Archive for August, 2010

The naked protest

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by cockroach1

Just a regular Friday night in the barrio. The Ponce and I traipsed down my street toward the plaza to have a quiet drink with Glauco, an Italian friend of his whose wife and kid were away for the weekend. Glauco is a plumber, mellow, with a kind, myopic face like a stoned Marmot. In true Lavapies Swapshop style, last year he fixed my exploded boiler in exchange for a tray of Mama Ponce’s home-cooked pizza and a good pasta dinner, because, as usual I had no cash and was unable to pay him. The boiler, fitted into the floor to ceiling cupboard next to my front door, had burst while I was away and had he not emptied it for me it would have continued to gush fusty water down the walls, over my coats in the coat cupboard next to it and, a cunning design ‘piece de resistance’: over the fusebox which is directly underneath, possibly short-circuiting the entire flat.

There were no outside tables free at any of the terrazas: Summer is upon us and so are the night-trippers, swarming over the café tables like locusts, leaving no room for the locals. Still, they are more than welcome and you can only agree with them- Lavapies is a damn cool place to hang out, and we get to do it every night of the week, not just at the weekends. There was the added ‘attraction’ of the ‘Fiesta del Barrio’ (Neighbourhood Fair). The Ponce and I had wandered down there a couple of nights ago into a fug of stinky pork fat smoke, ambling past the stalls where Samba and Salsa blared, and rotund, lazy-eyed bargirls served sub-standard Caipirinhas. One or two of them had faces as hard as glass and make up painted ‘as thick as a church door’.

‘Do you think she’s doing a shift later on Calle Montera?’ muttered the Ponce, with a wicked smirk, as we were handed our Caipirinhas. Calle Montera is the dodgy thoroughfare running from Puerta del Sol up to Gran Via, which was supposed to be modelled on Broadway but which Prodigal described as ‘the sleaziest street in the whole of Madrid.’ On Montera you can see door to door prostitutes, cheap and desperate in their tranny stilettos and hotpants. At the top, near Gran Via there is one particular lady built like an outside convenience with a fascinatingly tragic face as square and sturdy as a battered old leather suitcase who normally perches on a motorbike nursing her huge and half-exposed breasts. We took a bench seat by one of the trestle tables to watch all the fun of the fair.

I caught sight of the Kurdish poster boy, wearing an acid green shirt that was painful to behold, even on his sturdy physique, and sporting what looked like cuban heels- certainly pointy boots of some sort. I find these immigrant men exotic and beautiful, like brightly coloured, preening parakeets, though I would die of embarrassment if someone were to see me out on the arm of one of them. He sauntered past with his friends, his thick, sleek pony tail hanging down his back like a real horse’s tail. Such glossy hair! No-one in the UK has a pony tail any more, except my brother in the sporadic intervals between shaving it all off and having a grade two, and he can get away with it, and Peter Stringfellow, who cannot. There was a little pug-nosed South American girl who trailed behind her parents, devouring a massive blob of candy floss bigger than her own torso. She had a round, moon-pig face and bunches sticking out on either side of her head: a comical, roly-poly child dressed in unflattering but obligatory bubble gum pink, matching her fluffy snack. The Ponce nudged me as she waddled past, and quipped,

‘Thanks Mum and Dad, she needs that like a hole in the head.’ and I laughed and replied,

‘Stop it! You’re so cruel…’ feeling ashamed because I had thought it first. Then I said,

‘She looks like a cochinillo!’ (suckling piglet) because she did: plump, tender, shiny and brown all over.

‘And I’m the cruel one?!’

I would feel guilty if it weren’t for the fact that we are both ex fat kids.

Later we wandered back past the ubiquitous local fair stalls which must be the same all over the world- tinny music, shifty owners, rifle ranges and dart boards, grossly cheap and nasty soft toys.

‘A Stewie doll! I want one, I want one!’ exclaimed the Ponce, his eyes shining like a 5 year old’s with sudden, intense glee. I reacted like a spoilsport parent,

‘Don’t be silly. It’s 6 euros you haven’t got and you probably won’t win one anyway. Come on…’

The smoky, pork fat stink that had been lingering over the barrio for the past few days like nuclear fall-out came from huge vats of traditional entresijos, weird twisted fatty lumps which of course, on closer inspection turned out to be battered, fried pork gizzards. They looked and smelled like something I’d think twice about giving to my dog if I had one. I don’t think even Grace would have eaten them.

The fiesta was still on this Friday night, though the Ponce and I had decided to forego another visit and had arranged to meet Glauco in the Chapateria just down the street from my house near the plaza. He was propping up the bar already when we arrived as there were no tables free outside, but we waited at the bar for one to empty for us, sipping beers and chatting.

Suddenly I kicked the Ponce, who was sitting nearest the open door, and indicated that he should take a look outside… now. I have seen some sights in Lavapies but this left even me speechless. All I could do for a second was look, bug-eyed, and nod in the general direction of what I was observing. There was a man with a shaved head, early to mid thirties, quite attractive, handing out flyers and wearing nothing but a pair of flip flops. The Ponce leapt from his stool like a Jack in the Box and returned a moment later with one of the flyers.

‘Don’t you just love this barrio?’ I said to Glauco, who was grinning over the top of his beer.

‘Better than mine, that’s for sure.’

‘Where do you live, then?’

‘Moncloa. Nice, but dull.’ He lent forward on his stool,

‘So what’s all this about?’

The Ponce was hunched over the flyer, smoking intently, smiling to himself.

‘Take a look, mate.’ he said, handing over the paper. ‘Classic. Another naked protest.’

There seems to be a tradition of naked protest here in Spain: call it a lack of puritanical prudery, a better climate, therefore more clement conditions for stripping off, or a sure-fire way to draw attention and ruffle the feathers of your Catholic elders. Since I have lived here I have witnessed quite a few, some of them on television, and once, spectacularly, live- very much alive and flapping in the breeze. A few years ago I remember a group of young people in Pamplona protesting against the cruelty of the running of the bulls, by staging their own eye-catching streaking of the students along the very same route. A herd of young naked activists sprang lithely across the background while in the foreground the eager reporter interviewed an outraged old lady (however did he manage to find one of those?)

‘I think it’s disgusting,’ she declared, unsurprisingly, ‘absolutely disgusting taking their clothes off like that,’ as firm breasts bounced, cheeky buttocks scissored, thighs pumped and gonads jiggled past just behind her, bearing a banner that announced ‘put yourself in the skin of the bulls.’

Not so long ago in Madrid another group of young activists held a successful demonstration in Puerta del Sol against cruelty to animals; it may have been factory farming, vivisection or bull-fighting they were highlighting, by climbing nude into rows of cages in the middle of the plaza, smearing themselves with fake blood and curling up into foetal positions. They certainly caused a stir and attracted media attention though I do recall during the news report spying various pairs of flesh-coloured knickers, which is a bit of a cheat if you ask me.

But my favourite example was the Critical Mass demonstration I was lucky enough to witness one late afternoon a couple of years after moving to Madrid. I had arranged to meet a private student to give her a class in a quiet café at the bottom of Gran Via, right next to Plaza España. As I walked round the corner from the metro stop to the café entrance my path was criss-crossed by a small shoal of Japanese tourists darting this way and that excitedly, pointing and urgently fumbling to remove the lens caps on their cameras. I stopped and looked to see what all the fuss was about, and as I did so approximately 300 nude cyclists pedalled past, making the eyes water at the immediate and obvious questions about saddle rash. They rang their bells, they grinned, they waved, they streamed past a bemused traffic policeman too surprised to even start blowing his disco whistle. One protester staged a slow motion ‘car crash’, tumbling carefully onto the tarmac as if run over, with his bicycle on top of him, clutching a limb dramatically and crying out,

‘Ow, ow, I’ve been hurt! I’ve been knocked off my bike by a car, the driver wasn’t looking out for me! Ow…’ Then I made the connection and realised it was a Critical Mass pro-cycling demonstration rather than merely 300 people cycling around town in the buff for no other reason than our entertainment.

So, was I about to see a herd of naked protesters thunder past the café? Sadly, no, but the flyer certainly raised an eyebrow.

‘I don’t think I’d be walking around quite so cocky if mine was only that size.’ commented one of the barmaids to the other, and they laughed as Glauco and I peered at the flyer, which announced,

CUERPO LIBRE (FREE BODY)

Underneath the heading it advocated Sexo Publico (Sex in public) Poliamor (free love), Pansexualidad (Pansexuality) and Experimentacion sexual y afectiva (Sexual and emotional experimentation).

We glanced through the leaflet and I shoved it into my pocket for later, after suggesting to the Ponce that we go on one of the activities planned for Summer 2010, for example, Sexo Solar- Pornosenderismo-Eco-orgias (Outdoor sex, Porno-hiking and ‘green’ orgies).

‘You have got to be joking. You are taking the piss, right?’ he replied, as we slipped outside to grab a table which had emptied.

‘Yeah, actually I was. Though the porno-hiking… oh hang on, look, here he is… and a friend….’

