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When Sirens Call

Chapter 1


Prime, supple Charo Martinez emerged from the bathroom with a saucer on which a mirror and an epilator lay crossed. Her purple kimono, untied, billowed as she advanced down the hall. She lifted the plate with ceremony and moaned in Spanish, as if reciting a Latin liturgy:

“For shiny, soft, smooth skin …”

Then waited for applause that never came. She bellowed in English with an accent both posh and Spanish: “Come on, Belinda. Cowardly guiri!” Guiri, Spanish slang for “stupid foreigner”.

In her kitchen, Charo sank on a chair and pulled the shaver from the plate to run it along her leg three times. When Belinda Babchek did shuffle into view, Charo grinned. Queasy and sleepy, Belinda leaned her elbow against the fridge and looked coldly at her.

“Back to bed, Babchek, if you’re still drunk or ill,” said Charo, giving a wolfwhistle as she pondered her flatmate’s slimness, envious of her long legs. She needed to be cruel to the blonde doll: “Did you bring him home?” And continued to shave with care.

“Tell me, Charo,” Belinda began quietly, as if starting a new song.

“Yes, querida?”

“How long’s this Troy guy going to be staying?”

Charo squeezed her legs together and frowned:

“God, what a prick he is,” she said, with fake concern. “But be nice to him. He’s bursting with money.”

“And hamburgers. And Budweiser. He’s got a belly.”

“He comes from Boston, so he must be a millionaire’s boy. Perhaps you should marry him. I’ll let you.” Then Charo altered the conversation again: “How did you go with that boy from El Barco? The artist. Or writer … perhaps just a bullshit artist. But cute. I saw you sneaking out together, fleeing with insolence and wine. Didn’t even say goodnight, you bitch. Didn’t you bring him home?”

“No. We went to another bar,” Belinda said. “I let him kiss me. But he got drunk. Last thing I saw he was throwing up in the Metro. And when I got home I had to put up with your Troy, also pissed. He likes jazz, you know?”

“Who, Troy?”


“Sad and a lunatic. Such a sad, sad lunatic … so romantic. He must have been sad ’cause we went out without him. He fucked you off, did he?” “Of course he did,” Belinda protested. And went to the sink for a glass of water. “He was raving. At one stage he started shouting about cherubs screeching like demons.” She filled the glass and guzzled it: “Heavy stuff to come home to, Charo. You might like saving men from drowning, but I don’t. If he stays here one more night, I’m off.”

Charo frowned at the lather on her razor and sighed before applying another layer. An intolerant smile curled:

“But he has such a lovely murmur,” she purred. “The loveliest murmur of them all.”

“Well, he has to murmur because of his terrible accent,” Belinda snapped.

Charo laughed and then prepared to raze Belinda’s wall:

“And your English is so perfect then, Miss Australia?”

Belinda let the insult slip away from her heart to a deeper region, and maintained a lightness of tone: “Did you know they had to dub Mad Max in America?”

“Did they, and why was that?”

“Because they don’t understand English,” and Belinda grabbed her camera from the top of the fridge.

“Australian English, my sweet,” and Charo blew an ironic kiss: “But don’t worry, I can talk to you, even if you are just an Aussie.”

Belinda, with her elbow resting on the fridge, smiled mischievously and clicked a photo of Charo who turned pouting after the shot. Belinda laughed at her amiga captured unawares in the screen and waved it before her face, a torturing brief glimpse. Charo tried to snatch it. Belinda pulled it away, turned it off and laid it on the table. She noticed the jagged edge of a shiny-red, broken fingernail and sighed. Pain fretted her heart. That night she had met those she had left behind in a dream. The man she had lived with in Melbourne gave off an odour of coconut oil. Where her fingernail was cracked, an edge curled back, white, like the ghostly branch of a gumtree, or her own fragile, snowy arm. She was broken like the nail, but still hanging on. Hard and dry cartilage, but it fulfilled the purpose of a clinging dead root. A bubble of bile exploded in her mouth and she remembered how much she had drunk last night.

Charo wiped the head of her epilator:

“Your knickers are faded and fraying,” she said in a kind voice. “They hardly do you any service. You can borrow mine. I have some lovely black ones with sequins that sparkle. You’ll look sexy in them. I’m not joking, Belinda. You look good when you’re undressed.”

