Extract > Inventing Love
As I climb up the stairs and go out on to the terrace I feel the dry early-morning air clear away the drowsiness brought on by alcohol and the time of night. A bat zigzags over my friends’ heads as if inspecting them uneasily from on high, then it disappears again into the shadows. It’s night-time in Madrid, and we’re on my terrace. We’re drunk, at that stage I just love when people argue almost without any inhibitions, when everyone is either happier or sadder than they can ever be in their daily lives without becoming aggressive or bursting into tears or into song. The night (or rather, the dawn, because there is a tinge of pink to the sky over there on the other side of Madrid, beyond Atocha Station, beyond Vallecas, beyond the rhomboid shapes which, from the terrace, seem to delineate the city limits) has slowed down, like our speech, like our eyelids. All our movements are slightly slower. Fran runs his fingers through his hair and says, ‘I don’t know, man.’ Probably because by now even he has forgotten what they were talking about and all he has left is that sad weariness he drags around with him and which creeps into all his jokes. Sometimes, when he gets gloomy, he claims it’s because he’s depressed about the state of the world and it’s nothing to do with self-pity or his unfulfilled dreams.
‘No, not again,’ says Javier, throwing his napkin on to the table. He pushes back his seat and himself with it, makes as if to get up and then stops, because Fran’s speeches always exasperate him but at the same time they mean he can answer back angrily himself, and while Fran’s anger is pitched against the whole world Javier’s is specifically aimed at each and every inhabitant of the planet. So, while Fran tends to express his anger slowly, without a big palaver, almost turning it back on himself because the whole world isn’t there to soak it up, Javier, who feels his malaise like a personal affront, shouts, snorts, insults and attacks his opponent. He treats every argument like a boxing match. ‘Not again, we’ve already heard that one.’
‘The fact is, it’s all shit, pure capitalism. We’ve got a fascist king, a fascist government –’
‘This isn’t a proper discussion. If you start coming out with all that crap we might as well not bother.’
‘Our whole economic system is fascist.’
‘And you work for Banco de Santander! You’re a fine one to talk.’
‘Exactly. I know the system from the inside. They’re all crooks.’
‘Well, leave then. No one’s forcing you to work for Santander.’
‘Yeah, well –’
‘And don’t start moaning about the cost of sending your children to school or university because I’ve been hearing all that ever since I met you. Long live the revolution, but let’s have private schooling for the kids, English lessons in London and a master’s degree in –’
‘English lessons in New York. They prefer to go to the US, the imperial seat of power. My children know what they want.’
‘OK, New York. You state the case better than I do. Piss off. And don’t come back until you can say something useful.’
Fran looks down into the bottom of his glass with a half-smile on his face. What would he do if he left his job at the bank? What strategy would he use to carry on feeling passively unhappy?
I love our useless arguments, the pleasure of repetition, reminding ourselves who we are. We don’t talk in order to reach a conclusion but to hear our counterpart refute our argument, whatever it is, and we know that we can rely on them, that they are not going to leave us be with our contradictions.
We’ve all hit forty, all six of us. We’re already facing that fall, that sinking from the heights (if any of us actually reached the heights), and also the prospect of new opportunities, the promise of change. Looking at it realistically, forty is not so old. We can still sometimes lift up our heads and say, ‘Why not? I’ve still got enough time.’ And like bloodhounds we can sniff out a trail through the undergrowth that has overrun the neglected side-tracks, because for years we have been travelling the same highway without daring to make a detour. And having given that possibility due consideration we can carry on calmly with our lives, not particularly happy or sad either but moderately satisfied, and we swallow our dreams.