Opposite us, just a few feet away across the small stretch of pavement was the brave individual himself, sitting at an outside table in a typical nudist pose (why they always have to sit like this I don’t know): thighs wide open, one leg raised at the knee and resting on the lip of his chair. He was having a cool beer and talking to a young man seated opposite him who was clothed. And with her back to us, also at the table was his companion or fellow protester: a mountainous woman, also totally naked, with a tattoo across her vast shoulders. She spilled over the top of the cane seat, and we were gifted with a great view of arse crack in the gap between the back of the seat and the frame. My first thought on seeing her was ‘Good for you.’

For the next hour we nursed our beers in the stifling heat and watched the passers by coming to and from the Fiesta del barrio. Who needs television when you have Lavapies? I was seated with a perfect view of people sauntering up from the plaza, and was able to catch their incredulous faces as they caught sight of and registered the two naked protesters sitting casually chatting and drinking. I cringed as I watched two muslim women in headscarves and shapeless clothes, possibly a mother and daughter strolling up arm in arm, but they didn’t even notice the ‘abomination’ at their side. Two old men poked each other in the ribs and muttered as they passed, after second, third and fourth glances. Urban hippies turned their noses up or laughed, or rolled their eyes. Women in saris pulled the bright fabric around their faces and looked away. One young muslim couple walked past, the husband indicating that they should follow him quickly, the little boy dragging at his mother’s hand, looking with eyes like saucers, while she refused to turn her eyes in that direction and pulled him down the street. Only one young couple stopped, walked up to them and asked,

‘So, what are you guys protesting about, then?’ Otherwise in general they were ignored or tolerated.

Eventually, after an hour or so, having made their point, they paid and got up to leave. The woman was even more impressive on her feet: hugely tall and with ripples of flesh cascading from her shoulders. From a group of young people who had been drinking at a corner table, a man in his twenties leapt up as they moved and hurried over to them, asking,

‘Hey, do you mind if I take a photo with you two? I’m from Uruguay.’ They seemed happy for him to do so, and in a surreal moment he also pulled his clothing off and his friends at the table, giggling and cheering, took a few photographs of the three of them with their arms round each other. They stood in a line the middle of the pavement, posing as any holiday threesome might do, except none of them had any clothes on, while by now, frankly horrified or amused passers by had no choice but to notice them. As the Uruguayo pulled his clothes back on and gave them the thumbs-up, the Ponce leant over and pointed out to them,

‘Watch it guys, the police are on the way.’

They nodded their thanks and walked slowly up the hill, as six, yes that’s right, six beefy policemen were spotted walking up from the plaza to tackle them. A little way up from my house they caught up with the nudists, surrounded them, and engaged them in a conversation which went on for at least fifteen minutes. During this time the Ponce, who is not a great fan of the police, muttered,

‘I bet they’ve called the black maria. They have, you know, look, they’re waiting for it to arrive. They’ve arrested them, you just wait and see…’

We watched and we waited. A few minutes later he began to shift in his seat, his ‘up the revolution’ tendencies clearly boiling to the surface.

‘We should all get up and strip off, see them deal with that!’ he declared, ‘The whole street, all of us, we should all get naked and go and join them. Give them a bit of support. Shall we do it? Shall we… go on….’

Glauco just laughed but I must admit, for a few seconds, I was tempted. The sense of righteous liberation must be exhilarating. But then I thought of myself the following morning crossing the street to the local bakers, of the next time I ordered a kebab from the Kurdish poster boy and his many brothers, of the next time I had to nip over to the chinese corner shop when I’d forgotten to buy milk, of my occasional Lebanese lover who had emerged from the tea shop a while ago and was leaning against the wall grinning and watching the show a little way up the street.

‘No….. call me old fashioned….’

If the naked protesters had hoped to cause a stir in the barrio they had certainly succeeded. As the Ponce and I went back into the airless bar to pay for our drinks at the counter there appeared to be a discussion taking place and some confusion over the contents and meaning of the flyer. A small, wiry black man, about fifty, grinned at us and at the barmaid as she took our money and asked no-one in particular,

‘But I don’t understand what they mean by Pansexuality.’

The English teacher in me spoke up,

‘I suppose it must mean all-encompassing, including everything. Total. Er, like pandemic, pandemonium-‘

‘Well, I think that’s vile.’ she replied, giving us our change. ‘Children and animals, that’s disgusting.’

‘Where does it say that, then?’ I scanned the flyer on the bar between us, pulling out the phrase,

‘informed and consensual on behalf of all parties… Don’t think there can be many animals or kids who are informed and consensual. I don’t think they mean that. They mean, you know, hetero, gay, bi, transsexual, all that stuff.’

She still had her nose in the air as if the nudists had left a smell that was somehow morally offensive, which shocked me a little. Is it just that I come from another century- from a time way back when eighties dinosaurs roamed the earth wearing eye-liner and lip gloss, the girls power-dressed in pin-striped suits, and androgyny and sexual experimentation and expression were in? Are we going backwards? But then, we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto…

‘I like the way some prude called the cops on them,’ huffed the Ponce, ‘like when that little old lady got mugged and knocked over in the square and it took them forty five minutes to turn up. But 2 naked people?…’

‘Oh, they’ve been there about an hour though.’ the barmaid informed us. ‘And I’ll tell you another thing, if it was black man they’d turn up in two minutes flat.’ Our companion at the bar laughed and said,

‘Yeah, man, we can be a bit naughty but we’re not responsable for everything!’

‘I tell you what,’ I suggested, ‘why don’t we do a little experiment? Why don’t you get your kit off and see how long it takes them to arrest you?’

‘Ha ha! Oh, it’s not for me, not all that, I’m not into it. But at least they’re stirring up a bit of polemica (controversy).’

By now roughly half the bar had tuned into our conversation and their ears pricked up a little sharper as he ran one finger over the flyer and asked us,

‘But there’s another bit I don’t understand. What’s BDSM then? What’s all that about?’ His eyes widened in wonder and slow comprehension as the Ponce and I spelled it out for him.

‘All that S and M stuff, you know, I think it stands for Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism. You know, anything kinky.’

‘Oh, right….’

‘S and M, right? Sado-Masochism…’

Faces in the bar turned to us like sunflowers following the sun. The man recoiled and declared,

‘Ah no, you’re joking, that’s gross!’ The barmaid apparently agreed, as she pulled an icky face while wiping down the counter top. The Ponce and I exchanged glances.

‘Gross?! Don’t be ridiculous, it’s marvelous, it’s the coolest thing, I love it. People should be allowed to do exactly what they like in bed, long as they’re not hurting anyone… unless they want to be hurt.’

‘Absolutely,’ I chipped in, becoming a touch fed up with this 21st Century squeamishness.

‘Get over it, don’t knock what you haven’t tried. Whatever gets your rocks off. What’s wrong with handcuffs, whips, role playing and er…. you know…?’ I felt as though the clientelle in the bar were leaning in on us now, their noses almost dipping into our beers in their efforts to get close enough to eavesdrop. So here I was, too shy to strip off outside my front door in the street, yet in the metaphorical equivalent of my bra and knickers in the local bar two doors down from my house justifying my sexual depravity to a prudish public.

‘Come on, let’s go, they’ll be wanting a demonstration next.’ I pulled at the Ponce’s arm, grinning with discomfort, and we left, remonstrating with the barmaid and barfly as we left,

‘Try not to be so judgmental, guys!’

‘Remember, variety is the spice of life-‘

Our wiry little black friend was correct, at least the Cuerpo Libre protesters had stirred up some controversy and tonight the barrio would have something different and, in my opinion, relevant, to talk about. Had I been wearing a hat I would have taken it off to them. Especially to her, as it is an immense act of bravery in this day and age to remove your clothes in public when you don’t have the airbrushed body of a fourteen year old, and to say – this is a body, this is what a real body looks like. Laugh if you like at my cellulite and stretch marks, but this is a body and it’s mine. As we walked down to the square and past Carrefour I noticed one of the billboards next to a bus stop with a laminated image in it, a perfume ad, showing a young beautiful woman (airbrushed) wearing nothing but nude tone lingerie, stockings and a string of pearls. Nobody noticed her, nobody commented on her virtual public nudity, because she is permitted and expected and someone paid money for her to be there.

A few days later I pulled out the flyer and had a closer look at it, and softened a little toward the prudish barmaid, when I read the sentence, in the middle of an explanation of pansexuality, ‘…in which a poylamorous group could be made up of members of all sexes or no specific sex, of other species and non organic bodies.’

What? Now I’m confused! Other species? And I was just sticking up for you, please don’t tell me you’re of the Here Rover, that’s a good boy persuasion. No specific sex? Huh? I looked them up on the website and also found as part of their manifesto,

‘To denounce the reductionist character of genital reproductive sexuality and to propose new forms of human and post human emotional and sexual experimentation, redistributing sex and emotions via all types of forms (human and non human anatomies) also movements (amorphous, without anatomy).

Er….. ?

