Book Extracts
A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana


My brother Borja’s name isn’t Borja. It’s Pep (or Josep). And his surname isn’t Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga. We’re both Martínez on our father’s side and Estivill on our mother’s.

Unlike Borja, (I mean, Pep), I’ve kept the name and surnames my parents gave me: a humble Eduard (though still a Spanish Eduardo on my ID card) Martínez Estivill. My brother’s name (or at least the one he prefers to flaunt) is Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga, notwithstanding an identity card he should have renewed years ago that proclaims him José Martínez Estivill, born in Barcelona, son of Rosa and Francisco. Naturally nobody knows that Pep, (I mean, Borja) and I are brothers. Twins, to boot. No one, not even my wife.

Our parents were born in Barcelona, although on my father’s side our grandparents and great-grandparents hailed from Soria, in deepest Castile. As for Borja-Pep’s imaginary family, as he himself likes to expatiate, his father was from Lleida, the youngest in a family owning large stretches of arable land and herds of cows in the region of Alt Urgell, while his mother was a rich heiress from Santander, the coastal resort where Borja’s invented parents had decided to settle down after they married, and where he claims he was born.

This canny family tree enables my brother Borja to justify the fact that, despite his spectacularly blue-blooded surnames and the handsome family fortune he should logically have inherited (he presents himself as an only child, so as not to over-complicate matters), nobody in Barcelona has ever heard of the Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorgas. My brother is also quick to explain, when referring to his precarious financial state, that he comes from one of those ancient families which inevitably fell on hard times and whose genealogical roots are mired in a silt of aristocratic surnames of obscure medieval origin.

“Papa,” Borja usually explains (from here on I’ll refer to him using the name everyone knows him by, the one I’m now used to), “was unable to adapt to modern times and lost his entire inheritance. He invested everything in the family business in Santander, and managed to make a fortune. But the times were changing . . . The famous industrial reorganization of the shipyards came along, and, as if that weren’t enough, papa fell foul of the Revenue, which wasn’t his fault, of course, but down to a wretched accountant who lost him a heap of money,” he concludes in hushed tones with a shake of the head as he embroiders his tale with pride, fatalistic resignation and always with the utmost conviction.

Though we are twins, my brother Borja and I are not at all alike physically. I mean we don’t look like brothers. He takes more after our mother’s family, who were rather carefree and slim, while I take after our father’s, always on the sullen and chubby side. In fact, having left the womb a couple of minutes after me, Borja is the younger fledgling: nonetheless every so often it amuses my twin to remind me that, if we’d been a king’s sons (the legitimate variety, naturally), he, not I, would have been the rightful heir to the throne. I tell him not to worry, I’m sure we wouldn’t have fought each other for the honour. As far as I’m concerned, this peculiar idiosyncrasy of monarchies struggling to preserve vestiges of ignorance from past eras – namely, first spliced, last out – takes a weight off my mind. Perhaps because I’m a hesitant, shrinking violet, and Borja’s the capricious, daring type.

We are twins and will both be forty-five in May, but I have to admit that my brother seems somewhat younger. He’s still single, although for a long time he’s had a sort of more or less steady girlfriend who likes to have him on her arm at Barcelona’s most select venues. Maybe the only drawback in this arrangement – depending on your point of view, obviously – is that she is married.

Clearly, the husband of this girl (who is hardly a girl any more) is a guy with lots of money and no time to spend with his family. However, I deduce from stories Borja sometimes tells that she’s not what you’d call a downtrodden spouse. The woman, Mercedes by name and Merche for short, belongs to that cohort of successful female lawyers who graduate from the Abat Oliva University to work in Barcelona’s most select law practices. She devotes herself to the kind of work that brings in the bacon for graduates of expensive, prestigious institutions favoured by well-heeled Catholics who dedicate their talents to ensuring that the rich don’t pay too much tax. Borja and Merche usually meet up on the odd evening and spend weekends together, when her husband goes on his travels. Apparently, this happens quite often, since he’s an entrepreneur who owns factories in China (or something of the kind), and one of those successful men who revel in the ancient tradition of more than a little slap and tickle with their secretaries and other deserving causes, usually on business junkets to destinations never very far from a sweep of tropical beach. They constitute, so Borja informs me (the fount of all my knowledge on the affairs of Barcelona’s upper classes) a modern couple typical of this social background, sharing children and social activities but separating out lives and bank accounts. Merche has a teenage son who’s overly fond of snorting coke (like his mother I suspect), whereas Borja, to the best of his knowledge, has no offspring. The only worrying vice I associate with him is Cardhu, and he can’t drink that in excess because he’s perpetually broke. I know next to nothing of Borja’s love life before Merche.

In fact, despite the close relationship we enjoy now, the last twenty years of my twin brother’s life are a mystery that only receives sporadic illumination when, under the influence of Cardhu, Borja makes the occasional, apparently sincere revelation. I clutch at such straws in order to painstakingly reconstruct periods of his life, and it’s thanks to this Scottish beverage that I’ve found out he set foot in Australia, starved in Germany and would never work again as cook on an oil tanker. And also that he lived in Paris for several years, but more of this anon.

