photo by Andreas Lehner
What have I been doing all this time? Writing of course.
To give you a flavour of what I’m working on here’s a taste containing Chapter Three and a snippet of Chapter Four of my new novel “The Indian’s Dream”. I am writing it under my pen name of Philip Why. The blurb on my minimal Phil Why web site states:
“Billie Marx, a young particle physicist with a tragic secret, searches for the truth behind her reality. She is helped by a wooden cigar store indian and a Mexican masked wrestler as they chase the biggest questions on Earth on a quest through modern day Mexico City. The secrets of life, the Universe, quantum physics, the truth about peyote and why you should always be open to answers even from unlikely sources.”
Let the chips fall where they may. Hope you enjoy it and want more.
“Have you been using my strop?” Eduardo’s father Luis was behind him at the mirror, in a clean vest, poised with the blade of his open razor over the strip of hide. He was inspecting it with slanted eyes.
It was 1998 and Eduardo was still living with his father above the barber’s shop in Oaxaca.
Eduardo realised a couple of second later his father had just spoken to him. He shifted around in his chair in front of the TV in the clean but spartan living room, and putting another handful of tortilla in his mouth he shook his head. “No, papa.”
Luis said “Hmm, ok, I’ll believe you. Many would think you a liar, my son.” He smiled to himself as he stropped the razor with smooth strokes.
Eduardo was just 18, a young wrestler at the start of his career, and was watching a long awaited pay per view wrestling event he had paid for with his taco stand money. Guerre de Titanes! The War of the Titans! It was worth all those days shucking tacos all day, worth every thrilling penny.
In the bout on the screen Abismo Negro was fighting The Panther, and Panther was losing badly. Obviously Abismo Negro, was what is called a villain or Rudo, so you were supposed to think that The Panther, being a hero or Technico, was going to take a beating but rally and take Abismo down at the last minute. Eduardo had instincts about these things and Abismo was going to take the bout, he was sure of it. And he was right, Abismo Negro was the clear winner. Eduardo cheered and told Luis, and his father grunted as he lathered his face.
The first match of the day had been an 8-man Atómicos tag team match. So cool, so powerful. The favourites, team Los Vatos Locos, totally wiped the floor with Los Vipes. It was a good warm up, and a little bloody, which was very good entertainment. Eduardo admired their technique and showmanship, and he said so to his father. Luis spoke slowly and distractedly as he shaved “these boys don’t know the first thing… about putting on a show. It’s not real wrestling, my son. No… finesse. No style. All brawn, like a… bull with a machine gun on its head. Where’s the sport? Now in my day…” he paused and wiped the razor on the towel around his neck. “Hey… what do I know, eh? I am a barber. You are the future, little potato, and I hope you fight with a little more charisma than these balloon muscled clowns.”
Eduardo laughed and nodded. Luis Gutierrez knew what he was talking about because he himself was once a wrestler too, fighting in the 80s under the name of Luna de Lobos, Moon Wolf. But his career was cut short before Eduardo was born when he fell out of the ring onto his back and was unable to continue. Eduardo would have loved to have seen him fight. But Luis was forced to retire, so he married his skinny childhood sweetheart Rosa and they settled down.
Married life didn’t really suit Rosa, who was wild and more than a little crazy, and soon after Eduardo was 10 years old she vanished one night, never to be seen or heard of again. Luis got up at 7.30 to open up the barbershop and found a crisp note in an envelope on the red leather chair in the shop addressed to both him and Eduardo.
“Luis/Eduardo, I cannot bear this any more. Then I woke up and realised the words I need to live by: never ask permission, only forgiveness. I struggle every day with the certain knowledge that I am destined for more than this. This hick town, an unambitious husband and a son with few prospects. You two look after each other without me all the time anyway and I will not be missed. I’d like to say this is hard to do but I find it is the easiest and most wonderful thing I have ever done. By the time you read this I will be on a plane bound for ? and laughing for real for the first time in years. You will find someone more suitable I’m sure. I know I will. Love, Rosa/Mama”
The callousness and insanity of the note had scarred Luis badly. Eduardo knew this but if no other sign was more clear, his father’s usually moderate consumption of his favourite brand of mezcal escalated and he fell asleep in front of the TV every night. He also had moist eyes for a couple of years whenever he looked at Eduardo over the breakfast table, while they were watching TV and when he tucked him into bed at night. His voice quavered a little when he said “my son” even now.