Looking at their website I was amused to find a photo of the leader/guru himself, marching proudly through the woods on some porno-hike, sporting an angry red hard on, I was fascinated to discover that Spain is the only country in Europe, and possibly the world, where public nudity is entirely legal, as is public sex as long as there are no minors or ‘mentally disabled’ present, and delighted to read that further naked meetings and protests are planned for Madrid, and specifically, for Lavapies. Perhaps the naked protesters are to become a fixture in my barrio. There was a short list of Pro-nudist and Nudophile bars and premises posted, and the Chapateria was listed under pro-nudist. Best of all, I read that there is a Public Sex Action Group who are apparently a guerilla faction prone to carry out commando urban interventions of public sex, and even a Pimp/Hustler Pride march planned for sex workers. Madrid looks to be getting a whole lot more interesting in the near future….

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Pastageddon

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 19, 2010 by cockroach1

'When I grow up I want to be a kid'

The moment that I knew for sure we were heading upstream without a paddle was when the Ponce started to provide an impromptu and ever so slightly patronising cookery class to the confused and possibly frightened Filipino waiter. Actually, he wasn’t even a waiter, certainly not our waitress (more of her later); he was probably a busboy, and as this restaurant was connected to a cookery school, he was most likely a trainee bus boy. I looked at the Ponce in profile opposite me and could see even from that angle his eyes gleaming with evangelical zeal and I could hear the cutting down of the syllables, snip snip snip, as he clipped them, steadily warming to his theme.

‘Could you please ask them in the kitchen… kitchen? Yes? You got that bit? Ok, good. Ask them to do the pasta…. al….. dente…… please. Do you know what I mean? Al dente?’

The busboy may have shrugged slightly and when I say slightly I mean it. The tiniest shift in demeanour to indicate his lack of understanding as tiny as one single pulse in the vein on the inside of a wrist. Otherwise he retained his classic ‘oriental inscrutability’ that always transmits to us westerners as sullenness, full-on stupidity or unwillingness to co-operate. His face was totally static, a couple of beads of sweat on his forehead, an immobile and smart figure in his head to toe black outfit and apron, only his eyes moving, only the eyes saying,

‘What do you want from me? Stop asking me questions! I don’t know what you want. I don’t even know what you are,’ in the face of this little pierced, tattoed, Italian devil with his pistacho green sunglasses on the top of his head, his expressive hands and his intense eyes under thick, black eyebrows.

‘Al dente.’ repeated the Ponce, with a sigh.

‘That means that if it says on the packet to cook it for ten minutes, you cook it for eight. Then you take it out. Any kitchen can do it, it’s not difficult. Just ask them please. Then the pasta is not too soft, you see? I don’t want it Spanish style.’ He pulled a face, a grimace to illustrate his disgust. A small line as faint as a pencil-stroke appeared in between the busboy’s eyes.

‘Al dente. You put the pasta in the water…’ here he mimed throwing pasta into boiling water ‘….. and when it’s still a bit hard but cooked, before it turns to mush….’ Here he mimed picking up the pan and removing it from the heat, ‘….you take it out. Cookery school stuff, you ought to be able to manage it even in this restaurant.’

The busboy was dismissed with a turn of the head and he fled, his apron tails flapping behind him.

‘It’ll be a fucking miracle if they get it right.’ the Ponce confided, smiling at me serenely, sipping his wine, then topping up my glass for me. ‘I’m not eating it if it comes out like mush.’

‘I know you’re not.’ I replied, shifting my bottom to get comfortable on the plush leather bank seating. Above us an enormous lampshade hovered like a hooped skirt or a UFO waiting to abduct us.

‘Oh God, now we’re screwed.’ I thought. ‘Now we’re well and truly screwed. How could I not see this coming?’ I downed half of the glass of wine he had just poured me, smiled back at him, and sat and waited for Pastageddon…. any minute now.

My mind flitted back to one evening last Summer at the Turkish kebab shop round the corner from my house, staffed by Kurds, most of them related to each other, and one grinning pirate in particular: the poster boy who graced all the photographic menus, pointing at plates of hummus, kebabs, falafel and rolled vine leaves, turning back to smile seductively at the camera. Handsome and stocky, his luscious black hair always pulled back in a pony tail, a permanent bandana topping his head. He would stand in the doorway, feet firmly apart, muscular arms crossed, or hands on hips, and hail half of the barrio as they passed. We had become almost-friends, after a few months of my living a couple of houses up. In that Eastern way he used to invite me to join him for a glass of mint tea and a chat when he had time. It had become a little ritual of ours, the smiling, the coy glances, the stilted conversation, calling each other ‘guapa’ and ‘guapo’ (gorgeous). His kurdish brothers also always greeted me warmly when I passed the cafe. There was a group of six or seven of us who had gone in to eat and after our four euro kebabs I remember the Ponce, who was in a foul mood for some reason, began to harangue one of the brothers.

‘When I ask for mayonnaise, I mean mayonnaise, not this horrible yellow stuff full of garlic. If I want garlic I’ll order it, I mean, I know this is Spain, but this stuff…. what is it? What is that? It’s not mayonnaise, is it? It’s not even ali-oli. Do you know how to make mayonnaise? You need eggs, right? Then you put…..’

‘Ah, here it comes.’ declared the Ponce, referring to the pasta rather than our waitress who was a rather thick-waisted and broad shouldered lady who spoke in a high soft voice that was obviously affected, and who had clearly not always been a lady. She had initially brought us both menus in English, and the Ponce had queried this decision and asked for them in Spanish. Which is a fair point when you get translations like ‘Hind of leg in roast oven‘, but she had stiffened at his request and smiled ingratiatingly with one of those smiles that suggested she was imagining us raped and abandoned by a highway. Then I had thought, mentally rubbing my hands together ‘Oh, this is going to be fun, the Ponce versus a tranny Filipino waitress with attitude.’ But in fact it wasn’t going to be fun, not at all. Not until hindsight made it hilarious.

‘Your pasta.’ she lisped, depositing a plate in the middle of the table between us. As a starter we were going to share a plate of penne with seafood. I looked at the plate, looked at the Ponce’s face, and started to wither inside. He pushed a fork into one slithery piece of pasta and bit into it, ordering me to,

‘Try it. Go on.’

I did. He was right. This was like a 70s macaroni cheese, overcooked and baked to within an inch of its life, making the texture viscous and slimey, like eating sections of snotty, chopped-up entrails.

‘That’s going back.’ he said, his fork falling with a determined ‘clink’ onto the table by his plate. ‘Unless you….’

‘No, no.’ I murmured, ‘you’re right, it’s gross. They obviously didn’t get the message on time. I don’t want it either.’

‘Excuse me. Excuse me!’ Our waitress appeared by the side of our table, her teeth clenched in a rictus smile.

‘Er, excuse me, I asked for this al dente and it isn’t. We can’t eat this, it’s really overcooked. Could you send it back please and ask them to make it al dente?’

‘Certainly, no problem.’ she replied, her tone suggesting that it very much was one.

‘By the way, this is how this pasta dish is served here. The pasta is pre-prepared.’

‘I can see that.’ replied my companion, ‘but could you ask them in the kitchen to do a portion al dente for us, please? I don’t want my pasta pre-prepared and microwaved to Hell, not when I’m paying for it.’

‘No problem, I’ll ask them to do it again. But you didn’t tell me when I took your order. Let me take that…’ She took the plate.

‘But I did ask the other waiter.’ pointed out the Ponce.

‘Yes.’ she replied, ‘but you didn’t ask me when you ordered it. He doesn’t speak much Spanish, he’s the busboy, not the waiter.’

‘I didn’t know that-‘

‘You should ask me. I’m your waitress. And you can ask me in English as well, because I understand you better in English.’ With that she turned and strode away, bearing the offending pasta dish before her.

‘Stroppy cow!’ said the Ponce, topping up our glasses again and lighting a cigarette. ‘Who does she think she is, talking to me like that?’

I think then he must have caught my frightened rabbit expression, and said,

‘Oh… yeah, hang on, you hate me right now, don’t you?’

‘No…’ I lied.

‘I know, I know, you’re English, and you hate this kind of thing, but sometimes you have to complain. And she should be more polite, I’m the customer. Would you have eaten it? Did you think that pasta dish was all right?’

I shook my head.

‘Well, then.’

He was right. The problem is, just as in life, in her way and in her eyes she was also right and in my way I was right as well. Truth, opinion, conviction, putting aside absolute truth, all these things are mostly subjective. Sometimes I wish I only saw things my way rather than in some twisted cubist fashion, from every possible angle and then some. It would make things so much easier.

In the way some people go for a run, or carry out retail therapy to let off steam, the Ponce’s favourite way to release tension is to bait incompetent restaurant staff. Sometimes I wonder if he shouldn’t have trained as a restaurant critic rather than as a chef. I had to sit back and let him, today of all days; it was understandable that he would be a little tense. But I couldn’t help myself.

‘You know, I don’t understand why you ordered pasta if you know they’re not going to cook it right.’ I commented.

‘Because I fancy eating pasta today.’ he replied simply.

‘Yeah, but Italians never like Italian food outside Italy, so why bother ordering it? Why not order something they can cook here, you’re fighting a bit of a losing battle, aren’t you?’

‘It is a cookery school. I thought they might have half a clue.’

‘I think you just enjoy complaining.’

‘You should see me in restaurants in Italy.’

‘Well, at least they understand the concepts there, they know what you’re trying to say.’

