Archive for the Cockroach people of Lavapies Category

Disconcerting Nether Regions

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by cockroach1

When I was a small child, insatiably curious as ever, whenever I was handed a toy- whether a doll, a plastic elephant, a fluffy teddy bear, an Action Man or a mouse, I had a habit of turning it upside down to give it a quick check-up between the legs. Out of natural curiosity I wanted to ascertain if it was a girl, a boy, or as was usually the case, something other: a neutral creature, or a neutered creature like Barbie with her plastic smile, her streamlined rabbit’s nose ‘down there’, or Action Man with his disappointing featureless mound. At least you could work out which gender they were supposed to be, in their own, coy way. It made little sense to me that other toys had nothing at all, not even a bum. In that case, how did they poo when they needed to? I suppose my fascination with nether regions has continued into adult life.

So it’s no surprise really that I would notice and fixate on two related sights glimpsed in the barrio recently, one of them earlier this evening, the other a couple of weeks ago. Walking down to the plaza from my house one afternoon something propped against one of the trees lining the pavement caught my eye. It was the naked bottom half of a shop dummy. Otherwise intact, it appeared to have been severed at the waist: the  inanimate victim of some conjurer’s trick with saws and boxes gone horribly wrong. It was leaning against the tree, abandoned along with a formica table top and some crushed cardboard boxes. The legs were shapely and there was no moulded hilllock between them; it was a female mannequin, or what remained of her.

The observation might have ended there had I not spotted ‘the legs’ again on my way back up the street a few hours later., and found myself mildly disturbed by the sight. She had been abducted and brought down nearer to the Babylon of Plaza Lavapies, almost onto the corner of it. The displacement suggested a group of lads ‘having a laugh’, a bit of joking around in the street with a bizarre found object. But after whatever high-spirited jinks had taken place, ‘she’ had been thrown onto the floor, cast down in the gutter, and ‘she’ now had a large, round, jagged hole punched open between the legs. As I walked back up my house I tried to work out ‘who’ first of all- who would feel the need to do that to the torso-less bottom half of a mannequin, but more worryingly, why? What for? Why kick a hole in it, and why specifically, there? You may find it laughable that a random sex-crime against a moulded piece of plastic could trouble anybody, but symbolism isn’t symbolism for nothing.

And this evening, on my walk to Atocha, down Calle Argumosa, to get to my private evening class, I spied an eighties throwback- a thing I don’t think you would ever see in the UK, and I’d hoped not to see ever again after the first time, which was in the late eighties. It was while living in El Carmen neighbourhood, just past the bullring, which was a quietly residential area then, the classic backdrop to Almodovar’s ‘What have I done to deserve this?’: towerblocks, the motorway bridge over the M30, dusty parks, lively local bars and old ladies out walking. Now the same sight was following me down the street, surely this shouldn’t be allowed? A dog, crippled by age, or maybe its back limbs crushed or amputated in an accident, walking with its front legs, while its back legs were supported by a low, two-wheeler trolley. Its elderly neighbour dragged it along cheerily on its lead. The wooden spoked wheels looked like they had been cannibalised from a children’s go-kart or buggy. As this decrepit half-animal, half-trolley wheeled and limped past me I asked the same questions as when I had seen this the first time, thirty years ago. Is this an act of supreme devotion on the part of its owner, or of extreme, egotistical cruelty? After all, it’s just a crude kind of a wheelchair, isn’t it? But surely a vet would not suggest this as a solution to the dog’s loss of both hind limbs, would probably advise another, more final one. And not wanting to get down to the nitty-gritty, but obliged to nevertheless, how did this dog poo? How did it sleep? Was it unstrapped from its unwieldy trolley at night, or did it sleep collapsed forward onto its paws? Would the dog rather have died or was it happy to have been kept alive? It didn’t look very happy. It looked as though it was clapped-out and fed up, literally on its last legs, and there were only two of those.

