Books: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment? It’s a bloody Crime how long it is and the Punishment is reading the whole damn thing. I read this novel here in Spain while in full lockdown. It felt interminable, confusing and depressing; and lockdown was no picnic either, bah dum sssshhh! But all joking aside, I can’t say I loved reading it.

In this book we meet Raskolnikov;  a piss poor student who has stopped going to classes. He is hungry and lives in a yellow room that is ‘like a cupboard’ in Petersburg. He receives a letter from his mother and it’s clear that his mother and sister had been depending on him to pull them outta the gutter;  ‘you know how I love you; you are all we have to look to, Dounia and I, you are our all, our one hope, our one stay.’ But then she brings good tidings that might get Raskolnikov off the hook -his sister Dounia is going to marry a wealthy man called Mr Luzhin who can sort Raskolnikov out with a job in Petersburg. Problem solved and they all live happily ever after. Not.

‘Never such a marriage while I am alive and Mr Luzhin be damned!’ says Raskolnikov cos he doesn’t want his sister sacrificing her happiness for his sake. He comes up with a better plan; Kill the pawn broker. The pawn broker is an old witch with lots of money that no-one likes. As Raskolnikov walks about the streets of the city, the diabolical plan stewing in his brain, the things he sees and hears lead him to believe the universe is giving him a major thumbs up. Thus, he decides to execute his plan with an axe – a surprising choice for a man with no history of violence. But the Pawn Broker’s sister Lizaveta happens upon the scene of the crime and he buries an axe into her skull too, which is a bit harsh cos, by all accounts, Lizaveta was sound. He escapes with his pockets full of money and other people’s pledges.

Bizarrely, Roskolnikov doesn’t seem to be interested in taking advantage of his ill-gotten gains. On top of that he gives away the little money his mother sent him to people he deems to be in need of it more, like Sonia, a woman who has prostituted herself in order to provide for her step-family cos her father, Marmeladov, has squandered the family’s money. In fairness to Dostoyevsky, he presents us with an axe murderer, no more no less, but he also furnishes us with examples of his kind deeds. Marmeladov too, a man whose hopeless devotion to alcohol leaves his family in dire straits, comes across as likeable. Here is how he is described to us;

‘He was a man over fifty, bald and grizzled, of medium height and stoutly built. His face, bloated from continual drinking, was of a yellow, even greenish tinge, with swollen eyelids, out of which keen, reddish eyes gleamed like little chinks. But there was something very strange in him; there was a light in his eyes as though of intense feeling – perhaps there were even thought and intelligence, but at the same time there was a gleam of something like madness. He was wearing an old and hopelessly ragged black dress coat, with all its buttons missing except one, and that one he had buttoned, evidently clinging to this last trace of respectability.’

Interestingly, Dostoyevsky was going to call the book The Drunkards. Like Mameladov, Raskolnikov is drunk, but not on booze, on notions. Most people with notions talk shit about wine or use expressions like ‘furnishes us with examples’ but Raskolnikov’s notions lead him to kill a couple of old ladies.

Mind you, he doesn’t take it in his stride. He falls ill after the murders and when he’s not walking about the city almost giving himself up, he is in his bed with a fever while an endless parade of characters enter his tiny chamber and babble on and on and on.

Apart from the themes mentioned in the title the book tackles nihilism, religion, guilt, love, poverty, extraordinary people, friendship and family. Dostoyevsky doesn’t scrimp on the violence either. If you have to read Dostoyevsky – and apparently you do cos he’s on all those Read Before You Die lists – it is said that Crime and Punishment is a good place to start cos it’s a page turner –in a book published in 1866 sense of the term. True that each of the six parts (there is also an epilogue) leave you on a cliff hanger.

Not for me but Freud, Nietzsche, Jordan Petersen and my two female friends in Book club are fans, so what do I know? Indeed, Nietzsche said that Dostoyevsky was ‘The only psychologist from whom I have something to learn.’  I will say Crime and Punishment is a great choice for a Book Club in that there is plenty to discuss and having friends on board will help you get through this sprawling 700 page tome.

