Suit of Lights
The phone rings. I ignore it, knowing the caller is Colleen. Six rings and a message, "Maria, I know you're there! Pick up the phone, OK?" pause, "Right then, I'll give you five minutes."
My machine records the impatient bang with which she replaces the receiver. I glance at the clock in the corner of my screen. In exactly five minutes the phone rings six times before the answering machine kicks in. I hear Colleen, "Maria, come on! It's Saturday! Your audit doesn't have to be filed until Tuesday. Come and have some fun ... we're going to Leonardo's!" That tempts me, I love Leonardo's and the pepper pasta salad served there. But I continue to work.
She has hung up. I sigh, pressing my hands against the desk, bracketing the keyboard. I'd love to go out, and I even have something to celebrate, but I set my own rules when I began this task and I will stick to them, I will 'finish work before starting craft' and I always 'remember what pays the bills'.
My screensaver is a revolving picture of a chaquetilla; a short jacket with gold embroidery. The embroidery is properly called bullion-work. All gold stitching is called bullion-work, but some of it is embroidery and the really complex parts, the ones raised from the fabric like golden stars and shells, are stump. The chaquetilla fits over a shirt called a camisa and is designed to be worn with taleguilla, tight fitting trousers with bullion-work down the outer sides. Put it all together and you have the traje de luces the suit of lights.
This is my craft. Most bullion-work, these days, is produced for military men who demand cap badges, ornate epaulettes and heavily figured ceremonial costumes. The apex of the craft is the traje de luces. A suit of lights is a rare commission. I believe that in the past thirty years I am the only European outside of Spain to make a suit of lights. It helps that I am half-Spanish. It helps that the Matador I am working with, Tomas Rodriguez, is also only half-Spanish.
It also helps that Marsh and Deguillo, Auditors, London, SE1 require a part-qualified bilingual auditor. Working for them pays the bills and allows me to practice my craft. That is why I work on Saturday afternoons. The suit of lights is paid for, of course, but the fee I've charged only covers research and materials. The hours I've spent making it are incalculable, not just the sewing hours but the design hours, the weekends spent shopping for fabric, and the weeks consumed by shaping the suit in my imagination. If the suit works, if it is a success, if Tomas wins … then I can start to recoup the years I've spent building my skills. I don't view it as wasted time, every thought and stitch has been an investment, not a sacrifice.
I sent the suit last Tuesday, by courier. I took a day's holiday from work. I packed the suit in layers of tissue paper (white, unbleached paper, because chlorine-bleached paper can damage gold thread) and sent it to Madrid. It should have arrived on Wednesday, in time for Tomas to train in on Thursday, before resting on Friday. Today, Saturday, he will fight in my suit of lights.
I have resisted thinking about this. Because it's not just a question of Tomas parading the Navalcarnero arena in my suit. For Tomas to perform well, animals must die slowly and in pain. I have an odd feeling about it, like a mixture of nausea and elation. The name for feeling this is suerte. It means luck or fate, but also describes the direction of the bullfight its action. The suerte I feel for Tomas's fight is peculiar. Perhaps I should not have made the suit.
Tomas has a Venezualan mother, who is said to be peculiar too. His father, Ramon, is a hard man. Tomas has been training since he was seven. If he becomes a Matador it will be because Ramon has pushed and pulled him into the shape that fills a suit of lights. Ramon is the bullfighting equivalent of a tennis father. He yells. The cords in his neck stand out like red string. He curses. He stamps around and calls Tomas a thousand names he has culled from the many Spanish speaking countries they have visited over the years. Tomas shrugs, his thick black hair shielding a face that seems too broad and simple to host resentment. Either Tomas is as stupid as Ramon loudly claims or he is a saint, to put up with the insults flung at him.
Tomas is too big to be a bullfighter, this has been the wisdom in Madrid since he first appeared in the Plaza de Toros, aged seventeen. Back then, he was a Banderillero, the foot solder who forces the wooden barbs into the bull's neck. Tomas has only ever fought as a Banderillero in Madrid, although he has toured Mexico as a Matador. Madrid is fussy about its Matadors, where Mexico has a hunger for new faces and experiences.
Wherever Tomas competes, he is too large and heavy to be a Picador, the mounted lancer who helps to correct any lunging or hooking on the part of a bull. Tomas is really big; his neck is huge. When I measured him for his suit I found it difficult to see how he could ever look good in the ring. He is like a block of wood, almost straight up and down, and very wide in Mexico they called him Hermano del Toro, the brother of the bull.
Then Ramon took me to watch him practice, and I saw how fast this ox could move.
Most Matadors are slim, spring-heeled men. Their suits scintillate, they are explosions of brightness. Tomas is not like that. His suit is not like other suits.
I have made a suit the colour of old bloodstains not scarlet, or carmine, or crimson like the other Matadors. His suit is a dull silk, shot with a bright red thread, like a razor cut of arterial blood. For the bullion-work I have taken two things; the third lithograph from Picasso's series, 'Taureau', and Picasso's signature. The third lithograph is still recognisably a picture of a bull, but composed of triangles. I have made Tomas a chaquetilla embroidered with every triangle in that lithograph. Each of the triangles has been laid so that they narrow as they descend the fabric, giving a slimming effect. His taleguilla bear a hundred versions of Picasso's name, written forwards and backwards, in gold thread. Nothing has been seen like this suit of lights in Madrid, or anywhere else.
