Salt Picnic

Salt Picnic

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All the time on the island there had been something she was looking for. She knew she had to keep this in mind, and that she’d know what it was when she found it. Whatever it proved to be.

It’s 1956 and Iola arrives on the island of Ibiza, on the fringes of Franco’s Spain, with little more than a Spanish phrasebook. Soon she meets a fascinating American photographer who falls in and out of focus: is he really a photographer, and who exactly is the German doctor he keeps asking her about? The mysterious doctor, when he appears, takes Iola for a picnic on a salt island, where she learns how easily the world can be obscured.

Salt Picnic is about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology, by the author of Gifted and The Back of His Head.              

From: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans


By this stage, she remembered, it was almost as if she’d had no language of her own, as if she’d been marooned on an island and had to reach out for words, for anything that floated by. Antonio’s world. Vicente’s world.

She had to apologise to the man and ask him to say the sentence again. He leaned towards her slightly, across the handlebars of the motor-scooter.

‘Honey,’ he said, ‘that’s the worst Spanish accent I ever heard in my en-tire life.’

She stared at him. An American. An American

An American?

Daniel Bernard, he told her—with the emphasis on the second syllable, like that—and, yes, he was an American, alright, he told her, not a goddamn Canuck (whatever that was), and yes, yes, he was the photographer from back at the beach. Out on a shoot, he told her,amongst other things, but he shrugged the words away when she asked him what the other things might have been. Instead, he helped her up behind him onto the pillion of the little yellow motor-scooter and, carefully, drove her back to Ibiza Town, as he called it, as if he were talking about an English football team. He’d made her wrap her arms around him before they set off, she remembered that, and he’d told her to hold on tight

And that was the first time she’d ever touched a man. Outside her family, she meant. She’d felt his heart in her hand as she held on to him, and her own, beating away on his back and already given to him, if she was going to tell the truth about it now that she was looking back at everything as she was, up here in her attic bedroom right at the end of the story. That’s what she decided, anyway. Love at first sight. That was true, wasn’t it?

Back in town he took her to the far end of the Paseo Vara de Rey, where people were starting out for the early evening, gente formal and gente corriente, as Magdalena had told her they were called, and lesser folk, too, the people she liked to think of as the wretched of the earth—as if she knew them well, though in all truth she’d had almost nothing to do with them beyond words in books. Behind the cathedral the sun was out of sight now: there was shadow in the little street but light in the sky and a strange glow hovering between the buildings high up, passing back and forth, suspended, self-created, inexplicable, magical.

The man pulled up at a cafetería that was just a door in the wall, nothing more: they sat outside with the Vespa propped next to them on its stand, like a third at their table.

Across the street, sprawled against a building, another of the island’s strange, sketchy dogs. The man ordered coffee and she watched the waiter’s lips and tongue, red amid the dark stubble of his beard as he spoke, and observed the haggard young-old face she’d begun to expect on the island. Then the American’s as he spoke back to the man: bright, burnished, untroubled. He’d done the most extraordinary thing when they’d met, back there on the road from Santa half an hour ago, less. He’d offered her his hand, with the palm up as if he was giving her something: a dark, luscious, unexpected pink like Turkish Delight, and soft and silken when it touched hers—which was wrong, wasn’t it, because what sort of man had hands like that, and, besides, men and women didn’t shake hands. Did they?

Now the camarero was gone and the American had just asked her a question: she had to ask him to repeat it. He was teasing her about her Spanish accent, the way she’d said alojamiento back there on the road: and, anyway, why did she need lodgement? Largement. He made it sound like largement.

Where was she living?

She pointed up the hill, towards the cathedral. ‘It’s called la Casa de las Liebres. It’s up there, between the Roman walls.’ High between the buildings the strange light was still holding on, like the light of eternity.

He looked up and away as if there was nothing much to see. ‘They’re not both Roman,’ he said. ‘The walls.’

She told him about la casa, and the sisters and the man and the boy next door, and the two caged birds in the kitchen and the tear-stained dog with the log in the alleyway, and how Antonio woke her each morning with the sound of his bucket on the edge of the well and cleaned her stove for her every evening. La casa was a peseta a day and all found, she told him, but she wasn’t sure she could stay there much longer.