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Quarantine Exercise

After 50 days of confinement, I thought my first run was going to be a joyous celebration of freedom and movement. However I woke feeling a bit flat and the stretches on the footpath outside my apartment couldn’t shift the lethargy. The previous night’s cans and the early morning coffee hadn’t quite settled yet but I had to get moving cos it was 9:15 and the allocated hours for exercise were from 6:00am to 10:00am. With time ticking I started to jog, convinced I’d get into it and after a run and a shower, I would be cleaned and redeemed.

There is a virtue to an early morning run. As if to reward you for your discipline the universe presents a beautiful scene; birds tweet, grass bows to the glistening dew-drops and the hazy sunlight adds a romantic hue to the empty streets that invite you to places of intrigue. There is a feeling of space and coolness. But, as I said, it’s 9:15 am, the sun is already packing heat and the pavements are full of dog walkers and lyrca clad runners. My run is a short, slow, stop-start affair, not exactly the Mitch Buchannon cathartic gallop I had been anticipating and instead of a satisfied afterglow I’m saddled with stiffness for days.

The next day I go for a walk instead. The transition from running to walking is an easy one. Apart from the fact the aches in my legs make me recoil at the thought of running I also feel that runners are fast becoming the knobheads of quarantine exercise and I don’t wish to be counted as one. They act like people on a life-saving mission, the importance of which gives them extra rights; they can launch snot from their nostrils or fix the ground with big globs of phlegm at will. On top of that they have the temerity to look at you like you are an inconsiderate prick for daring to use the same path as them. ‘I need this,’ their earnest, sweaty faces say. ‘Oh yeah? Well I need to not get infected by the Coronavirus so spare me your excretions Pal.’

Anyway, I am a walker for now. But where to walk to? Down by the river is thronged so I wander Portugalete’s  maze of taxing hills, shadowed by towering apartment blocks. Now and again I come across a park, but the ordered trees and cut grass are corralled by roads and – again – apartment blocks (there is no getting away from them) and this leaves the planned green areas falling well short of the strived for ‘beauty spot’ status the town council are attempting to reach. As a result I feel robbed of the coveted letting out a deep breath and declaring, ‘Ahh, it’s nice to get away from it all’ moment I’ve been craving for over seven weeks.

On the third day my wandering takes me to the very cusp of Portugalete – the crest of all its hills – and I am facing a field. There is a zig-zag entrance consisting of barbed wire held by steaks, the other side of which is a beaten path that leads you around a herd of cows. One cow is chewing grass and looking right at me; ‘You feeling lucky, hombre?’ she seems to say. My stare down with the cow is interrupted by a man with a black sack on his back, the farmer, I suppose.

‘You can enter if you want,’ he says.

‘Gracias.’

I enter happy to have a ten acre swathe of land wedged between the backside of Portugalete and the motorway to explore. The green grass is littered with cow pat. The older shite is crusty and light brown having been baked in the sun. The fresher shite is moist and contains tiny puddles that reflect the sky and your face, if you happen to be staring into it. Cow-dung is to flies and ants what the beach is to people.  Flies circle above it and the ants have even constructed a hill to merge with the turd (we really are spoilt for choice when it comes to synonyms for poo ). Safe to say there is excrement everywhere and if I were a child I might fancy that I am a soldier running for cover and the brown mounds are enemy bombs dropping from on high. But I am not a child and instead I am thinking more profound thoughts such as ‘Who would’ve  thought  Elton John’s emotive power ballad The Circle of Live was essentially talking about ants eating cow shit?  And have you ever noticed how cows piss? Their tail lifts in a robotic way and this stream just spurts out. Fascinating.’