Unfortunately I cannot answer any of these pressing questions: who kicked the fanny out of the shop dummy, or how does a trolley-dog take a dump? And could this be made into a zen puzzle: is it worth asking a question you know you will never get the answer to? All I can say is I have retained my child-like powers of observation and desire to question everything. Metaphorically I am still turning eveything upside-down to get a good look at its goulies.


Definition of multi-culturalism

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2011 by cockroach1


A wonderful moment in London last Summer, while visiting a close family member and his boyfriend. It took place in a small but smartly-minimalist flat in South Ealing, which now sports an extension with a newly-built Japanese tea-house in the attic. Our host, a Japan-obsessive who is a highly qualified tea master and now gives classes, including to Japanese people living in London, was keen to show off and use his new teaching facility. Before dinner and drinks we had been treated to a tour of the cleverly-designed room with its sliding screens, clean white walls, single vase with one season-specific flower below a hanging scroll in an alcove, and ribbed, corn-coloured tatami matting. Also present at dinner, visiting for a few days, were his close friend, who is Hungarian, and his girlfriend. These friends had met, in fact, while studying tea together for a year at a school in Kyoto. After several gin and tonics and then several glasses of wine, somebody suggested giving us a tea ceremony, as it is traditionally a welcome ceremony to honour guests. I’m not sure the ritual is normally offered in this peculiarly British way, while half-cut and over-excited, but off they stumbled, and there was much fumbling into full ceremonial kimonos, followed by a giggling and tripping procession up the winding wooden stairs into the attic.

Fernando, our host’s boyfriend (a wiry, shrewd and dry-as-a-bone Aragonese he met when visiting me years ago in Ibiza), tottered up the stairs after me, huffing and puffing at the ridiculousness of it all. I heard a couple of ‘joder’s (‘screw this…’) By now he has come to live with his partner’s obsession with Japan, even find it endearing, though I would hardly say he shares his enthusiasm for geishas and Tea. Mind you, in return, his partner tolerates his own obsession with Eurovision, so I think fair’s fair. The ceremony was incomprehensible and somehow touching in its generosity and sincerity. The Tea Master sat to my right, giving us a slightly slurred running commentary so we knew what we were supposed to do next, and why. He instructed us to sit any way we liked as long as it was comfortable. I took up the meditation position, legs crossed and back a little slumped.

‘No, not like that, darling, come on.’ The Tea Master told Fernando, who had thrown himself onto the matting in the corner, one leg slung out into the expanse of fresh tatami, the other curled under him, leaning back onto one hand. ‘That’s a little too informal, come on, at least sit up straight.’ A Spanish sigh, the rolling of eyes felt rather than seen, and Fernando shuffled into a more ‘respectful’ position.

The bowl of vile, frothy green tea was eventually passed round. After we had drunk, we were supposed to pass it on to the person to our left, or, in Fernando’s case, as he was last in line, to the Tea Master to my right. My little Spanish friend sipped, and pulled a monkey-face.

‘Now you bring it back to me.’ He was told gently. ‘No, not walking, don’t stand up, not yet, just bring it over as best you can and lay it in front of me. ‘ Another sigh, and Fernando, gripping the bowl before him in both hands, set off shuffling, in a hunched-over gait, on his knees. As he passed me he raised his eyes, we made eye contact, and he almost lost his balance. I had to look away and he knew why. I could not look at him a second longer, otherwise the peace would have been shattered by laughter, possibly emitted from my nostrils. He was like a Calcutta beggar with the bowl aloft, his back bent, his knees painfully scraping the rush matting as he clumsily tried to ape the fluid, elegant Japanese movements of the Tea students. And he was doing it on purpose.