He sighed morosely, and said,

‘All I want is a nice meal today. It’s not much to ask, is it? I am paying! I feel like a condemned man for God’s sake. Just one nice meal before tomorrow morning and they shove a bloody great tube up …. ah, here we go, what is it now, I wonder…..’

Priscilla was back, just behind his chair, standing with her hands clasped sternly before her like Torquemada about to pass sentence. They were large hands for a Filipino ‘lady’, veins running over the backs of them like rivulets of rain down a window pane.

‘There’s no pasta left.’ she announced, with evident satisfaction.

‘Sorry?’ The Ponce’s eyebrows rose quizzically, he hunched down in his chair and bared his teeth in an incredulous smile, a little bit like a dog or a fox does when cornered.

‘There’s no pasta.’

‘What, none at all?!’ He looked at me across the table and I rolled my eyes like a startled horse, partly in fear. This multi-cultural web of wind-ups was beginning to hurt my finely-tuned sensitivities now. A picky Italian chef in a black and dangerous mood, ordering Italian food that would never be good enough anyway in a Spanish restaurant, served by a Filipino transexual. And here I was, caught in the cross-fire, glaringly English in my deeply ingrained distaste for conflict and ‘causing a scene’, dreading the inevitable hissy fit. I knew the Ponce was already reigning himself in to accommodate me. Otherwise there’d have been feathers flying by now.

‘No. There’s none left.’ said our waitress, with a twitch of the mouth that could have been a smile.

‘I suggest you order another dish from the menu but not pasta. Anything else.’ Her face was like a stone, silent and unyielding, with rough, open pores.

Having worked as a waitress myself I already knew the strategic conversation she’d had in the kitchen, ending with the Filipino version of ‘- and tell table four to go fuck himself!’ from the chef. I have also seen enough ‘fly on the wall’ restaurant documentaries to know that we were probably lucky not to get the pasta, as after this performance it may well have come plus a garnish of secret snot, spit, floor fluff, well, you name it.

‘I see. So all the pasta has been pre-cooked to mush, every last bit of it. Is that because they are incapable of cooking it al dente in this kitchen? Too diffiicult for them? Did they miss that bit out in cookery school, then?’ asked the Ponce.

I slumped a little on my slippery bank seat, looking up to the open mouth of the lampshade. Please beam me up. I noticed the ceiling was painted black, a very unusual colour for a restaurant ceiling. Candles flickered around us, light glinted off glassware. Had we not been arguing like this, the atmopshere would, in fact, have been very congenial.

‘Listen,’ hissed our waitress, shoving the menu at him as if swotting a wasp off a windowsill, ‘That’s the way we serve the pasta dishes here. If I know that’s how it’s served here and if I don’t like it that way then I don’t order it. And if I want pasta al dente, a special way or something, I cook it the way I like it at home.’

As she spoke she was glancing from one of us to the other, knowing that she could appeal to me and receive a hypocritical cringe and a smile, while her eyes filled with cold fury as she observed the Ponce. I had the fleeting thought that perhaps she would have been less prickly had she known the Ponce was a gay brother, but then, how was she to know that? He was hardly your typical queen, more of a raver/punk/freak. For all she knew, I was his Sugar Mummy and he was some spoilt little straight rent boy, which may have enraged her even further. She had stood back a couple of paces and had one hand on her hip. The other, now empty of the menu, was beginning to turn on its wrist as she spoke. Any minute now she was about to wiggle her head from side to side and purse her lips, snapping her fingers in his face. Or tell him to talk to the hand. Her meticulously pencilled eyebrows were already arched and ready for battle.

‘Ok, I’ll order something else then, shall I? I mean, after all, I’m only paying for it. I’m a trained chef, you see, sorry, Love, I just like things to be done right. And that’s not right.’

As she sneered and swivelled to leave, the Ponce muttered after her retreating back,

‘Drop the attitude, uptight ladyboy….. If you can’t be civil with people as a waitress I think you’re working in the wrong place. Go and get yourself a job dancing on the bar at el Boite or Black and White. Or even better, get yourself down to casa de campo, I’m sure you could make a few bob there, and you don’t even have to smile. Rude bitch…

Despite or maybe because of my churning embarrassment I snorted with laughter. Black and White. A vision of Hell far scarier than any Bosch triptych. I had been there one night when the Contessa was visiting, with a mutual friend Carlitos, after downing various bottles of wine at home and dancing around the living room to Eartha Kitt. How we ended up there I don’t know, but we made our way down the glittery stairs and round the dance floor then through a thick curtain, following Carlitos, who navigated the place like a sniffer dog following a scent. I thought he was taking us into the dark room and held back, but he pulled me through the curtain after him. It was just the downstairs bar. We propped up the bar for a while, drinking and laughing, glancing around at the television screens showing sweaty pornography, until suddenly on the counter beside the Contessa’s elegant hand there appeared a dizzyingly high silver street-walker’s stilettoe, filled with a gnarled foot with bright crimson toenails. I will never forget the way the Contessa pulled away his hand as if from the jaws of a snapping dog, looking up fearfully at the apparition behind him which reared up from nowhere, reminding me of a slow motion version of the scene where the original Alien spreads its arms wide and is glimpsed for the first time. Venus emerging from the waves she was not. What followed the shoe and the foot was a figure as sinewy as a butcher’s dog, dressed in a bikini top and obscenely short and tight denim hotpants. As she gyrated above us I couldn’t help glancing at the boob job. Like two ill-matched grapefruits shoved underneath cling-film, the curved tops as defined as a clown’s eyebrows. And then beneath a mat of permed hair the shape was replicated in her arched, pencilled eyebrows, accentuating acne-speckled features so frozen by Botox they were about as expressive as a cupboard door. When reminded of this later, la Contessa admitted he had snatched his hand away so quickly and fearfully because he had been wearing his diamond ring, and apart from the fear of having his hand crushed by the approaching stiletto, it had also crossed his mind in a fleeting second, in a moment of panic, that an incoming drag queen might want to snatch and steal the diamond for herself.

We’re leaving.’ declared the Ponce.

‘Oh God, oh please don’t start shouting, I can’t stand it, this is so embarrassing…’

‘Who’s shouting?’ he replied, with a grin. ‘We are leaving, though. Let’s go and eat somewhere else. I’m not having any more of this. Excuse me!-‘

This time the bus boy reappeared; possibly our waitress was in a back room somewhere having a pep talk and a tooth guard fitted, her brow mopped with a towel, ready for round two. The Ponce mimed a scribbled bill and very quickly it appeared.

‘Drink up!’ he said cheerfully, indicating the half carafe of white wine which was to accompany our pasta, and the half carafe of red which was to go with our steaks which would now never appear. He glanced at the bill, and called the bus boy back.

‘Could you take the bread off this bill please? We didn’t have any bread. We didn’t order any and we didn’t eat it.’

Less than ten minutes later we walked unsteadily up the stairs, holding on to each other, the Ponce calling over his shoulder a cheery,

‘Hasta luego!’ at our waitress, who replied with a wordless glance as sour as mouldy yoghurt. I cringed and walked faster. It wasn’t possible to get out of the place fast enough. As we emerged into blinding sunlight, the Ponce threw back his shoulders, drew a deep breath and declared,

‘Do you know, that was just the ticket! I feel so much better than I did earlier. Let’s go and get something proper to eat, there’s the Gallego restaurant I went to with Tito round the corner. Great steaks. Well, we’ve had our ‘starter’, let’s go for the main, shall we? Incredible. I feel good as new. Just what the doctor ordered.’

He was a changed man. The black mood brought on by his imminent hospital visit had lifted and hunger had been replaced by the thrill of the chase and a sense of righteousness. I was glad he’d recharged his batteries, but in some vampiric way, that had only been possible by sucking me dry and leaving me weak with embarrassment at the public shame and inconvenience caused. It had also involved frightening a semi-literate busboy to death, and igniting the wrath of our transsexual waitress.

‘This,’ I thought, ‘this is the Brave New World we have created. Welcome to multi-culturalism’. And it was only then that I started laughing, on the way to the Gallego.


I’ve got to get out of this place….

Posted in Uncategorized on August 14, 2010 by cockroach1

Yesterday I left Madrid. I was glad to leave: the city grows like a tumour beneath the skin, urban cells multiplying over time, sucking the life out of you slowly. The Ponce remarked darkly the other day,

‘This city has a negative energy, a very strong negative energy that can eat you alive if you’re not careful.’ I believe this is the case with any capital city, but he assures me,

‘No. I think it’s a hangover from Francoism. I mean, what a weird combination is that? Police-state fascism and queer politics? It doesn’t really work, does it?’

We both agree Madrid is the queerest city on earth, but he does have a point. Extremes everywhere you look. In Chueca we once saw from a high balcony men urinating on each other, one on his knees beneath a lamp-post with people walking by (which wasn’t the most pleasant of sights, fair enough) but then you could be stopped in your tracks one day on the street by the Catholic Family Association, their numerous babies plastered with badges proclaiming how much God loves them for reproducing like good Christians. Only an extreme country can produce a civil war, and you can see this every single day in Madrid, the schizophrenia that leads to equal legal rights for transsexuals but does not allow one single black policeman.