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A brown cow, arguably the prettiest of the cow types 

My feet lead me to answers. ‘I wonder what’s down this path, around this corner,’ I ponder and off I go, the soles of my runners rasping on the ground and the warmth building beneath my t-shirt. A beaten path leads me on to a tributary path which takes me through hedgerow that crowds either side of me.  If I were a child I might fancy that I am a Tour de France cyclist and the trees and bushes are fans reaching out to touch me. But again, I am not a child, nor am I on a bike and instead I am thinking about how, on my way here a cyclist cursed me out of it cos I did a Paula Abdul (one step forward and two steps back) at the Pedestrian Crossing which caused him to jam on his breaks, thus ruining his chances of reaching his personal best, or whatever. Yup, cyclists- other Quarantine Exercise Knobheads.

I am also admiring the ragged beauty of the tall grass and assortment of bushes. Nature proving that when left to its own devices it can produce something far more beautiful than the man- managed parks. Excuse me, in the interests of equality I would like to point out that women too play their part in maintaining these depressing green areas.

A dog comes bounding up the path, tongue lolling, ears flapping and tail wagging – the very expression of joy. I too am happy to be here. I feel like I’m coming out of a cave. Being in full lockdown was a strange existence where a brain-fog muddled my thoughts, making it difficult to see more than an hour ahead and inducing a daily bout of sadness or anxiety. Chatting with friends on Skype, giving online classes, exercising in my room, reading and writing in my blog were great sources of escape. That said I got fed up of seeing myself on a screen raising cans to my gob. This, I hasten to add was while chatting with friends, not giving classes. Although dodgy connections and the surprising statistic that in the year 2020 only 2 out of 14 laptops have functioning cameras made lessons quite stressful and might have driven a buddha to drink. Ahhhh, teenagers.  Doing press-ups and planks between my bed and desk lost its charm around about day 21 but at least I had Crime and Punishment my blog’s stats and a shit tonne of memes and videos to help lighten my mood. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Many times I’d go to the balcony and sigh and stare longingly at faraway hills of green.

And now, here I am in a beautiful field, exercising outdoors and getting something back. I stop to stare at the cars and trucks in the valley below; signs of a country that has been laid low by a phantom menace slowly getting back on its feet.

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Books – Us by David Nicholls

Mark at work came into the staffroom one day with a wheelie bag full of novels and started loading them on the shelf.

‘Doing a bit of clear out at home. Help yerslves,’ he said.

The novel spines looked so enticing and exotic amongst all the boring English language textbooks.  Aware that my kindle was broken and quarantine was impending, I delved right into this treasure throve; bending spines, reading blurbs and forming a stack. I was like a kid in a sweet shop; I’ll have this one and this one and this one! But as the pile began to topple, inner adult voice chimed in;

Go easy man.You’ve got a shelf full of unread books at home; wouldn’t you be better off reading those?

Yes but these books look so much better than the ones in my room that have been there so long that they are like  part of the furniture and seem about as interesting as reading, well, furniture.

I looked at the stack of six books. I’d never fit all of them in my bag. And so, for practical reasons, I made myself choose just one. Slowly and in a forlorn way, I put the rejected books back on the shelf.

I chose Us by David Nicholls. It wasn’t an easy decision. I had to judge a book by its cover. On one hand The Observer said it was ‘a sad, funny and soulful joy.’ On the other hand David Nicholls was the bestselling author of One Day. I hadn’t read One Day, nor had I seen the film but the trailer gave vibes of overwrought sentimentality. But then again, Mark had read Us. And he likes Guinness, rugby and punk rock. He wouldn’t read a girl’s book.

And? My choice was vindicated. I’m happy to report that David Nicholls can take his place between Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle – at least in my book(shelf).

Us presents us with Douglas Petersen, a 54 year old biochemist.  He’s organised, logical and nerdy. He marries Connie. Connie works in an art gallery. She’s disorganised, arty and free spirited. While Connie spent her twenties experimenting with sex, drugs and art, Douglas was in a laboratory, simply experimenting. Their son Albie has just finished school. With his good looks and artistic eye, he is very much his mother’s son. Late one night Connie wakes Douglas and says ‘Douglas, I think I want to leave you.’ This is a huge blow. Although he sometimes has trouble expressing it Douglas very much loves his wife of almost 25 years.

