He was at a table in the corner of the old library, an aged leather satchel at his feet, a few books and a newspaper by his coffee and a hat on his head. The hat and his white beard and sunglasses hid his features, yet were an identity in themselves. That was the first time I noticed him, but even then there was a hint of the familiar about him. He was talking to his companion, a lean young man in jeans and yellow football shirt. He was talking in English, slowly and deliberately, that much I could tell, although the details of the conversation were just beyond my hearing. It’s hard to place an accent from just the slow sound, with nothing of the actual words to go by. One or two drifted to me and it seemed he might be American, or at least North American, but there are nearly as many ways of speaking English on that continent as in all the world.
They were an unlikely pair, which made them all the more interesting. A pickup perhaps, it was a quiet corner and the young men looking for customers liked to parade in public but trade in private. They made me linger over my drink longer than I’d intended, not that I needed much excuse to be away from my room. I’d set up to write, it was the only reason to be in San Marco, but after nearly four weeks there was nothing beyond a few lines in my notebook. I had no reason to rush back to my cramped little table and unforgiving chair.
At length the younger man got up and took an envelope from a back pocket and lay it on the table. The old man covered it quickly with his hand. A transaction certainly, but not the one I’d had in mind. As the man hurried past me I saw his youth was all in the leanness and his shock of black hair, his features were those of middle age, he was probably older than me. He was mouthing something as he walked. My entertainment was over, but I could write myself a note about the mystery, I could have them be spies or drug dealers, jeans-and-yellow could be his girlfriend’s pimp. Or his boyfriend’s. Either way they’d be characters without a story.
Late one afternoon a week later, the old guy was propping up a bar down by the harbour, same grubby linen suit, same hat, same beard and sunglasses. The leather case was under the barstool, easy to see why it was so scuffed and worn. He was staring into an almost empty glass. I guessed at Scotch but it could have been brandy or the local rum, guajiro. Normally I’d have headed for a table, somewhere to sit with my notebook, somewhere to people-watch, but I took a stool at the other end of the bar, at an angle to him so I could watch without turning my head or squinting sideways. I’d managed a couple of sketchy paragraphs after seeing him before, although since then the days and the pages had remained blank. If I studied him again I might squeeze out a little more, stretch a thin strand into something more than a scene.
After a few minutes he made as if to drain the glass, but appeared to change his mind and placed it carefully back on the counter. He motioned to the girl behind the bar and then went out back, to the toilets I guessed. As soon as he was gone I tried my poor Spanish on the girl, pointing where he’d been sitting and asking who he was.
“Whisky, Scotch whisky,” she said, taking the bottle and filling his glass.
I tried again. “¿Y cúal es su nombre?”
He returned soon enough and was pleased to see his glass replenished. The girl pointed at me.
He lifted his hat a fraction. “Thank you, very generous of you,” he said, raising the glass in a toast before taking a drink. He settled back on the stool and that seemed to be the end of it, but a few moments later he looked up and called across, “Should I know you?”
“No, I don’t think so, but you do seem familiar.”
“I should, you watched me give an English lesson at la biblioteca last week.”
“Oh, yes,” I half mumbled, embarrassed to be caught out in my watching game.
“Are you following me? Why are you buying me whisky? Not that I mind, as I said, it’s very generous.”
“No, I’m not following you, I’m not a detective or anything.”
“Huh!” He put down his glass. “No, you’re not a detective, you’d be out of work if you were.”
“I’m a writer,” I said, as if it would excuse everything.