It’s always tiring hanging out with someone with mental health problems, much as you love them, so I am taking a long and well-deserved break from Madrid’s madness. Right now I am tired of the constant roar of traffic, the choking pollution, insulting customer service, the daily struggle of work, rest and play, the tired, blank, city faces around me on the metro, and of other people’s problems looming in on me like toppling buildings. I am even tired of the herds of generic good-looking young men who roam the city, their eyes docile but wary like antelope. I’m tired of having dirty, sleazy fun. And above all, tired of the heat. It is as though my brains are slowly being cooked inside my head; for weeks now I have been incapable of clear, precise thought. I feel like a drop of moisture on a griddle, zigzagging wildly across the baking surface of the city, and if I don’t get out soon I will simply frazzle up and disappear.

I head out after having a quick coffee with the Ponce, who, after recent multiple health problems and the ever-present money problems we all have, is planning a short escape as well, to some festival in the North of Spain, ‘But,’ he insists, ‘I’m going punky-style and that’s that.’ which means several days without sleep or a wash, jumping around like a muppet with thousands of other ravers. I can still remember when that sort of trip was an exciting prospect. I collected my suitcase and dragged it up the hill to Anton Martin metro station. There was thick humidity in the air, overhead was dirty-looking and yellowish white and the occasional fat drop of rain squeezed itself from a heavy sky. The only sound in the neighbourhood came from an open window: somebody playing the bongos. Changing trains and dragging my case behind me up the escalators I heard someone else playing percussion in one of the long, echoing metro station corridors, as though my exit is being marked with the beat of some distant drum. I sit facing backwards on the icy air-conditioned metro train, and the feeling is exhilarating as we pull away from the station, like a space-ship going into warp speed, the external world whooshing away from me as we leave, pulling out, withdrawing, abandoning the brightly coloured metro station and shooting out of the city towards the airport like a bullet out of a gun.

As I walk to my gate at the airport, my skin cooling in the artificial, sealed atmosphere, already feeling fresh and new at the prospect of a trip away, I pass the cafeteria and smoking area with a large sign announcing,

‘Smoking area. Only and exclusively for the use of ARS customers.’ ARS is a chain of airport cafes, and is often the first word you see as you walk through the arrivals gate, or as you leave through the boarding gate. This amuses me immensely. Now, I’ve heard of bum bandits and arse burglars, but an ‘ars customer’ sounds so much more refined and so very now… it’s all about choices, after all, and about what you, the consumer wants….

My hackles rise as the boarding lounge fills with other Brits, and I have to jostle and queue with my compatriots again, feeling like a conspicuous canary freed to fly with its own kind, watching its back for fear of being pecked to death for being different. On the plane I seat myself next to an arabic family, the mother and two small boys on one side of the aisle, and me in the middle next to the husband- a portly but quite handsome man who spills over his seat and into mine with that male insouciance and sense of entitlement. I ask if he minds if I put the arm-rest down between us, as I feel it is too intimate sitting there squished together with no barrier at all (I don’t tell him this part) and as the tension is dropping off me like dust, I know I will fall asleep as soon as we take off, and want to wedge myself into a vaguely upright sitting position, rather than find myself a little later drooling, my head on his shoulder or even worse, in his lap. He turns to me, smiles and replies, with an inclination of the head,

‘As you wish.’ in that formal arabic way which is so charming. My companion on the other side by the window is a young girl with an mp3 player she listens to the whole flight, flicking through the pictures on her digital camera. I glance over a couple of times and marvel at the length of time one can spend looking at photographs of a baby, and how many photographs of the same baby! but am aware of how cynical and barren that makes me sound.

A short way into the flight, after passing out for half an hour or so, I resort to putting my headphones on as well and searching for the John Peel tribute album as I know many of the tracks are loud rock. Anything to drown out the relentless attempts to sell us stuff over the tanoi which is turned up so loud your ears jump and cringe every time it pipes up. There is no escape from the gleeful, pushy sales pitch. They try to sell us food and drinks, duty free, train tickets from the airport into the city, stop-smoking patches and phone cards, and then an over-excited recorded voice regales us with how our lives will change when we win a million after buying a scratchcard. The bare-faced hassling becomes comical, turning the plane into an Eastern bazaar I almost expect the cabin crew, like on the trains in China, to wheel out a trolley any minute now with cheap nylon socks and start demonstrating how fire-proof they are by running a lighter under them, as if that was the one Unique Selling Point that would make you buy them.

Finally we start to descend through thick grey clouds, down, down through the impenetrable muck until suddenly there’s the ground, grey and wet, and rain streaming off the wings and down the tiny porthole windows. My companion gasps and clutches his wife’s hand across the aisle, both of them as excited as children at the first glimpse of England.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to London, England. The time is now just past 7 pm, and the temperature is 17 degrees…’ The rain on my face as I step off the plane is wonderfully cool. I know it is not loaded with toxic dust like the ‘acid’ rain in Madrid that decorates car bonnets in the street and the plants outside my front door with dust circles marking every drop. Welcome ‘home’ for a few weeks. Welcome back to cool, clean, safe, grey England.

Make love, not war, (part 5)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on August 6, 2010 by cockroach1

I blinked awake and rolled over to check the clock by my bed. Something must have woken me. It was 7.45 a.m. On a Saturday morning! Maybe the Troll from downstairs had been gossipping and cackling outside my window again with her friend from over the road. Nope, that wasn’t it; the street outside was silent and still. Then I heard it again, a scratching at my windowpane, followed by a plaintive,

‘Miaaaaaowww…… miaow…. miAOW!’ then a stifled giggle and a muffled thump. I rolled out of bed, slid the metal window-frame open a crack and croaked,

‘I’m going to pour a bucket of water over you in a minute.’

‘Miaow.’ it replied, then snorted with laughter and carried on mewing,

‘Miaow, miaow, miaow, miaow…… MIAOW!!!!’ rising in pitch and volume until the last mew was a squawk. Across the street a shutter rolled up with that metallic rattle like machine-gun fire and a woman yelled,

‘Callate, por Dios! Gilipollas!’ (For God’s sake, shut up, you dickhead!)

I peered over the windowsill at the top of the Pirate’s head. He was slumped just under my window with a cubata (spirit and mixer) glass in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other. He was mumbling to himself and shrugging his expressive shoulders.

‘Get in here!’ I said. ‘I’ll put the coffee on.’

He wobbled into the living room with the delicate tottering gait that only a professional alcoholic can master. A sort of jogging on the spot, dancing from one foot to the other, a bit like a toddler taking its first steps, with the same occasional lurches this way and that as equilibrium is threatened. Toddlers generally move and behave as if they are off their heads anyway.

‘Compañera!’ he declared, and slung his arm over my shoulder in order to dance a little early morning jig with me.

‘Que tal mi linda compañera? Cafecito y porrito? Estoy muerto, destrozado….’ (How’s my gorgeous flatmate? Fancy a little coffee and a spliff? I’m knackered, shit-faced….) He smelled like an ashtray that had been marinated in lighter fuel, then rolled in fresh cigarette butts and doused with vodka, then stored for 8 days in an unwashed armpit. His bulging eyes were bloodshot, hooded, and appeared to be looking in different directions. The hand on the end of the arm slung over my shoulder trembled uncontrollably and his clothes, so neat and tidy when he had left the house ten hours earlier were crumpled and stained.

Yep, here was my man, back from a hard night’s shift slaving away at the club face. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a wad of notes which he turned in his hands and eyed as though he’d never seen them before, then he slung the rolled up money onto the sideboard.

‘Let’s get some meat tomorrow.’ he mumbled ‘A good slap up dinner? Hey?’

‘Ok.’

I guided him to the sofa where he fell like a corspe tipped into a communal grave and I went to make our coffee. By the time I’d prepared it he had already passed out completely, the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, the empty glass on its side on the floor and a grubby hand flung over his eyes. I took the cigarette from his lips, brought his duvet from his room so I could cover him up, then switched off the lights and went back to bed for a couple of hours.

I had been living with the Pirate for four months now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Only he could make miaowing and scratching at my window an endearing ritual. In its own twisted, dyfunctional way our life together worked. I went out less than he did, so at the weekends when he was off on a marathon I had quiet nights in, when I read a good book with a face pack on, or smoked joints and watched dvds. While I was away travelling he partied and while he was away travelling I had the place to myself and had other friends over or room and privacy for the occasional liaison. I loved having him around. He was the closest thing in the last twenty years to a live-in partner, and I suspect I was the nearest he’d got in a long time to living with a woman. He pulled women in the way fly-paper collects flies, but didn’t manage to trap them for as long: few of them put up with him and his philandering, hard-drinking ways.

