When the lights went out, when things went bang, when every room filled with rusty smoke and the smell of rotting electric fish, when all this happened, Olivia Hernandez Silvela squeezed the sideboard with one hand, her heart with the other, and shouted for her husband to come home.
The kitchen window was open and the bar Alfredo frequented just two doors away. Olivia counted to ten before shouting his name again.
Her husband didn’t come like a whipped dog—because, if you married a dog, what did that inevitably make you?—but neither did he grumble when he arrived.
“It was a surge in the electricity,” Alfredo told her as he flipped open the fuse box and looked inside. When he licked his fingers and touched it, there was a sizzle and he cursed a variety of saints. “Every light on the block is out.”
Actually, it was worse than that. Not just every bulb had gone pop, but every fuse in every electrical item in the entire neighbourhood. Well, not every item—but Olivia didn’t find that out until later.
“Go and ask Carlota when Renato is coming home,” said Olivia.
“Madre Mia! I can fix a fuse,” Alfredo said, his lips pursing as he bristled.
Olivia listed the things Alfredo had attempted to fix in the house and got as far as the toaster that sprung charcoal briquettes when he gave in and stomped off to find their more able neighbour.
The gas would keep the pot of fabada simmering and Olivia didn’t want to waste candles during what was supposed to be the day. She went outside, into the grey shade of the hotels. At least they’d lost their precious electricity, too. Those guests not already on the beach or sitting at the chiringuito bars that lined the promenade were coming out into the same grey as her before scurrying round to the hidden sunny side.
They’ve forced us to live on the dark side of the moon, Olivia would tell anyone still willing to complain about the hotels. Her neighbours had lost their indignant passion, though. When the courts had agreed the hotels were illegally erected, that they should come down, there’d been a brief moment they’d all believed it actually might happen—that Mayor Fuentes and his business amigos would obey the law even if they weren’t ever going to jail for lining their pockets and stripping the town of its beach views.
“Renato is over at the hotels. All the electricistas are,” Alfredo told her and—knowing how she felt about the hotels—added: “Sorry, carina.”
Olivia thought of big red buttons and the power that went with them and wished that for once, just once, a little person with a big grievance had their finger on a switch that mattered.
The trick once you turned fifty, Olivia believed, was to keep on turning so you kept more or less at that magical number. She couldn’t do much about the toll two daughters with wide shoulders had done for her figure, nor what too much carbolic and too little hand-cream had done for her elbows on down, but every woman had a feature she could be proud of, and Olivia’s was her hair.
It was still thick, shiny, and responsible for all the positive adjectives that were attributed to her appearance. That was not to say it acquired this admirable state on its own. Hair, like a husband, was well turned out only after a substantial amount of training and vigilance.
Which meant that the absence of her hairdryer was cause for considerable panic.
Olivia could boil water on the stove to the correct temperature, had her shampoos and brushes, and even her unheated curlers could still be applied to reasonable effect… but her trusty hairdryer was one of the few things that even Alfredo had made sure to wire so that it actually worked…
She stood in the bathroom, cursing herself for not having unplugged it that morning, and in the flickering candlelight sucked up a nervous breath and wondered if there was any possible way it would be cold enough to wear a hat outside.
Olivia waggled the plug from the socket and wound the flex ‘round the hairdryer’s handle. It deserved a decent burial. Alfredo would know where its box was because he never threw anything away.
“Alfredo!” And because the dryer was in her hand, and because her hand was as familiar with its hold as her magnificent head of hair was with its warm breath—better than any lover’s in both cases—her thumb flicked the black pivot switch, and—
How much Olivia remembered of what actually happened she couldn’t really say. What she saw afterwards, though, was something she’d never forget. Her bathroom wall had a hole in it that resembled a large borehole extending through the inner wall, the insulation, and the outer wall, so that it gave a clear view out into the street and the hated hotels. The vapour coming from those portions of the wall that hadn’t already been sucked up into the air shimmered and dissipated like the spray above a glass of champagne.