It was years before he found out about his father and the woman in the bakery next door. Her name was Alandra and she was a short, curvy woman with black glossy hair and a huge distracting bosom. She used to come around to the shop doorway and talk for hours to Luis and his customers while he was working, but she never came in the door, at least while Eduardo was in the room. She smiled easily and seemed to be having a really good time for reasons Eduardo could never fathom. Surely she had customers of her own? It seemed that she had all the time in the world to chat with Luis.
Then one night Luis was getting ready for dinner and he put on a jacket and shaved for the first time in months. Eduardo stared. He’d never seen his father in a jacket before, apart from in the yellowing photos of him in the dining room shaking hands with wrestling fans wearing his mask and a blazer. Luis spotted him staring and blustered a little. “Put on a shirt, little potato, we are going to have a visitor. You know Alandra from next door? Stupid question of course you do. Well, she is coming for a visit. She will eat with us also, would you like that?” He looked kind of desperate and nervous, so of course Eduardo stammered something about sure yeah, before Luis pushed him towards his room with instructions to put on a shirt. “Men don’t accept female guests in a vest and pants, my son”, he said.
The conversation was cordial, and after Luis’ speciality, a hearty meal of garlic pork with rice and black beans, Alandra produced a flan, huge, round and glutinous, from the mysterious box she had brought with her from the bakery. Queso Napolitano was Eduardo’s favourite food, and he was instantly suspicious. The only way she would know is if his father had told her about his preference. He was suddenly aware that this whole evening was not a date for them but a ruse to seek his approval, to legitimise their relationship.
But the flan was exceptional. Flan is classically a mixture of condensed and evaporated milk and soft cheese mixed with eggs and sugar and baked in the oven on a bed of biscuit crumbs and allowed to cool… it was heavenly. Hands down the best he had ever tasted. Silky texture and not as rich as the ingredients would have you believe. It tasted like angel tears in cream. He ate two slices before he could stop himself. It was a stroke of genius. He was a junkie and Alandra had made his drug of choice.
Then as he sat there full as a goose with a pleasant eggy, sugar buzz clouding his vision, he became aware that Alandra had kind, motherly eyes. He really missed having a woman’s voice and smell around the house. She had very dainty hands and moved them around really efficiently and smoothly. It was hypnotic. She was calm, poised and womanly. She smiled a lot and didn’t seem nervous at all. It all seemed like she’d always been here. He looked at his father and the moist eyes were back. When Alandra collected the plates and took them to the kitchen, Luis looked at his son for a long time, eyes flicking down to the table and back.
Eduardo sighed. “She’s lovely, papa. I like her.”
Alandra didn’t move in though. Apparently they had both been through divorces which left a lot of wreckage and didn’t want to rush into things. Sometimes Alandra ate with them then her and Luis went to bed. Other times Luis put on his jacket and went next door to her house. He came back the next morning smelling of her perfume with a big, stupid, goofy grin on his face.
As Eduardo grew up he got to like Alandra quite a lot and not just for her flan of kings. She was a great source of advice and when Eduardo expressed a desire to take up wrestling as a sport she had an old friend who used to be the national wrestling coach for all of Mexico. She was incredible like that. Anything you could mention, sport, cooking, cars, films, whatever you could name, she had a friend who not only used to do it but was the top of their field. What on Earth did she used to do for a living that put her in touch with all these famous or at the very least notorious people?
It turned out that she wasn’t a former high-class hooker, as Eduardo had guessed, but a bar owner. She managed bars for about 20 years before she quit to become a baker in a small town. She used to live in Mexico City and ran a popular bar in the financial district, so she met a lot people who knew people. Plus she was a warm and friendly person who asked a lot of questions and put people at their ease. She grew to be one of his closest friends.