While she rattled on like that he sat with his legs crossed at the knee and a sandalled foot up, showing broad, pale flat-filed toenails. She was aware she was making a story of it, she could feel herself playing up the amusing parts. Pa i oli. And in fact nothing had been said about how long she might stay at the House of the Hares—anyway, it was his story she wanted, not hers. But here she was, telling him everything: about the German doctor now, the man who was her landlord, how he—

He stirred a little. ‘German doctor?’

‘That’s what they told me. The sisters. They said he’s got a cirugía upstairs.’ She used the word self-consciously and waited to see if he commented on it.

He didn’t. ‘Anything else about him? These sisters of yours?’

‘Well—apparently he’s not there, apparently he left just before I arrived.’

He sat, waiting. Am I talking too much? He creaked out a smile at her, a nice smile, a really nice smile, all eyes-crinkled-up—a go on, go on smile.

‘He comes and goes, they said.’

‘Interesting to know where to.’

‘They didn’t say.’

‘Your two sisters. They tell you what he’s like?’

She thought about it. ‘Not really.’

‘No? Ask ’em sometime.’ He smiled at her. ‘Just out of interest.’ He looked around in his extraordinary glasses, which had green lenses. No sign of the coffee yet. ‘So many people’ve washed up here over the years, it’s like a South Sea island.’ He turned back to her. ‘“La Casa de las Liebres”? That’s really what it’s called? Y’know what they say about hares around here, don’t cha?’ He considered it for a couple of seconds. ‘Nah—I’ll sound like a goddamn crude colonial!’

She thought, I’m a goddamn crude colonial, too. But she didn’t tell him that. Instead, she asked him about himself—and what a story he had, when he began to tell it. Who needed to wear a borrowed black pañuelo when you’d lived this man’s life? For he wasn’t an American at all, or at least not to start with: born in Germany, he told her—he said a name but it meant nothing to her. In the East now, he said. Gone, done for, didn’t exist any longer. Then, somehow, he was a small boy in New York, with the part of the family that had always been there, or sometimes—it wasn’t clear—and who’d had wealth for a few generations based on photographic equipment and cameras. On to private schools after that and the promise of an expensive college.

There was so much more she wanted to know, so many questions she knew she’d just have to ask him. History, it was like feeling history for the first time, like knowing it. And wasn’t that exactly what she’d come for, to this Old World? Wasn’t that why she was here? Part of the reason, anyway.

He plunged on—he was laughing at himself, just once, a little hoot. ‘Cheese, I was a little jerk!’ he told her. ‘Well, not total, but I was pretty goddamn spoilt. Got whatever I wanted, no one told me no. I sometimes look at the palomas here’—he paused and looked up at her—‘pigeons, that’s what I call ’em, those kids around here, y’know, hang around in a bunch, make a racket? Pilluelos, pillos, kids in the street. I photograph ’em, had an exhibition a while ago—well, what I’m sayin’ is, I wasn’t like them when I was that age. I was Little Lord goddamn Fondleroy. I said no to college, I told ’em I wanted to travel in Europe and, y’know, invite my soul, and—whaddyaknow, my folks let me do it! Just like that! They bankrolled me! I told ’em I wanted to be a photographer and they threw the lot at me: still cameras, a movie camera, a projector—’ He threw up his hands: a little pretence of a gesture. ‘I’m gonna stop, I’ll make you nauseous.’

And that was it: he really did stop. She tried to get him to tell her more, but instead, here he was, asking about her. Where did she come from? Why that accent, what in the name of God could it be?

‘Me?’ She thought about it for a couple of seconds. ‘I’m here from London.’ In her sensible summer frock and her pink-and-white persona of English female tourist, separate room, single bed, continental breakfast. But really, not English at all. Not anything at all. And to change the subject she began to tell him about the film she’d been thinking of since the moment he’d almost run her over at the docks, with his golden little Italian wasp. It was as if he’d ridden out of the movie and into her life, she told him. Straight out of the silver screen.

