Make love, not war, (part 5)

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.

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