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Art by Steve Cartwright © 2019

The Losers


John Short



What the fuck am I doing here with my wrists and ankles tied to this bed? I don’t remember much, and it’s no use struggling because it chafes like hell. But I sense the location even before opening my eyes. The usual street noises are filtering in from outside and although the shutters are closed, I can tell that it’s morning.

          They say there’s no such thing as an unlucky person and that people make their own loneliness, but I never believed it. In my experience it seemed that there were certain individuals who were just born under a bad star, so to speak, and I considered myself to be one of them. I was most definitely not a loner by choice; on the contrary, I spent all my time going to bars and clubs in an effort to meet people, but obscurity and isolation seemed to follow me around like hyenas. What was it about Reptile Steve then that made him so attractive? He was the kind of guy who could pop out for a carton of milk and come back with a guest for breakfast, but I just didn’t have charisma like that.

          Such an ugly bastard as well, which made it even more infuriating. Cold, scheming snake-eyes and a wrinkled neck of scaly skin that, instead of going brown, had turned rust-red in the Barcelona sun. He didn’t give a damn about the Catalans or their culture, either. For him it was merely a place to suck in as much money as possible before moving off to some third world country where he planned to set up a business which would run on cheap local labour. In the meantime, he had only three                                                                                                                                                                                 


interests: sex, weapons and home-improvements; and as if intent to prove the innate superiority of the American Way, he had to have the most sumptuous apartment in the barrio. He’d knocked down most of the interior walls in order to create an impression of space and installed high quality marble units. The remaining walls were decorated with a selection of swords and replica pistols. A small room next to the kitchen was crammed with paint tins, brushes, ladders and a huge number of tools, including a hand-operated stone wheel for sharpening blades that he’d found in a flea market.

          Everyone liked to go round there when he threw his predictably sophisticated parties, though. They’d gorge themselves on a fine array of finger food and drink the vodka and cava on offer, but behind his back the ones who knew him better would make snide comments about his mercenary past.

          I suppose it’s a bit hypocritical of me to infer that he was sex-mad as in my own quiet way I was just as bad, but because I never pulled any girls I didn’t make a big thing of it. I had low self-esteem and kept my mouth shut on the subject whereas he would adopt a bragging bravado and talk about nothing else. This irritated me and I don’t know why I put up with it – why I simply didn’t stop hanging round with him – especially as it was so easy to discern the sly intelligence at work just under the surface. Miranda must have been crazy to let him pick her up; crazy to get involved with either of us, but she was young and fresh out of England and she wanted to have fun and experience everything.

          The first time I set eyes on her she was with a dippy Californian girl from Huntingdon Beach, LA. They were both working as au pairs uptown and had come down to the barrio to make a day of it. She had dark hair, a wanton, mischievous look, and fabulously long brown legs which seemed to gleam in the June sunlight. They walked into our local and somehow I ended up buying her a drink; she was very easy-going and obviously out for a good time but Steve came and joined us and in less than ten minutes he’d spirited her away.

          About then, Steve was seeing a Polish girl, which was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. She wanted to stay in the West and he was providing her with money to sort out a visa extension but she happened to be away in Madrid for a while, on an intensive course for learning Spanish, which had given him a perfect opportunity to go on the prowl again. I wondered briefly what he would do when she came back if this incident turned out to be more than just a one-night stand.


The next time I saw Miranda it was completely by chance. One morning as I was standing on my balcony, I caught sight of her coming out of Steve’s building through the glass door at the end of our street. There goes that gorgeous girl again, I thought. I wonder how those two are progressing. What does she see in him? Then I went inside to make coffee.

          A couple of nights later I was sitting outside a bar in the Placa Reial with Lucas, an Andalucian friend who lived on a poor estate on the outskirts but was always in good spirits and usually had hashish. We’d got stoned in a flamenco club and were now drinking iced gin and tonic in a state of mild euphoria when Miranda spotted us and came over.

          “Steve took me to a boring party at the American Institute, full of fucking pretentious idiots,” she said, sitting down. “And then, to make things worse, his girlfriend turned up and started screaming at me, so I left ... the slimy two-timing bastard.”

          Que dice?” said Lucas. He gave a crafty wink and claimed he was going for the last metro. As he got up, he slipped me enough hash for one more joint before walking away through the arches. I was left alone with Miranda, but I didn’t feel nervous or uncomfortable like I might have done in a similar situation if sober. In fact, for once I felt in a great mood.

          “Didn’t you have a good time with Reptile Steve?” I said.

          “Is that what you call him?” she laughed.