He was with her right away. ‘You watched that movie, too? You’re kiddin’ me!’ And it seemed he’d taken one look at the little Vespa in the movie and decided there was nothing for it but to have one for himself, right off of the showroom floor! This very chariot, in fact, as he called it, propped up beside them like evidence as he sat there extolling the virtues of Roman Holiday and the wonder of the fact that she, too, had seen the very same movie so many thousands of miles away. ‘You and me,’ he said across the table. ‘Twin souls—maybe we saw it the exact same time, think of that!’ And—here it came—he gave her that special smile of his which had electrified her the moment she’d seen it back there on the Santa Eulalia road: two half-smiles, she saw, that joined up and became something rare and new as a result. Did he know it? Was he aware of it?

She made herself look away—and there across the road was the boy, Vicente, just leaning on a wall and looking at them with his hands behind his back. At Daniel. Light cut across shadow and touched his hair. He had a foot against the wall behind him and his knee forward, like a doorknob. Those dreadful little Vienna Boys’ Choir shorts.

‘Whoa!’ The American smacked the tabletop. ‘Here’s trouble!’ Cups chattered in their saucers.

Now the boy became self-conscious. Here he was, coming towards them, slowly, hands clasped at his neck and his arms twisting themselves awkwardly around each other. The chapped points of his elbows, a reluctant sort-of smile—was it?—but then he was looking away.

The American eased back and dry-drank from his cup—she could see there was nothing in it. ‘Here’s Vince!’ he called out. ‘Come on!’ He held his hand out and the boy pressed his palm against it, for a second, as if he was being finger-printed: and here was the reward, something conjured across to him. Walking away, and not a word from him, though he looked back once, chewing already at one side of his mouth. His little pointed pixie face.

Daniel raised his hand to him. ‘What a cliché,’ he said. ‘Yank gives kid gum. Except it’s Italian gum and it’s crap. Makes him feel like a Yank, so I call him Vince, too.’


‘How d’you know him?’

‘Small town, everyone knows a Yank. The kids call out Chicle, chicle when they see me—adults too, sometimes. They think we’re all war heroes.’

He smiled easily at her, at the street, at the town, at the island: the conqueror of the world. Movie. He’d called it a movie. And he called Gregory Peck Gregory Pecker. Old Gregory Pecker, he said, and Iola wondered if he knew him personally. Old Gregory Pecker.


Up in the attic bedroom, thinking back to this beginning, to all the things that had happened to her on the island. That was the first time the American had explained something to her, when he told her the upper and lower walls came from different times. And then he’d told her it was High Town not Old Town, as visitors seemed to think, and he’d told her—not then but later, when things had begun to develop between them—that fishermen thought hares were homosexual and foxes brought bad luck. Faggots, he’d said, and he’d had to explain that. So much talk, and she’d asked so many questions, and there he’d sat in front of her putting the world to rights, this man of the world, this American. She’d asked him about Antonio, how it could be that a man might vanish from a bus, and he’d said it was simple, he’d gotten off at one of the stops, and when she said she hadn’t seen him do that he’d said, well, that just meant she hadn’t seen him do it, not that it hadn’t been done. Remember, he told her, with his finger up like a teacher’s: If you cain’t see it, you ain’t got it. Simple! It had seemed less of a mystery when he told her that, though it was still somewhat of a puzzle all the same. And the suitcases, she told him about those as well and he’d shrugged and said, Lost your kiste? like that, as if losing your suitcase was an everyday thing, not a nightmare, and when she’d asked about the word he’d used, he’d shrugged again and said, Yiddish, as if there was nothing much to that, either.

Oh, yes, and she’d told him about her visit to Las Delicias, too, about the baffled shopkeeper who’d risen up out of the sofa, out of his book, and sold her the chocolate. The American had stared at her while she told him this.

‘Man, you don’t eat that crap, do you?’ he said when she was done. ‘Cheese, it’s got wildlife in it, you can see it movin’ around in there, it’s worse’n the waiter’s hair—’

He smiled at her, his easy New World smile. ‘Give you a Hershey bar sometime,’ he said. ‘Now that’s talkin’ chocolate.’

