Perfecto! Muy Bien! Tengo trabajo por ti. Vamos.”
I was dazed, I was confused, things had gone a lot faster than I had expected. But, in general, I have found that life always goes a lot better when I just go with it, so I did. I walked to the man, shook his hand, and followed him to the truck. He lead me to the back and opened the tarp at the rear, I clambered in and was faced with a wide diversity of faces. Once again, I was on the move.
We rode on the truck for what seemed like three hours. It wasn’t too bad, save for boredom, there was plenty of water and the movement of the truck sent cool air through vents in the sides to keep us cool. I spent the time getting to know everyone else that was there. I found something odd about them, there were Argentinians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Brazilians, people from all over South America. There were a few Europeans like myself and even one Korean refugee. What there was none of were natives. Not a single person from Chile was there. I have to say I found it unusual. But then, unusual has always been part and parcel of my existence. I decided to see where it would go.
It went, apparently into a beautiful courtyard set amongst rolling hills covered in acres and acres of vines. We exited the van and stood rubbing tired limbs and shielding our eyes from the Sun. Somewhere close by, a bell started to toll and into the courtyard, trundled dozens of scruffy looking men. They were all wearing dusty work clothes and their skin was burnt a dark brown. After them came another eight men, all on horses, who positioned themselves around us and the others. Their eyes darted from one person to the next, like an Alsatian eyeing steaks on a butcher’s stall. They each were carrying more than one weapon, from a rifle over their shoulders to an impressive knife at their hips. They did not look friendly.
After enough moments had passed to let all of this sink in, One of the doors in the the big house attached to the courtyard opened and out came a tall, middle-aged man in a white suit. He walked over to right in front of us new people and started to speak in broken English and Spanish. “Welcome to Santa Rosa” he said and started a long spiel that I had trouble keeping up with. There were the usual rules; no fighting, no drinking, go to mass every Sunday, follow the instructions. Then there was something weird. “Whatever you do..” He said. Don’t leave unaccompanied by either myself or another one of the managers”, he pointed at the men on horseback. “It can get very dangerous out there. we don’t want any of you to get hurt.”
There was something about the way he said that last sentence.. and how the look that the horseriders had when he said it which gave me the willies but I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. As soon as he finished the other workers walked over to us new people. taking the people around me and leading them out into the fields, presumably to show them how things were to be done. No one came to me and I was feeling a little left out until there was a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Mr Grin. “You cook.” He said and lead me into the staff quarters.
As I have found it in every place I have been. I seldom find it difficult to get into the rhythm. I had to wake before dawn to get the breakfast ready and from then until well after sundown it was a hard slog of cooking, serving, cleaning and cooking again. But it has to be said; I’m pretty gifted when it comes to cooking, I can make any kind of shite taste good and I was soon everyone’s best friend.
My culinary skills also gave me another perk. Unlike all the other workers; I was allowed out. Every few days, I would go with Mr Grin (I never did learn his name) to the local town to get the flour, oils and other supplies that the kitchen garden could not supply itself. At first the locals were somewhat cagey with us. But as I made more and more visits and made a couple of limited attempts at conversation. I found that it was Mr Grin entirely who gave the shopkeepers the creeps. They would speak lively with me and then he would lurk into view and as quick as nothing there would be no talk, except for business. I thought that once or twice they were trying to tell me something but, I figure that Mr Grin must have some sort of sixth sense because that was when he would show and any chance of telling me anything would go right out of the window. So I continued on my merry way.
I gradually got to know everyone else amongst the workers, they were all like me, nomads in the world, never content to settle in one place too long. I even got on name terms with some of the guardsmen. Though Juan, Carlos and Miguel were never much for talking, they were all, the strong silent type.
I was happy enough. Hard work was no skin off my bones, I was used to that, and there was always food in my belly, and a warm bed at night. But tragedy did stalk my idyll, twice in the early evening I was disturbed from my duties by the sound gunfire followed not too soon later by the sight of one of the guards, coming through the gate with one of my fellow workers, bloody and immobile. Bandits, they said, they seemed like very vicious criminals. Still; sad though those events were, most of the days were good, I was close to content. I knew it couldn’t last.
The first sign of change was one lunch time when I was serving out duck dumplings in a soup which I has made with an spicy twist. I has all my attention one the pot and my ladle, the noise of my friends laughing and talking a soft wave flowing over me. The suddenly it stopped. I didn’t notice at first but after a few seconds of silence I lifted my head to see what was the cause and I too was brought to silence.
At the door to our canteen was, I’m not kidding here, easily the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, she was tall, elegant, with dark brown skin and a body as close to perfection as you are likely to find. She was literally stunning, I think some of us did not speak for days after seeing her. I think we were all instantly in love.
She stood at the door for what seemed like hours but what must have been less than a minute and walked, though glided may have been a better word, to my table and asked, with a voice as lovely as the rest of her, for some of my soup. I was delighted to oblige and while she took a tentative sip and then an eager slurp of my latest concoction she explained that she (maria was her name) was the wife of the owner of Santa Rosa, that she usually does the cooking at home but the boss was away and she could smell the delicious food coming from our side so decided to join us (I got a surreptitious slap on the back at that one), she was hoping if that was okay.
I’m sure that some of us got cricks in our necks so rapid was the nodding of our heads in allowing Maria to stay and from then on, she would make her occasional appearance amongst our ranks. Life in the big house was boring it seems. She thought the stories that we told of our lives were instantly fascinating, including my own somewhat macabre tales of youth.