“Thanks,” Belinda said. “But I can’t wear them if they’re black.”

“She can’t wear them,” Charo told her face in the mirror. “Etiquette is etiquette. She fucks the first man she meets at the pub, but she can’t wear sexy black knickers.”

She put her epilator away and prodded her skin for roughness. “That guy I was with in El Barco last night,” Charo whispered. “Says you have AIDS.”

Belinda turned her gaze from the broken nail to Charo’s round face and dark immobile eyes.


“Alternating Intelligence Deficiency Syndrome.” Then Charo swept her mirror to flash sunlight into Belinda’s azure eyes as she throbbed with a laughter that shook her large breasts: “Look at yourself, you dreadful drunk.”

Belinda leaned forward to peer into the mirror held out to her. Her white face, almost veiled by hair drooping from a crooked crack down the middle of her scalp, looked squeamishly back: “What God chose this face for me?”

“Bacchus, I think,” grinned the Madrileña. “Did you come to Spain to study literature or oenology?”

Drawing back, Belinda replied: “Spanish culture. I’m here to learn about culture.”

Charo Martinez suddenly wrapped her arm in Belinda’s and walked her around the table as if she were taking her somewhere, epilator and mirror clacking in the pocket of her kimono.

“It’s not fair to tease you, is it? You’re such a nice person, joder. Troy is such a shit. I’ll talk to him. He’ll be gone tomorrow.”

Shouts invaded through the open window. A housewife, apron on, was tugging at the clothesline that ran across the well while screaming pleasantries to Paquita, a neighbour above them. When Paquita finally replied the line was sagging with heavy cloth that dripped.

“Let him stay,” Belinda said. “There’s nothing wrong with him. Except at night.”

“Then what is it?” Charo asked impatiently. She looked in Belinda’s face and brushed hair off her brow.

Belinda was depressed by her own voice. Her head thudded: “It’s not you.”

Charo’s face opened wide: “Yes, it is. Tell me. What’s bugging you?”

Belinda filled her mouth full of air that she let seep out before speaking:

“Do you remember the first day I went to your house to meet your mum?”

Charo frowned quickly: “Yes. Of course. ¿Por qué? What did I do?”

“It’s what you said when you introduced me to her.”

“What I said?”

“You said, This is my flatulent flatmate Belinda. Running away from Australia.

Charo’s face crumpled: “Ah, are you pissed off because I told my mum what a farty girl you are? It was only playing with your English words … I thought I was being clever. But don’t worry my mum didn’t get it, I’m sure. Her English is so bad.”

“No, it wasn’t that. It was the other thing … running away from Australia.

“Well? And what harm is that?” Charo shook herself nervously. “What a silly mouse you are. But you are running away. I know you are: wandering from clime to clime; an exile from your dear paternal coast.”

Belinda broke away from Charo’s grip and sat down to rest her head in her arms. The pathetic gesture enraged Charo, who warmed into a diatribe: “You say you’ll go back one day: to touch that natal shore. But you don’t want to. Not really.” She took the coffee pot, hanging by the sink, and unscrewed it: “What is your country to you?” and banged the base three times on the side of the draining board so that the filter popped out with a crash into the metal sink, and black-brown coffee grounds spilled: “Your family’s there, and I suppose you love your family,” twisting a tap on, turning sediment to sludge: “You say you love your family. But only in the sense that everyone says they love their family,” the filter was washed clean. “You have no brothers or sisters. You like to see your parents once in a while, but you told me only once in a while. You told me when you spend too much time with your parents it’s shitty,” she reached for a tea-towel: “Your mother gave up a career to be a housewife, and you’re ashamed.”

“Ashamed?” Belinda asked, raising her head.

“You’ll never be like your mother, you said. Give up everything for a family? Not me, you said. They’re so static, and you hate static. Suburban, you said. So, you won’t go back there for them. And your friends?” The wet filter was wiped: “Your boyfriend?” screwing the tea-towel into it: “You told me you don’t know if you really love him,” she filled the base with water before opening the fridge, where the ground coffee was kept. “But you don’t know if you really love anyone at all, do you? Do you love your country?”