She looked at the hairdryer. Fortunately, her thumb—that digit that knew what was afoot better than its mistress—had instinctively switched the hairdryer off. She’d felt it hum awake and breathe out the way it liked—only this time the note had risen with the kind of sudden, annoyed whoof that you used to blow a fly off your sandwich. Then, magically, there was the hole.
Olivia poked her head through and looked down.
No one in the street seemed to have noticed, and maybe because it wasn’t smoking or dripping molten brick, anyone looking up at it might have assumed it had always been there. She pulled her head back in, looked at the hairdryer, and then called for Alfredo.
Husbands recognise the tones in which their names are pronounced with all the subtle flavours wine tasters identify to know the origin of the grape, the month it was plucked, and the feet that stomped it.
“What is it?”
“What do you think?” Olivia asked as she addressed him from the new porthole. Alfredo looked up from the pavement, shrugging. Do-it-yourself wasn’t a hobby where her Alfredo was concerned, but what one was advised to do when one saw him approaching with a hammer in his hand.
Olivia rolled her eyes around the new architectural feature until realisation dawned on Alfredo.
“How did you do that?”
“It was the hairdryer.”
“Are you crazy?”
It was the wrong thing to say, as Olivia flicked the switch and blasted out another perfect hole. She pushed her head back through, amazed again that there was so little dust left behind. The hairdryer must have reduced it all to such a fine powder that it simply wasn’t visible when it puffed away.
“Believe me now?”
Alfredo nodded carefully. When Olivia noticed he was staring at the hairdryer, she yanked it out of view. She finally knew how an armed mugger felt. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
There were now three holes in the bathroom wall.
If the hotels hadn’t been in the way, their house would be filling with a summery, ocean breeze. At least other people had now begun to notice the modifications to their house.
“It’s amazing,” Renato said, who knew about these things. The cautious way he handled the hairdryer and observed Olivia made her realise she was lucky she hadn’t been pointing it at her head when she’d switched it on. “It must have been the power surge. I don’t know why this thing wasn’t fused, too. By all rights, it should have been. Somehow, it isn’t just the only thing in town that wasn’t shorted out. It also absorbed all that spike of energy and became—well, this.”
“And what is this?” Alfredo asked.
“I don’t know, but in the wrong hands…”
Renato, Carlota, and Alfredo looked expectantly at Olivia.
“I didn’t even have it on the highest setting,” she said, which was probably not what they were hoping to hear.
“Guests are complaining about their views from the back of the hotel. They don’t want to see you or your husband at the bathroom sink or going to the toilet.” Alonsito Rivera had an unnecessary clipboard and was Mayor Fuentes’s nephew. Carlota had told her the Americans called bureaucrats like Alonsito ‘pencil pushers’ because that was what their wives felt on their wedding nights. “And, in addition, you haven’t got planning permission for such alterations.”
The last bit was Alonsito’s mistake, granted, but the rest was all Olivia’s.
“That your car sitting outside?” she asked him.
“What if it is? If you’re thinking of telling me to move it, then forget it.”
“I was thinking of removing it myself.”
She had the hairdryer in her hand because The-Man-With-No-Name had a better reason census takers didn’t bother him. Olivia pointed, tapped the button, and suddenly the car looked like an invisible tree had fallen on it.
Alonsito stared and pointed, his breath whining.
The siege, or standoff, or whatever else the news reporters called it, was in full place by the time the sun was kissing the obscured horizon.
“It was good of you to come sit with us,” Alfredo told their neighbours.
“Wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Carlota said, the kitchen stool creaking as she swung her legs. “Did you see those helicopters the Americans arrived in?”
“It’s Palomares all over again. Probably thought the hydrogen bomb they lost there had washed up down here,” Alfredo said, pouring another round of pacharan. Olivia had pinned tablecloths over the three portholes in the bathroom, but without electricity and with the constant shade from the illegal hotels, the house still managed a decided chill.
