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Saving Prostitutes in Sevilla


by Lou Godbold


 

Maria and I sit at a little table inside a bar and drink coffee. She's showing me a book; we made this appointment specifically so that I could look at it. It's just a book with color plates and it seems to be about world architecture. I'm not sure why she thought I would like it, but it is the only book she owns and it is a matter of great pride to take me slowly through the pages.

En donde esta? (Where is this?),” I ask, well able to see the caption “Roma” but needing to do something to stifle a yawn.

“Alemania,” she answers with authority. Either she can't read, or Rome has been recently annexed by Germany.

Y este? (And this?)”

“Alemania,” she answers again with conviction. The smiling Russians in the foreground have no idea that Maria has accomplished what Hitler couldn't. It must be true then what they say, that to the Andalucians everything north of the Sierra Nevada is Germany.

“Y aqui?” I can't resist, pointing to a picture of a Buddhist temple.

“Perú.”

Maria's family is from Triana, the old gypsy quarter famous for its bullfighters, flamenco bars and the ancient art of ceramic tile making. Maria doesn't say, but it seems the women in her family practice another ancient profession — the very oldest. Her daughter is only nine and is in school, Maria tells me proudly, but I wonder how long before she follows in the footsteps of Maria, Maria's mother and cousin, and the other gypsy women who are celebrated in operas but scorned by polite society.

The bartender says something and laughs when Maria dismisses him huffily. She mutters something about lack of respect, which is why I imagine she took me to a bar outside the Alameda in the first place — in the hope she would not be recognized.

#

“Maria!” screams a woman's voice the moment we come into sight. Through the open windows, I see a bald man in a homemade sweater standing next to a fat woman on a sofa and looking somewhat put out.

Esperame! (Wait for me!),” says Maria, motioning me inside. Then she runs up a staircase at the back of the room, the bald customer following hard on her heels.

Well, this is awkward! I am left standing in the middle of a brothel in full public view. With the scarcity of blondes around here I almost expect a line to form in the street. The madam (because even I have realized that's who she is) shifts with a grunt to recline on the sofa, propping her head in her hand, the better to scrutinize me.

“Tienes esposo? (You have a husband?),” she asks.

“No.”

“Un novio? (A boyfriend?)”

“No.” I don't like where this is going.

“Un hermano? (A brother?)”

“Si, but he's in England — Inglaterra.”

“Inglaterra,” she considers, probably conjuring mental images of Germany.

The cheek of the woman! Before I know it, she's reached out a hand and lifted my skirt. “Buenas piernas. (Good legs),” she says appreciatively before I snatch my skirt back.

And thus we pass the time, me telling her in Nivel Basico Spanish that I am a missionary, come to bring God's love to the Spanish people (I leave out the bit about rescuing prostitutes in case she takes exception to the possible loss of business). In turn, she points to a table against the back wall. On it is a jar full of money and despite my missionary status the madam keeps one beady eye on me in case I make off with a charitable contribution. But it's the picture postcard under a sheet of protective glass that she wants me to see — La Macarena, the most famous of all Sevilla's virgins, revered by bullfighters and gypsies. Ironically, it appears she is also a favorite of this, the least virginal class of women. “She understands our problems,” the madam is saying. Hard to imagine, unless that angel was just a good story for Joseph. “She is our hope, nuestra esperanza.”

At this point there is a heavy clomping on the stairs, as first feet, a sweater, and then a bald head come into view. The man walks straight past us and through the open door. A few seconds later, Maria comes down, twisting her blouse straight and sweeping her hair back into the Jane Russell waves. She pushes bank notes into the mouth of the jar and says something sharply in response to a comment by the madam.

“Go back to your house now,” Maria tells me in Spanish. “It's not good to be here after dark.”

#

At first I think the living room is empty when I return to the base, but then at the far end I notice a tableau of three frozen Scandinavians — Gunn, Thora and Inga. They appear to have become arrested just as they were respectively pouring tea, about to bite into something, or slicing what looks like a brick of fudge wrapped in silver foil. We stare at each other for a second, until Thora puts down her piece of bread and breaks the spell.

“Hello,” I say, interested why these paragons of virtue are looking quite so guilty. Is that the breakfast bread?

“Hello,” says Gunn, sitting up straight. “We were just having some of the cheese Inga's mother sent her. It's Norwegian. Would you like to try?” Inga shoots her a look. From the way she's been surreptitiously closing the silver foil, I get the impression she is not about to waste this Viking delicacy on ignorant Anglo-Saxons.

“No. Thanks anyway,” I answer, and seeing as no one seems to want to move, add, “Well, I'll leave you to your tea party, then." Trying not to feel excluded, I make a beeline for my room. Who cares about brown cheese anyway?

I share a room with Thora and Maria Luisa. Maria Luisa is the daughter of a pastor in Cordoba, but is studying here at the university, and to protect her from unsavory influences she is boarding with us. I am delighted by this opportunity to get to know a real Spaniard on intimate terms — quite how intimate, I had not begun to imagine until the first time Maria Luisa attended to her toilette. The Ladyshave has not yet made it to Spain, and in its absence, plucking appears to be the preferred depilatory method. Maria Luisa happily sets to with the tweezers and allows the hairs to fall to the floor at her feet (her toenail clippings as well, in case someone has an anthropological interest). When she's all done, she gets the broom and cheerfully sweeps up the trimmings. Now in every other respect, Maria Luisa is a hygienic, educated, decently brought up young woman, so how she can perform things that rightly should only be performed in the privacy of a bathroom, or at least at the hands of a trusted beautician, I cannot say. But then I was raised in a household where my mother insisted on ‘his' and ‘hers' bathrooms and would have had separate dressing rooms too if she hadn't imprudently produced a baby to occupy each of the three remaining upstairs rooms.

Today Maria Luisa is entertaining our base leader's children by playing on her guitar a jaunty little Spanish song. The children's fair coloring contrasts with Maria Luisa's dark hair and eyes, which are the legacy of a five hundred year occupation of Andalucia by the Moors.

“Come and learn our song!” cries the little boy in English (his third language). “It's about an ant in a bellybutton."

Yeah, why not. You never know when the vocabulary might come in handy.

 


 

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