The Huertas Pirate and I had a level of understanding of each other’s quirks and foibles that was as easy and natural as comprehending that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night. No effort went into this comfortable conviviality. It just worked. It was a given that I would be the one to wipe down the kitchen, scrub the toilet, clean out the fridge and so on, while in return he paid the rent on time, he made me cups of tea and even dinner when I came back from a trip and was jet-lagged and weary. He ran to the shops for me, fixed light-fittings when they broke, and mixed me rum and cokes. We curled up on the sofa and watched films together like an old married couple. At weekends when he’d been out we would often coincide in the living room as I was getting up and he was coming home to bed and we would sit and talk, equally bleary while I waited to wake up and he waited to fall asleep, like fellow travellers who find each other in the same waiting room for a while and chat amiably to pass the time. It was a happy household- one that kept strange hours and altered states, and to the outside world we almost looked normal, we almost pulled the wool over their eyes. We could have been mistaken for a happy couple until you looked a little closer.

You see, despite that little frisson of attraction, that tiny glowing ember that was never quite extinguished, we weren’t sleeping together. Both of us were conscious that stepping over that line may well bring the whole house of cards tumbling down round our ears. I certainly don’t think the Pirate found it unpleasant if I met him at the door in my slip of a nightie or if he found me cleaning the kitchen in a t-shirt and knickers, and he always gave me the once-over and an appreciative wolf-whistle when I had my heels on and was checking my make up in the hall mirror before going out. He used to watch me hanging out my lacy underwear on the line with a wistful smile on his face, though he never commented and was certainly never lewd. Likewise I was always happy to find him slouching around in summer in nothing more than bermuda shorts, showing off his lean torso which was dusted with just the right amount of hair at the chest, along with an excruciatingly sexy line of hair from his navel down to his groin like an arrow- (this way girls, that’s right, down here….) He had a good body, the Pirate- tall and slim without being lanky and he moved in a loose-limbed and sensual way like a cat.

There were two incidents that proved to me the extent of his sentimentality and warmth of spirit. One of them was the death of our cactus babies. I had carried out the obligatory smash and grab raid at Ikea to furnish the flat as cheaply as possible, and had got it into my head that I would like there to be something else alive in the flat other than just us two, and a dog or a cat was out of the question. So a collection of small cactuses caught my eye. I bought a load of them and for a while they graced the sideboard, brightening up the place aesthetically, and pricking you vindictively every time you walked past. They seemed like a good choice for an itinerant traveller and a wandering drunkard- ie. they needed minimum care and attention. If one of us forgot to water them they were hardly likely to die. But sadly, die they did, one by one, despite our affection and minimum care. They all caught a kind of white putrifying fungus, which I suspect they had brought with them in their tiny little pots, after all, Ikea is hardly Kew Gardens. Every time one more of them withered and hunched over and I had to make the decision to jettison it I could see the Pirate getting more and more distressed, and he took to muttering things like,

‘Poor little bugger. Not fair…’ He hated it when I had to bag them up and throw them in the bin. Then when I suggested, after the last one had died, that we get some more, or some other plants, he merely answered,

‘No, let’s not, eh? I don’t think I could take it if they died as well. I got quite attached to the poor little things.’

The other dead giveaway that he was, in fact, a big softy, was the way he prized a crumpled photograph of his nephew. The Pirate had neither an email address nor knew how to use a computer, so digital photos were out of the question. A simple picture of a toddler in a garden, bending over to inspect a plant, his blond hair falling into his eyes, this photo had pride of place on the sideboard for months. Once, when it had been caught by a gust of wind and slipped down the back of the furniture, and he couldn’t find it for a few days, he became quite upset. For his birthday I bought him a frame and back it went, protected and permanent, placed behind the scented candles and ashtray like the picture in a shrine.

I also saw the Pirate’s vulnerability and sensitivity in the way he suffered over Corazon’s rejection and abandonment of him. Occasionally he was invited out to the ‘ranch’ to visit his friend and Cati, though she wouldn’t leave them alone or allow Corazon to come and visit him, it was always an invitation to a family barbeque or a shared meal, and she kept an eye on him constantly. Corazon was apologetic, but made no attempt to assert himself and demand time alone with his friend. Some nights or early mornings the Pirate and I, drunk or stoned, would reminisce and sigh, and several times it was him and not I who came close to tears. This was, after all, his childhood friend who lived a few miles away but never took a bus into town to see him, hardly ever called and barely picked up the phone when the Pirate tried to contact him. He was too busy with his new life, with his new job, his new house, his new old girlfriend and his new stepdaughter, because it turned out Cati had a daughter by her previous marriage as well.

‘The thing is,’ said the Pirate, ‘I don’t see how he’s ever going to be happy with her in the long run. It’s pathetic, I can hardly bear to watch sometimes. I want to shake him and tell him to wake up. The only thing he’s ever wanted is children, to be a father, and he’d make a great dad, and he thinks he’s convincing her, bit by bit, to have another one, to have one with him. But she’s never going to have another kid, the one she’s already got is about 12 already. And she’s in her mid forties! She’s not going to do it again, no way. But he thinks he’s gaining ground. Every time I go round he’s more excited about the prospect, he says he’s getting there, she’s nearly given in, but has she bollocks…’ He also told me that Corazon had admitted to him that his hard-earned salary was not his to keep- they had a ‘shared’ bank account, which he wasn’t allowed access to, and she gave him pocket money when he asked for it.

But I fixated on other details. Yes, to add insult to injury, it seems I was only one in a long line of older women, and Corazon had left me to go back to someone ten years older than me. After the teasing he used to give me for being an old predatory pervert I needn’t have bothered with the cradle-snatcher guilt or self-questioning. However, talking of self-questioning, there was one last hideous time we met up before the Pirate and I moved in together, which still makes me shudder to recall. It led to possibly the most humiliating moment of my life. It was the Pirate’s birthday. This was only a few weeks or so after Corazon had left, so it was still a tricky time emotionally. He had agreed to come out for a few drinks, and the Pirate had told him he could sleep over in the the other bed (the Pirate had also been left minus one flatmate at the mezzanine kitchen flat, so was paying full rent for the room). It was one of the few times Corazon had been given an official permit to stay out all night, I suspect because she had no idea I would be there. I had dressed to assassinate, I was a hired killer and no-one was getting in my way that night. The boys appreciated it. There were the usual four of us, the Pirate, Gali, Corazon and I, indulging in our old hard drinking and spliffing. After the intial awkwardness and stiffness between Corazon and I, and when the breath had stopped catching in my throat at seeing him again, all of us slipped back into our old ways, laughing, flirting, the four of us in high spirits. Gali left earlyish, I seem to remember. He and I were going through a stop-start phase of not really seeing each other, and I think he felt a little embarrassed in front of his friend. I would have liked Corazon to have realised what had been going on, but it wasn’t so important. The Pirate always teased me mercilessly about it, and never called Gali by name when he wasn’t there, referring to him merely as ‘el buitre’ (the vulture) and flapping his arms. As the night wore on and became messier and sloppier, it was the three musketeers again, the Pirate flushed and happy to have us both out with him on his special day, Corazon relaxed and affectionate, putting his arm round me, laughing a lot and gazing at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. I flirted back, but there was more ice than fire in my carresses and smiles. Eventually Corazon declared that he had to go, he had to sleep, as he was up early in the morning to go to work. We stood on the street corner uncomfortably, after the Pirate’s protestations had been brushed aside. I was damned if I was going to ask him to stay on. Corazon hesitated a few steps away, looking back at me.

‘Go with him!’ hissed the Pirate. ‘He wants you to, he just can’t ask.’

‘I’m not leaving you on your own on your birthday.’ I told him. ‘And if he wants me to go he can ask me himself.’ So we carried on drinking, just the two of us, drunken tearfulness only just under the surface.

A while later I found myself staggering back to their flat, having been convinced of a very dodgy plan which I would never have agreed to sober. According to the Pirate Corazon would just love it if I slipped into bed with him, just one last night. In a way I did feel cheated that we hadn’t even had one last night together. The dumping had been so sudden and brutal. He owed me one, right?

‘Trust me.’ the Pirate slurred, ‘he’s my best mate, I know him pretty well. He wanted to ask you but he couldn’t. Just wait and see- you’ll blow his mind.’

He, he insisted, would roll over and pass out. And so I climbed the treacherous stairs above the kitchen as though mounting the steps to my own private gallows. There he was, asleep, warm, and drunk in the narrow bed where we had slept together so many times before. Stifling giggles, the Pirate clambered into bed and wished me goodnight.

‘Go for it girl, don’t mind me.’ was the last thing he said before he started snoring. I still don’t know if those snores were real or faked. I took off my clothes and slid into bed next to Corazon. He never opened his eyes but he returned my kisses passionately and he never said a word and as they say, one thing led to another, and another and eventually to exhausted drunken sleep. The next day he had gone without waking us.

A couple of nights later my mobile went as I was sitting at home with the tarrapin clattering around in the background. I smirked triumphantly as I saw it was Corazon calling me. Perhaps he was going to ask to see me again. Maybe we could still be friends after all? Or something else? But his voice was hard and his words stilted, as though he was reading from a pre-prepared script, with his boss listening over his shoulder.

‘You raped me.’ he said.

‘What?! Are you crazy?’ I actually laughed out loud, thinking he was joking. ‘Er, I don’t remember you saying no, darling. You seemed to enjoy it. And the second time, and the-‘

‘You raped me,’ he repeated like an android. ‘I didn’t want to do it and you made me. I was asleep. You should never have done that.’

