He remembered that night. Clearly.
It had been three days before the start of the finals.
He had glanced at his watch. It was almost two fifteen in the morning. Out in the street, he could still hear the music of the milonga drifting down from the windows of the salon. The traffic on Rua do Catete had died down by then but there were still people about, in groups, in couples, walking the warm Rio sidewalks, waiting for taxis, heading to the next drink, to the next dance. Heading home.
He had walked a few yards from the entrance porch of the building and fished his cellular from the inside pocket of his dark grey tailored suit. Pushed a few buttons. Waited.
‘Federico?’ said a man’s voice, a sleepy voice, a big voice. ‘Do you know what time it is?’
‘I’m sorry, Hector,’ he had answered. ‘I had to call. I just danced with my daughter. So did Andres.’
‘You and your tango, Federico. Does he know who she is?’
‘I don’t know. No. Not from the way they were dancing.’
There had been a pause, the sound of a light switch.
‘What about you?’
‘I think she may suspect,’ he had said, then hesitated. ‘I tried to warn her not to play tonight, Hector, to stop her being picked on by those jackals.’
He had felt himself getting angry. Then he had taken a deep breath, inhaling the night, catching the melody of a tango vals drifting down from above.
‘She knows what to expect, Federico. You knew this could happen eventually. Perhaps it’s time.’
‘I’m scared, Hector. They’re both so young, so passionate.’
He had heard a chuckle and felt annoyance. Had taken another deep breath.
‘There was never going to be a good time to tell them about each other, Federico. You know that.’
Then he had been the one to chuckle. A brief smile had flickered across his lips.
‘And then I suppose there’s the small matter of their mothers,’ his brother had observed.
He had grunted. ‘Now you’re just being cruel, Hector.’
A throaty laugh this time.
‘What do you expect at this hour? Never mind. I will see you tomorrow…or later today, that is. Buenas noches, hermano mio.’
The line had gone dead. He had lowered his cellulare from his ear and turned to walk to the kerb and hail a taxi.
His son, the Colombian boy, had been standing in front of him, hands in the trouser pockets of his cream linen suit, long brown hair moving gently in the night breeze.
‘Hello, Papa,’ he had said calmly, unsmiling, fixing him with his dark eyes.
‘I think we need to talk.’
It was the morning of the finals.
Renato Bulsara pushed open the door of the Café Leblon on Rua Dias Ferreira and removed his sunglasses. Today would be a busy day, a very busy day. But perhaps not so busy that he could not find the time to enjoy a morning coffee sitting at his favourite table.
He saw that it was free, as it always seemed to be when he visited his favourite café just behind the Copa Trade Tower. Senhor Ventura’s admirable establishment might not be the trendiest or even the quietest in the area, but he felt comfortable here. It was a traditional place occupying the ground floor of what had previously been a bank. A place where he could meet people without feeling conspicuous
He walked past the mahogany counter, greeting Senhor Ventura who was, as usual, involved in the unceasing process of marshalling his work-force in a state of mild concern. The elderly proprietor paused temporarily in his labours to smile and nod in return.
Sitting at his table, he ordered a cafezinho and scanned the interior of the café. Business was brisk, the high ceiling and chequered floor tiles of the former banking hall echoing with the clatter of crockery and the babble of conversation. The waiting staff criss-crossed the floor heading to and from tables, taking orders, carrying trays.
His coffee arrived, delivered by a young waitress wearing a black uniform with a starched white cap and pinafore. He smiled, thanked her and, as she walked away, lifted the cup and saucer from the table. Raising the cup to his lips, he took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma drifting up towards his nostrils.
He took a sip and began to return the cup to its saucer, savouring the taste lingering on his tongue. As he replaced the cup, he looked up and across the floor of the café.
Seated at a table at the other side of the room were a man and woman whose faces were familiar to him. The man was in his mid-30s,clean-shaven with a rugged face framed with short fair hair. He wore an open-necked shirt under a navy linen jacket. The woman, was older, perhaps, with a diamond chin and short blonde bangs.