Forty-something is the accursed time of life, not adolescence as is widely supposed and not old age either. When you’re an adolescent you feel a creative anger that doesn’t tie you down or chain you to the memory of supposedly better times. The very fear you experience is the fuel keeping you alive, making you look for a way in or out, and if you get depressed at least you can say it’s not your fault that the world is in such a mess. When you’re an adolescent it’s always someone else’s fault. And when you’re old, you’ve had time to accept the blame and to adjust to your own limitations. Now, just as I was thinking about all that, Javier has insulted Fran because what he’s saying doesn’t make sense. There’s no one who could be more convinced than Javier that things should make sense, and he tells Fran that the reason he’s so radical is so that he doesn’t have to do anything. ‘If everything’s shit you don’t have to bother to lift a finger,’ he tells him, stabbing at the air with a finger of his own. I want to give them all a hug, to comfort them. I love them dearly because they’re all so lost. By now the lights on the buildings close by have all gone out and so have the lights on the bell-tower of San Cayetano Church. The only light in the vicinity is the light from my own terrace. We’re all adrift on the raft of the Medusa on the dark ocean of our inebriation.
I come up behind Alicia. She doesn’t usually get involved in arguments except to say that we remind her of her family who, despite the passing of the years, still seem bogged down in the same old squabbles. She smokes too much, she chews her hangnails and sometimes she clicks her tongue. She always seems to be about to go off somewhere, as if she’s expected somewhere else, somewhere she would actually rather be. But she’s usually the last one to leave, squeezing the last drop out of the evening, the company, the sound of our voices. I put a hand on her shoulder and lean forward so that I can whisper in her ear. ‘Will you stay the night?’ And without turning around she raises her glass as if in a toast and replies in a loud voice, ‘You must be joking!’
What a pity. I’d like Alicia to stay the night, our arms around each other, peering over the terrace parapet, which is like a box in the theatre from which we can see, spread out below us, a set on to which we can project our fantasies. I’ve always liked living in loft apartments and penthouses because their windows and terraces let you see a world you can enjoy without it belonging to you. You don’t have to look after it, no one asks you to repair the roof or realign the aerial. It is there for you to look at, and when you peer out into that vast open space you feel like a landowner who goes out to the countryside every Sunday and stands there, smoking, looking out over the estate that he doesn’t have to irrigate or plough or harvest.
I’ve also always liked women who allow me to enjoy their company without making me do the difficult, never-ending and sometimes unrewarding work demanded by any kind of long-term cohabitation, a relationship that ought to grow and prosper, but for it to do so you also need to irrigate and plough, and even when the harvest is plentiful the end result can also be exhausting. I’m one of those men who some women would say are scared of commitment. I wouldn’t say that I actually feel scared, although it’s a healthy enough reaction for any living being faced with danger. Fear protects us and keeps us safe. Those who have no fear die from their own stupidity. Courage is praiseworthy when a courageous person sacrifices themselves for us. But I don’t have any vocation to be a martyr or a hero. All I want is to look at cities from above and to put my arms around women who don’t say the words ‘for ever’. Or who said them once and now regret it. I’m very fond of married women.
Alicia sits there with her head tilted slightly to one side, smiling maybe because of something she’s heard or remembered, using her index finger to stir the drink she’s holding in her other hand very slowly. Then she takes her finger out and licks it absent-mindedly. It’s an image straight out of the beginning of a porn movie. She doesn’t even notice that I’m watching her. And now she laughs out loud at something someone has said at the table that I didn’t hear. It’s Javier’s wife who’s talking. She’s the only one at this stage of the proceedings who still seems to have any energy and drive left. It wouldn’t surprise me if she suggested, as she usually does, a final drink in some all-night place. The last one, the need to stretch out for just a little longer that fragment of suspended time when we can forget about the daily grind and our personal problems because, despite all the years we have known each other, when one of us asks ‘How are you?’ we still obstinately reply ‘Fine’.
It’s late. It’s early. Fran stands up, turns around slowly, takes a cigarette packet out of his shirt pocket, looks inside it as if he’s confirming something awful that he’s known about for some time, crushes it and puts it back in his pocket. ‘Let’s go,’ he says, converting his indecision into speech with great dexterity, consulting his wife over the top of his glasses. It’s Javier’s wife who stands up and takes his arm protectively. She is usually affectionate towards him, as if to comfort him after Javier’s attacks or because she knows that he needs Javier’s invective as a punishment for leading an inconsequential life, and she strokes and fusses over him as if he were a wounded animal.