This was my favourite moment of multi-culturalism, this Spanish huffing and puffing, but despite the rolling of eyes, a willingness to participate, with good-natured, gentle piss-taking in the midst of the rather earnest and mysterious Eastern ceremony, conducted by his inebriated British partner and Hungarian sidekick, the joke shared by the loosely-related Brit who has swapped places with him, coming to live in his country while he goes to live in mine. Everything about it was sublime – the cherry-picking of complex other cultures, the economic and social immigration performed like a trapeze artists’ somersault in mid-air as Fernando and I exchanged countries, the incongruous surroundings, Kyoto in a suburban flat in London in late summer, the evening sunshine slanting through the windows and the white paper screens, and above all the ability to love and laugh at someone at the same time, while only half-understanding them.

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,


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….

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?’


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.

Make love, not war (part 3)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 27, 2010 by cockroach1

The thing about Corazon was that he was beautiful; he became physically almost irresistable to me, as tasty and inevitable as a cigarette to a smoker. Wiry, put together without an extra inch of fat on him anywhere, the exact combination of smooth and hairy to make him a man without being a caveman. He had a small, sensual mouth with which he could flatter or kiss you into submission. His eyes were almond-shaped and uptilted, so pretty they were almost feminine, with bovine lashes and a gaze that could be gentle, penetrating and at times verging on sly. Yes, he had short bandy legs, but who’s perfect? He had capable, precise hands that calmed me when he placed them on my skin. He was warm and tactile, affectionate in the way a European man no longer is these days (unless he is hopelessly in love with you) for fear you might ‘read something into it’ or ‘get the wrong idea’. There was something in him that was sleek, agile and slippery as an otter. I loved his body, from his toes up to the bald spot on the top of his head. When he was with me, he was really with me, in public but especially at night, and when we slept he held onto me so tightly I could barely breathe. I lay awake and half-stifled sometimes listening to him snore and feeling protected from the dark for a few hours.

There was something a little mad about him that attracted me to him. Not as mad as the Pirate or as mad as Gali who was intense, brooding and troubled. Corazon was the quieter, shy one by nature, but inside and struggling to get out there was something dark and rebellious that occasionally gave him moments of brilliance, as though he had swallowed a rock star. He made me laugh: anyone who can perform a naked dance around my bedroom that comes across as half Sheherazade and half Monty Python and leaves me helpless with the giggles gets my vote.

I was renting a box room from a moody Cuban ex ballet-dancer and long term Madrid resident who had jumped ship while touring Europe with the Cuban National Ballet years ago. He was a difficult landlord. I had known him for a few years, the ex boyfriend of a friend. Some of the time he was upbeat and fun, gregarious and grinning whitely from ear to ear though you always got the impression it was one of his stage smiles, the same one he would plaster across his features backstage, lighting up like a lightbulb a second before leaping out toward the footlights. On other days the mask would slip and there would be dark moods, his eyes glittering cold and hard, doors closed a little too firmly behind him, inexplicable silences and the refusal to make eye contact.

The flat itself was modern and clean though there was a maddening collection of clutter. Most of it was Santeria paraphenalia: strange pots and urns littering the tops of bookshelves and blocking access to windows, their lids sealed down with masking tape to contain the spirits within. The only other resident was a terrapin- also there as part of his Santeria beliefs. Terrapins are kept in the house as protectors, snapping up evil spirits and bad energy as they cross the threshold. There used to be two of them, as there should be, guard talismans like this should come in pairs, but one of them had died, which didn’t bode well for the levels of negative energy in the household.