I’m still married to the same woman, my darling Montse, and we have three children: two fourteen year-old girls, also twins, and a terrible two who will soon be three. My brother Borja still boasts a splendid head of brown hair (to which I am sure Iranzo, his stylist, adds blonde highlights once a month), and loves silk ties, English pin-stripe suits and Italian casuals. I prefer corduroy and jeans, checked shirts and lace-ups. Although we are more or less the same height, just below six feet, I weigh in at twenty-six pounds more – not that I’m what you’d call fat. I’ll admit I might be developing a paunch, and, like our father, a receding hairline that I do my best to conceal. My remaining hair, of which luckily there is a lot, is unaccountably greying in a way that doesn’t give me a more distinguished air – not even when I imitate Borja and pile on the gel and comb it back. His skin is always an enviable golden brown thanks to a sun-tanning salon next door to his block, while mine stays milky white most of the year. Borja works out at a gym at least three times a week, but I get more than enough exercise with my contribution to the general house-clean every Saturday, and by playing with the kid every day while Montse’s getting dinner. Borja is rightwing (for aesthetic reasons, he claims) and I soldier on as a non-voting, disillusioned left-winger.

I must confess that I blush easily when forced to tell even the most innocent of fibs, whereas Borja only goes red when he blabs something that sounds as if it’s really true. In restaurants he is able to select wine not simply as a function of price and knows how to wield the appropriate utensils when dissecting a lobster, while I always end up ordering meat and giving the nod to whatever wine I’m asked to taste.

We are both partners (and the only employees) in a kind of consultancy, as we call it, which on our cards and letterhead proclaims itself Frau Consultants, Ltd. The name Borja chose initially was the Greek letter Tau, invoking Taurus, the sign of the Zodiac we share; it is not a word in Catalan or Spanish, and we felt that to be opportune considering the strange things that occur with language questions in our country, particularly on the Upper North Side of this city. However, someone made a mistake at the printers, and Borja, who is a touch superstitious, read it as an omen, decided to take the error on board and renamed our newly created company. Frau brings the word “fraud” to my mind, reasonably enough, and perhaps there is some of that lurking behind my brother’s new moniker and his permanent state of bankruptcy. Borja appreciates the finer things in life and likes to splash out – which, given his circumstances, is not very often.

The truth of the matter is that Frau Consultants is not a real firm because it has no legal existence at the company registry and, in any case, the activities we undertake generate little in the way of invoices and paperwork. The consultancy we offer, and which our clients require, is too confidential in nature to allow for written contracts, let alone reports and invoices; but it is quite another matter to run to a decent office where we can see clients and hand out elegant, expensive cards embossed with our names and telephone numbers. As Borja says, they lend an air of respectability that leads important people to trust us, and at the end of the day trust is what it’s all about. In terms of hierarchy, he’s the company director and I’m his deputy. In practice, to make it crystal-clear, he provides the clients, class and personal charm, and I perform the bloodhound routines.

As we don’t have a secretary (our current budget won’t stretch to a blonde goddess manicuring her nails all day in the office, though she’d be one of the improvements Borja would like to introduce into the company), we are forced to give our clients the numbers of our blasted mobile phones. These are the very latest models thanks to an acquaintance of Borja who works around the shops in the port area and gets them on the cheap (I suspect that backstreet dealing in mobiles off the backs of lorries is one of the scams Borja resorts to when we aren’t on a case). What we do have is a small, very chic office – top end as they say – on carrer

Balmes, very close to the plaça Bonanova, because we pay a peppercorn rent that was fixed years ago. Borja says this rent, ridiculously low considering we work in one of those districts in Barcelona where the nakedness of the graffiti-free walls verges on the obscene, is a favour granted by a grateful friend. I imagine it’s a friend who’s very grateful because my brother has kept the lid on various items of compromising information. There’s a reception area, a small sink and 400 square feet of space containing our non-existent secretary’s desk. Since it is so roomy, we’ve equipped it with two armchairs and a small sofa from the Ikea sales, together with two standard lamps and a brightly coloured carpet, a longish second-hand glass table, one side of which is slightly cracked, and six leather-upholstered chairs Borja bought on the cheap (a job-lot from a removal van, I guess). This is where we meet our clients, who are not exactly queuing up. With characteristic cunning Borja has had very flash imitation-mahogany doors set in one of the walls (the carpenter has yet to be paid, I fear), mounted with a couple of gilt plaques that proclaim our names and respective posts in italics:

Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga



Eduardo Martínez Estivill

Deputy Director

When we see clients, our secretary is invariably on holiday or out on an errand. Nonetheless, there is always a little bottle of red Chanel nail varnish and other small items on her desk that supposedly betray a feminine presence: a Liberty foulard draped casually over the back of her chair (which, one festive night, after a couple of generous measures of Cardhu, Borja confessed he’d requisitioned from a restaurant coat-stand), a copy of Hello! (inevitably a very out-of-date copy purloined from my brother’s sun-tanning salon) and a plant that doesn’t require much water. He reckons such anodyne objects lend credibility to the idea that a woman is at work there. We also keep a filched bottle of L’Air du Temps in one of the drawers of the desk, whereon rests a Mac that doesn’t work, and occasionally when we are expecting a visit, we squirt the scent around and perfume the atmosphere with the high-class secretarial touch Borja believes to be so vital. As for our non-existent offices behind fake doors, they are always being painted or redecorated.

After all my setting of the scene, it must be apparent that our customers almost always belong to the upper classes, and that what we can offer them is absolute discretion in the matters they confide to us. “Eduard, lie under an oak tree and your acorns will prosper,” Borja likes to repeat. It’s one of his favourite sayings. The other is the one about God and dice.