The hugs are somewhat more prolonged than when everyone arrived, when our movements were quicker and our speech was lighter. Alicia gives me a hug that is equally long-drawn-out. The kisses planted imprecisely on either cheek hold no special meaning, her breath promises nothing, her breasts approach me asexually and unfeeling.
In a short while I shan’t remember who was the last to leave or what words we exchanged. My brain is like cotton wool. I was going to say like a scouring pad, but that would be too rough an image, and I’m OK, I’m feeling good. I go up to the terrace, now deserted. It’s particularly quiet, as if the departure of my friends had not only taken away their voices but had also absorbed other sounds, as if the vacuum left behind them had sucked the substance out of things. I wobble a bit, but I don’t feel completely drunk. The glasses, plates, bottles, ashtrays, screwed-up napkins, remains of prawns and bread and salami skins, all the leftovers now look sad and old and promise an awakening with a hangover and a bad taste in the mouth. I lean against the parapet and look back towards the south of the city, the other side of the river, where the end of the buildings and the beginning of the plain can be glimpsed in the dull light of dawn.
The phone rings. It’s the landline. No one calls me on the landline any more. I decide to ignore it, but ignoring it is a hassle because it’s just now that the new day, instead of gradually dawning, bursts into life, an orange explosion that lights up the clouds as if they were a stage curtain going up in flames. But the ringing stops me sinking into myself with that contented smile frozen on my lips, which I suppose from the outside might look a bit simple but which is just an expression of happiness, being on my terrace from where I can see all of Madrid, from the Cerro de los Angeles on one side to the Sierra de Guadarrama on the other, with Vallecas to the east, only the northeast hidden by a few higher buildings. I can also see the different angles of the roofs, which at sunset vaguely call to mind a Cézanne, and I can see towers and bell-towers, aerials and the dawn, which, from the look of it, can only culminate in a particularly meaningful declaration by Jehovah or Zeus or some other deity with a voice of thunder.
But the telephone is ringing. Again and again, every minute or so, interrupting the moment, making the image blur. I can’t see it the same way as before, feeling satisfied, calm, almost moved by it. Now I’m tense, waiting for the phone to ring again. It makes a strident, old-fashioned ring-ring sound, which came as the default setting, and I haven’t had the patience to change it to a more pleasing ringtone.
I go downstairs to fetch the phone. One of my friends must have forgotten something, a handbag or perhaps their car keys, and will now come back to collect them, whoever it is, and they’ll sit down for a moment and have a last glass of bourbon. Or perhaps it’s Alicia, who’s thought it over and decided to come back to share my bed and take away these shivers caused by the morning dew. It’s not that I fancy having sex at this time in the morning, my head all woolly, but I do like the idea of sleeping snuggled up to her, with my face against the back of her neck and my hands clasped across her naked stomach. I go back up the stairs unhurriedly, with the cordless phone still in my hand, convinced that it will stop ringing before I get to the terrace and I won’t have to answer. And it does stop. But after a short pause it starts ringing again, and up there, in the open air, in the pervasive silence of the dawn, it sounds even more strident and inappropriate.
There is a moment of silence in which I have time to think that it’s not one of my friends, and an alarm goes off in my brain, like when you hear a police car or ambulance siren approaching in the middle of the night and you realize that it could be a sudden warning that the order of things is going to change at any time. Before, everything was as it has always been, accompanied by the humble monotony of days when breakfast is always the same and by the time you go to bed nothing remarkable has happened. But a phone call from a stranger at five or six in the morning can only herald an important shift, a transformation which perhaps will make everything that went before cease to be and suddenly send the story we were reading in a completely different direction, one we were not expecting. Although I want to believe that it’s not so, that it’s a false alarm, I don’t recognize the number on the screen and neither do I recognize the voice and nor do I have any close friends called Luis, and this long silence followed by a sob doesn’t make any sense at all. Nor does the sound of sniffling, the sound of someone whose misfortune I won’t get to learn about because the misunderstanding will be resolved right away and the man will apologize and hang up and redial so that he can have a conversation I will no longer be a witness to.
