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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part IV. North East

The Pacesetters

Steve Porter
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink Ebook MapOporto, Ponte Dom Luis

Five twenty in the evening and the first Pacesetters arrive. I tell them the meaning of ‘pacesetter’ and say they must be studying the wrong book because an athlete can’t set the pace if she turns up five minutes late for a race.

“Què ha dit?”

“No ho sé. No entenc res.”

They look puzzled and amused by this foreigner who also speaks Spanish. Their lessons at school are conducted in Catalan. I soon discover the children will not communicate in Spanish, which is a good thing in a way. Due to my very limited Catalan, they will have to make more effort to speak in English throughout the lesson. I expect the Pacesetters listen to Spanish on TV although they prefer Catalan channels like TV3 and channel 33.

The last two Pacesetters arrive and make plenty noise unpacking their bags.

“Quieten down,” I say. “The lesson has started.”

“Què ha dit?”

“No ho sé. No entenem res.”

“We begin at quarter past five,” I say, pointing at my watch. “What time is it?”

“Twenty five past five,” says Irene.

“And what time do we begin?”

“Quarter past five,” they all mumble.

“Teacher, I forgot my books. I’m sorry,” says Alba.

“Share with Irene.”

Big Núria laughs at my pronunciation of Irene. Wee Núria asks when the new teacher will arrive.

“What new teacher? I am your teacher.”

They want a female Catalan teacher and say they were promised one. I’m very tempted to tell them to stop whinging and get on with it but it’s not that simple. Students can dictate lessons to a degree in a private language school like this. They know if they are not happy their parents might withdraw them and give their custom to another school. The management informed me that the Pacesetters can be difficult and that they didn’t like their last English teacher much either, though they tell me otherwise.

“Carl was nice.”

“Carl never gave so much homework.”

“Carl always played games.”

The favourite expression of Spanish schoolchildren, said on automatic pilot most of the time, is “¿Vamos a jugar?” (Are we going to play?)

It was like an irritating song that stayed at the top of the charts throughout the school year. Still number one in Vigo, top of the hit parade in Elche… “¿Vamos a jugar?”

At least this year the use of Catalan instead of Spanish provided a variation in the sounds. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Pacesetters with “Juguem?”

After work, Josep invites me across the road to his brother’s flat. I know Francesc already. He comes to our flat for lunch almost every day while he gets his new place organised. Francesc is quiet, unobtrusive and washes up immediately after every meal but he’s darker and less studious looking than his younger brother.

Josep and Francesc show me a room at the back of the house with a grand piano in it. It belongs to Francesc’s girlfriend. She is a piano teacher who works in Barcelona during the week. They say “You can come here and play it whenever you want. But there is one condition… you must speak English with us.” I spoke to them in Spanish when I first arrived in Torelló. I had not spent much time living with Spanish speakers and was keen to practice. Their first language is Catalan but they are equally comfortable in Spanish; a language they used often at school. Even at 29, Josep is still a dedicated student. He does English with me two nights a week and goes to French in nearby Vic on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There is a wailing noise coming from the direction of Francesc’s kitchen. Kittens, only a few days old. Josep has brought them back from the mountains where their mother neglected them. One of them looks extremely weak and doesn’t move. Josep picks it up.

“I don’t think this one will live much longer,” he sighs.

He’s right. The next day it’s dead.

The other two are then moved to our flat where Josep can care for them through the night. He feeds them himself from a small milk bottle. The jet black one appeared the stronger of the two at first but now it doesn’t want to accept food. Its boisterous brother, a grey and white stripy kitten, climbs on top of him and screams like a baby. Josep puts the bottle in the stripy one’s mouth and it accepts greedily. It is returned to the box and keeps wailing. The black one licks its dry lips and rasps another sigh. It just won’t take the bottle.

“I’m worried this one will die too,” says Josep, shaking his head.

The next morning, after Josep has left for work, I go into his bedroom. The room is dark but there is a spotlight over the box to try and keep the kittens warm. I look in. The stripy kitten that Josep has called Nino is scrambling around, looking for the warmth of his brother but there is nothing to climb on, only a black space.

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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
By the same author RSSThere are no more works at
Date of publicationMay 2007
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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