The fridge door hung open: “If you don’t know if you love your parents or your boyfriend I don’t see how you could say you loved your country,” the door was closed with soft relief. “A hopeless exile you are. I’d love to go to Australia. Fall in love with the open spaces,” the coffee was spooned into the clean filter: “But you, you speak with complete contempt. A shitty place, you say, so flat and dry. So monotonous.” The top was screwed hard on to the base: “How many times have you told me how boring your life in Australia was?’’ Charo took hold of a gas-lighter gun and pulled the trigger: “It’s a shitty place, that’s all there is to it,” she said, as Belinda remained silent. She turned on the gas and fired it: “You don’t even know the words to your national anthem,” dropping the pot on to the flame. “The most important day of your life was when you flew out of there; the day the umbilical cord between you and your motherland was severed. Your motherland is dead for you now. What do you want to go back for? And what’s wrong about me telling my mother that you are running away from the place you find so shitty? Absurd! I didn’t mean to offend your homeland.”

The diatribe inflated Charo, making her gigantic in the kitchen.

Belinda blinked and said very coldly: “I’m not thinking of the offence to my homeland.”

“Of what then?” this trilled with deprecation.

“Of the offence to me.”

Charo grabbed the back of a chair and swung around it, her long dark hair thrashing the air as she did: “Oh, you’re an impossible guiri! Impossible!” She reached across and snatched Belinda’s camera: “Embarking on the conquest of the world in images.” Studying the machine. Pushing buttons.

Belinda grabbed it back. “That cost me nearly 600 Euros.”

“Cost you? Don’t you mean it cost your dear Daddy?”

Charo attended to the gurgling coffee pot. Belinda stayed, staring at the timber table, spoiled by crumbs and spots of jam. She was reminded of another wooden table. If she were elsewhere and this was that other table, then Charo would be a man with hardly any hair. But he would not have been cruel like Charo.


Music trilled: the theme of some famous film. A cup of black espresso thumped down on the table in front of Belinda. Charo bustled to a bag hanging from a chair and wrestled inside it for the phone:

Hola, cariño,” full of so much sweetness that it sounded foul: “You’re up early … yes, I’m coming. Of course, cariño.” At the door she turned to Belinda, her face glowing sweet: “You have the coffee, freshly made. Just how you like it. You can’t get coffee like that just anywhere. Forget Australia, you’re not there now, and when you go back there, you’ll be moping about the rest of the world. If you want to be happy, you have to find happiness where you are. And if you can’t, and where you are makes you unhappy, then run away.’’

Before her lover’s room, soft jazz wafted forth when she opened the door:

“If I ventured in the slipstream

Between the viaducts of your dream …”

She laughed hysterically at an obscene gesture in front of her:

“Could you find me?

Would you kiss-a my eyes?”

To lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again …”

The door slammed. Vapour floated silently from the still-stirred whirling pool of coffee. Dark black-brown espresso with toasted honey bubbles, like a galaxy in space, or the form of soul within her. Through the door in the hall, a residue of bass: thick blue waves, deepening the void. It was a darkness cracked by the singer’s cheek-full yellow voice or, occasionally, a pink squeal from Charo, exorcising her lust.


Belinda went through the tiny, cramped livingroom to the narrow balcony to get air. Gritty city air, Madrid air. The sun on her skin had a sting which was a nice contrast to the cool draught. Below her a filthy bus rumbled as it struggled up the hill. A motorbike farted loudly which seemed to agitate a gypsy woman with thick wide skirts, no longer a nomad, Belinda thought. The gypsy woman was rooted there, treelike, she stretched her arms and, filled with air and anguish, burst forth with a dirgeful voice like a flamenco song inspired by a moribund-Christ image on Good Friday.

Despite the noise and her hangover, Belinda liked this street. But, unlike the gypsy, she had not taken root, she hadn’t evolved towards a settled existence, she was an exception who needed legs unstamped by any use-by date. She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth and turned toward the past. That was inside her and fogged the street and all it had. Her man in Melbourne approached her naked body again, this time with awe and fear. His features; his years; that face: she had dwelt with joy. But all the drugs they had taken together. The limp joint. The empty dart. Her virgin-vein imbrued. Desire or emptiness? What plans they had formed to save their mutually sinking state – Where is he now?