‘I’m sorry, Samuel, I’m really sorry.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong number,’ I say, but my conviction falters when I realize that he’s calling me by my name.
‘It’s about Clara. This evening. Not long ago. Fuck, I’m so sorry.’
‘Clara,’ I say, and I rack my brains, thinking that I don’t want him to hang up yet. Before I go to sleep I need to hear this story which is not my story, precisely so that it can become mine, too, just as we read a novel in order to add stories to our lives, stories which, however dramatic they may be, are actually innocuous, we think, because they can’t really affect us. I want to know who this Clara is and what she’s done, what relationship I had with her and why I’m going to be sorry.
‘We’ve never met, but Clara spoke about you loads of times. Loads. Fucking hell. And now, look . . .’
‘Yes, of course. Clara. What’s happened?’
‘She was coming into Madrid, on the main road from La Coruña. She had to avoid a pedestrian who had the bright idea – people are crazy – to cross the main road from La Coruña, and she tried to swerve to avoid him and she lost control.’
‘Is she OK?’
‘I’m telling you, she’s dead. She died. I don’t fucking believe it. Clara’s dead.’
Now neither of us says a word. I don’t know if he’s not saying anything because he’s crying or because he’s fighting to hold it back, but I can’t hear sobbing or choking. Two swifts chase each other dizzily across the sky. I would like to know if these chases are a game or rivalry or a mating ritual. What would happen if the pursuer caught the pursued? But this never seems to happen. As if an unwritten rule of life for swifts is that you must never catch the one in front, even if sometimes you’re faster than it. The hare that, however fast it runs, can never overtake the tortoise.
‘Are you still there?’
I make a noise to show that I am while I turn my head to follow the movements of these first two swifts of the morning, feeling slightly nauseous.
‘I don’t expect you’ll go, but just so you know, the cremation service is the day after tomorrow, at eleven o’clock.’
‘Yes. Saturday. Have you got something to write on? I’ll give you the address.’
‘Go ahead,’ I say, and I make a mental note of the address.
‘I don’t think I’ll go. I hardly know anyone either. Well, she’ll have told you about my relationship with her, a long time ago now, although we still spoke on the phone sometimes, not so much recently . . .’
‘But you were crying earlier.’
‘Of course, I mean, well, fucking hell, she was only thirty, and I used to really love her. And for you as well, I can imagine it must be . . .’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘I can imagine. What can you say when something like this happens? Except that she should have run the bastard down. She should have run over his skull and splattered his brains, yeah?’
‘I don’t know really.’
‘Well, I just thought I’d tell you, and I thought no one else would . . . Well, anyway, call me whenever you feel like it. I know we’ve never met, but that doesn’t matter. You can come over, and we can talk or smoke a few joints. Or we can find out where that moron lives and go and give him a good kicking.’
‘Him, the one who crossed the road. OK, it was only an idea. Call it a joke, well, not a joke, I’m just angry. Anyway, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. Are you going to tell your wife?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m talking rubbish. You’ve got my number on your screen, yeah? Call me, seriously. And we can talk. I’m very sorry. Fucking hell. I can’t believe it. It’s all so sudden.’
I leave the telephone on the table, among the glasses and dirty plates. In just a few minutes the sky has changed. Now it’s a string of dying embers hidden behind ashen clouds. I think back, run through the faces of people who have disappeared from my life. The girl from next door who moved away, first to another city and then to another country. The girl who got married to a man I couldn’t stand. The girl who got so upset with me – stupidly – just because I stood her up once that she never spoke to me again. I recall the faces and names of girlfriends and lovers, that album of somewhat yellowed photographs that makes me feel older than my years. I also look back through the torn-out pages, the ones I’m sure contained some image that I’ve forgotten. There were other women, episodes that left no marks or scars, brief adventures or friendships. What were their names? How did their voices sound? And their laughter? But although I spend some time trying to reconstruct my history of love affairs it’s a jumbled-up puzzle with pieces that don’t fit together, and I know that the effort is futile. I’m sure that I’ve never been friends with anyone called Clara.
Inventing Love is part of the Peter Owen World Series: Spain.
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