An old man is walking towards a church. We don’t really know why yet. Let’s say he’s gone for a walk. And he’s got a dog. Yes, we can see him tying the little mongrel to a lamppost right now.
It is certainly Sunday. It is Sunday because I tell you it is. It is Sunday because the road isn’t stressed. It is Sunday because I can see him trying the door handle in gentle respect. He fondles the iron knocker as if it’s a leper’s hand. Satisfyingly it opens with a click and he enters with head-hanging reserve.
He is holding an antique pistol. He holds it with great casualness, letting it hang in his hand like a pack-lunch banana. He sits briefly in the pews. From here we can view the whole church. Its pinecone apse. Its scuffled light. Gothic colonnades like dead sunflowers. The place is packed.
And what a curious crowd sits ahead of him. The grey haired congregation and the stiff suited regulars sit among skin-headed scuffs and grievous gangsters. Dark eyed Chinese with long little finger nails polish rosemary beads. Sunburnt Moors flash golden teeth through crooked smiles. Harmful men, arms blue with homemade tattoos, sit among scantily clad girls with Russian red lipstick and the cleavage to make a Saint blush.
The old man, who seems to have rested long enough, stands and walks down the aisle. He wears an old suit, tatty and grey and smelling of moth balls. Half way down, he crosses himself with his gun and points it at the priest.
“Forgive me father”, he whispers. Then he pulls the trigger.
The beginning of Juan Garcia’s life was equally notorious. Having spent an extraordinary eleven whole months in his 68 year old mother, already as dry as a Spanish sandwich, little Juan was not so little at all.
When finally delivered, bloated and bloody and screaming in a tungsten lit hospital room, he was so great and rounded that he was barely a baby at all. He was the size of a full grown Alsatian and really quite as hairy.
The gluttonous baby attracted many from strange lands wishing to glimpse this strange child. Their journeys filled the quiet town with foreign faces and rapid accents and the sounds of gypsy guitars and golden mournful voices. The men with earrings and dark eyes prophesied that this baby was a terrible omen and if it was to survive would cause great harm. Meanwhile, the ladies in polka dot dresses and creased up noses would sit and say over fans and coffee, “Have you seen the mountain baby? Have you seen the curse of God”?
The child continued to grow. On his first birthday he was already walking upright on large muscular legs. At five he was taller and fatter than his seven older brothers and by eleven he was being dressed in the old and tatty suits of his ever ashamed father.
On account of his size, full head of long hair, father’s suits and pinstriped ties the school laughed when his parents first tried to enrol him. “This is a school for boys,” the young matron gently whispered, embarrassed for the comic threesome. Several apologies later and a creased birth certificate he was accepted with lasting reservation.
In the first weeks the other children were naturally terrified. He was as big as their teachers and just as uncomfortably dressed. But despite the child’s great body and deep skull his mind was still a child's and he relished playing games and football barefoot.
He quickly became popular with the other children becasue Juan Garcia had a great gift. He was a story teller, a gifted orator, who could twist words and heighten accents and spin stories of corruption and suspense. At lunchtime, in the shadow of the chocolate scented trees, the boys would listen in deafening silence, cross legged on the burnt ochre floor, to a thick booming voice spouting marvelous stories of murder and sex and revenge.
Yet Juan found school intolerable. His long suffering teachers failed to insert much into his furry skull and like most boys uninterested in school, Juan much preferred making money. He was soon charging for his playtime stories and within one year had created an insurance business charging for protection from the school bully.
Pablo was his name. A fat boy with farm girl checks, croissant brown hair and rye bread arms who enjoyed throwing his considerable weight around. Yet headlocks, wedgies, pocket money hold-ups and long term psychological damage could be avoided for a small fee to Juan and his protection service.
Of course, Pablo, with an equal dislike of school and preference for making money, was firmly in on the racket. He targeted boys who thought themselves to be above protection and the pair staged fake fights in the little courtyard to maintain fear and allusion. The boys became best of friends through their deceit.
Sadly it was their friendship that led to the pair’s demise. After the two of them were seen chatting and joking like the best of friends (and when the money they had cheated was not returned) the masses rose and a miniature brawl ensued. Two broken arms later, a fractured rib, seven black eyes, a nosebleed and a call to the police, the boys were finally stopped. They were instantly expelled and made to pay back all the money to students and even several teachers.
Juan’s father was furious. He cursed the man child and heeded the prophecy of the gypsies.
“You are an embarrassment to this house”, he cussed at the slack jawed storyteller. “From the moment you were born I knew it to be true and you have brought shame again today!”
Confused and never knowing anger like it Juan desperately wished the resentment to stop. He told his father so, again and again. When talking failed he tried to stop him in other ways. He raised his large hands and smothered them over the hot ventilation from where the noise was coming.
Like baseball gloves, big and meaty, he vacuum packed his father. He watched naively, his long cheeks soaked in tears, as his father’s lips turned from purple to black and his eyes bulged like Pablo’s and his arms thrashed frantically. He had never wanted to hurt him, yet not knowing his own strength, the twelve year old had suffocated his father to death.
Consumed with remorse and unable to return to his desperate mother, Juan plunged himself into the world. He took jobs wherever he could find them and always displayed a pitiless magnitude for making money.
He boxed in Cuba, told made up fortunes with the gypsies, scammed tourists with confidence tricks, worked like an ox across plateau farmland, committed theft and robbery, talked his way into borrowing money and lending loans and left in his path a scattering of children he would never know.