I grew quite fond of that terrapin during my stay. She was a strange alien little creature who lived in a murky fish tank in the bathroom, which if it wasn’t emptied regularly enough would start to smell green and darkly fishy. There was no natural light in the bathroom so when you came home and swtiched on a light she would appear out of the murk, her back legs spread comically as her feet propelled her up and down the tank, her front paws scrabbling desperately against the glass. I felt sorry for her stuck in there all day, so when I was in I usually lifted her out of the tank and let her prowl around the flat. I couldn’t stand the sight of those fleshy reptilian paws pressed up against the glass like little hands, the beady, myopic eyes blinking and the straining pitiful neck as she struggled to be let out. When you liberated her she patrolled the periphery of the flat with the attention to detail of a jobs-worth security-guard. She loved to crawl behind things, under things, down the sides of things and sometimes could be found round the back of the telly performing a dry front crawl, all four paws paddling frantically as she tried to free herself from the tangle of cables. Occasionally, she struck out and marched determinedly across the parquet from one side of the room to the other. The sound she made was distinctive, and had you not known it was her, would have been distinctly sinister. It was a kind of heavy, limping, clump-footed shuffle, a crippled zombie in hob-nailed boots, something dragging a heavily-shod, steel-pinned leg behind it.

She could hardly be called a pet, but I did become fond of her. It’s hard to form a bond with something that is by nature shy and suspicious and could easily have the end of your finger off with one snap of its bony jaws. And you can’t exactly stroke or cuddle something that can make its own head and limbs disappear in a flash and become little more than a rock hard chip-shop pastie. But there was something vulnerable in the fleshy pads of her paws and in the little curl of a tail peeping out of her shell. The Cuban was cruel to her. Sometimes he would pick her up, turn her over so she was balancing on the curved centre of her shell, and spin her round on the parquet floor very fast. Then he would flip her back over and laugh at her as her head and limbs emerged shakily and she lurched around trying to regain her balance. It spoke volumes to me about his level of empathy, or lack of it. I asked him not to do it but he laughed and said she didn’t mind, she was just break-dancing.

Corazon used to stay at mine every so often. The first time they met I could see Corazon was a little intimidated by the big, black, gay musculature. The sort of body you only get with a mixture of genetics, half a lifetime spent in a sweaty gymn pumping iron, and/or steroid use. After that Corazon nick-named him The Tortoise after our unusual pet. There was something tortoise-like about the cuban if you thought about it- the smooth, cue-balI head and the long sinewy neck. I could see The Tortoise weighing up Corazon in turn and I knew that he found him attractive. Unfortunately our bedrooms were separated by a thin wall and my landlord probably heard a lot more than he cared to of our sex life. I know I invited Corazon back a little too often for his liking, although he could hardly complain as I was paying full rent and was present in the flat for barely ten days out of every month. I know we made a noise and I know we came back drunk and I too would have found that annoying. But there was also that squeamishness that some gay men feel when faced with the fact that there are handsome, virile and well-hung men who would rather spend time in bed with a woman than with them, and the final insult is to have to listen to it as well. Ah, the sound of a man and a woman pleasuring each other- how disgusting! Yet the same men have no problem slurping around in sweaty, verucca-infested saunas ripe with all imaginable bodily fluids, engaging in totally anonymous and hardcore sex. But a heterosexual couple enjoying each other- euwww!!…..

The nights I was with Corazon I slept deeply, safe and snug as a baby, with his sinewy limbs coiled round me like a snake and his head burried in the hollow of my neck. I don’t know why he held onto me so tightly, after all it was me who was drowning not waving. However badly he behaved in the end, however selfish his motives, I still can’t be angry with Corazon because he gave me a warm body to hold and the feeling of hot breath in my ear as I awoke. He gave me life rather than death- insistent, persistent Death who stalked me everywhere. Always there to remind me, two steps behind, demanding my attention like a hungry dog, attempting to blacken every precious waking moment. When I was with Corazon I forgot about my morbid stalker briefly. He gave me Life with a capital ‘L’ and he gave generously.

Sure, he lied to me as well, but he was Argentinian of Italian descent. You can’t have everything. I wasn’t his ‘girlfriend’ exactly and I knew there were other women. At the beginning he told me once,

‘I don’t know why, but I think about you when you’re away on your trips. I’m supposed to be a mujeriego (womanizer) but look at me, here I am again with you. I keep coming back to you, it’s like I can’t get you out of my head. I don’t know why that is.’ I had a couple of theories but I wasn’t going to share those with him. Especially after he had shown me some more old photos from the precious stash in the shoe box under his bed.