Us

The gently imploding family decide to continue with their plan to go on a Grand Tour of Europe, which had been booked before Connie’s declaration. For Connie, it’s the final holiday as a family and an opportunity for Albie to gain worldly experience before starting university. For Albie, however, it’s a chore cos he’d rather be in Ibiza with his mates. As for Douglas, it’s a last chance to save his marriage and family. What could possible go wrong?

Over 180 chapters Nicholls flits back and forth from the early days of the relationship to Douglas’s present day attempts to win back his wife’s love while travelling through Europe by train.  The differences that drew them together seem now to be pushing them apart.

Us deals with so much more than just a husband and wife struggling to keep love alive. While writing the book Nicholls’s father died and the man to whom the novel is dedicated impacted the novel as the writer’s focus shifted from marriage to fatherhood.

You can’t help but feel for Douglas, a family man who seems locked out of his own family, despite his best efforts. He watches his wife flirt with a handsome man at a table quiz. Communication between father and son is terse and tense. Douglas laments,

‘I have had some experience of unrequited love in the past and that was no picnic, I can tell you. But  the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.’

Apart from taking a deep dive into marriage and fatherhood, we also get a guide to some of the great works of art by the likes of Botticelli, Rembrant, Vermeer and Van Gogh  as Douglas, in a bid to connect with his wife and son, reads up on the Masters, thus providing us with an enjoyable Dummy’s guide. Furthermore, we get ‘nail on the head’ writing on travel, as exemplified here,

There’s a particular grubbiness that comes with travel. You start showered and fresh in clean and comfortable clothes, upbeat and hopeful that this will be like travel in the movies; sunlight flaring on the windows, heads resting on shoulders, laughter and smiles with a lightly jazzy soundtrack. But in reality the grubbiness has set in before you’ve even cleared security; grime on your collar and cuffs, coffee breath, perspiration running down your back, the luggage too heavy and the distances too far, muddled currency in your pocket, the conversation self-conscious and abrupt, no stillness, no peace.

A sad, funny and soulful joy indeed. I might even get round to reading his other book one day.

Another book review: Quotes from Books I’ve Read #1

Living with Strangers #4

Miracle of Quarantine

You know the way an unexpected benefit of the quarantine is that the canals of Venice became clean and clear and fish began swimming in them again? Well, the same happened in my apartment –  aquatic life all over the sitting room! Okay, not really, but my housemate Carmelo takes to cleaning the apartment like a fish to the newly clean water in Venice. I love the new Carmelo for about a week and then, paradoxically, the shine wears off. It’s like having a friend who used to have an outrageous sense of humour and then becomes woke. You begin to miss the verbal hand grenades. I’m not saying I want to return to the days when I was the only one cleaning the apartment but at least I didn’t make a big song and dance about it. After three years Carmelo has just discovered where the mop is and he turns it into a Disney on Ice production, minus any feel good factor.

I shoulda seen it coming. One week into quarantine he starts telling me how important it is to wash one’s hands. I nod and say yeah, but inside I’m thinking everyone’s been washing their hands obsessively even back when they only half believed in this virus. Still, I push it aside and try to get on board with Carmelo’s new attitude. He’s got tattoos and a burly build so he has the look of a hardnosed ship’s captain and that’s how I try to see him – sure, I may not always like his orders, but Goddamn it he might just pull us through this quarantine. Ander, on the other hand, continues his Buddha like devotion to doing absolutely nothing.

So with Carmelo giving daily sermons on cleanliness and Ander not lifting a finger, I find myself between a rock and a hard place, or if you will, a mop and a cough face. Yeah, that’s the other thing, Ander’s incessant coughing. I reassure myself that it’s a smokers’ cough, which he had before the corona virus but waking up to it every morning is a reminder of the clear and present danger.  It’s definitely getting to Carmelo. When he is not cleaning, or talking about cleaning, he remains in his room. There are whole days when he does not emerge, which is when we get a break from his nagging and nit picking.

For example, I give the kitchen a good clean only to find him in there an hour later scrubbing down the worktops.