As the big boy grew older he followed where the money went and before long he was an ordained official of the Catholic Church. His Mother, a typical God fearing lady had invariably dragged her seven sons to church every Sunday. It was here, through itchy trousers and spit rubbed checks that he had picked up enough verbosity to pick the lock of Heaven and imposter within the house of God.
Very quickly he filled the pews. His sermons were quite fantastic, the talk of all, filled with murder and revenge like an unmissable soap opera. Add this with the spectacle of his talks, his looming presence; his baroque scale; his long cast shadow across the littered tombstone floor! The stories, of course, were entirely false. But Juan still relished as the congregation would queue to shake his big hand at the big wooden doors and tell him how Gods words had never sounded truer.
He stirred hatred in his peers. They complained again and again of his false words and misguided prophecy. But the head priest was far too distracted by the bulging bags of velvet coffers to bother with their complaints.
“The more you bring me, son, the more this Church is going to be able to do for you,” he told him slyly over a double handed handshake. “Our very future rests on the shoulders of the young...and you know what I say, the more dreadful the sin, the higher the price."
Juan, therefore, became a regular at the seediest bars and smokiest holes and dirtiest streets where men in tight suits and covered eyes did deals in dark rooms. Where the down-and-outs sucked brown bottles dry, where dirty fingers smoked cigarettes to the filter and where flesh coloured girls held firm like cling film to alleyways and street corners.
He filled these shady places with the holy light of the Lord. He promised a warm room on a Sunday, plenty of free wine and, most importantly, enthralled the crowd with heroic stories, comedies and Grecian tragedy.
The crooked men and dirty children and curvaceous women lapped up the paraphrased words of God like hungry dogs. They committed themselves there and then to the new excitement of the Catholic Church.
It was among the hovels and bars, while telling stories and arm-wrestling for cash, that he was reunited with his old school friend, Pablo. The school bully with the farm girl checks hadn’t changed a hair. His face was still large and his ears too big and his eyes bulging from there sockets. And he had fallen on hard times and was full of great sadness and had drenched his failures in stinky brown liquor. So distraught by Pablo’s own stories he immediately offered him a job in the church. He found him a room and as many odd jobs he was willing to take. He swept the isles, filled the bibles with those little yellow donation envelopes and went out to buy almonds and sugar for the hooded sisters to make there marzipan sweets.
Again his fellow priests argued vehemently. “You have transformed our once sacred space into a den of vice,” they announced! “The Pope himself will hear from us about your blasphemy! Let us see what he says about your turning the house of God into a common whore house!”
But Juan, looming over them, wearing a dog collar as tight as a rockwailer around his red meat neck, answered with the same eloquence and manipulation as ever. “And what will you tell him?” he asked? That we refuse to repent the sins of a few broken folk on account of their past? We are all sinners”, he continued as he grinned, “the only difference is we can admit it”.
And sinners they were. When the little wooden door of that confessional box closed the short-storied curiosity of all life came flowing out. Men and women queued to confess murder, torture, forbidden love and strange sexual fantasy.
For Juan Garcia they became the perfect stories to share for the price of a drink and a few dirty coins. “Tell us another one,” the crooks and beggars and children would shout, gathering what little money they had between them. “Tell us that one about the sex mad granddad! Tell us about the missing glass eye!”
“Well there is one man”, Juan spoke, giving in with no resistance. “About an old man, with little glasses, smelly moth ball suits, works in the bank on Calle de Magi, who says “forgive me Father, I have sinned”. I tell the old man ‘God forgives all but first he must know what he is forgiving’. The old man pauses. Doesn’t speak for several minutes. Finally he says, ‘I have treated my wife in a terrible way.’ ‘Go on, my son’, I say.”
“Next thing I know he’s telling me how he beats his wife. How he locks her outside, chains her down and makes her eat from a bowl. I tell him God forgives, to say nine Hail Mary’s and give a kiss to his wife.”
“Well the next day, back in that little wooden confessional box, the same moth ball crouches inside. Wearing the same suit he has the same problems. ‘Forgive me, Father’, he says, ‘for I have sinned.’ But this time he comes out with it all. ‘I think I love my dog more than her’, he says. ‘And have been treating him better than my wife’.”
“I tell the old man to track back and try and remember what made them happy. But he’s not listening, only rattling off how the dog now eats at the table where she used to sit and shares his bed at night. When he’s finally finished confessing, spilling his spleens, I ask him very gravely what his wife thinks about all this.” “The old man, wiping his eyes with tears, looks up through the chicken mesh, looks me seriously in the eye and says, ‘I don’t know…why don’t you go ask her-I’ve got her tied up outside!’”
The silent bar broke like a dinner plate. Roars of laughter shook the amber bottles above the bar and violent hands slapped Juan on the big back. And the same night the story was spread, repeated and bled. About how the man in the bank, with the glasses and the old suits had smelt of mothballs and how they thought his name was Miguel and how he treated his dog better than his wife and ate with him at the table and slept with him in bed.
And out of the dirty bar and into the dirty streets they carried Miguel’s confessions and secrets and dirtied his name too. “Have you heard the story of the dog lover,” they would shout-their eyes full of flammable excitement. “The old man who works in the bank on Calle de San Magi? The one about the dog and his wife? How does it go? How does it go? Forgive me Father for I have sinned?”