The Cup Bearer
8.30pm 23 rd December 1994 in Nashville
Emilio sat on the trainer's bench, behind the barrier, chewing on a Mars bar and drinking orange juice from a plastic beaker. Most of the skaters were one the ice, halfway through the show, and soon it would be time for his second routine; but his heart wasn't in it. Everyone had been kind to him when they heard about Tony, but their sympathy had begun to jar on his nerves. For George's sake, he had made a show of holding things together, but he really didn't know how long he could contain his anger. Someone had to pay for landing him in the shit; but who? The Tamarigan police had drawn a blank despite offers of help from the US police department and the British government. They had said, 'case closed'. No way; he was not going to let it rest there. Somehow, sometime, he would find out who and why. But for now, he had another problem. His plans to go to dance school had fallen through and he no longer had the chance to try for the County Championship, so Skate America was a no-no. What now?
He hoped Gillian was right about the rink in Altrincham and the possibility of getting him into a local dance school there. He hated the idea of going to school, and that was one thing that put him right off the idea of moving to the UK. His wishes to stay in the States not met with the approval of the Graftons. They were determined to fulfil the terms of Tony's will but they couldn't do that with them in London and him in the States. The routine came to a close and he rose to take to the ice, placing the sweet wrapper and the empty beaker in a nearby trashcan. The skaters came off the ice to a round of applause, some of the older ones patting his shoulder and wishing him luck on the ice. His name was announced over the loudspeaker, his music, the Thunder and Lightning Polka, began and he stepped out onto the ice. His close fitting costume echoed the music with its silver sparkle zigzags on black, and he felt just like his costume inside, full of fire and electricity as he scored the ice in a fast moving race round the edge of the rink. With his routine containing the usual range of double and triple jumps, he had the reputation of being the fastest and most aggressive skater in the club, and had often been warned by his coaches to slow down or have an accident. He wasn't called The Bullet or nothing.
At the end of the routine he took his bows and realised this was what he wanted, to be one with his audience, whether on stage or the ice; and an idea formed in his mind. Besting the Tamarigan police would take a lot of money; it would also take a lot of money to many kids suffering all over the world just like he had suffered. Now he knew what Tony was about in the setting up of his trust to help other kids. If that was what it took, then he would sacrifice his private life and make his audiences the financial stepping stones to the future. It might take a few years, but Tony had said he could do it. He'd already tasted the thrill of the audience's adoration after his first routine, when he had skated to his own choreographed dance to James Last's rendition of 'That's Life', during which he wore a gold lame suit and bowler as the street dude. He had the magic that people wanted to see, but they hadn't seen the last of him tonight.
The finale was also one of his own creations, with all the members of the skating club, from tiny four years olds to the seniors, doing his version of a French cabaret. It included the Can-can where he joined a line of female skaters in their swirling skirts and frilly knickers, matching their high kicks and other antics. The original Can-can, in France, had also included one or two male performers who joined in the madcap routines, and he had wanted it to look authentic. At the end, the audience were on their feet, clapping and roaring their heads off as the skaters drew up in lines across the rink. Someone grabbed Emilio and pushed him forward to take a special bow while the chairman of the club announced his departure and their sadness at losing such a talented young skater and choreographer. Most kids of his age would have cringed with embarrassment, but not him. He milked that audience, the way he would milk every audience he ever performed in front of in the future. At least until Tony rested in peace.
4.15 pm, Saturday, New Year's Eve 1994. Cheshire, England
Rita Gomez expected the knock at the door but it still made her jump when it came. Her heart started to beat erratically and she forced herself to take slower, deeper breaths. She checked the second floor hotel bedroom, with its faded blue carpet, and carefully darned twin bed covers, the sofa and armchair covered in cheerful throws to hide the worst of the wear. To her this was luxury, but her visitor was used to travel and staying in big hotels; what would his impression be of this room? The choice hadn't been hers, of course.
Thomas Grafton had taken care of everything then called her on the phone. "We often use the place when we're in the Manchester area. It's a bit old fashioned but the owners have been friends for years and provide excellent service. As our booking was at short notice we found our normal first floor bedroom already taken. Refurbishing hasn't reached the second floor yet but I can guarantee the place will be clean and warm. We'll be arriving around four fifteen in the afternoon and I will stay downstairs with Mr. Clooney and Mz. Achres while you and Emilio talk in private. I'll arrange for afternoon tea to be sent to the room and, please, call me Thomas."