‘That’s my Mum and my ex girlfriend,’ he had said neutrally. I glanced at him then back at the photo, deciding not to mention it. The ex girlfriend looked like his mother and I looked like both of them. Well-rounded, bosomy blonds with blue eyes and pale skin. Who cares exactly why someone is attracted to you- even if it’s because subcosciously you remind him of his ex or of his mother. The important thing is he’s attracted to you. After a while he stopped mentioning other women though I knew they were still there filling his time while I was away. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to see other people, and I am basically monogamous by nature, at least until the novelty wears off. Like Janis Joplin I believe ‘Just one good man, it ‘aint much but it’s everything.’ So I allowed Corazon to flatter his way in like a skilled gatcrasher charming his way into a party.

One evening in a crowded bar, his arm round my waist, on one of the few occasions the Pirate wasn’t there he said, with what I took to be the insecurity of a younger man,

`You’ve done everything with men already, haven’t you?’

I laughed and kissed him.

‘I wouldn’t say that. I’ve got a few years’ headstart on you I suppose.’ He raised those luxurious eyelashes and stared at me for a minute.

‘Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to try?’

I took a sip of wine and felt myself blushing. I lent over and whispered in his ear,

‘Well,… er…. I wouldn’t mind trying….’

He listened intently and then grinned and nodded to himself as though he had won a point in a chess game due to a very clever move. Then he told me slowly and deliberately,

‘Well, I’m going to do something to you that no other man’s ever done. Just you wait and see.’ He seemed very confident he was about to dazzle and delight me. I was intrigued, I must admit. What stategic sexual assault could Napoelon possibly have up his sleeve for me?

‘Really? What’s that then?’

Corazon arranged his handsome features into a seductive smile and his eyes took on that sly sheen as he gazed into mine, took my hand and told me,

‘Yo te voy a querer y todo.’ (I’m going to love you and everything.) A clever trick- he had outmaneouvred me emotionally and verbally. I felt foolish and was thrown off balance. Here I was with the quickfire response of a puta de alma (natural born whore) and he had presented me with a romantic promise. I have a suspicion that Italian and Argentinian boys, on reaching puberty, are given a handbook containing romantic and flowery chat-up lines, just as French girls are given a handbook teaching them all 47 ways to tie a neckscarf. So I knew Corazon’s romantic drivel was nothing more than that, but it was touching to hear the words. Words like that are so scarcely heard, they feel like the offer of cool water in the desert. I allowed myself to savour them along with the kisses that came after them. What a shame it wasn’t true! Within a couple of months he had dumped me, and not in the kindest of ways.

I’d had my suspicions, an instinctual acknowledgement of the slightest waning in the regularity of his texts and a longer delay in his response time to my messages and calls. A woman can sense these things, whether she wants to believe them or not. I’d been away. I was back for a while and didn’t hear from him for a few days, longer than usual after returning to Madrid. Then we arranged to meet one evening. I spent the afternoon preparing for my date- depilating, styling my hair, painting my nails, I even bought a suspender belt and new stockings at Corte Ingles and was wearing them to meet him. I saw him picking his way through the crowd on Gran Via but the smile was soon fading from my face when I kissed him and asked him how he was and grinning, he declared,

‘I’m fine! Yeah, really great actually. Especially as I just got back with my ex this week. You know, Cati? Well, we’re back together and I’m moving in with her.’

The nonchalant cruelty struck me like a stone in the midst of the hustling crowds and the bright neon lights.

‘Come on,’ he said, taking my hand, ‘let’s go for a drink.’