When I woke up the next morning, I was amazed to discover Miranda in my bed, and not only that but naked as well, at least from the waist up. She was still asleep, and her breasts rose slightly as she breathed. Not being able to remember the last part of the night at all, I just stared at her, amazed, and thought: we must have had a great time but in a second she’ll wake up, look around in horror, grab her clothes and get out as quick as possible.

          But that’s not what happened. When she eventually woke up, we went down to a café for breakfast and then we bought a couple of beers and returned to my flat to relax. After that we started seeing each other on a regular basis. By coincidence, it turned out that the people she worked for lived in the next street to a pharmaceutical company where I gave English lessons twice a week. I’d go round to see her on the nights when she had to baby-sit and once the kids were in bed we’d have sex on the sofa in front of their new flat-screen TV.

          During those few short weeks I began to think that maybe I wasn’t a born loser after all. She didn’t speak any Spanish and knew nothing about the place. I took her all over the city and showed her things. We climbed the Sagrada Familia and walked in the cactus gardens of Monjuic. She came from a small town just outside Bristol and had an appealing West Country accent. Her host family were friendly to me and sometimes we’d sit in the bedroom and laugh about Steve, who’d started to send strange, emotional messages on cassette, asking her to come back. On one of them he concluded, in his mid-west drawl: “The fact of having two beautiful young women innerested in me was more than my ego could take and I became a jerk ...” We had a good snigger about that.

          Now I began to perceive a completely different side to Steve: a maudlin, self-pitying aspect of his character which I’d never suspected. Considering his general attitude to women, it surprised me that he was allowing himself to go to pieces like this. On the next taped message, he offered to take her to the Liceu Opera House to see Domingo and to buy her an evening gown if she’d forget that scene at the party and give him another chance. He was out of luck – she preferred to go with me to the KGB club to see Primal Scream.

I was walking on air and any vague interest that I’d previously been able to muster concerning the teaching of English to the Catalan bourgeoisie went through the window. I’d emerge from some private class and go straight into a bar to spend the money, then later I would meet up with Miranda and we’d paint the town. Of course, we ran into Steve from time to time and in public he was very contained about the whole thing. I suppose as a certain kind of American abroad, he had standards of decorum to maintain, but if I hadn’t been so happy, I might have had the sense to realise that he wasn’t going to let me off as easily as that.


So lying here a prisoner tied to the bed, I try to reconstruct the events of the previous night. Miranda had gone to visit her sister, who is on a package deal somewhere along the coast. In the evening I bumped into Steve in our local and he was okay towards me. I imagined that he’d pulled himself together and decided not to hold a grudge. I even felt a bit sorry for him when he told me that the Polish girl had thrown him over as well and I was impressed at his being so philosophical about it.

          “Plenty more broads in this city,” he said, with a shrug. “Let’s do a few bars, then take in a movie.”

          I had to laugh at his 40s lingo ... not such a bad sort really, the old reptile. Perhaps I’d misjudged him. After that, things get hazy. I have vague memories of my legs going weak, some time and many beers later, as we left a bar and Steve holding me up by the armpits. I don’t remember anything about coming back here but I know the room because I slept in it once.

          Presently I can hear footsteps on the other side of the door, then it opens and Steve enters, pushing the whetstone along on a drinks trolley which also supports a selection of knives.

          “For Christ’s sake Steve,” I blubber in panic. “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Stop being stupid ...”

          “Shut up Brian. No need for any whining ... I’m not going to kill you. Just teach you a lesson you won’t forget.”

          He picks out a blade and begins turning the wheel.

          I start to howl but he cuts a piece of masking tape and silences me.

          “It’s a character defect, I guess, but I’m a very bad loser,” he says, in a distant monotone, “one hell of a bad loser, in fact, you thieving asshole. Realised I had a talent for this kind of thing a few years back in Nicaragua, though. They used to call me the information man coz I was good at extracting it ... and the more ya do something the better ya get, eh? Got hold of some inneresting sleeping potions out there as well.”

Finally, in the middle of this I see that I was right all along: there are some people who are fated to get nothing for free. Others may sail through life but we come to learn that there’s a price for every fragment of luck. A natural impulse now would be to beg uncontrollably for mercy but of course it’s not physically possible and the realisation hits me that this is my time to pay.

John Short spent a long time in southern Europe doing a variety of jobs and now lives and writes in Liverpool. His poems and stories have appeared in many magazines in Spain, France, the UK, Ireland and the USA, such as Barcelona Ink, The French Literary Review, Prole, The Blue Nib and Rats Ass Review. When not writing he enjoys cycling, real ale and Greek music.

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