As he watched, the man handed what looked like a photograph to the woman. He pointed to it and began talking. The woman looked at the photograph, then at her companion. Suddenly, the man paused, placing his right hand over his mouth, leaving the other resting on the table. Without hesitation, the woman reached forward and took his left hand in hers.
Bulsara felt something leap in his chest, an excitement that he could not name. He quickly finished his cafezinho, paid Senhor Ventura and left the building.
At their table in the Café Leblon, Tyler Wolf and Erika Hoskin were still deep in conversation.
It was the afternoon of the finals.
In the Copa favela, the man and the boy sat talking in the shade on plastic seats. They gazed out onto a cleared area, here in the heart of the shanty. An area covered in deep golden sand. Children ran around, dressed in ragged clothes, ignoring the heat of the sun.They played queimada, chasing and tagging each other, the ‘living people’ and the ‘dead ones.’
The man smiled as he watched them. Shouting, running free, running barefoot across the sand, free of rubbish, free of the waste of the favela, free of the broken glass.
He remembered the time when he was a child. Clearly.
But there was something different in the favela now. In the centre of the makeshift beach stood an open-roofed structure with four walls and a single door. From within it, he could hear the sound of a ball thumping against its walls as its occupants played a different barefoot game.
‘So, Miguel,’ he said. ‘How would you like to like to show me how your game’s coming along?’
The boy sat up in his chair, looked at him and smiled, eyes twinkling from a face the colour of cafezinho. He stood up and grabbed the racket propped against his chair.
‘I’ll go and get them off court, Senhor Renato,’ he yelled, already halfway to the building.
Now, young Miguel Paixao was showing promise, just like his three brothers, one of whom had made it to the preliminary round of the Rio Squash Festival.
‘Paixao,’ he said to himself, and laughed. ‘Passion.’
He picked up his racket and followed the boy across the beach towards the court.
It was the evening of the finals.
The last two matches of the tournament had sold out months before John Allenby’s woes had begun to surface. Now, as he waited to step onto the glass court, he hoped that the intrigue and crises of the last week were not about to repeat themselves. At least not until the night’s events were successfully, and safely, concluded.
If it was possible, the samba dancers, the music and the laser show leading up to the finals had eclipsed the spectacle of the opening night. The atmosphere was still electric as the spectators settled noisily into their expensive seats. The sun was setting behind the city, leaving behind its warmth as the start of the Women’s Final drew near.
Allenby scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. He found plenty of them. The President and his wife, The Mayor of Rio and his, Prince Hamza Al Omani and his entourage,Philip Sanderson, Fritz and Anne Mallinson, Hector Lopez. He started to believe that everything would be…
‘Senhors and Senhoras!’ boomed the PA, jarring him out of his reverie. ‘Please welcome the organiser of the 2014 Rio Beach Squash Classic and your host for the final competitive matches of the tournament, Senhor John Allenby!’
He picked up the microphone and began to walk towards the glass court.
It was less than ten minutes to the start of the women’s final.
Florencia Perez waited behind curtains woven with the yellow, green and blue of Brazil’s national flag. Her ravenesque black hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a light blue headband to match her dress, and white sneakers. She grasped her racket and bounced up and down on the spot just vacated by her opponent and Number 1 seed, Brigitta Krause.
‘Senhors and Senhoras!’ Allenby’s voice echoed around the stands. ‘Please welcome to the main court…Florencia Perez!’
The curtains parted, the crowd applauded. She had friends here. There was even an Argentinian flag waving in the stand opposite, the Sol de Mayo gazing down at her from the light blue and white tri-band. She entered the court and shook Allenby’s hand, then her opponent’s, ready to begin the warm-up.
Allenby closed the door behind him and walked away from the glass court.
It was less than two minutes to the start of the women’s final.
Florencia Perez sat in her chair outside the court and scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She saw Erika, sitting a few yards away in the front row behind the back wall. She saw Tyler Wolf, wearing his familiar green and gold tracksuit, sitting beside her.
