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from A Squandered Life / Juan '78
....instead of killing me, he held out his hand.
As I was now left in charge of the flat, I had to find someone to share costs. One of the candidates was a big looming Argentinian guy called Juan who sort of hung around on the periphery of Stan's music shop gang. Juan was known to be morose and a little unpredictable and rumours abounded about his mysterious background, but I was desperate so I invited him for a drink with myself and Ros. I wanted Ros to meet him too and to share observations.
Juan was effusive and charming and a little taken aback with the forwardness of my questioning (while I popped to the loo he told Ros he felt like he was being cross-examined). But he seemed to fill the bill as far as both Ros and myself were concerned and we shook hands on the rent and moving in date.
Juan was a good enough lodger. He paid his rent and came and went without too much fuss and was friendly and polite to me and my friends. I came to believe that the rumours of his “instability” were just that - rumours - and probably emanated more from a combination of cultural misunderstanding and his dark morose looks. He had a very thick Spanish accent and didn't seem to have a standard narrative about how he happened to be in Watford, but these were not problems as far as I was concerned.
One day I was sitting in one of the local caffs with a few of the people from Stan's music shop when Juan, now my lodger, strode in. He was wearing a small pork pie hat which I hadn't seen before. I looked up, caught his dark eyes, had a chuckle, and probably said something like “Nice hat Juan”. The next thing I knew he had leaned over the table and belted me with the back of his hand. There was a clamour as I rose to my feet with blood pouring from my mouth (he was wearing a silver bracelet which may have contributed to the damage). People were shouting and holding us apart. Juan was saying, “Joo wan some more?” and I was saying “Let's go outside.”
We eventually tumbled out on to the pavement and he and I stalked off like duellists a few paces to the right where the pavement was a bit wider. With a gaggle of people looking on from the front of the caff we began circling each other with fists raised just as you might expect in any good film. I hadn't a clue about fighting apart from what I'd seen in westerns and I felt like an idiot, but this quickly galvanised into the realisation that I was going to get a pasting as Juan casually flicked out a couple of jabs. These were way too fast for me to see until they were already on the return journey. I couldn't believe how slow my reactions were and how long his reach was.
As I contemplated my inevitable fate Juan started saying, “I know who you are, I know who you're working for....” I realised not only was I up against a fast puncher, but I was also up against a fast puncher suffering from a bout of advanced paranoia. Madness and ruthless efficiency were, in my view, a deadly combination and I dropped my hands and said, “I'm not going to fight with you Juan.”
I think Juan too must have realised he'd perhaps stepped beyond the bounds of plausible sanity and appeared to get a grip on himself. To my relief he dropped his hands too and, after a moment's hesitation, came lumbering up close to me. Pointing to his face he said, “Hit me.”
“What?” I said.
“Hit me.” he repeated.
To my retrospective shame, I didn't ask again but hauled back and hit him so hard that he staggered back between two parked cars and went down like a tree into the road. Fearing the worst, I watched him in slow motion as he got unsteadily back to his feet and lurched towards me again. Instead of killing me, he held out his hand. We shook like men and he stumbled off down the road.
I went to out-patients to have my face looked at and a tetanus shot (they said, “If his bracelet was metal, no point taking any chances.”) and went home. Despite sharing a flat, our paths didn't cross again until a couple of days later. Juan showed up with an impressive shiner and we sort of compared injuries. Our relationship didn't appear to suffer and we never had another run in the whole time he was there, but one day he gave his notice and disappeared altogether.
Years and years later I bumped into him on the Portobello Road. For some reason he was dressed in full Arab regalia - pristine white robes with black chords like Saudi royalty. As our eyes met, he momentarily contemplated me from under his white keffiyeh, emitted a brief grunt of recognition, then continued on his way and disappeared ambling into the throngs of happy shoppers.
© 2013 Deacon Martin