He took me for a last drink in a bar we used to frequent which was above a cramped carpark. We liked the bar because it was so weird. There was a bay window in the overhang above the car park entrance which was swathed with brown curtains and stuffed with chintzy chairs and a low coffee table. There was a gentle sleaziness about the place and the constant rumble of cars in and out of the garage that reminded you of the lobby of a two star motel. Faded sofas and wilting pot plants, shabby wallpaper and old photos on the wall. Strangely soothing naff seventies music. The sparse clientelle were somehow furtive as if to match the surroundings. It was the perfect place to get dumped. For an hour he grinned and grinned.

‘I was always in love with that woman.’ he said and I nodded mutely. ‘I can’t believe it, we’re back together!’

‘Me neither.’

‘And she’s going to set me up with a job as well, she knows someone who can get me into an estate agent’s and it’s a really good job. (It was a good job back then, on the tail end of the housing boom. I imagine he hasn’t had such a lucrative couple of years recently.)

‘The old enchufe’, eh? (Old Boy Network)’ he continued,

‘I’ve been really lucky. And she has a really nice house, a big one. On the outskirts, you know, not here in Madrid. It gets a bit much dossing in the centre in these rented flats.’

That at least I could understand. Surely he had made the decision partly out of economic necessity, which was at least comprehensible for someone in his situation. Yes, it was a cold-hearted, business-like, self-interested decision, not one based on love and passion. That somehow made it better for me to stomach.

‘And how about you? he asked. ‘Still going to carry on travelling and living it up at the weekends? You know, at some point in your life, you have to settle down and get things sorted out properly. You can’t drift for ever. Not at your age.’

‘You patronising little fuckweed’ was my thought at that precise moment but he misread my expression of contempt for one of yet more sorrow.

‘Hey, come on, cheer up. At least I had the decency to meet up with you to tell you to your face! I could have just ignored you. I could have just never answered your calls again. I haven’t even told some girls, I’m just ignoring them, but I’ve met you to let you know…. Huh? I’m here, aren’t I? And I’ll still be here for you. Remember, you’re not alone in Madrid.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how alone I am.’ I thought. ‘Whereas you will never be alone for another night of your life.’

At that moment I hated him. I hated him so much that I had to excuse myself, choking as I threaded my way through the armchairs to the toilets, where I locked myself in a cubicle and cried fiercely with my head against the wall until I felt vaguely sick and had the hiccups. It was such a vile combination of disappointment, anger and humiliation. And yet somehow I let him carry on and on, when I should have thrown a drink over him and walked out. I just didn’t have any fight left in me. It was yet another painful dose of loss, and loss was the one thing I couldn’t bear right now. I re-did my eye make-up and made my way back, a little unsteadily, to the lounge.

‘All right now?’ he said, patting my knee and beginning to look uncomfortable.

‘Er, listen, another thing,’ he went on. ‘Just because, you know, I won’t be seeing you any more doesn’t mean you can’t see the Pirate. I think you two should stay in touch. You can still be mates. He’s ever so fond of you.’

‘And I am of him. He’s a great guy.’

I looked at Corazon, his handsome, smug face with its almond eyes and its sensual, lying mouth. I wanted to say to him- yes, the Pirate is a great guy and I ended up with the wrong one. He’s so much better than you. And here you are passing me on to your friend as a guilt offering.

‘Well, there you go, then! You see, every cloud has a silver lining. Give him a call. Er, listen, why not give him a call now?’ He glanced at his watch. Cati was obviously waiting.

‘He’s out working tonight. He might be expecting you to call and have a drink. I er… I’ve got to go now.’

Corazon left and I stood under the flashing neon sign with cars crawling past me and into the carpark. I called the Pirate and asked in a little voice if he wanted to meet for a drink.

‘Ah.’ was all he said. ‘He’s told you. I’m on the corner of Calle Huertas. Come and get me.’

He had folded up his stall and it was propped against the wall by the time I got there.

‘Not working?’ I asked him. He pulled me toward him and gave me an almighty hug.

‘Nah, not any more. Let’s have a drink, eh?’ He always knew exactly when and how to behave like a big brother.