“Eduard, God doesn’t play dice . . .” he likes to quip when we find ourselves up a blind alley or enjoy a sudden stroke of good luck.

In fact, Borja and I play the role of intermediary in the kinds of negotiations the rich don’t like to conduct them-selves, such as buying or selling whatever comes their way and pawning jewels and art objects. We sometimes get involved in collecting information on rival firms or disloyal partners, and occasionally we’ve even checked out the veracity of a prolonged absence from work brought about by a pleasant, highly dubious depression. Unfortunately, as we have to earn our crust one way or another, we must also occasionally get to grips with cases of infidelity. We aren’t detectives or anything like that, and that’s precisely why our clientele decides to place itself at our mercy. It’s not like contracting an agency of professionals to tail your wife (or mistress, which is usually what it amounts to), and then facing up to a grizzly individual who hands over a fat file and an even fatter invoice confirming your irksome suspicions – it’s more like asking a friend to find out what he can in exchange for a generously filled envelope. We provide this friendly service: we don’t bug, don’t take photos, don’t hoard files or write long reports. We work by word of mouth, and frequently relay our findings to clients comfortably ensconced together in one of the few decent cocktail bars that, according to Borja, are still left in Barcelona. We’re not anonymous employees of a sordid private detective agency advertised on balcony hoardings, but two understanding friends who, if needs be, can find a word of consolation and offer a shoulder to cry on when one of our clients decides to divulge all. “Be prepared” is our motto, salvaged by Borja from our wretched time as obedient boy scouts. As he says, it reflects the professional skills we offer, not to mention the over-the-top fees we try to command.

You can take it as read that when I accepted Borja’s partnership proposal I never imagined things would take off and that we’d find ourselves embroiled in trying to solve a murder case. I must confess neither of us had the slightest idea about how to tackle such a situation, either then or now. In fact all our knowledge of the criminal underworld originates exclusively – I kid you not – from reading crime fiction on childhood holidays spent in Premià de Mar with our parents and grandparents, when Premià was still a small village sufficiently distant from Barcelona to perform as a summer holiday resort. As far as I’m concerned, this bookish experience was supplemented on the beach at Caldetes, where Montse, the children and I still spend the summer: the main aim of such page-turning being to keep in check the tortured testosterone of a young man prostrate on the sand and surrounded by splendidly curvaceous flesh as naked as the day God brought it into this world. Frankly, our sources never went beyond Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Georges Simenon, Vázquez Montalbán and, recently, Mrs Jessica Fletcher and Colombo (the series shown repeatedly on television, of which Borja never missed a single episode). You can also take it for granted that the nearest we’ve ever got to pistols, and firearms in general, was the front row of the cinema stalls. As we are orphans, we enjoyed the privilege of never being conscripted, so neither of us has ever held a CETME, that Spanish army-issue rifle with a life of its own, characterized by a tendency to backfire at will. As for our knowledge of matters legal and forensic, they add up to a combined total of zilch, if not less.

Borja, and Einstein, may be right that God doesn’t play dice, but I’m fairly sceptical when it comes to identifying coincidence and causality; I must, however, accept that in the case I’m about to relate, there were far too many coincidences for comfort. In the first place, how else would we have been drawn into the investigation of a tricky murder case in which leading figures from high society were key players? Given our total lack of know-how, the job was clearly beyond us, to put it mildly, but the strange circumstances surrounding the case (and the fact we ourselves got embroiled), put us in the position of having to take the case on. I won’t deny there were circumstances to inspire all our detective heroes, because the crime we confronted was the stuff films are made of. If newscasters tell us day-in day-out of crimes that are sordid, vicious and eminently predictable, the majority perpetrated by head cases on drugs or poor wretches who commit suicide or give themselves up to the police, tails between legs, it was our lot to investigate a case that lacked any such spice. It was at once refined and unnerving. To tell the truth, given our day and age’s fondness for blood, guts and cheap sex, the planning and execution of “our” murder suggested that a minor, yet truly macabre, masterpiece had been staged.

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana


I’ve been sacked. It happened this morning. The chief executive summoned me to his office and said he was sorry but the minister had decided to relieve me of my post. He said the scandal had gone too far, and he couldn’t brush it under the carpet. I tried to defend myself but realized it was hopeless. There was no way he was going to reverse his decision. He dismissed me, my tears welled up and I went to the bathroom for a good cry.

It’s unfair. Anyone could have made the same slip. And I mean anyone. In fact, nobody noticed the day the exhibition opened. Or the day after. A week went by before the mistake was spotted. Because it was a mistake, and a bad one at that.

I wasn’t to blame for what happened. No way. And the proof is that the police who arrested me in the first instance let me go scot-free after a couple of days. It was obvious I’d done everything in good faith, that it was simply one big gaffe. Maybe I was a little naive – “incompetent” was the word the Minister of Culture actually used – but naivety and incompetence are hardly crimes. I reckon everyone has a right to make mistakes. What really pisses me off is that I won’t find another jobin the art world for a good long time as a result of this ridiculous business.

They say that at the end of the day it was my responsibility and that’s why they’re giving me the push, but it’s obvious they need a scapegoat. They’re a bunch of chauvinist pigs. They gave me the option of resigning rather than being sacked. I accepted, naturally.

