There must be 50 ways to leave Madrid

It’s so hot outside, even though we are experiencing one of the ‘softest’ Summers in recent years. Today, having a coffee with the Incredible Ponce at a café on Calle de la Fe, an affable African in a trilby asks me if I’m ok.

‘I’m fine, I’m great, thanks.’

‘You look fine. La unica cosa que te falta es un sombrero.’ (The only thing you’re missing is a hat). And he grins and leans against me on the high bar stool.

‘I like your bracelet, nice. Is he Italian? Hey, are you Italian?’

‘Se nota, verdad?’ (You can tell, right?) The Ponce was asking the long-suffering Auntie behind the counter if his simple tostada had salt, oregano and oil on it, and if he could have all three, please.

Now I sit in my bajo interior flat with the door open onto the patio, in an attempt to stir the warm, stagnant air. Carmen’s bird is strangely silent since its companion canary escaped yesterday, Carmen wandering the patio tearful, looking for it, whistling and scanning the patch of sky above us.

‘It’ll come back, when it’s hungry. Anyway, a bird’s better off free, don’t you agree, not in a cage?’ The Ponce told her, in the tone of voice used by someone who is certain of many things.

‘That’s not the point, hijo, it’s a captive bird, it won’t survive out there. And a bird isn’t a dog, it can’t find its way back.’

Later he found it curled up dead by the doorstep just outside the main entrance, and carefully picked it up and disposed of it.

‘Don’t tell her,’ he said, ‘she doesn’t need to know that.’

The Four Horsedogs of the Apocalypse are also quiet today, since Simba was put down last week, after becoming almost completely blind, and his joints crumbling with arthritis. Now there are only three. I am surrounded by packed boxes, wrapped paintings, suitcases and the debris of a barely-functioning flat in the middle of a move. I reflect on the people who have gone before me:

The Huertas Pirate, skeletal and hollow-eyed after his last Summer, agreeing,

‘Yeah, it’s been great, but it’s time to go.’ Time to go back to the Pampas, where life is easier, agreeing to his family’s wishes for him to be involved in Daddy’s ranching business. After a brief stay in the flat while I was away he left me a tiny mirrored disco ball, on a silver string, that I have kept. ‘I’m happy.’ he confided sheepishly on the phone, last time we spoke. ‘My life’s pretty good here, I have my own flat, a car, I work a little, I see my family. Yeah, it’s good.’

Charo falling in love with the Argentinian and leaving in a whirl of packing cases, and glazed-eyed romance, only to tell me a few weeks ago via Skype, ‘I think that was the worst mistake I ever made in my life. You and I both have so much in common – both of us really struggled to get our own place, and our independence, and then once we got it, found it unbearable to work so hard and live alone. But I should have stayed. My family’s in ruins and now it’s so hard for me to come back. I miss my Madrid.’

Angel and Pili, in a casual phone catch-up after the Summer they made their escape,

‘Meet for lunch next week? Didn’t we tell you, we’ve left Madrid? That’s it, we did it! Country living for us from now on.’ Discarding the corporate suits and the factory overalls for wellies and soil under the fingernails.

TioPepe, Sol Embotellado de Andalucia, now studying a University access course from his garret flat in London. Left behind: one Panamanian hustler husband, and an unresolved labour tribunal against the company he worked for until he decided to take an eight month baja (sick note/time off sick) for depression (bottled sunshine from Andalucia, the least depressed person you could imagine). ‘London’s the place to be.’ he said. ‘I can see it now, there are opportunities here, I wasted so many of them last time I lived here. I’m totally broke, but you know, fewer choices, fewer chances to be dissatisfied. Now I have no choices I’m happier than I was with three grand in my pocket and the freedom to travel.’

Tito, sitting like a cave-dwelling creature in the semi-darkness of the apartment so many of us have passed through over the last few years, his eye flickering to the hissing laptop as he downloads films and series in bulk for the next couple of months in Seville, with no internet connection.

‘I hate this place.’ He said, not for the first time. ‘And I feel sad to be leaving after so many things have screwed up for me. I’d like to leave feeling a bit better about it all. Madrid’s brought me nothing but trouble. It’s been a disaster for me on so many levels.’