I looked up at the Pirate and the amused glint was no longer there in his eyes. They were wide and staring, the irises too small as always. With the sparkle gone out of them like this he looked scary, disturbed, like someone who’s forgotten to take his medication.

‘What a bastard.’ he said. ‘He’s shafted us both and he doesn’t give a shit. And for that old slapper. I hate her!’

I had to agree. How could he have left us both? I was glad I had overcome my slight initial resistance and.had called the Pirate. I’d thought it might feel strange with just the two of us, and it did a little, but not for long. At least we had each other now.

Make love, not war (part 2)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 22, 2010 by cockroach1

And so Corazon became my sweetheart at least for a few months. There were some extras thrown in for good measure- he came as a box set of young men: for the price of Corazon you also got the Huertas Pirate and an occasional drinking buddy of theirs- Gali, a Lost Boy bizarrely named after Galileo Galilei. I say bizarrely because he couldn’t have been any less of a thinker and philosopher than his namesake. Gali had more frat boy good looks than brains, and was the original angry young man. He was a dispossessed middle-class Madrileño, soft-faced and hard-hearted. The vulnerable and confused casualty of a divorce and a society undergoing great changes, he alternated between moments of unbearable sweetness and flashes of casual racism, which I wasn’t to find out until later.

At the time I was still travelling for a living so on the sporadic weeks and weekends I was back in Madrid I spent most of my social time with these three, ‘perreando por las calles de Madrid’ (hanging around like stray dogs on the streets of Madrid. ‘Perreando’ literally translates as ‘dogging’ but trust me, it doesn’t mean that.) Thus began a process which I was unaware of until recently when the observation dropped, unexpected from my mouth during a conversation with la Contessa. I lost my brother, aged 29, and ever since then have been surrounding myself with surrogate little brothers: a process that has continued until today, six years later, when one of my closest friends, the Ponce, has just turned 29 himself. The Huertas Pirate loves to pull me up on this, observing ironically ‘You keep getting older and they just stay the same age, huh? What are you, some kind of vampire? Is that why you look younger- do you bathe in their blood or something?’ But the trend began with him, Corazon and Gali, a trend which, back then at 35 would have labelled me a ‘puma’, and these days a ‘cougar.’ They became my tribe, my substitute kid brothers, my protectors, my flatterers and in one case (for the time being) my seducer.

I can only imagine that to them I was a trophy blond, and that they were as happy having me along as I was happy to be asked along. Back then I dressed more provocatively- plenty of cleavage, always in heels, short skirts and full make up, so from three penniless late-twenty-somethings more accustomed to the brush-off from women there were certainly no complaints. There was a frisson of attraction running four ways as ingrained as the lettering in a stick of rock, which sometimes blurred with alcohol and dope.

The Pirate approved of my liaison with Corazon and told me his previous girlfriend, Cati, was a controlling bitch and hated her lover’s best friend. Corazon was never allowed out of her sight and his every move was monitored. I could see how your typical Spanish girlfriend would take exception to Corazon’s best mate- childhood buddy come all the way from Argentina with him, the person who made him laugh the most, who took him out for wild nights on the town, the person who dragged him out of his shell, who knew all his secrets. To a jealous Spanish woman used to treating her man like a naughty schoolboy, permitting this and denying him that, his best friend would have set off alarm bells.