She and her father were going to be meeting that night, which is why Luis was shaving so late in the day. They were going to watch the cage match together then he was going to go around to Alandra’s house and they were going to “make some music”, as his father called it. He was a lot more frank about his relationship with Eduardo these days, delighting in telling stories of their sexual exploits, much to Eduardo’s mock disgust.
“I tell you son, I’m surprised you didn’t hear us, we were singing at the top of our voices, in UNISON, I say…”
“Aw, papa, no. No details. I love Alandra but I don’t need those pictures…”
“I tell you it was muscular, it was passionate…”
“Okay enough already, you sicken me old man.”
They smiled and jostled each other during these exchanges. Eduardo was secretly fascinated by any sex talk. He was experienced himself, having dated a girl before now, but this was different. It was a relationship. The sex was a part of something bigger, and by the way his father smiled all the time, part of something really good.
As the match finished, Eduardo took a beer out of the fridge after asking his father if it was ok. He popped the cap and watched Luis finish shaving. Luis looked at him in the mirror, dabbing an alum block to his face to quench a tiny cut.
He looked at Eduardo, squinting a little. “Have you shaved, boy?”
“No papa. I don’t really need to all the time.”
“Oh you do, little potato, you do. Come here.”
Luis pulled him in front of the mirror. “You see this?” He brought the open razor up in front of them and they both studied the blade. It was smooth and shiniest bit of the blade was the keen edge. “You know how to use one of these, eh?”
Eduardo always used disposable razors, and didn’t see the need for the fuss and danger of an open blade. “No papa, and I don’t really want to. I’ll cut my whole head off.”
“No you won’t. It’s easy. You want to try?”
Eduardo laughed nervously. “Ok… but you’re going to cut me though.”
“I’m not going to cut you, son, YOU are.” He put the razor in Eduardo’s hand and began making lather in the shaving mug. “Wet your face with hot water, wash it with the soap several times till the beard softens.”
Eduardo did as he was told. Now he came to rub his face he actually had quite a lot of stubble. He actually liked it that way. Shaving with a plastic razor left his skin red and bumpy and he had to leave days between shaves. “I don’t know, pops, seriously I’m going to cut myself…”
Luis stopped lathering. “Don’t be silly. You will cut yourself, maybe, but only the same amount you would cut yourself with one of those infernal plastic toys you savage yourself with now. You are a man, Eduardo, and you have an instinct how to use a blade. Trust yourself.”
Hearing his father say his name was powerful. Certainly Luis knew what he was doing when he said it. This was a precious moment for him, and now Eduardo could feel it too.
Luis paused for a moment. He was going to make a speech.
“My father taught me to shave and I am going to teach you. You don’t have to do it properly and you can go back to your silly plastic toys any time you want, but shaving is something that men should take seriously, with some respect. Doing it well cares for your face. Doing it badly is disrespecting yourself. It’s as simple as that. My father convinced me in one shave that I would do it this way for the rest of my life, and so far I have. I won’t shave with anything else other than this.” He touched the razor in Eduardo’s hands.
“Are you ready?”
“Very good, first you prepare the beard, you have done that. Shaving is all about soap and heat. You must soften with soap and heat. Then you lather.”
He stroked the lathered brush in the mug and handed it to his son. Eduardo smeared the lather on his face like he was painting a house and Luis gently corrected him. “Massage the lather up into the beard. Small circles. And don’t rush! This is your daily meditation. Take your time, think about your day ahead. Ponder the dark recesses of your soul or the highest planes of existence. Take a moment to think, that’s the point. You will spend most of your life rushing, stressing and having people tell you what to do and when. You protect yourself against ALL of that by claiming these few moments for YOU.” He tapped his son on the chest once with his thick index finger.
And Eduardo understood. He could feel the joy of this moment, the relaxation, and closeness of his father and his familiar smell, the sight of his moist brown eyes in that round tanned face. He knew he was going to love this experience and he was going to shave like this forever. And remember his father teaching him. And in time teach his own son.
Luis was still talking. He was retelling how their family are descended from a long line of Mixtecs, and the ancient people used to shave with razor sharp slivers of volcanic glass.
