My father’s new girlfriend has taken over our kitchen for the third morning in a row. Only this time, she has placed a bodyguard at the door. He rolls a neck that is as thick as my waist, folds his arms across his chest and says, “Skedaddle.”
“You heard.” He looks at me with eyes as blue as icebergs and just as inhospitable. “The defence minister asked not to be disturbed.”
He must be mistaken. Keeping me from breakfast in my own home makes no sense. But the bodyguard shifts his weight from one leg to another in a clear indication he’s not backing down.
I open my mouth to protest. Close it again. Smooth the pleats in my school skirt, aware that my pulse is picking up speed, the way it does before a high dive. Then I launch forward, flit past him and burst through the kitchen door with such ease we’re both surprised.
Bathed in light from the fluorescent panels above their heads, Ministra Escudero and my father huddle over an object on the table. When the bodyguard clamps a hand on my shoulder, Ministra Escudero throws him a glare that could silence a regiment.
“Señor Flores!” she snaps. “Mercedes is sixteen. Hardly a threat to national security.”
Señor Flores retreats, glowering at the floor, and quietly shuts the door.
I glance at my father. He’s wearing the brown corduroy jacket he reserves for special occasions, there’s a flush on his cheeks and he’s even trimmed his beard—tell-tale signs he’s keener on his new girlfriend than he lets on. But it’s the object on the kitchen table that draws my gaze.
It is a shabby wooden box, about the size of the case my father uses for his reading glasses. It lies open, and inside are two objects strung together on a gold chain: a curved strip of metal and a milky-grey stone.
Somewhere deep inside, an emotion stirs. I jiggle my memories but can’t think straight. It’s that stench of burning. I breathe into the sleeve of my school blazer and check the room for signs of fire. There are none. No smoke pours from the grill. A pan of milk simmers on the hob. That’s odd. Even odder is that no one else seems concerned. I watch Ministra Escudero poke around in the fridge for the butter dish while my father flips shut the lid of the box.
Suddenly, the smell is gone, as if a gust of wind has blown through the kitchen and carried it away. I sniff. And smell only coffee and toast. Maybe I was imagining things. My father slips the box into the breast pocket of his shirt.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“What’s what?” My father exchanges a glance with Ministra Escudero, a we-share-top-secrets kind of glance.
I jerk my chin at his chest. “That.”
“Oh, you mean this old thing?” My father taps his breast pocket. “It’s a medieval tinderbox.”
I raise an eyebrow. As chief historian at the Prado Museum, my father usually rambles on about objects of art. He doesn’t tend to need prompting.
“And those things inside?”
“Well…” he says, after a pause. “The piece of metal is what we call a fire steel and the stone is made of quartz—they’re firestrikers, used to light pyres in the Middle Ages.”
“To burn witches, you mean?”
“That was a long time ago.” Ministra Escudero brushes aside my curiosity with a flurry of red fingernails. “But let’s talk about you. My spies tell me you’re tipped to win.”
Her spies are well-informed. My synchro partner and I are favourites for the European junior diving championship next month. But what no spies could possibly know is how I lie in bed at night fretting about my triple tuck technique, or how, as the big day draws near, I feel sick, stomach-churningly sick, before every dive.
Trying not to tremble just at the thought of messing up, I pour myself a mug of coffee and say, “I hope so.”
Ministra Escudero flashes me a smile and jams a bread knife into the toaster, seemingly as unaware of the dangers of electrocution as she is of the stress of competitive high diving.
My father pulls the plug from the wall.
“What was I thinking?” Ministra Escudero gasps.
My father tucks a strand of her blond bob behind her ear. “It’s this business with Machado. It’s getting to you.”
She nods and grits her teeth. “I’d feel safer if he were locked up.”
Listening to them, I wonder if there is any truth to the rumours that Spanish army chief General Machado was behind the attempt by a group of rogue soldiers to storm the prime minister’s residence last week, and I feel a pang of sympathy towards Ministra Escudero. Maybe Señor Flores’ presence on the other side of the kitchen door is not as unnecessary as I suspected.
Ministra Escudero places the knife back on the breadboard and shares another we-have-secrets glance with my father, of a more intimate nature this time. Though technically I’m the only teenager in the kitchen, it doesn’t feel like it. I turn away and look through the window. Day is breaking, and on the streets of Madrid below, I can hear the rumble of early morning traffic. I check the time on my phone.
“Maldición! A quarter to six! My coach will have me burnt at the stake if I’m late,” I say, slipping from the room.