Boy Wonder, removed kindly but forcefully by his family after a spectacular meltdown, and taken back to the States. Forcibly prized from the vampiric jaws of his British girlfriend and removed from corrupt, filthy Old Europe. One day, the Ponce told me, he was at their flat with the girlfriend who was unemployed, and when Boy Wonder came home from work her first words to him were an enquiry about the location of the stash she had been unable to find,

‘Where’s the shit?’

Mysteriously, rent money had been disappearing on the way to the bank (‘Only 500? What do you mean? I gave the teller 600. He must have miscounted it.’)

‘Leaving doesn’t feel very real.’ he told me, ‘I don’t want to go, I can’t really believe it’s happening, it feels like I’m in a trance or something. But my family…. I’m not going to make them come over here and make me leave, you know what I mean? Some people go when it’s time to go, others go way before their time, and some people just stay on far too long, like the last to leave a bad party.’ Last email contact reveals he’s been to rehab and is clean, starting a new life.

Federico/Rapunzel in his high tower in Chueca overlooking the plaza. He was brusquely made redundant after 11 months’ hard work as an engineer, just a month short of enabling him to claim unemplyment benefit, informed over the phone on the Friday, ‘Notice? No, you don’t need to work notice, just don’t bother coming in again on Monday.’ Almost a year spent drifting around up there in the palace behind the floor-to-ceiling patio windows, sitting alone at his rustic wooden dining table for eight, smoking joints and sending out cv’s. Eventually,

‘Enough.  I love Spain and I’d stay if there were jobs. I’m going back to Rome.’

Manu the Andaluz, a recent migrant back to his village, with plans to set up his own hairdresser’s in Sevilla.

‘My village? Yeah, there’s just me and the donkey…. it’s quiet. Muy tranquilo. But it’s nice to see my folks, and take it easy. ‘

He’s only been gone a couple of months, and when he was last back we had an afternoon drink in Plaza de Chueca. He looked well, glowing and relaxed.

‘My God,’ he said, as he sank into his chair. ‘I’ve only been back two days and I’m worn out! I’d forgotten how tiring Madrid is, everyone’s always in such a rush. Look at me, I’m in a rush now. They stole my mobile, you know, about ten minutes after I arrived, I was taking my suitcase upstairs to Marta’s flat, and I left the car door open. For two minutes.’

Prodigal, not so long ago, lured to London by a transfer within his company.

‘You Brits.’ he said, after a couple of months there. ‘Warriors! Not just sitting on your arses moaning about the crisis, you lot get out there and make it happen. This place is shit, going to the dogs.  Full of stupid posh twats who walk into jobs at the top and nothing for the rest of us. I’m sick of it. Miss the sunshine, but it’s over-rated, darling.’

And Peter, more Madrileno than the rest of us in his own eccentric way, the master of street-stalking, salsa-dancing, late-night wanderings. After writing and making his own film on a shoestring- what looks to be a gritty, fresh, romantic comedy with Madrid as the backdrop.

‘I just feel my time here’s over.’ He told me pragmatically. ‘And anyway, wherever I lie down to sleep that’s kind of my home, so I’m enjoying a bit of England for now.  It makes sense while I edit the film. Let’s see what happens with Tea and Sangria.’

We had our last lunch in an ancient tavern on Meson de Paredes, tapas piled on the cool marble tabletop, inches of dust on the cornices, gas-lamp fittings and the old bottles lining the bar, watched over quizically by a stuffed bull’s head.

And now, finally, me. Will this be a good move for me? How do I feel about it? Relieved, sad, a little uncertain, but mostly tired. Very, very tired. And like a small animal running frantically from its forest home, as the fire blazes behind it. Heat at my back, panic, and impending danger. I hope my friends behind me either survive and prosper (the best option), escape in time, or are consumed quickly and painlessly, if that is their fate. If I run fast enough, if I just summon up enough puff to get out of here before I’m engulfed in flames, maybe I can get some rest, and work out what to do next.

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One Response to “There must be 50 ways to leave Madrid”

  1. For good? Hope not, or at least keep blogging. Good luck to you whatever you do.

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