There was only one day to go to the inauguration of the exhibition and I was nervous, as you can imagine. If you’ve ever curated an exhibition you’ll know what I mean. I’d just started in my post as director of the MUA and it was the first big exhibition I had organized by myself. I was nervous, but also very excited, and so happy, I can tell you. A mere twenty-six years old and here I was, about to enter the city’s art scene through the front door, because it’s no small potatoes to be Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art. Absolutely not. Quite a few people would kill for a position like it, and though I knew every step I made would be scrutinized under a magnifying glass, to see whether I triumphed or made a cock-up of things, I was convinced the exhibition would be a success and that I’d get my fair share of congratula-tions. And that was how it turned out. The launch was first-rate and the artworks and canapés mesmerized the guests in equal measure. They all said Eudald Mataplana was a great artist, and the catering firm I contracted belonged to a girlfriend I trusted wholeheartedly. If you’re going to do something, then do it well, I say.

As I told the police, I didn’t choose the subject of the exhibition, let alone the pieces that were exhibited. The museum had been negotiating for two years with the artist’s agent and I’d only just taken up my post as director. The tragic disappearance of my predecessor, who died of a sudden heart attack, according to the official version, and from an overdose of blue pills, according to the off-the-record version, was a real stroke of luck for me. One of the openings for an art-history graduate is a post directing a museum or gallery, and the deceased was an uncle of mine, and that coincidence really smoothed the path for me. When Uncle died, I’d already been collaborating with him for a year and a half, and Daddy immediately rang the minister to remind him of a thing or two. Obviously these posts aren’t hereditary, but Daddy likes to see some return on the money he pays out whenever there’s an election. Besides, competition for any decent post is so fierce nowadays it’s hardly a mortal sin for a father to give his daughter a helping hand. Blood is thicker than water, and Daddy has so many contacts it would be criminal not to take advantage of the occasional one.

My uncle was an old friend and great admirer of Eudald Mataplana, and that explains why he decided to curate the exhibition himself. To tell the truth, I wasn’t at all familiar with his work and I’d never met him personally, because contemporary art isn’t my strong point and all the contact I had had was with his agent.

I suffered a panic attack the day before the exhibition opened, when I realized there weren’t forty works as stated in the agreement signed by the museum, but forty-one.

“What the hell’s that doing there?” I asked, put out, when I saw the piece in the main room.

“We don’t know where to put it,” the installers replied, deadpan.

I took another look at the sculpture and combed my memory. I didn’t think I’d ever seen it. After a thorough review of my list, I concluded that the piece wasn’t part of the selection made for our exhibition. It was an extra. But there it was, and it was no small item either. I ruminated for a while, then decided to ring the artist and seek his advice.

Eudald Mataplana wasn’t answering his house phone or his mobile. “Typical bloody artist, out on the tiles till late and then sleeping it off in the morning!” I raged enviously. I left a message on his answering machine, not thinking for one moment that he’d ever hear it, and pondered what to do next. I knew it was a waste of time to try to speak to his agent, because he’d be flying over an ocean at that point, and Uncle was dead, so I didn’t know who I could turn to for support. I started to feel on edge. It wasn’t midday yet and I had to reach a decision: whether to send that item back to the artist’s studio (I’d have to phone the moving firm, talk to the insurance company, change the budget…) or discreetly shunt it down into the basement. The item was uncatalogued and it put me on the spot.

“So what do I do now?” I asked my secretary in a fit of despair. “I’ve got an appointment at the hairdresser’s and then at the beautician’s. We launch the show tomorrow and I’ve still got to fetch my dress, which they’re adjusting…”

“If they’ve sent it, it means they want it in the exhibition,” she said, in her very common-sense way. “Find a place for it and don’t worry so. After all, it’s only one more sculpture.”

And that’s just what I did. I told the installers to erect a dais in the centre of the main room, the only free space left for a work of that size, and told them to put it right there. The title for the work wasn’t a problem, as they were: Still Life No. 1, Still Life No. 2, Still Life No. 3… I printed out a label on my computer with the title Still Life No. 41 and placed it in front of the piece that really took your breath away.

Eudald Mataplana cultivated an oneiric-deconstructionist hyperrealism with baroque touches he combined with a high emotional charge. Or to put it in plain speak, he spent his time creating realist sculptures on shocking themes to jolt his public’s aesthetic horizons and pro-voke repulsion. I don’t know why he did it or why his work was so successful. The fact is, all his sculptures had degeneration, sickness and death in their most macabre expressions as their leitmotif: cats and dogs that had been run over, rotten fruit and withered flowers, battered children, women undergoing chemotherapy, decrepit old people, worm-infested skeletons… And to rub it in, the guy added odours to his sculptures, so his withered flowers stank of withered flowers, his sick women of hospitals and his old people of urine and excrement. They were subtle smells (you had to get close up to get a whiff), but I found it all highly unpleasant, and preferred to contemplate his works from afar.

