Mercedes was in Sally's Intermediate class. She was a little heavy, had short hair, large glasses, a sharp nose and a soft liquid voice - a beautiful voice into which she poured her eyes, her smile - insinuating, persuading, explaining how things would be better if we all did as she suggested. Her friend, Pilar, was in my Beginners class. She was beautiful with long hair parted in the middle, large dark eyes, soft lips - she was the Hollywood version of an Indian maid.

Mercedes medium was language. Pilar's was silence. Mercedes latched onto English as a tool, but it was so clumsy for her compared to her mastery of Spanish. Pilar sat in serene confusion as the wild, angular English words approached her one by one (umbrella, mackintosh, downpour) and flowed past, ungraspable in their oddity.

Mercedes suggested that Sally and I join her and Pilar for a drink after class. Instead of being out with an enormous, wise-cracking group, there were just us four, sitting with bulbs of brandy, in large arm-chairs, in front of an open fire, in one of the innumerable little places these two friends knew about - intimate, conversational places. And in this place I understood - not everything, not even a lot, but something. I understood and I put half phrases and hand gestures together and was understood.

Here I told my story. I had arrived in Bilbao with one Spanish phrase in my repertoire. Not "please" or "thank you" but, "Yo soy un hombre sincero," which meant, "I am a sincere man." It was line from the song "Quantanamera" and really not the most useful of phrases. Nevertheless, I used my sentance masterfully as I asked for the bus to Santander - "Yo, Santander!" I said. And so I arrived.

My new friends laughed and marvelled at me. They couldn't believe that I had only been learning Spanish perforce and in the streets, for as long as they had been in the classroom. They told me I spoke Spanish very, very well. And a measure of humanity was restored to me.

Our after class drinks became a habit, became a friendship. One day they turned up with a dog. He was red. He was young. He had found Pilar on the street. After looking for his owners in vain she kept him and named him Small, "Es-small," she said. Then a look of consternation crosses her face, "Eso es pequeno, no?" Yes, "small" was "pequeno." I was flattered that she had given him an English class name. Even though the word I'd taught her was "little."

Other memories jogged by this photo. Further memories. This Photo. All the Photos

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