There were heart-breakingly sweet photos of them back in Mar de Plata as young boys playing football together, smudgy seventies Polaroids where they grinned into the camera with front teeth missing, raffish hair, scrawny sparrow legs with scuffed knees sticking out of their shorts. I adored the Pirate and had no intention of separating him from his best friend. I couldn’t imagine one of them without the other. It seemed that my affection was returned. The Pirate was the smiling priest at the altar of our affair, blessing us and witnessing our union. I remember once near the beginning in a dark club the three of us were laughing and hugging and the Pirate urged us to kiss each other as, according to him it was ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’. He slung his arm around our shoulders and pulled us together until our faces were touching, then disengaged as we obeyed and kissed each other passionately in front of him. When I pulled away finally all I could see were those round owlish eyes watching intently, his head cocked on one side and a sentimental smile playing across his lips. Later, in the advanced stages of drunkenness he cornered me outside the club toilets and gave me that same look, while helplessly shrugging and mouthing words that never came out of his mouth, like a fish trying to tell me something from behind the thick glass of its aquarium. The Pirate and I had more moments like this over the next couple of years and those words were never clearly expressed, only hopelessly mouthed, a twitching of the facial muscles, but no sound, beneath those sardonic bulging eyes with pinprick pupils.

There were few occasions when I was actually alone with Corazon, except for in bed, and even then we were not always entirely alone. The boys moved to another shared room, this time an even more bizarre set-up. Whereas before they had rented a ‘room’ which was 2 single beds side by side in a converted living room which was cordoned off from the dining table area by the presence of a solid, bulky wardrobe as incongruous as a bouncer at a children’s tea party, the next flat was en even more weird example of unregulated immigrant rental hell.

It was an attic flat that had been split into a warren of clumsy lodgings. Off the main stairwell and passageway you stepped straight into the kitchen. To get to the boys’ room you had to climb a treacherous wooden staircase to a mezzanine over the kitchen. The space under the stairs was cordoned off by a curtain, blocking from view a camp bed on which you could normally find a curled-up South American exhausted from shift work, beer on his breath, snoring loudly. The boys’ room was in the slanted rafters and had two single beds side by side on the only available floor space. The only section of the room high enough for you to be able to stand fully erect was in the centre directly underneath the skylight. Then the room sloped smaller and smaller to the far walls. This meant you had to move around the room like a constipated ape. Many times I cracked my head on that sloped roof and saw stars. There was one Saturday evening, I seem to remember it was Corazon’s birthday and the Pirate had given him a bottle of Fernet Branca, which they had the disgusting habit of drinking with Coca Cola: I don’t advise it. It becomes a kind of evil witches’ brew with pale green scum floating on the top and gives you the kind of hangover that makes you wish you had a brain tumour instead. Halfway through the bottle the Pirate gave us a moving demonstration of the Disintegration of Man as a species, aping the drawing following the stages of man in reverse, from fully erect Homo Sapiens to knuckles trailing on the ground. There was no privacy in the flat at all, what with Snorer under the stairs, then the Peruvian couple who cooked endless fritanga (fried shit) in the kitchen below, impregnating the room with the smell of cooking fat. So it was little further imposition to sleep sometimes curled up with Corazon while the Huertas Pirate lay a foot or so away from us in his own narrow bunk. He always promised to roll over discreetly and face the wall, and was normally so drunk he passed out almost immediately.

The Italian pretence had been dropped by the second date, and there was a certain pleasure in being seduced by an Argentinian. It’s always satisfying to deal with an expert, whether it’s a plumber, electrician or chef. He called me late one night, the same night I had returned from a long haul trip. I hummed and ‘ha’-ed and said I was tired and jet-lagged.

‘But you have to see me tonight.’ he cajoled. ‘It has to be tonight.’

‘Why?’ I smiled into the phone.

‘Don’t you know what day it is?’

‘Er…. Thursday? Not sure.’

‘No, no the date, what date is it today?’

‘The 25th of April.’

‘Exactly! So you have to see me tonight, you see, it really has to be tonight.’

I still didn’t get it, so he explained it to me slowly and carefully.

‘It’s the 25th of April, the day the British invaded las Malvinas. So today especially, in memory of all the people who died on both sides of that conflict, you and I have to meet in order to make love, not war. It’s your political duty, you have to come out with me. You have to do it for international relations, this isn’t just about you and me any more. It’s bigger than that, it’s important. And I missed you, I can’t wait until tomorrow…’

How can one argue with that? I certainly didn’t.