My special interest, to be frank, is the Renaissance, and to be precise, the painting and sculpture of the quattrocento: Donatello, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca… I mean, artists who have gone out of fashion. I’ve no real enthusiasm for modern art. I can’t really see the point. Nonetheless, it was inevitable that the contacts my uncle had with avant-garde artists would channel my career far away from my beloved Italians. Getting a post at the MUA was a way to get noticed on the art scene and boost my CV, and one can’t reject an opportunity like that when it comes served on a silver platter. Clearly I’m not a total illiterate in terms of contemporary art and I don’t want to justify myself by appealing to my ignorance, but the avant-garde sensibility is so heterogeneous there’s no way one can get a handle on it or work out what criteria to use. If Uncle said Eudald Mataplana was good, I believed him, and if his work wowed the viewing public, then even better.

I looked spectacular on the launch day. I’d lost eight pounds and wore a tight-fitting cerise silk dress that had cost a bomb and which sparked a lot of comment. The chief executive came, and so did the Minister of Culture, the President of Parliament and the Mayor. Eudald Mataplana didn’t come, but his absence was no surprise because Eudald was a bit of an idiot and would do that kind of thing. Some artists move heaven and earth to secure an interview or appear on the TV, and others play hard to get and that way they get interviews, because they never grant them and say they’re phobic when it comes to TV studios. Eudald Mataplana was one such: he threw a party and went AWOL, an exhibition of his work was organized and he didn’t bother to put in an appearance. In the end, everyone described him as a prickly character, with his fondness for enfant terrible antics, and journalists would come to blows to get a statement, interview or photo out of him. The gossips said it was all down to a strategy dreamed up by his agent, but how could you tell? In this country, envy is the mother of all rumours.

Still Life No. 41 was the piece that received by far the most praise. Everyone agreed that the sculpture representing a male corpse in a foetal position was easily the most successful. The critics praised it to the skies – what a masterpiece! what sensibility! – and it reduced the viewing public to silence. It was certainly the subtlest of all the exhibits, because the figure was clothed from head to foot and its eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Nevertheless, the consensus was that the expression of grief one glimpsed under those glasses (by the way, they were fabulously expensive Armanis) was incredibly moving. Eudald Mataplana thus succeeded in rekindling his status as a cult figure with the country’s most sophisticated elites.

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana


“Hey, you still in bed?” I yelled at Borja when he finally picked up the phone, sure he’d say that he was.

“Mmm…” came his sleepy reply.

“Get a move on or we’ll be late. Remember we said twelve.”

“Can’t you go by yourself?” he growled. “I feel dead…”

“Jump to it,” I insisted, trying to sound authoritarian. “I’ll come to collect you in an hour’s time, so get up and under that shower right away.”

I imagined him struggling with his silk sheets and groping his way to the bathroom, like he did when he was a kid, and could only smile. It’s Monday, and on Mondays, when there is no urgent business, Borja and I never go to the office. As far as we are concerned (or rather, as far as Borja is concerned), the week begins on Tuesday, at worst Monday night, if something pressing requires our immediate attention. My brother reckons that Mondays are good for nothing, except rest, which is why he spends Mondays loafing around, while I give a helping hand at home and do a shop.

However, we’d agreed to meet a client in the office at twelve, and that meant Borja had to forgo his Monday day of rest. He might like to grumble, but, as things stood, in the midst of an economic crisis that, in my case, was expressed in distressingly red digits at the bank and threatening calls from the late-payment department, we couldn’t risk my brother’s hedonistic habits losing us a customer.

I’d been up since a quarter to eight and hadn’t stopped in all that time. Luckily, that week I was responsible for preparing the mid-morning snack and taking Arnau to school (I hate it when it’s my turn to wake up the twins, make sure they don’t spend three hours in the bathroom prettifying themselves or watch they don’t hit the street dolled up in some fancy outfit or other), and, on my way back, I had to pop into the supermarket and stock up on packs of water and milk. Right then, I was doing the washing-up in the kitchen while Montse was in and out of the bedrooms, making beds and gathering up the dirty clothes before shooting off to work. Her Alternative Centre for Holistic Well-being was also suffering from the crisis, and that morning she and her partners had a meeting with their bank manager to try to negotiate a loan to avoid the closure of their source of livelihood.

“Don’t raise your hopes. The banks haven’t turned on the tap yet,” I warned her.

“You and Borja better get some work, right?” she retali-ated. And while she grabbed her bag and painted her lips red in front of the hallway mirror, she added with a deep sigh, “But this time, make sure you don’t get yourselves into deep water!”

“Of course we won’t!” I retorted in an offended tone. “I give you my word.”

I kissed her on the cheek so as not to smudge her lipstick and wished her the best of luck, though I was sure the guys at the bank would act ruthlessly and refuse any help that wasn’t accompanied by a lengthy list of draconian condi-tions in the purest Merchant of Venice fashion. While I was thinking about what we’d do to survive the crisis started by those very same institutions that were now sinking us, and deriving sad consolation from the fact that many were worse off than ourselves, I warmed up my second cup of coffee in the microwave and idled in front of the TV until it was time to go and meet my fraternal business partner.