‘All right.’ I conceded. ‘I probably shouldn’t, you’re right. I was very drunk though. My mistake. You did have a massive hard on, though.’

‘Well, it’s never going to happen again.’ and he hung up. When I called the Pirate and told him, mortification hushing my voice, he hooted with laughter.

‘What a tosspot!’ I could actually hear him slapping his leg. ‘He really takes the biscuit. Yeah, I heard him screaming for help but I reckoned he was big enough to fight his own battles. Forget about it, he’s just being an idiot. She probably found out, he was probably stupid enough to tell her.’ But I couldn’t forget about it, I was shocked and humiliated to the core.

The last time I saw Corazon was several months later when the Pirate and I were living together. I didn’t know he was coming round, but one Saturday mid-morning as I was getting up I heard voices in the kitchen and recognised his voice as one of them. In a panic I slipped into the bathroom, did my hair and make-up, then picked out some clothes that looked as though they had been slung on casually but happened to look pretty good. I wandered into the kitchen.

‘Oh, hello.’

He was seated at the stool at the kitchen table, his bandy legs crossed and his arms folded over his chest, smoking a cigarette. For some reason he looked all angles, stiff and tied up in knots. He seemed to have diminished somehow physically, was thinner and appeared to have aged. He had less hair, or was that my imagination? The fingers holding the cigarette were thin and fragile-looking. Family commitments, new job, new life, bowing to a matriarchal tyrant all day every day, who knows? For one delighted moment I realised I didn’t actually care any more. I joined them and we had coffee together. At last, thank God, desire had withered and died inside me, possibly something to do with the ‘rape’ allegation. It’s hard to have erotic thoughts about someone after they’ve thrown that one at you, not that it’s ever happened before or since. I drank my coffee and chatted coolly, eyeing him when he wasn’t looking. I saw merely a selfish and weak character who happened to be handsome and blessed in the trouser department, but little more than that. I couldn’t hate him; I didn’t want to. After all, he had been my lover and my lifeline, he had held my hand through Hell and out the other side, so how could I hate him? In fact, I pitied him a little. He was probably never going to be a father and he would spend the rest of his life if he stayed with Cati living in her house, not his, asking for hand outs and jumping when she whistled. If I had been nine years older than him, she was nineteen years older. Looking back now, a few years later, I can only imagine he hasn’t done so well in his new career in real estate. And yet here I am, the Cockroach to end all cockroaches, living in my own bijou but gorgeous flat, alone but not controlled by anyone or anything. Earning my own living and surrounded by a menagerie of wonderful friends. Surviving.

The Pirate was also to leave my life a few months later, a source of far more sadness in the end than losing Corazon. I had come to love him as a brother. After several years of hard-drinking and travelling round national fiestas, sleeping around and in the back of vans and on park benches, he had decided it was time to go back home and face the music. We had talked about it a lot, especially after his thritieth birthday had passed, and I had suggested that it was all fine and fun for now, but did he really want to be living like that for another ten years, or fifteen? He had agreed. He was too smart to sink into the subculture for ever. He loved Spain, but immigrant life here is not easy, and that’s putting it in the simplest and most understated of terms. Back home he had a family, nephews and nieces, old friends, stable and well-paid work waiting for him helping his father with the ranch (of course, they had a cattle ranch.) He promised he’d come back and spend the summers here, a promise that never materialised but the breaking of it was understandable. He calls me on birthdays and special occasions, mumbling Argentinian nonsense down the phone and laughing at me when I tell him about my latest love affair.

‘They just stay the same age, don’t they? Dirty old birdy. Raped anyone lately?’

The last time we spoke he told me,

‘Nah, I’m not coming back, Nena (babe), life’s good here. I have my own house here out in the countryside, which is party central. I’ve got all my old friends here, I have my own car. When I say ‘work’ I mean occasionally I go to a few meetings with my dad, sign a few papers and that, I mean, can you imagine me in overalls actually farming? Slogging? Don’t think so. After all those years I avoided work like it was my vocation, I dedicated my life to not working myself to death. I nearly drank myself to death, but that’s all calmed down now as well. You know how it is when you get a bit older, you should know…’

‘Listen you, you’ll hit forty too some day, so stop taking the piss.’

‘Ah yes, but you’ll be pushing fifty then, I’ll always be the young and cute one….’

And that’s how he will remain, the first of my surrogate little brothers, forever young and cute and ready with a tall drink and a sarcastic quip. In fact it was he, not Corazon who helped me through the hellish couple of years after my brother’s death. The Pirate was always there to pour me into a taxi after I had sobbed drunkenly on his shoulder in a dark club. He was always around when I needed someone, in the difficult years before I was properly installed in this huge, maddening and sometimes back-breaking city. Irresponsable, chaotic and half mad he may have been, but often precisely that combination goes to make up the best of people.

Make love, not war (Part 4)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on August 1, 2010 by cockroach1

They say every cloud has a silver lining. They also say that vultures circle around the dead and the dying, waiting for their moment to swoop. Shortly after Corazon dumped me in his remarkably heartless way, I had someone offer to take his place, or at least to keep his side of the bed warm. It happened one unstable Saturday night, when I’d dabbed hemmarhoid cream under my eyes to reduce the swelling and had gone out to cheer myself up.

The Pirate’s stall, on the corner of the street just below the Tio Pepe sign, was swarming with customers. They buzzed and fussed while he wove his skillful magic and helped them part with their precious money and telephone numbers. Another expert. I lurked in a doorway nearby so as not to cramp his style, and smoked a cigarette. The Huertas Pirate deserved to pull women: he put his heart and soul into it. He was the most daring man I have ever watched in action and it amazed me that he never came home with a black eye. I have witnessed him home in like an exorcet missile on girls accompanied by their boyfriends, smoothly and methodically separating them, prizing her away as if liberating an oyster from its shell. Every conquest he made, in my eyes, was the fruit of his labour, and justly earned.

‘The reason Spanish men hate Argentinian men’, he once told me, ‘is that they know we can have them any day. They’re small fry. Watch an Argentinian chatting up a woman and compare that to a Spaniard’s methods…’ (As opposed to a Frenchman’s efforts, according to my brother, who describes them thus- a French man, instead of chatting a woman up directly in a pub, or at a party, for example, will go outside, smash his fist repeatedly into the wall, then, nursing his mashed-up hand will go inside and show it to her, as a token of how much he loves her.)

The Pirate summed up the differences in the following way:

‘An Argentinian throws himself into the fray bravely, sword unsheathed, to battle to the death. And he’s not afraid of losing, he has supreme confidence in his abilities. He will use flattery, humour, physical contact, any legitimate means to seduce a woman. A Spaniard, as you’ve experienced for yourself, will see a girl they fancy in a club. They don’t go over to talk to her, they hang around the other side of the dance floor and stare at her silently all night. Then, when they are drunk enough they sidle over and blurt out something gross like,

‘Hey, nena, te gusta el chorizo Español?’ (Hey babe, d’you like Spanish sausage, then?) Am I right? We beat them hands down. We’ve got it and they haven’t. We might be a bunch of lying, unreliable bastards but women love us.’

I had to agree. If you don’t believe me, test my theory for yourself- that Spanish men hate Argentinos and Spanish women love them. Ask a Spaniard what she thinks of Argentinos and she will use adjectives like ‘funny, flirtatious, cheeky, seductive, affectionate, romantic…’ Ask a Spaniard what he thinks of Argentinos and he will spit feathers: ‘lying, thieveing, smarmy, wily, untrustworthy….’ There was a wave of Argentinians to Spain in the nineties and what was the first thing they did after getting off the plane before the dust had even settled? They stole all the women from under the men’s noses. No contest. They might as well have been a hoard of marauding Vikings slinging the womenfolk over their shoulders and razing the buildings to the ground. They came, they flirted, they conquered. Certainly in Madrid you will find few Madrileños over thirty who don’t have an amiga who is or was either going out with or married to an Argentino or at least has one ex lover from across the Charco. I have three amigas in this category and fall into it myself.

In a quiet moment the Pirate beckoned me over.

‘Hey, there’s someone here who wants to see you. Who can’t wait to see you.’

‘Really?’ My heart did a little lurch. Had Corazon…?

‘Round the corner, he’s sat in the doorway next to the Asturian bar skinning up. He’s been asking if you were coming out tonight. Go on, have some fun and we’ll all meet up later when I’ve finished. Go on, knock yourself out…’ He winked at me and smirked as he turned away to conquer another customer.

It was Gali sitting cross-legged on the stone doorstep. He licked the cigarette paper with the tip of his tongue, rolled, pinched the end then saw me and leapt to his feet, smiling broadly.

‘Hola, Guapa!’ (Hello Gorgeous!)

He came over to greet me, a little awkardly, a little shyly. He hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks, his lips burning as they pressed against my face. He had already had a couple of drinks.

‘I’m sorry.’ he mumbled, pulling away. He left the suggestion of after shave in the air, a grown up frangrance that smelled good, but was a bit too old for a young man. For some reason this scent was appealling on him and made me want to stay close enough to catch another breath of it.

‘About Corazon. Sorry about… you know, you and Corazon.’

‘Me too.’ I wondered how obvious it was that I’d spent most of the evening crying.