“You’ve told me that, papa.”
“Okay, I know I’m rambling again, sorry. Back to work. So, you are ready? Take the blade like so” he held his hand in the air like he was drinking a cup of tea with his pinky extended “and angle the blade and do one pass down your cheek, ONE pass please.”
Eduardo did so, and the razor slid smoothly down his cheek, and he felt for the first time the luxurious sensation of the wide, sharp edge of the blade slicing easily through his freshly cleaned and softened stubble while gliding easily over his skin on the lather. It was magical.
His father explained that you should do as few passes as possible, That was why the plastic razors burned him so much, they were doing multiple passes at the same time. Better to use a single blade.
He did cut himself, a small nick under his ear, but his father used the alum block on it and it stopped at once. The blade was so sharp he barely noticed the cut until the blood ran. Then rinse and a pat of his fathers after shave. He felt his face and it was boy smooth, and hands down the closest shave he had ever had in his life. He looked good and felt really confident.
Luis grinned as he packed away his shaving stuff. “See, it is a gift for life. Something to be treasured, something sacred. Oh…” he said absentmindedly taking a small flat box out of the drawer, “Another gift. You might need this when you go to Mexico City to become a famous luchadore.”
It was a razor, an expensive German one like his father’s, with a handle made from what looked like smoky volcanic glass.
Eduardo shaved in his black marble and silver bathroom and had his one sacred moment of the day. He had lived here in Mexico City since 1999, and every day since he got this place he had his ritual, shaving in this bathroom in this mirror with this razor. Each time he remembered that first shave, and at the same time he remembered the Titans match on TV.
Each time he also remembered what happened to Abismo Negro, whom co-incidentally he’d actually met a few times while training back in the day. Abismo had actually died accidentally. He was found drowned in a river. He’d apparently stumbled into it in the dark at night when he got lost after leaving his car. He couldn’t find his way back to the road. Eduardo thought it was oddly symbolic and poignant somehow.
Life can be cruel and lessons can be learned too late. How’s that for pondering the higher planes, papa?
Thinking about his father he realised he should call him before he left for his meeting with the lady scientist from London, and tell him they were probably going to visit with Aunt Estrella tomorrow. He had a feeling that Luis would be glad someone was looking in on his older sister. Imagine staying in the broken apartment block that nearly killed you during the Earthquake. She was the only one to go back there and live after the quakes stopped. She said that she trusted in God above, and although both Eduardo and Luis trusted God much less, they trusted Estrella, the tough old bird, to take care of herself. They still worried that the building was going to crumble onto her head one day, but there it was. No point in arguing. Estrella was Estrella.
She was her own keeper, and of course they could always take comfort that she was watched over day and night by her guides.
He stroked the blade down his cheek in one smooth well practised motion. The skin behind the blade was smooth and almost dry. He wiped the blade on the towel draped around his neck and finished up that side of his face, before fluidly moving on to the other cheek.
He was not really looking forward to meeting this scientist woman. He wasn’t totally sure about how she’d found out about his aunt, or what she really knew about Estrella, but he’d agreed to meet with her and talk about it. No reason to be obstructive, but if this scientist woman seemed hostile he could protect his aunt from her easily by just walking away. Nobody knew Estrella was still living in the apartment block, nobody but himself and his father. Eduardo was performing the role of a gatekeeper in this meeting, and he was taking the part very seriously.
The call from the science lady saying she’d arrived took him by surprise, though. She sounded much younger than he had assumed she would be. He was expecting the nasal twang of a tweedy matriarch. But Ms Marks sounded younger and more shy, and with an affected but idiomatically correct Spanish. Not like the usually dry British accented Spanish, where it sounded like the speaker was badly in need of a drink. No, she spoke it with a kind of gusto, an enjoyment, but with an almost irritating control. Odd, and yet strangely adorable. He was more keen to meet her since that call, although he was still slightly apprehensive about the meeting itself. What was she after?
He wiped the razor on the towel one last time and folded it shut. He dressed slowly. There was plenty of time.