The suit has taken a year to sew; the whole year that Tomas was in Mexico, prospering, learning his craft, rising to Matador. Every month Ramon sent me a complete set of measurements, so that I could adjust the work where necessary. A chaquetilla is open under the arms to give the Matador room to manoeuvre, and taleguilla adjust with laces on the thigh, fly and calf, but even so, I have had to let the suit out twice to accommodate Tomas and his bull-like proportions.
Now Tomas has returned in triumph and he will fight as a Matador this evening, in Madrid, his birthplace. I can log onto the internet at eight pm and find out how he did. That's why I'm not going out. Because I want to stay home and get the almost live results of the tournament. There won't be any pictures. I will have to wait for the video that Ramon has promised to send me, before I can see how my suit of lights really looks. But I will know the result, and I will be able to judge the suerte from the award. If he is granted an ear in Madrid we will be happy, and deep down we all hope for more his strength and speed are impressive Tomas could be the first of a new kind of Matador. We expect the crowd to offer him an ear from his kill, at the very least.
At twenty-two he will certainly be a young Matador. If he does well, my suit of lights will be much commented on. I may become, like Tomas, a master of my craft. I have worked the males, the tassels that adjust the hang of the jacket and trousers, as little stump-work acorns. The golden acorn will be my trademark.
I continue to work until eight, when I go and pour a glass of wine. An Arganda red from vineyards near Madrid. It is deep red, but not as dark as Tomas's silk suit. I log on to the site and begin to scan for the results. Tomas will have fought early, before the senior Matadors.
I cannot find his name.
I put down my wine and scroll backwards and forwards through the results of the day. He is not there. I walk away from the computer in panic, fumbling round my own room like a dazed moth, banging into furniture and barking my shin on a chair leg. I try to breathe deeply. After a couple of minutes I return to the computer and refresh the page. Perhaps I had been reading last month's results or last year's by mistake. I begin again from the top of the page, reading slowly. His name does not appear.
I wonder whether to ring the Rodriguez household. What could I say? Instead I log onto the web page of the local newspaper in Navalcarnero.
Front page news: Potential Matador admitted to Hospital after attack on Father. What does that mean? I stare at the news. Each time the chaquetilla appears, I hit the spacebar to return to the headlines. I finish the bottle of wine.
At ten o'clock I ring the number Ramon has given me. The phone rings six times, seven times ... I'm about to hang up when somebody answers. The whispered "Hola?" is so quiet that it barely makes it down the line to my ear. It is Ramon's wife, the Venezuelan woman, whose name I suddenly realise I do not know. I can hardly understand her. At first I think this is because she speaks some Venezuelan variant of Spanish, but eventually I realise that shock, or grief, has compacted her words into packets of incomprehensible pain.
Her name is Grecia. She reminds me of this with a forlorn dignity that she wears like a familiar garment. She tells me that Ramon has been 'stacking' Tomas; feeding him several different steroids to improve his performance and build. This is one reason for the year spent in Mexico, where anabolics are manufactured in black market labs and sold wholesale.
On Friday night Tomas exploded. He refused to have publicity photographs taken in his suit of lights, because his cheeks were covered in acne. Ramon told him that a few spots were not much of a price to pay for being a Matador. Tomas attacked his father, who was committed to hospital with broken ribs, a fractured ulna and a dislocated shoulder. Grecia agreed to have Tomas committed to the local mental institution where he will undergo tests and she hopes be cured of the addiction to testosterone that has bedevilled their household since Ramon discovered the murky world of doping. All this she tells me in a husky whisper, the peculiar depth of her accent bringing an eerie unreality to the tale.
I stand there, holding the phone, trying to condole with her, staring at the unworn chaquetilla that revolves on my screensaver. Eventually I sit.
"Tell me again," I say. She sighs. I sigh. The long sibilance of failure and pain slides from receiver to receiver in the night. "How did he look in the traje de luces?"
"Ah, he was like Hercules" she murmurs, giving it the Spanish pronunciation, "so strong, so good, my son."
She sighs. I sigh. I don't know whether he was a saint, or stupid. Surely he knew that sooner or later the price he was paying for success would be counted? What did he expect to gain from his sacrifice?
"So ..." she sighs, "The suerte was always confused."
"Yes," I reply, "It was never clear. Poor Tomas"
"Poor Ramon," she adds. I say nothing. We sigh.
"Tell me again," I say, "how did he look in the traje de luces ...?"
Kay Sexton has an overdeveloped work ethic and a fig tree in her garden. She finds it hard to reconcile the two. She is also a philosophy graduate, recreational runner, and hostage to a capricious muse. She is a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner, with a column at www.moondance.org and another at www.facsimilation.com. Her short-short story "Domestic Violence" made the final five of the Guardian fiction contest, "Beltane and Samhain" placed third in the Bookjobber.com Science Fiction Contest, and her work appeared in five anthologies in 2004. Her website http://www.charybdis.freeserve.co.uk gives details of her current and forthcoming publications. The fig tree is also flourishing.