Before you ask, dear reader. No! I didn’t do anything with her. I was infatuated with her, this is true, we all were, but she was so far beyond our league to make even the thought of something absolutely nonsensical. She was a Goddess, I was a mortal, mixing the two never ends well for the mortal, I kept my distance.
Not everyone, however, was so wise. Raúl, originally from Cuba, stared more than the rest of us. He stared so much that some of the rest of us grew uncomfortable for Maria. But Raúl was a handsome man, he had ebony skin, covering a frame that could have been chiseled from marble. Occasionally; I could see Maria stare back.
But I thought nothing of it. Just a bit of harmless flirting. Then there was the time I was rising early to prepare another culinary masterpiece. I walked softly from my room so as not to wake the others, made my way into the main hall way and nearly collided with Maria, with tussled hair and a guilty expression on her face. I didn’t have to look to know she was coming from Raul’s room.
Two days past before I had a chance to mention what I saw to Raúl. “Fair play and all.” I said “But the boss’s wife? You’ll get kicked on your arse if they ever find out.”
“If they find out.” Raúl said with a smile. “We only ever do anything when the boss and his goons are a long, long, way away. The only way he would know was if someone,” He looked at me, “told him.”
The accusation hurt my pride. I would never tell on a colleague like that. There was a code, an unbreakable bond. My lips were sealed.
My silence; however did not buy Raúl too much time for his nighttime shenanigans. I am a light sleeper and was awoke early one morning by the sounds of horses pulling something heavy through the courtyard. I dressed as quietly as I could and walked a softly as a mouse to the door and slowly put my head around to see what was going on.
There was indeed a number of horses pulling something. The guards had caught something and were dragging it back to the Boss. Who was standing in the center of the courtyard with Mr Grin and Maria, who was in a disheveled dress.
When I saw her I realised who it must be tied by the ropes. I prayed to God that I was wrong but when the dust settled it truth was obvious, Raúl had been caught.
He struggled, his mouth was gagged but I could still tell that he was calling to Maria. She couldn’t move, Mr Grin had strong grip for a man of his size.
At a signal from the Boss, the ropes tying Raúl were loosened and he was allowed to stand, though any move he tried to make towards either the Boss or Maria were quickly stopped. The Boss let Raúl quieten down then he started to speak.
“It is typical of you people.” he said, “I take you in, give you work when no one else would, and what do you do? Betray me.” He looked at his wife “You. I will deal with later.” He then gestured to Mr Grin who smoothly but firmly lead her back to the house. When she was gone, the Boss made another gesture and the guards completely removed the ropes from Raúl. He was calmer now, I thought he believed he had been given his lumps and was going to be kicked out. It turns out, that didn’t happen.
The Boss pointed at the main gate. “Get moving” he said. He raised his hand and three more of the guards came out with their horses and a fourth in tow. “I said go!” the Boss shouted “We going to give you five minutes, then we are going to come after you.” the guards started to chuckle, they were cradling there rifles while he spoke. “We’re going to have some fun with you.”
Raúl stood there for a second; as if trying to think of something to say, a way to negotiate. But he saw the look in the Boss’s eyes and thought the better of it. He ran, as fast as his battered legs could take him, out the gate and into the night.
I didn’t see any more, I didn’t want to, I tottered as lightly as I could back into bed and stuffed the pillow as hard as I could against my head so I could not hear anything. Nevertheless; I heard three dull thumps, shots in the distance, not more than ten minutes later. I did not sleep again that night.
That morning I was burning in my desire to talk to someone about what had happened. The guards, and Mr Grin, were close, too close to speak.
I did; however, have a chance to run. It was shopping day and I was to head with Mr Grin to the town. That was to be my ticket to escape. I made the usual motions to choosing what I needed for the next few days and when I walked past I whispered to the ladies who had so often tried to warn me. “Help me” I said.
They did not need to be told twice. One of them was mixing a paste of corn in a bowl and as Mr Grin walked by she suddenly upended it and let is spill all over his trousers. He roared in anger at the mess on his clothes and the woman grabbed him and made a show of cleaning off the gunk.
While that was going on, the other woman grabbed me, took me to a side door and pointed at a truck that was sitting on the street, idling. The driver looked at the woman and waved. She waved back and pointed at me, making running motions and pointing back at the truck. The driver nodded and opened the side door. I didn’t need to be told. I ran like hell.
When I got in the truck the driver told me to lay down while he started it moving. There were moments when it looked like he was signalling someone, or looking at something too intensely and I was convinced that Mr Grin had come for me, that I was going to be the one hunted that night.
But nothing happened. After what must have been a half an hour. He signalled I could get up. I moved into the passenger’s seat and I saw that we where out in the country side, mountains of the Andes before us. “Muchas Gracias” I thanked the driver. “De nada” he replied. He said that Santa Rosa was a bad place and that getting any one out of there was a good deed that God smiled upon. I agreed heartily.
We talked a little more. I talked about Santa Rosa and what I had seen, he talked about the other stories he had heard from that accursed place, I shivered at every one, as their fate could have been my own. After another hour were were approaching another town. The driver said he could drop me off there if I wanted. I thought for a second and asked where he was going. He replied to Argentina, would I like to go with him? I said sure.
That was the end of my time in Chile. I had more adventures in South America but those, dear reader, are for the next chapter.
Author’s note: This story is part of a series written about my character Enrique Ivan Hamish O’Brien and his adventures. There have been Eleven stories so far I Enrique, An Edukayshun, The Emergency, The Demon on the high seas, , Driving Ambition, Viva la Leopoldville, Up the river, Taking Flight, Due South, In Every Port, What’s good for the goose, and Romeo and Julia . Stay posted to see what else Enrique comes up with.