“This is something much better,” Renato said. “You know why they haven’t attacked?”
“Reni, don’t let’s talk of anyone attacking Olivia,” his wife said excitedly.
Renato waved aside her admonishment. “It’s because they all want it. That thing, that hairdryer, is worth a fortune to them. They don’t want anything to happen to it. This could make you rich, Olivia.”
That much she’d already been made aware of. Mayor Fuentes had come to the same conclusion as Renato and tried his hand at negotiation. The Mayor was caught between all the attention the super-weapon was bringing to the town and the fact the entire seafront had had to be evacuated until the crisis was concluded. When his wheedling, needling voice had come through on a negotiator’s megaphone, Olivia had had to be restrained from hair-drying him. He’d even brought along Miriam and Alma to ‘try and talk sense’ into their mother. Miriam had shouted to the assembled world’s media that Fuentes was a corrupt, self-serving property developer and without much happening in the hairdryer standoff, the bored media had since begun to fill hours by reporting on Mayor Fuentes and his land-grabbing cronies.
Alma’s turn with the megaphone had been used to tell her mother that if they didn’t give her exactly what she wanted she should point the hairdryer at the sky and open up a new hole in the Ozone Layer.
Although Olivia had joined in with her friends’ laughter, she’d also looked at the sliding scale on the hairdryer and known that it was probably capable of doing just that.
“It was you that made it special, Alfredo,” Carlota said, always a bit jealous during someone else’s turn in the spotlight. “I expect everyone from NASA to NATO will want to ask your advice now.”
“That’s right,” said Alfredo. “It was me that wired it.”
“Sí,” Renato said. Then, slowly, the same way they were all feeling the fact sink in: “Alfredo. Was. The. One. Who. Wired. It.”
Olivia swallowed. “I think we’d better negotiate.”
“We’ll all go out there with you!” Carlota said.
“No.” And when Alfredo made to argue, Olivia said, “Please. If anything happens to me, I need to know someone’s still here for Miriam and Alma.”
“They’re big girls,” he said.
“They’re not big enough to deal with this on their own.” She nodded towards the street, where tanks and soldiers and who-knew-what-else were lined up with their weapons pointed at their front door. Alfredo nodded and she was relieved that there was pride in the way he looked at her.
Before she left, Renato took her aside. “Make sure you get the money before you hand that thing over.”
“You think they’ll try and swindle me?”
“I think its charge won’t last forever. One good long blast and it’ll probably run out. After that…” He shrugged. “I think this is a disposable deal. It won’t be rechargeable.”
Olivia thought about this as she opened her front door. No gun was fired, no gas grenades came spinning towards her. In fact, no one made any move, just as Renato had predicted. They didn’t want to risk damaging the hairdryer. And if he was right about that…
It had been nice, feeling power in her grasp, but she’d seen what it had done to Mayor Fuentes and others like him. That and the wild, panicking tantrums that occurred when it was taken away. Better, then, to be the type that voluntarily handed it over.
After you’ve gone out with a bang, of course.
Olivia raised the hairdryer and even the tanks seemed to cringe back in their eagerness to get out of its sights. Her thumb clicked the dial to 3, the diffuser attached to the nozzle the way assassins screwed a silencer on their Beretta. Sweeping her arm in a long, steady arc, she let them have it.
The hairdryer became the property of a special department of the United Nations, in order that whatever technology the thing might reveal would be available for the benefit of all. Olivia doubted they’d make much of it. She’d felt it drain empty as she’d held the button down, just like Renato had predicted.
Six months later, the UN still hadn’t found anything worth reporting on.
Carlota and Renato and the other grateful neighbours helped them fill-in two of the holes in their bathroom wall. The third they left as it was; not so much as a reminder, but for its new, incredible view.
Mayor Fuentes should have been grateful: he hadn’t had to spend so much as uno centavo enforcing the courts’ ruling to remove his awful hotels. They were probably still there though, on the beach, colouring the sand.
The sea, the surf and the sun had never looked so good.