Dear man, I've only known him for five weeks and already he feels like a favourite uncle. Only five minutes ago, a small table had been placed in front of the sofa and laid with plates of sandwiches and pastries, snow-white crockery, and a teapot covered with a crocheted cosy. Rita scanned the room a second time in case she had forgotten anything. Her legs trembled as she walked to the door. It was rapped again, this time rather sharply . Oh, my! What if it all goes wrong? Mr. Grafton said the boy did not want to come. Taking a deep breath, she turned the knob and opened the door. Her eyes widened and her hands flew to her mouth as she saw a face from her past. "Oh, my goodness, Manuel!"
The boy frowned at her. "Excuse me?"
Rita backed away, her heart beating even faster. Her vision blurred as tears welled up. This boy was so like him, the petite face and stature, the loose, raven black curls, and startling black eyes. She fished for a tissue from her cardigan sleeve to hide her panic, and remembered the worn patch at the elbow of her right sleeve. Her son's immaculate polished shoes, dark blue shirt and expensive suit compared sharply with her thin grey skirt and down at heel winter boots. "I'm so sorry; you look so like someone else. For a moment I thought you were him, but of course, you can't be. Please, won't you come in?" Rita's head whirled as the breathlessness returned. Leaving the boy to close the door, she hurried to a cabinet between the beds and picked up her inhaler, then remembered she had already taken a dose a few minutes ago. She put it down again, and looked for something else to occupy her shaking hands.
"I'm not staying long." The note of finality in the boy's low alto voice brought a feeling of hopelessness to Rita.
So, he's already made up his mind not to stay. Rita forced herself to turn and face him. "That's all right, I understand." She watched him look about the room before fixing his gaze on the table. "Are you hungry?" She moved towards the sofa and waved a hand at the table. "Come and sit down and help yourself. Thomas said you'd be hungry." Her legs would not support her any longer and she sat down, but the boy remained standing. He picked up a sandwich and continued inspecting the room. She poured the tea and watched him sweep the top of the dressing table with a finger. Rita smiled to herself, having already verified the cleanliness of the room. Even in their rough village shack in South America, with its hard packed earth floor, she had brought up her children to appreciate cleanliness. Emilio had always been a clean little boy, and a hungry one. "You always were hungry."
The boy nodded and came back for a second sandwich then looking dismayed at his own lack of manners. "I'm sorry; ladies first." He sat own beside her and picked up the plate to offer her one.
It pleased Rita that Tony Grafton had made a gentleman of her son. "I'm not the hungry one, to be sure. I'm used to hungry kids. I have five more at home, don't forget." At once she wished she could retract her words. "Of course, you don't remember, do you? Mr. Grafton explained in his letter."
Emilio looked sideways at her. "Why didn't you want me to come to your flat?"
Rita's cup rattled as she placed it back on its saucer. No turning back now but how could she say what she wanted to say that wouldn't sound like a snub? "You said you weren't going to stay long. Is that true?"
"I'll hear you out, say my piece and then decide."
"Well, there's your answer. I wanted to give you the chance to do just that and not cause any upset to the family. Of course, they'll be disappointed if you do go back; they're all longing to meet their big brother but I'll surely not stop you if that's what you want to do. This way will be easier for them, not seeing you." Rita's old leather handbag lay on the sofa. Her son resumed his eating, and had almost cleared the plate when Rita pulled the bag closer to her, unzipped one of the many pockets, and rummaged in it. "I've brought a photo of the kids with me, if you'd like to see it."
Emilio sat back with a sigh, the sandwiches and cup of tea abandoned. "What's the point? I have a life in the States. Right now, I don't feel like starting another."
"But your family -."
"What family; the one that ditched me?"
His words stung her but then he had a right to be angry. She wondered how she would feel in his shoes. "I'm sorry for what happened." Fresh tears filled her eyes and this time she let them fall unchecked. "Father Angelo was so sure it was you.... the dead boy.... I was too ill to go down to see the body myself. After you ran away, you used to send me little bits of money. I don't know how you earned it; you hear all sorts of stories about kids on the streets, don't you? It stopped around the time the body was found and I thought maybe Guido had something to do with that. My parents sent me money to get the children away to safety and we came back here." She found her already damp tissue and lowered her head to hide her tears and wept into it.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry too; I guess I'm wrong to blame you for all this. It's Guido's fault."
Rita straightened up to stare at him through her tears. "You remember Guido?" She watched his mouth draw into a tight line as he looked away.
"Emmie, I have something to tell you that might stop you feeling so bad." Rita wiped her eyes and fished into the depths of her bag. Taking out a paper photo wallet, she opened it and drew out a small photograph of a youth in the colourful costume of a Spanish gypsy holding a guitar across his knee. She held out the photograph. "Guido isn't your real dad."
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