Gali shifted from one trainer-clad foot to the other and ran a hand over the front of his expensive sportwear. A true ‘joven’ (kid), he was always smartly-dressed in his own way in branded sportswear. It was always new and immaculately ironed, I suspected by his mother. Not my favourite look but if you had an athlete’s body inside the sportswear you could just about get away with it. Which he did. He took my hand.

‘Look,’ he said gently, ‘I’ve just rolled one up. Let’s go to Plaza Santa Ana and smoke it, hey? Make you feel a bit better.’

So I went with him to Plaza Santa Ana and we lurked around the entrance to the underground carpark and public toilets, furtively sharing the joint. He made me smoke most of it, waving it away and instructing me to ‘Fuma, fumalo…’ (Smoke, you smoke it.) then watching me slyly as if to see how stoned I was becoming. Soon I began to relax and after half the joint I fell through the rabbit hole into ripples of exaggerated awareness. The plaza pulsed around us. It was early Saturday night, mid Autumn, the terrazas packed with people. An accordionist wandered from table to table worrying the punters like a dog after sheep. Scores of young people criss-crossed the square laughing and shouting to each other. Agitated, over-friendly flyeros (flyer-distributers) jabbed at them, flyers in hand, attacking and retreating like swarms of hungry mosquitoes. Mopeds puttered past and traffic prowled the periphery of the square. There was a scruffy young hippy girl in stripey hareem pants juggling in the middle of the plaza, with few people paying her any attention. The air was balmy, just the right temperature, without a trace of cold to it even though it was past eleven. Winter would come soon enough and there would be plenty of time to shiver in the streets like stray dogs.

It was here, after smoking the joint that Gali launched his calculated attack. He was leaning against the low stone partition of the carpark entrance, his legs splayed, and he put his arm round my waist and pulled me in between them. His thighs closed round me, preventing me from moving away, not that I was making any attempt to do so.

‘Er, listen,’ he said, ‘I think Corazon is a total wanker. I can’t believe he just dropped you like this. Unbelievable! I think he’s mad if he doesn’t want to go out with you because you’re gorgeous. And if he doesn’t want to go out with you, then I do.’

So that was that settled, then. What better way is there to have a dig at your heartless ex lover who has just dumped you to go back to his ex than by attaching yourself to his taller, younger, handsome friend? No bandy legs here. And I liked Gali, in that uncomplicated way any mid-thirty year old is by default going to like a good-looking man ten years her junior who has a crush on her. Ours wasn’t a formal relationship, neither had it been with Corazon, and there was a shyness and awkwardness and some kind of mental or emotional block in Gali that stopped it ever going anywhere, so it would sporadically start, edge forward, stall, then jerk to a stop like a frosted-up car in winter, but there were romantic moments. After we had been out all night, one madrugada (early morning, coming at it from the night before, usually) he took me to the bar just below the bridge at Opera. A strange location- the bar was closed, the pot-plants and potted trees lined up like sentries, the chairs and metal tables stacked and linked together with heavy chains, footsteps trotting over the raised pavement above our heads, and no doubt roaches and rats running around behind the tangle of furniture and the overflowing bins. But there was a sleazy romance about it, especially when the sun began to come up pink over the tops of the buildings, and he pulled out two chained chairs and a small table for us to sit at, and we smoked joints and kissed in the approaching dawn, in the middle of the city but all alone at our secret terraza. He also took me to Candela, the flamenco bar in Anton Martin which is now round the corner from where I live, and told me it was his father’s favourite place. He pointed out people he’d met when he was a child, from the faded black and white framed photos of singers, dancers and musicians, and introduced me to the resident dopehound, a burnt out flamencero who apparently was really something in his day, but was now a stooped, shuffling little man with evident mental health problems, who went from table to table asking plaintively ‘anyone got a joint? Go on, gimme a puff, just a little one’ and would then wander off with it in his hand.

There were also dates on the park near my house overlooking the ‘river’ which was undergoing massive re-modelling, the motorway next to it being sunk underground, and the land on top landscaped into gardens, cycle tracks and paths. Here we took a bottle of whiskey and the inevitable smoke, and it was here under the stars, half drunk one night, that I began to realise the extent of Gali’s dimly thought-out racist opinions. We were chatting about one of my recent trips to Cuba and I was trying to explain the ‘shirt off your back’ dynamic which leads any sane and compassionate person to give away every personal possession they can share, as soon as they see how little everyone there has, and in relative terms, how much we have in the developed West. Gali was sitting cross-legged on the grass, dressed entirely in white logo-ed sportswear including some pretty flash trainers. He had a long blade of grass in his hand, which he was using to trace idle patterns along my neck and shoulder. He yawned.

Si, claro, hay que ayudar, sobre todo a las negritas.’ (Yeah, sure, you’e got to lend a helping hand, especailly to those cute black girls over there.) which was a comment worthy of Torrente, the fictional macho, sexist, racist Spanish copper.

About another third of the way through the bottle of whiskey he started to mouth off about South Americans in general, trotting out that tedious old chestnut about ‘them coming over here, stealing our jobs’…

‘I don’t see you applying for many jobs flipping bugers, waiting tables, manning call centres, looking after elderly sick people… or actually applying for any jobs.’ I replied.

‘That’s not the point. What right do they have to come over here anyway from their crappy poor countries to live here? All those Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Panchitos, Sudacas de mierda…’ (these last two are insulting terms similar to ‘Little Pancho and Jungle monkey.)

‘Have you ever read a history book?’ I asked him.

Gali took another swig of the whiskey and handed me the joint.

‘History? Nah. S’boring.’

‘Why do you think Peru for example is such a poor country?’

His yellowish-green eyes were as indifferent as the surface of a pond. Who knew what was swimming or drifting beneath the surface?

‘I don’t know. How should I know? Who cares anyway?’

‘Well, go and read some history books before coming out with bollocks like that. Peru was a fabulously rich country, the Incas had a highly developed civilisation and mountains of gold until you lot arrived and when they were hospitable to you, stole it all and massacred them all. How do you think Spain got rich through colonialisation? By raping and robbing South America.’

‘Oh, and you British! Like you didn’t do the same?’

‘Sure we did. I’m not going to start comparing empires. We were a bunch of bastards as well. But at least we have the decency to suffer some colonial guilt, which is more than can be said for you lot.’

I tried to calm things down by repeating a joke I once heard from a British asian comedian who told a long anecdote about the British Raj packing up and withdrawing from India, culminating with the crowds they were leaving behind crying out,

‘No! Don’t go, don’t leave us! Well… all right then, if you’re determined to go back to the UK we’re coming with you. Wait for us!…’ but he failed to see the funny side.

‘Bunch of ugly little midgets anyway. They can all fuck off home.’ he muttered, referring to South Americans, not Indians. But the final straw came a while later one hot afternoon when we were lying in bed at his shared flat.

The fan in the corner purred, breathing cool air over us, and the traffic outside hummed and jostled. Gali and I lay naked, flank to flank. We had just had another relatively unsuccessful attempt to make love. What a strange boy he was- so passionate, needy and at times gentle, yet thoroughly conflicted about our liaison. It was more than obvious that Gali wanted me, and I was more than happy for him to have me, that much was mutual, but when push came to shove, or rather, moer accurately, when embracing came to rolling over or under or wherever, he lost his nerve. I can only assume there had been a fair bit of bragging going on, on Corazon’s part. Don’t tell me that when one of a group of male friends is banging an older woman he isn’t going to show off about it and probably share some pretty lurid details as well? As a result I think I unwittingly intimidated and emasculated him. Beneath all those layers of the arrogance of youth there is normally a desperately insecure young man. The sweat cooled on our bodies, his hard thigh twitched with embarrassment. I held his hand. It really didn’t matter; whatever he thought, I wasn’t comparing him to Corazon. We smoked, chatted, rolled around a little more. I mentioned that the week before I’d had my handbag snatched in a shoe shop on Calle Arenal, a street running just off Sol, in a square kilometre that is supposed to be the most highly populated per capita by thieves in the whole of Spain. I didn’t even see who did it, they were so fast. They must have been following me, waiting for their moment.

‘Those fucking moros!’ (Moors/Arabs) he spat out between perfect, even teeth. ‘I should have bashed more of them when I had the chance.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh, me and some mates used to go out some nights and show those fucking moros a thing or two. After they robbed my aunt, she lives near the centre, and they grabbed her bag one night, gave her a real fright. People shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of shit.’

‘What, you mean like vigilant justice? You got the guys who did it?’

‘No.’ he replied. ‘We just used to drive around late at night and pick a few of them off. Kick the shit out of them. They derserve it.’

‘Hang on- so you and some mates drove around jumping random arabs, or people you thought looked a bit like arabs and beat them up?’

He nodded. That soft baby face with its expression as free of guile as a puppy’s. Inside that athletic young body the seed of a budding neo-nazi germinating.

‘I told you,’ he said. ‘They deserve it. They shouldn’t be here in the first place, and they shouldn’t all be thieving bastards.’

Needless to say Gali and I didn’t last much longer after that. I may be unprincipled sometimes, selfish and lustful, but even my lust has its limits.