The Old Man of Arenal

By Ron Waywell

Whenever Tom and Vera Benson recall past holidays, they always remember Majorca and the flamenco dancer's strange story. And they still feel a slight sense of guilt and regret.

Tom and his wife were spending a March fortnight in Majorca and had left Palma for a day trip to Arenal, just up the coast. In the late afternoon, after an enjoyable day, they entered a convenient promenade cafe and plumped themselves down. Tom ordered coffee and cakes, then stretched out his aching feet, took off his linen sun hat, and looked around.

The cafe was deserted except for an old gentleman sitting in a corner with a lonely cup of tea. The man had looked up as they entered and watched as they settled themselves. He caught Tom's eye and seemed about to speak, but then put his head down and took a sip of tea. He had faded watery eyes and very white, large false teeth. Untidy white side whiskers peeped out from under a flat white cap, and his sports jacket had seen far better days. His shanks were draped in grey cotton trousers rather wide for today's fashion, and on his feet he wore a pair of grubby canvas bumpers. He sat there hugging himself and whispering secret thoughts.

There was an appealing gentleness about the old man and Tom couldn't resist. He coughed a greeting across the room and as the old man looked up again, tipped him a jovial wink. "Afternoon!" he called with a rising inflection.

The change was startling. The old gentleman put his hands between his knees and hunched up his shoulders. His jaws closed like nut crackers and he gave a beatific smile in their direction.

Then the coffee arrived, and the old man faded into the background. They were enjoying their cake when Vera looked up with a start. She kicked Tom's shin and whispered, "Hey up! He's coming over."

And the old man was there at Tom's shoulder. He'd left his cap on the adjacent table, and the afternoon sun shone through his wispy hair. "Hello. You're English, aren't you?" he said by way of greeting. "I could tell." His gentle Cockney voice was wistful and his eyes were misty with pleasure.

"Spot on'" said Tom in pretended surprise. "And I can tell you are too. London. Right?"

"Don't see too many English this time of year. Nice to meet you." And then the old man was off, telling his life story. He started by throwing out the usual challenge of the elderly. "Go on! Tell me," he said, adopting a soldierly attitude. "How old do you think I am? Go on! Be honest."

"Oh, I don't know," said Tom. "What do you think, Vera? Seventy? Seventy-one?"

"Seventy-nine, would you believe, and fit as a fiddle. In better nick than the wife, and she was only sixty-four."

Tom caught the "was," but before he could ask, the old man had rambled on. It seemed that he and his wife had been in Arenal for eight years. "Sold up and came for the sun. Always had a soft spot for Spain. We've been coming for ages. Because of my hobby, you see."

At last Tom could get a word in edgeways. "Your wife. Is she…?"

A bleak look came into the old man's eyes. "Dead, you mean? No such luck. No, she ran away with a local taxi driver six weeks ago."

There was a pause.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Tom said eventually. "So you're on your own?"

It transpired that the old gentleman had put his apartment up for sale and had moved into a hostel. "Only one room, but quite nice," he said. "Good enough for me."

"So you're managing all right," said Vera sympathetically. "What about money, and suppose you get ill?"

"Oh, I've got my pension from home and I'm still on the National Health."

"But what do you do all day in a place like this?" asked Tom curiously. "Mostly Germans and Spanish."

"Walk around, you know. Take the sun. Call in for a drink here and there. Most of these places know me, you see. Because I entertain. At night. Always get a free meal. See that spot over there?" He indicated a minute dancing area in front of the cafe bar. "Performed there many a time."

Tom was intrigued. "What entertainment's that, then?"

And then it came. "Flamenco." said the old man proudly. "I'm a Flamenco dancer... Or was," he added rather sadly. "I just sing now."

Tom hid his surprise. "Oh, yes?"

"Yes," continued the old man. "Been doing it all me life. In England as well. Had all the gear. Short jacket, flared trousers, high-heeled shoes - Cuban, you know. The lot. Shoes made specially for me by a bloke in Soho."

Tom was curious to know more, but his eye caught the clock over the bar. "You know," he said. "That's very interesting, but it's no use. We'll have to go. Got to catch a 25 bus back to Palma. Nice meeting you. Come on, Vera."

But the old man was loath to see them go. "Number 15's the best," he said. "A different route. Cheaper and not so many stops. Come on. I'll show you where to catch it. It's on my way."

As the old man went to retrieve his cap, Vera whispered, "He's on the cadge. You know that, don't you?"

"Fat chance," said Tom as the old man came up to lead the way. "I'm not daft." But Tom had one last question as they left the cafe. "You say you had all the gear.What do you mean, 'had'?"

"Didn't I tell you?" replied the old man. "I'm in a bit of a fix. Wife took all me gear when she scarpered."

At that Vera allowed the old man to walk slightly ahead, and she grabbed Tom's arm. "What did I say?" she whispered. "I told you. He's on the scrounge."

At that moment the old man turned back. "Look! There's your bus now. Number 15. He's indicating. If you run, you'll just catch it." And he gave them both a push in the back.

And as they started to run the old man called, "Nice meeting you both. Enjoyed it. All the best."

Once aboard, Tom and Vera looked back at the old man as he waved a cheery farewell.

They didn't feel like talking on the way back.

Copyright 2001, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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