And there were others.
She sensed their gaze before she met it, before she found where they were sitting. Together, high up, behind the back wall of the glass court. Their eyes filled with pride. And more.
The boy from Bogota who had danced with her three nights ago. Sitting to his right, the man they called Mr. Fino. And, to his left, the tall man with the long nose who had sent her the elegant gold watch which now adorned her left wrist.
She smiled, picked up her racket and began to walk towards the glass court.
It was less than an hour to the start of the men’s final.
Renato Bulsara was reaching the end of a busy day. A very busy day.
He picked his way slowly through the crowds milling around the arrivals hall at Galeão International Airport. At times like these he envied the natural footwork and movement of…who? Samba dancers? Squash players? He began to feel uncertain and, yes, mildly concerned. Like…like…Senhor Ventura! He chuckled to himself. A good sign.
He scanned the arrivals board. The flight he was to meet had landed. The passengers were now in baggage reclaim. Quickly, he summoned a porter and engaged his services. He glanced at his watch. It was eight forty-five.
He found a convenient spot from which to catch the eye of his employer’s guests and prepared to hold up the cardboard sign which his secretary had prepared for him. He looked again at the single surname it displayed.
Suddenly, the flight’s passengers began to emerge from the customs channel, looking for friends, relatives, hosts. He held up his sign, anxious that it should be in plain sight.
Then he saw them, both smiling broadly, both seeing his sign, both waving. He smiled back and waved, picking his way towards them, summoning the porter to follow him.
After what seemed like an age, they met.
‘Senhor Bulsara, I presume!’ said the woman, laughing. ‘I am so pleased to meet you!’ She grabbed his hand, shaking it warmly, thanking him for his welcome to Rio. He joined her laughter, looked into her eyes. Twinkling eyes, beaming from a face with high cheekbones. A face the colour of darkest ebony.
She turned, still smiling, towards her young companion.
Bulsara leaned forward and held out his hand to the child.
‘So, you must be Jeremy,’ he said.
The story focuses on characters involved in an international squash tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
Florencia Perez, 19, is an up and coming Argentinean squash player who has burst onto the international squash scene, competing on a ‘wild card’ in a tournament in Bogota. Her birthplace, parentage and even her true sexuality are a mystery. She speaks no English. Tall and broad-shouldered, her dark good looks have led many aficionados of the sport to regard her as the ‘Kournikova’ of the squash world. Unknown to her, she is the daughter of Federico Lopez, previously one of the most famous squash players in South America. She has now reached the Women’s Final of the Rio Beach Classic tournament.
Andres Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a young squash player seeking to make his mark on the international circuit. He has already won a lucrative sponsorship with a leading international soft drinks manufacturer. With his long wavy brown hair and vividly inviting dark eyes, he is a favourite with many of the female players competing on the World Squash Tour. In the past, his temper tantrums on court have led to him being banned by the authorities from playing. Unknown to Lopez, he is the half-brother of Florencia Perez.
Lopez has reached the Men’s Final of the Rio tournament where he is due to face the veteran Australian, Tyler Wolf, himself estranged from his young son, Jeremy.
Renato Bulsara is a carioca, a native of Rio and right-hand man to the powerful owner of the SombraSoft Corporation, the man known as Mr. Fino. SombraSoft is a global sponsor of squash. Fino’s real identity has been revealed as Hector Peron Lopez, brother of Federico.
In this chapter, the fates of the characters become intertwined as the tournament reaches its final stages.
‘The Man in the Café Leblon’ was first published as Chapter 21 of ‘Breaking Glass’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 11 squash writers, chapters were posted by Ted on the DSR website where the novel can be read it in its entirety.
For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Alan Thatcher (who conceived the overall theme for the novel), John Nimick, Mick Joint, Georgetta Morque, Will Gens, Framboise Gommendy, Richard Millman, Pierre Bastien, Jamie Crombie, James Zug and yours truly.
Why not check out The Daily Squash Report and read the full novel? You know you want to!