In recent months I’d become hooked on the political debates on a channel called Inter-Economy that I watched now and then as if it were a weird kind of comedy show. The opinions and comments of the participants – representa-tives of an antediluvian Spain I’d thought extinct before I latched onto that channel – never ceased to shock me and bring tears of laughter to my eyes. They were like charac-ters out of an Almodóvar film, though no caricature could ever emulate their chauvinist, homophobic attitudes, their xenophobia masquerading as paternalism, their grandilo-quent language with fascist overtones, all orchestrated to express the nostalgia they felt for a Spain of surplices and death sentences, the good old days of Generalísimo Franco. Right then, they were dissecting a murderer with a taste for necrophilia (a wretched guy who didn’t look totally with it) and establishing parallels with Judge Garzón, who they were also dubbing a necrophile because he’d given permission for mass graves of Republicans murdered during the civil war to be opened. The participants thought the analogy so witty they were splitting their sides. Text messages sent by viewers were no less bizarre. After a while, when I realized the pearls of wisdom dropping from the lips of that array of troglodytes in suits and ties no longer seemed funny and were putting me in a bad mood, I switched off the TV and got up from the sofa. As it was still early, I thought it would be sensible to go for a stroll before catching the bus and meeting my brother. The doctor had recommended that I should stretch my legs, and before lethargy won out I said goodbye to Joana (that is, my mother-in-law) and headed downstairs.

The moment I stepped out onto the pavement, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sky had turned a sunny, postcard blue and that there was a warm breeze. The day that was cold and cloudy when I woke up had become one of those gloriously sunny mornings in Barcelona at the beginning of April, when at last you feel that spring is here not because some calendar has been saying so for a couple of weeks, but because the sun feels hot for the first time in months. Winter had been especially cold, and the prospect of switching off the central heating and giving the rickety state of our savings some respite helped restore my good spirits.

In fact, my good mood was also down to the great weekend we’d spent at home, which had been unusually quiet. The twins had disappeared to Begur, to a chalet belonging to a girlfriend’s parents. My mother-in-law, who’s been staying with us for months, ever since she gave in to the company that owned the flat where she lived on an ancient pepper-corn rent and that had been trying to evict her, had gone on a pensioners’ outing to Andorra and hadn’t come back until Sunday night. Borja, for his part, had taken Lola off for a weekend in Cadaqués (I don’t know whether she was paying), and that spared us my sister-in-law’s moans about my brother’s comings and goings. Lola was smitten and Borja gave her a nibble, or rather, led her a “now I love you, now I don’t” dance that meant Lola, a woman prone to violent ups and downs who loved making a drama out of everything, lived on a rollercoaster of emotions we were all forced to ride. The problem was straightforward enough: my brother continued to be the official lover of Merche, a rich, married lady of leisure, who played a central role in Borja’s finances and, on the rebound, in ours.

When I reached Borja’s flat, just before eleven, my brother was already showered, shaved and dressed. He welcomed me with a broad grin that underlined the fact that, although I’d dragged him out of bed on a sacrosanct Monday morning, he too was in an excellent frame of mind: no doubt the weekend with Lola had paid dividends. Nonetheless, he screwed up his nose when he saw I’d decided to dispense with the Armani tie and suit he’d forced me to buy for work purposes (he footed the bill).

“Hey, you ought to have smartened yourself up a bit!” he growled, suggesting he didn’t think the new jeans, leather blouson and short-sleeved cotton shirt I’d selected were ideal apparel for welcoming a client. On the other hand, he was sporting one of his elegant spring jackets and a brand-new lilac tie.

“It’s so hot, and the Armani suit makes me sweat,” I countered. “Besides, writers aren’t so fussy about these things,” I added, making a reference to the profession of our latest customer.

“But we are, and don’t you ever forget that. That’s exactly the impression we want to give our customers, whatever their line of business: they should think they are dealing with serious, respectable professionals.” And while he looked me up and down yet again, raising his left eyebrow in a sign of disapproval, he added, “Luckily they’re designer jeans, and your blouson is almost new!…”

“Bah! I reckon you are the only one who notices these things.”

Borja rolled his eyes and sighed loudly.

“Kid brother, will you never learn?”

As he’d been away the whole weekend, we’d not had an opportunity to discuss the peculiar call he’d received on Friday afternoon before leaving for Cadaqués. Borja had been at pains to say it was from a novelist by the name of Teresa Solana, without going into details, although after our unpleasant experience in that Hotel Ritz case I wasn’t at all sure I was in favour of more dealings with the city’s pen-pushers.

“God knows what she can want!” I snarled.

“Bah! I expect she will ask us to keep an eye on her husband in case he’s having a bit on the side. That’s what women are always worrying about. You just see, it will be a doddle,” Borja said, seemingly quite sure of that. “A few hours spent trailing a guy, and money in the bank.”

“It would be a good idea to come out of the meeting with a cheque,” I had to admit. “I’m cleaned out.”

“Well, in terms of money, I’ve got involved in an activity that will sort our problems for a good while. I’d not said anything because I wanted to give you a surprise.”

“I hope it’s nothing illegal.”

“Of course not!” After musing for a few moments, he added, “Well, that is, not entirely, from what I’ve seen so far. But, anyway, I’m a mere go-between.”

“So, I should start to get worried…”

“In no way.” Borja put his jacket on, looked in the mirror and ran his hand through his hair. “Let’s get going. I’ve not had any breakfast yet.”

As it had been weeks since we’d had any clients and we’d hardly been to the office, we’d thought it would be a good idea to arrive well in advance, ventilate the space and spray some of our non-existent secretary’s perfume around, as we always do before meeting someone. Our office, which is on Muntaner, near plaça Bonanova, is very close to Merche’s flat on Balmes that has become Borja’s pad, so we walked it. En route we stopped in a café and Borja stuffed his stomach while I had a quick coffee with a spot of milk.