One hour and four synchronized high dives later, my stomach is growling.
“Pray Remedios doesn’t find out you skipped breakfast,” says my synchro partner, Ivan Torres.
I peer over the railing of the diving platform at our coach who is standing at the poolside thirty feet below. Her hair is twisted into a black bun and she grips her walking stick so ferociously I can almost see the bones through her skin.
“She won’t find out if you don’t tell her.”
Ivan takes my hand. “What do I get in return for my silence?”
My empty stomach does a familiar little lurch. If his smile weren’t so wide, so disarming, maybe it would be easier to pull away. I look into his face, at the features I’ve known since we were children splashing around in the beginners’ pool. Of all Remedios’ pupils he was always the most daring. It was always Ivan who jumped first, who strove to master new techniques.
On the high board, Ivan and I understand each other. So well, in fact, that we mistook our compatibility as synchronized divers for something else. But not only was it a mistake to date each other, it tipped the balance we have as a team. Eventually he will respect my decision to just be friends again. Time is what he needs. That’s all.
“We tried that, and it didn’t work,” I say softly.
He drops my hand, walks to the edge of the platform and balances there on his toes, with his back to the pool, arms stretched out to his sides and every muscle in his body tensed.
Down below, Remedios Salazar bangs her walking stick on the tiles. “Mercedes! What are you waiting for?”
When she gives an order, it’s best to obey. I join Ivan, aligning my heels with his, letting the familiar smell of chlorine wash over me, and tracing in my mind’s eye the swirls and loops of the triple somersault we’re about to perform. This is the dive that should win us gold at the championship next month.
“Ready?” Ivan whispers.
“Steady,” I reply.
Usually, we take off together on the beat of the unspoken word, Go. But I’m feeling the pressure more than usual. As Ivan flips upwards and backwards, nerves pinch my stomach and under my feet, the diving platform seems to sway like a seismic tectonic plate. I falter and teeter on the edge, pinwheeling my arms to shift my weight back to safety. When Ivan breaks the surface of the water with scarcely a splash, I lose my balance and topple towards him, snatching at air, grasping for focus.
Then, inexplicably, my body jerks and is suspended mid-air for an impossible nanosecond. Long enough for me to flip over and enter the water headfirst.
Strong hands drag me from the pool. Someone sets me on my feet. Ivan’s deep brown eyes stare into mine, startled. Remedios hustles him aside. Up this close, I can see the crinkles on her skin. She must be furious. A performance like that at the championship next month would sabotage our chances of bringing home a medal. But my coach, who never smiles, beams at me.
“You righted yourself!” She taps her index finger against my temple. “You see? It’s all in the mind.”
It’s all in the mind. This is Remedios’ mantra. Over the years, I’ve heard her say these words hundreds of times. I’ve never understood them. I’m not sure I do now. But it’s as if back there, above the pool, I breached the laws of nature—
“You should call it a day,” Remedios says, swivelling around to watch a girl from our squad prepare for take-off. And I know I am dismissed.
I shower, put on my school uniform and head to the pool cafeteria to wait for Ivan. In the corner, a TV is broadcasting a live interview with the prime minister and General Machado. Curious about the man who unnerves Ministra Escudero, I order a croissant and a coffee and sit down to watch.
General Machado is wearing full military dress. Gold epaulettes adorn the shoulders of his navy-blue jacket, a row of medals is pinned to his left breast and a red officer’s sash is tied around his waist. He waggles a finger at the prime minister and speaks through small, sharp teeth like a ferret's:
“You cannot expect me to sit back and allow you to ruin our country.”
If the prime minister is taken aback, he doesn’t show it. “That’s quite an accusation, General,” he says, slinging an arm over the back of the sofa. “And it’s completely unfounded—”
He breaks off in mid-speech. The image wobbles and the camara zooms to a wider angle.
I lower what remains of my croissant onto the plate. At the table beside me, a woman gawks at the screen, where General Machado has drawn a pocket pistol.
“General, can I ask you to put that away before someone gets hurt?” There’s a stricken edge to the prime minister’s voice now.
“I’m afraid it's too late for that.” General Machado smiles and turns to address the camera. “The army has pledged support for me. Anyone who defies my authority will be arrested and accused of treason.”
In the crowded cafeteria, there is silence. No one moves. No cups clink against saucers. The grinding of the espresso machine dies down to a purr.
The prime minister’s voice is calm when he speaks again. Only the beads of sweat on his upper lip give him away. “Go ahead, Machado. Take control of the country. Arrest me. But you’re a fool if you think our allies will condone you.”