In a dream she had seen her Melbourne devastated after a nuclear holocaust. The last domino to fall in a game of mass destruction. Emptier than ever, Melbourne was. She was not in it, but he was. Alone. She contemplated the silent world she had once known. It saddened her to see it gone, she even missed the dogs that had always annoyed, barking at rowers on Sunday mornings in front of their house down by the Yarra. That river ran dry and red-brown dusty in her dream.

No sound, even the gurgling magpies she had detested had gone. Was there not enough putrefaction even for their carrion tastes? They had all gone. Everything charred beyond remembrance. Emptiness that steamed like soup. Her dreamer’s eye stared into death.


Charo’s voice sang from her lover’s chamber: “Belinda, come in here. Troy is apologising for last night. It’s all right.”

Belinda leapt away from her dream. “I’m coming …”

Charo’s head appeared through a crack in the doorway. “I told him your conspiracy theory. He says it’s very clever.”

“That theory is yours. I don’t believe it.”

“If I’d told him it was mine, he would have laughed. He doesn’t take me seriously. But he holds you with some regard, for some reason.”

“Perhaps if you stopped being a sexy slut all the time, he’d take you for the prophetess you really are. Or perhaps he’s heard you listening to Britney Spears.”

“Ah, but that’s a lie. I only like Pop español. You bitch.”

Troy emerged naked through the doorway, stepping into the hall with his hand flapping like a fig leaf. Belinda blushed. As he scurried to the bathroom she watched his tanned and shining smooth buttocks.

Charo considered her pink-faced friend and giggled: “You’re such a prude, in essence, which is why you miss out on the action. Too much Protestant education.”

“I was brought up a Catholic. My mother’s Italian.”

“And your father has Croatian ancestors. I’ve heard it a thousand …”

“Perhaps twice. Which isn’t so much, not for you. You seldom retain things.”

Charo laughed at the counter-attack. She crossed the hall to her room and let her kimono drop, almost walking into a purple dress that dangled from a hanger. She lifted it and pulled it down over her head. Wiggling and jumping. She hooked pendulous gems to her ears that made the tiny ruby under her bottom lip more obvious. A silver ring was pulled on her index finger. Shoes came out from under the bed and she stepped inside.

“Those heels are obscene,” Belinda sneered, now standing in the doorway.

“Fashion, hija mía. Don’t you look in the shops?”

“I’ve seen them. I wouldn’t bring any home with me.”

“I know your type, Babchek. You take to a fashion two years after it’s out.”

“If it’s not practical, it’s no good.”

“Practical, it most certainly is,” and she squatted to run the back of her hand along a leg, pursing her lips with gross insinuation.

“You’ve seen what a body he has.” Inspired by the image of him, Charo turned and winked.

“The Yank is a jerk.”

“That’s because you haven’t seen his cock yet.”

Belinda whirled around: “Shut it will you!” and went to her own room.

Charo dragged open a drawer and drew forth some knickers. Then she crossed the hall and threw them at her flatmate: “Take them. I never use them.”

Neither knew if they were hating or enjoying each other.

Belinda laughed: “You’re insistent.”

“Does it matter?”

“I wonder about your motives.”

Charo’s turn to laugh: “They’ve become a size too small.”

Belinda left the knickers on the crumpled sheets of her bed:

“OK … I’ll wear them in Greece. Black is always fashionable there.”

Charo shook her head: “When mourning.”

Babchek screwed herself into a sky-blue dress: “We’ll be late.”

Troy approached, dressed and thick with cologne. He ran a comb across his damp hair then rubbed his fingers through, to ruffle it fashionably.

“Come on Yank,” sang Charo. “It’s time we were out of here.”

“I’m ready,” he murmured, and Charo melted with the soft music of it.

Belinda pulled the handle down and the door creaked open. She paused, because habit told her that her exit was incomplete. Then remembering, she grabbed her rucksack, bulging like a pregnant belly with books, and heaved it over one shoulder.

Charo grimaced: “It’s Sunday. Do you really need to take the library with you?”

Belinda retorted: “I’ll leave you two later. On Sundays I sit in the park. And I must have my books to read, write and draw in.”

“O sorry, I forgot it, on Sundays you are the perfect arsehole artist, aren’t you?”




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