She’d told him about the two sisters as well, and he’d said one was Spanish and the other wasn’t, and when she asked how he knew he said the names! A thousand Concepcións on the island, he told her. It was a Catalan name, it was a Catalan island. And the thing was, he said, the two languages were different: Catalan came from France, from Provence—province, he called it—and Spanish, well, it was Castilian Spanish, Castellano, it was a regional language and it turned into a national language, see, under Primo and then the Generalísimo, that’s what everyone had to speak, see? Even out here, he told her, out here on the island. Catalan came out of the street language the Centurions left behind for their bass-tard children, and it was banned but they spoke it all the same, their island version, their secret language. Ibicenco. And even that varied, you know: different places, different versions across the island—did she know that? None of ’em written down, either. No literature, just spoken, all of them.

The thought of that shocked her. An old, old language, spoken from before writing—a voice from beyond language, from somewhere you could never go. Speaking from the place where the words stopped.


They’d left the bike at the cafetería—‘No one’ll take it, these rubes wouldn’t know how to ride a goddamn kid’s trike’—and walked along the dock, where the tide was down and the ferry gone. It seemed there was simply nothing this American didn’t know. He spoke Castellano well, he told her, and had spent time in Spain—she could tell how easily he’d spoken to the camarero at the cafetería—but he was still picking up the local lingo.

It made a difference what people spoke, he told her. That was the way you could tell who’d done what. Some of them here can speak both, see, he said, but the older they are the less that happens, because Spanish—he’d looked around when he’d said this, looked around and lowered his voice—Spanish was the language of the Nationals, the fascistas, and they weren’t too popular around here ’cause this’d been a Republican town, by and large, see, same as most of the coastal towns had been Republican?

She’d had almost no idea what he was talking about. She wished he’d say bass-tard again, though.

Like Santa, he was telling her. The next town up the coast, where he rented a house. Santa’d been Republican and it’d gotten itself beat up for it just the same as Ibiza Town when the Nationals turned up—you could still see the goddamn bulletholes, on the hotel, on the bank, everywhere. Spanish fascistas and the wops. The Franco supporters were inland where the peasants and the big landowners still lived, there was an old guy up there still who’d fought alongside one of Franco’s cronies. And as for Formentera: they were all commies over there, full-blooded Reds every single one of them! Just think of that, an entire island full of commies!

He shaded his eyes when he said this and pointed to the south. The other island, low in the water and blurred by a pale haze that went along the horizon like smoke from a distant burning.

Anyway, some pretty nasty things had gone on twenty years ago, the man was telling her, gone on right here where they were standing. Right under their feet! When he said nasty things she looked down at the stained flagstones of the dock they were standing on. The island had seemed to change as he spoke, had begun to fill up with the past. And it was the first time she’d seen the salt island, the moment when it began to enter her secret thoughts, the places where she really lived. Daniel, too, imaginary Daniel, this intriguing young man, this American who had seemed, as soon as she met him, to be a sort of window on this world she’d come to, a completely unexpected way of getting inside it. The glamour of him had overwhelmed her, his strange mixture of otherness and familiarity—the way he spoke, the way he said bass-tard children like that, the opposite of Bernard, and his dark, lingering eyes that looked and looked at her whenever she spoke, as if they could actually see each word as she said it, even as she thought it, and seemed to wait for more, seemed to want more.

And, of course, that smile. What sort of man had a smile like this man’s? Or smiles, really, because it seemed there was more than one—or maybe it was one smile that came in instalments, like a flickering neon sign across his bright, burnished, untroubled New World face? Just the left side, sometimes, and a glimpse of pink healthy gums, and then, sometimes, she noticed, just the right side, his left, which had a tiny, momentary glitter of gold in it. And then, at other times, that joining-of-the-smiles for her: only for a second or two, the entire neon sign, completely overwhelming, devastating, like a woman’s, almost, or like the smile of a very, very beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime child, a privileged, wonderful, enchanted boy. Vicente’s, if he were ever to smile. With that tiny glitter of gold like a piece of information she was supposed to pick up: and was it there in the first place? That was the question: was it really there at all? Or was she making it up, thinking back on him like this as she was, up in her bedroom with a dead man in the house: had she just been making all this up, back then?

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