“Arrest you? I think we can skip that formality.” General Machado pushes himself to his feet and points the pistol at the prime minister’s forehead.
The prime minister holds his head high. “You’ll not get away with this, Machado. You’ll not get your hands on the trinkets of New Bohemia.”
General Machado slaps his thigh with his free hand as if the prime minister’s strange words amuse him. There’s a loud bang as he pulls the trigger. The prime minister flops sideways over the arm of the sofa and rolls to the floor. Blood pools around him. General Machado prods the lifeless body with his foot. Someone in the cafeteria screams. The sound of it brings me to my senses—surely, any minute now, security forces will burst onto the TV set and medics will rush in to perform reanimation. But the image switches to outside the Spanish parliament, where soldiers in Spanish army combat fatigues are herding members of the government up the steps at gunpoint.
Dread prickles in my stomach and terrifying thoughts turn over in my mind. What if troops loyal to General Machado have arrested Ministra Escudero too? My father may be an academic, but he wouldn’t let her be taken without first putting up a fight. What if he’s been hurt? I scan the screen for signs of Ministra Escudero. As far as I can tell, she’s not been arrested. Yet.
On coffee tables, mobile phones begin to ring and beep. Chairs screech across the floor and tables are upturned as mothers and fathers dash to get their children from the pool.
Across the room, Ivan weaves his way towards me. From the set of his jaw and the bewilderment in his eyes, I know he saw what just happened. I dig my mobile from my blazer pocket and dial my father’s number. There’s no signal. The network must have crashed. Either that or it’s been sabotaged by General Machado. Ivan shakes his head; his phone has no reception either.
A twang echoes through the cafeteria and over the tannoy a woman’s voice, tense with the attempt to sound calm, says:
“The municipal baths will be closing until further notice. All personnel and users are asked to leave the premises.”
Ivan and I join the press of bodies piling through the turnstiles into the street where pedestrians surge along in all directions and cars are stuck in thick traffic. An army truck heading towards the city centre veers onto the pavement, scattering the crowd. It’s not clear if the soldiers inside are doing Machado’s bidding or whether they’re still loyal to the dead prime minister.
Ivan grabs my wrist and sets off down the street. “We have to get you home.”
“Wait!” I beat at his hand. “What about you?”
He stops so abruptly I slam into him.
“My family didn’t have breakfast with the defence minister this morning.” His voice is gentle, and I know he’s struggling to find a way to avoid putting my worst fear into words. “I’m not leaving you until we know your dad is safe, okay?”
I nod, glad I don’t have to do this alone. Ivan stares at me for a moment and though I know he must feel as shocked and shaken as I do, it doesn’t show on his face. He places his palm on the small of my back and nudges me forward. “Let’s go.”
The scenes of panic all around us are a blur as we run through the city. Parked in the middle of the road outside the block of flats where I live with my father is a black van. The door of my building opens, and a camerawoman backs out. She’s filming Ministra Escudero and my father, who stumble onto the street with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
One of Ministra Escudero’s heels has been torn from her shoe, and my father’s jacket glistens with blood that’s streaming from his nose. I sprint forwards and wrap my arms around his neck.
Behind me someone says: “Ah, Señorita Perez.”
It’s Señor Flores. The bodyguard.
But instead of coming to our rescue, he pokes me with his gun.
A strangled noise comes from Ivan’s throat. He shoves his hands into Señor Flores’ chest. Señor Flores barely flinches. With a snarl he raises his fist and punches Ivan so hard he is knocked to the ground.
“Flores!” Ministra Escudero shouts. “They’re teenagers!”
“Mercedes.” My father’s voice is barely audible, but the urgency of his tone alerts every nerve-ending in my body and draws my gaze away from Ivan, who kneels on the pavement with his head cupped in his hands. I probe my father’s face for clues.
“Take the tinderbox,” he mouths.
As Señor Flores marches Ministra Escudero to the van, my thoughts race back to earlier this morning. I slip my hand under my father’s jacket. His shirt is damp from sweat, and there, over his heart, is the tinderbox.
He locks his eyes onto mine, his pupils black pools of fear, or pain, or both. “Hide it. Remedios will help you. Trust no one else.”
My father’s words make no sense, but I close my fingers around the tinderbox and pluck it from his breast pocket. Then Señor Flores grabs his elbow and drags him into the van behind Ministra Escudero. The camerawoman scrambles in, too. The door slams shut. Black fumes pour from the exhaust pipe.
And my father is gone.