“She must be a strange lady,” I said, thinking aloud, referring to her profession. “Devoting her days to writing about murder…”

A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana


After his wife had left to take the children to school, Ernest Fabià sat down in his pyjamas at the formica kitchen table where they had eaten breakfast and decided to analyse the situation with a cool head. It came down to nine thousand euros. That was all. Nine thousand miserable euros. It didn’t seem such a big deal.

But it was. It really was. While he weighed up the alternatives and the likely fall-out from their plight, he poured out another cup of coffee and tried not to wallow in one of those attacks of depression he’d been suffering for days. He wondered if it might not be a good idea to raid the medicine chest and knock back some of the tranquillizers his wife kept for emergencies, then had second thoughts. There was no point in putting himself to sleep. He needed to think straight, and that meant ensuring every single neuron was on active service. There must be something he could do. There just had to be.

About a week ago a complete stranger had called from his bank’s arrears department to tell him he had two weeks to make up the deficit and pay the four months they owed on the mortgage. “Four months,” this unknown quantity had emphasized in a most professional and unfriendly manner. On this occasion, the male voice had sounded aloof and had addressed him as “Mr Fabià”, and that was a bad sign because, according to the latest telemarketing techniques dreamed up by some bright spark with an MBA, one should treat one’s customer like a friend and be on first-name terms. Ernest immediately grasped that this ritual “sir” and pseudo-deference were extremely bad news.

And he was right. It was an ultimatum straight down the line. The man speaking on behalf of the bank had told him in no uncertain terms that apologies and promises were no longer enough. Another fortnight and they would be beyond the point of no return: if he and his wife didn’t pay up, their flat would be repossessed. A mysteriously automatic procedure was activated in such situations, and mysteriously automatic procedures discounted the human factor. Their position was regrettable, that much the bank understood, but the computers dictating policy from some remote location only crunched numbers. And theirs, as he was only too well aware, couldn’t get much deeper into the red.

He picked up yet again the Final Notice he still hadn’t shown his wife that had arrived a few days after that exchange. Sipping the second cup of coffee he’d poured out in a fit of inertia, Ernest reread it several times, even though he knew the words by heart. Yesterday he’d heard the doorbell ring at half-past ten and assumed it was the postman who was the bearer of bad news. He was quite right, and that presentiment had now taken the palpable form of a cheap and threatening photocopy, the dreaded Notice. Those fucking bastards were telling him that if they didn’t pay off the round sum of nine thousand euros they owed the bank, their mortgage would be cancelled, and that meant they would have to pay off every cent of the balance on their loan if they wanted to stop the bank snatching their flat from them. He and his wife had invested all their savings in those bricks and mortar and Ernest knew they would lose everything with the flat.

That Friday Ernest didn’t even feel like switching on his CD player and listening to music. He usually preferred jazz in the mornings. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker. His galloping heartbeat echoed in the eerie, ominous silence. The neighbours must be all out at work or shopping, because he couldn’t hear a soul in the inside yard. No one was washing up, hoovering or listening to the radio. He wasn’t at all superstitious, but that silence didn’t augur well.

Ernest crumpled the Final Notice in his fist, felt the bitter taste of cold coffee in his mouth and nostalgically recalled his youthful militancy on the far left, when he and his comrades-in-arms had ranted against capitalism, waved red flags and demanded that the banks be nationalized. Those distant, halcyon days seemed light years ago – twenty actually, though they could have been prehistoric for all the difference it made. True enough, Ernest was still ideologically in tune with the squatters in his neighbourhood (if not with their flea-ridden dogs whose turds dotted the pavements), but now neither he nor his friends were on the far left. On the left, at the most, if you were lucky. In fact, they were all happy simply to survive and for politicians and the tax inspectors to leave them in peace. As far as his generation was concerned, the time for utopias, like their youth, had gone for good.

He and his wife had bought that flat in Gràcia, near the Plaça del Diamant, a couple of years ago. Nothing luxurious. Ninety square metres built in the 1920s that needed lots of work, naturally. A flat they’d bought by making sacrifices galore and embracing all the illusions of the poor, just before Oriol (who was still the baby of the house) had come into the world. The purchase of that living space had been a big event at the time for the family, and Ernest and his wife gave a big party where Rioja and cava had flowed generously. The Fabiàs owned their home In Barcelona, where any flat was worth a mint! Ernest’s parents, and his wife’s, had had to make do with renting a tiny flat in the suburbs.

The fake economic prosperity that had trapped them in the property bubble was about to ruin their lives, although everyone had agreed their decision to buy a flat was eminently sensible given the astronomical levels reached by soaring Barcelona rents. That purchase had meant years of holidays eating chorizo sandwiches on the packed beaches in the Barceloneta, of doing without the little luxuries that ultimately gave life meaning, like eating out, going to the cinema or buying new clothes. Luckily ragged trousers and faded T-shirts were still the fashion, if only in their neighbourhood. Seven-year-old Jordi was the only one wearing new clothes in their household, and that was always thanks to the sales. A mere two-year-old, Oriol had to be satisfied with his brother’s hand-me-downs and cast-offs from his female cousins, but luckily he was still a baby and hadn’t noticed. Secretly, Ernest, who wasn’t at all anti-gay, was rather worried his son might turn out to be a pansy after all those pink jerseys and trousers.

