I’ve got to get out of this place….

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.

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