I remember when all this was fields


Emerging from the metro exit at El Carmen, to visit a friend, brings back memories of twenty years ago. I lived round the corner then, in a street I have walked along occasionally since moving back to Madrid, but I have never managed to identify the front door. The number has long since slipped from my memory and these days all doorways look the same. I do remember the meeting my flatmates and I had with the owner of the flat. We had spoken to a husky-voiced lady on the telephone, answering an ad in the local paper Segundomano, (Second Hand), which used to be the place to find rentals back in those days. She had agreed to meet us outside the flat. It was a winter’s afternoon and we saw a tall woman with bouffant hair approaching, swathed in a fur coat and wearing heels. She was heavily made-up especially around the mouth, which was lined as if with a marker pen. She was tall, it was if she grew in stature as she walked up to us, and she had a pock-marked complexion. She shook my hand and her grip was firm, her palm leathery like a pork chop. We chatted in the living room after she had shown us round.

‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘I’ve been to London, I know King’s Cross quite well. I spent some time in hospital there.’  Her adam’s apple bobbed in her throat and she cocked her head and maintained eye contact. I smiled at her. She knew I knew, and she also knew I didn’t care. She offered us the rental and we took it.

I caught a metro out here once, before I moved to the barrio, to visit a boy I had met in a club, who had given me his phone number. His parents must have been away because he invited me over one Sunday afternoon. He had a beautiful name: Isidoro. I remember the doorman of the building stopping me like a little Franco on my way in, and questioning me about who I was, and where I was going, and who I was going to see. I was indignant, knowing nothing about police states or Comunidad meetings. I answered him back cheekily, and was unable to offer Isidoro’s surname. Eventually he grudgingly let me into the lift. Years later I realize he must have thought I was a prostitute. I had sex with Isidoro on a narrow single bed. I was self-conscious about the small roll of fat around my middle. He grabbed it and squeezed, and said ‘Don’t tell me you have a complex about this? Really, don’t. You’re perfect. You shouldn’t worry about that.’ He was handsome but he wasn’t very good in bed. We didn’t see each other again.

Just outside the metro exit there is a bar which has barely changed in twenty years. It used to be my local. Back then it was run by three or four men in their fifties. They were gruff but would flirt mildly with me, and most days, for sport, used to give me weird tapas to accompany my beer. This means some days I would get a small plate of unidentifiable shellfish, black snotty curls that had to be coaxed out of their shells with a pin, or zarajos de Cuenca: pigs’ intestine wrapped round a cocktail stick like a wound rubber band, other days it might be fried pig’s ears. One day I recoiled in horror at a large cockroach poised nonchalantly on the wall beside me and gestured helplessly at the waiter, who shrugged, bunched a tea towel up in his hand and crushed it in front of me, flicking the body onto the floor behind the bar and continuing to serve drinks with the tea towel slung back over his arm.

I was running a few minutes late but decided to stop and have a quick coffee there for old times’ sake. The current waiter was younger, probably in his thirties, and he was clearly South American, but the clientele were the same: old ladies with helmet hairdos and even older men smoking incessantly and growling amiably at each other across the bar. They were pontificating about Sherry, which the waiter seemed to know very little about. The décor was the same: white tiled walls with a couple of bullfighting posters curling at the corners, a stone floor littered with cigarette ends, paper napkins and prawn heads. I downed my coffee and soaked up the atmosphere. There was a subtle difference: the men in the bar were not watching me with naked curiosity and none of the old buggers was trying to draw me into the conversation, something which would have been inevitable when I was twenty years old. That was a change that I could be thankful for at least.

Leaving the bar and walking into the brightly-lit street crammed with cheap shoe-shops and takeaways, I had a vivid memory of standing at the bus stop all those years ago, waiting for a bus into the centre of town. It was summer and there was an endless refuse-collectors’ strike. Rubbish had lain rotting in the street for days, maybe weeks, piling up in obscene, stinking mountains by the side of the road. Aged twenty I found this chaos liberating and exciting. Now I would find it repulsive and inconvenient. In those days Calle Alcala had few shops and bars: there was a Telepizza and a ‘todo a cien’ (pound shop). Even the route into town on the bus was radically different- over the M30 and past Ventas bullring. Now there is a modern bridge spanning the motorway and scores of shops and businesses en route that didn’t exist back then. Mind you, in those days I used to leap up the metro step three at a time, instead of climbing them with acheing muscles and an early-onset, slight arthritic limp. I smiled at myself- if I could listen to my own thought-processes I would sound like my grandfather. He used to say of Nottinghamshire ‘I remember when all this was fields.’

Am I beginning to sound like an old fart? But these perceptions are precious to me because these changes: the Chinese restaurant and the Cuban bar and the cheap shoe shops where there used to be only a Telepizza and a pound store, the fact that old men now ignore me when I stand alone in a bar sipping my coffee, the fact that I ache, these are the only markers I have to indicate the passing of time and the normal, healthy progression of my life. I am more closely tied to the external world and its caprices than other people. The external and the internal: the wrinkles and the stretch-marks on my own body and that of the city I grew up with. ‘Normal’ people have courtship, marriage, babies, growing children, perhaps divorce, then adult children and the whole cycle begins all over again and repeats itself. Not necessarily a good or a bad thing, just something I have chosen to opt out of. I have only the changes to my own body and to the world outside, a world that I relate to perhaps more closely than they do, not having any other point of reference. Madrid and I have grown together. This is how I watch the world turn and mature. Madrid and I have a few wrinkles in common, a few tales to be told over a glass of wine. This city is my touchstone and my mirror. She’s getting a bit long in the tooth, but she’s still got plenty of character, she’s still game, and she’s looking pretty good all things considering. Hopefully the same can be said for me.

One Response to “I remember when all this was fields”

  1. The art of reading good writing,feeling like you’re there!

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