And all so they could buy a flat and have some security when the going got tough, which was more than likely when they both retired. If they ever reached that point, Ernest could only look forward to a pathetic pension, and Carmen, despite her degree in art history, was a humble temp on the minimum wage, who couldn’t aspire to anything better.

Despite university studies they were both proud of – Ernest had a degree in anthropology as useful as any – their work was precarious and badly paid. And they could be thankful, because most of their friends were in an even more desperate state. In spite of all the facilities the banks advertised, they’d struggled to find one prepared to give them a mortgage. But they had been married for eight years, were paying a fortune in rent, so they dug their heels in until they finally managed to get a loan on a variable rate, after proving they had enough cash in hand to make a down payment and cope with the chunk taken out by the state, the famous ten per cent for costs that were euphemistically described as legal. Hence the need to save, scraping here and there and working more than all the hours God sent. The good news was that the value of their flat had increased by twenty per cent in two years, though nobody knew why exactly. In principle, they’d not done anything reckless. All the same, their foray into real estate had left Ernest and his wife flat broke.

Perhaps because he was young – a mere thirty-seven – and because he was generally in good health, Ernest hadn’t foreseen that an illness, let alone an accident, would make him unable to translate a word for nigh on three months. He was a competent professional with a good reputation and wasn’t short of work even though the rates were low. He translated from dawn to dusk, even longer sometimes, but he and his wife only just made ends meet. He usually worked for publishers and signed his translations, but occasionally he ghosted for other translators or translated boring reports for agencies that paid a little better.

The rot had set in with Ernest’s car accident three months ago. It was the reason for their present financial problems, or at least the main reason. Oriol had been born shortly after they bought the flat, and from that day to this they’d not managed to save a single euro. When it wasn’t one thing, it was another: Jordi’s orthodontist, the unanticipated payments to repair guttering or plumbing, the refrigerator that went “pluff” one day and had to be replaced… Not to mention the monthly mortgage payments that impenetrable economic laws kept magically pushing up at the same time as they depressed their income. Ernest and his family lived from day to day, and faced ruin without the income he brought in, and the fact was he usually earned a lot more than his wife even if he wasn’t on a salary.

And they were fortunate that it wasn’t a particularly serious accident, though it looked dreadful and their car was reduced to scrap metal. No comas, paralysis or internal organs affected. In fact, only the bones of his hands, feet and ribs were fractured, and at his time in life bones mended sooner or later. However, he had broken something like a dozen bones, not to mention a couple of vertebrae that had been badly wrenched and were still playing him up. And as the driver of the four-by-four who crashed into him that night after jumping a red light had hit and run, there was no way he could have caught him. And the insurance company had

procrastinated when it came to paying compensation because there’d been no witnesses. And he’d been unable to sit in front of his computer for three months because both his arms were in plaster. And he’d put his usual work to one side because he was about to sign a contract to translate a nine-hundred-page bestseller a publisher needed in a rush, which he’d then had to hand to someone else, into the bargain. And the flat they’d bought was to blame for the fact they had no money set aside… As far as banks and creditors were concerned, all such melodramatic explanations, albeit sincere, were simply poor excuses for their defaulting.

Consequently, over three long months of plaster casts, depression and painkillers, the bills had simply piled up in a drawer in the Fabià household. His wife’s income was barely enough to put food on the table, pay for the older kid’s nursery and buy nappies. The eight hundred and fifty euros net Carmen earned as a secretary in a legal practice that was reputed to be mafia-run (three hundred of which were paid in black money) didn’t stretch any further.

Fortunately, family and friends had scrambled seven grand together, which was a real miracle because they were all stony-broke. They had their own problems when it came to paying their mortgages or rent for their matchboxes, or had lousy retirement pensions, or were out of work, or earned a ridiculous pittance for work they did in the vain hope of getting a steady job in the future. Nonetheless, friends and relatives, generously and in goodwill, had dug deep in their pockets and got together more than a million of the old pesetas. Ernest and his wife were still two grand short, to be sure, but he told himself that morning that finding two was a sight easier than finding nine. He wasn’t going to allow them to steal a flat valued at more than three hundred and fifty-five grand on the open market. Right then, two fucking thousand euros marked the difference between a future worth living or destitution for Ernest and his family.

It was while he was rereading that threatening Final Notice for the nth time and imagining them all piling into the small flat his parents rented in Hospitalet that he reached a decision. He’d spent that week on bended knees before his bank manager and had rung all the financial institutions that advertised in the daily papers or on television, trying to get another loan, a puny loan of two grand you had to pay back fourfold in reasonably easy monthly instalments. To no avail. Ernest discovered the banks gave out money to pay for little luxuries, but not to clear debts. Banks didn’t turn on the tap when you really needed it, when it was an emergency, or was, as Ernest kept telling everyone, the fault of that bastard, who’d been blind drunk, he was sure. It could be months, even years, before they received any insurance money, and to get that they’d certainly need to hire lawyers and pay out a pile of dough.

He knew what he was planning was pure madness and that he’d better not let on to anyone. Nonetheless, he was a man at the end of his tether and that threatening Final Notice didn’t leave him any choice. He must act, and quickly. So rather than ducking out, drinking himself silly, mixing a cocktail of sleeping pills or walking out on a sinking ship, Ernest decided to put himself into the shoes of the heroes of the novels he translated and, for the first time in his life, he took the bull by the horns.