‘Carmelo, there’s no need. I’ve just done that.’

‘Lek –eeee-ya,’  he says, sounding like Golem in Lord of the Rings. Lejia is bleach. I start to think think he’s losing his mind.

On Edge

To be fair, we’re all on edge.  Being stuck in an apartment with no sport on the TV where the only results are the rising numbers of infected or dead people, despite the fact we’re all obeying the rules, tends to make you think you are living through some cruel Big Brother style (anti-) social experiment. The only time we can go out is to the supermarket and that’s become an expedition fraught with danger.

Dirty Water

Still, with the passing of time, I’m closer to mutiny than standing on a table to declare ‘Oh Captain, my captain.’

One flat afternoon I’m running the mop over the floor when Carmelo emerges from his room.

‘Is that clean water?’ he asks, nodding at the bucket.

I look at him a good few seconds What are you asking me? If I just picked up the bucket of dirty water from the balcony and started spreading it all over the floor?

‘Claro,’ I say

He starts again into the usual, yaddy yaddy yada, bleach, yaddy yada yada cleaning, yaddy yaddy yada my wife has the virus, yaddy yaddy yada. Wait. Wife? I didn’t know Carmelo was married. And she’s got the virus. Right, that gives a bit of perspective. I feel for the guy.  I too miss my girl – it’s over 60 days since I’ve seen her and she lives just down the road. Thankfully, her and hers are all healthy. I say I’m sorry to hear that and remind myself to be patient with him.

 

Gandhi
This will make sense later

 

Crackers

But it’s hard to be patient with Ander. I walk into the kitchen one day while he’s coming out with his hand over a small saucer loaded with salty disc crackers and he nearly jumps three feet in the air. I laugh cos we weren’t even close to banging into one another. Then I think, hold on, I’ve got the same crackers. I open the press and see that my tub of crackers looks depleted. I do the math;

(The Cola-Cao incident + the time he snuck into in my room) – the benefit of the doubt = Thieving bastard.

I summon him to the kitchen.

‘You see these?’ I say thrusting the tub of crackers in his face. ‘They are mine.’

‘Yeah, I know. What? You think I took your crackers? I have my own crackers.’

‘Where are they?’

He goes to the press and I begin to think, bollox, he’s about to produce his own tub, but then he stops short of opening the door and turns around.

‘I’ve just finished them. But they were mine.’

‘Well I hope so. I go to the shop once a week and I want my things to last.’

‘Yeah, man. Relax.’

‘Okay, okay, maybe I’m mistaken and if I am, I’m sorry.’

‘Relax, it’s okay.’

I kick this around my head for the afternoon and I end up regretting my weak semi apology. So at 8 o’ clock, when it’s time to give the applause, I walk out onto the balcony and say to Ander,

‘Do not touch my things.’

‘Jesus man, I didn’t touch anything.’

A few days pass where Ander and I do not speak to each other.

Boiling Point!

I’m making a sandwich when Carmelo comes in and starts going on about cleaning again. I’m fed up and turn my back to him. He doesn’t get the hint and keeps going on about how everybody needs to do their bit. I turn around,

‘I don’t know why you are saying this to me. I clean.’

He just raises his voice. I suspect he is doing this so Ander, ensconced in his room, will hear.

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ I say and storm back into my room and take my anger out on my sandwich. The ham, cheese and bread are obliterated in seconds but it does nothing to calm me. I’m like the water in my coffee cup or Wesley Snipes as a pissed off cop with a bloody minded fervour for justice. Yes, finally I am at Boiling Point.

I walk out of my room, shoulders back, chest out.

‘Ander!Carmelo!Come out here for a minute please.’

In my head, I see myself laying it all out in a reasonable but firm manner. But it doesn’t work out like that.

Ander comes out of his room like a boxer from his corner and he walks straight towards Carmelo. Carmelo back peddles, ‘Distancia, Distancia,’ he says. Ander pulls up and starts shouting, jabbing his finger in the air. Carmelo roars back. The neighbours get an earful of Ander saying he cleaned the apartment the other day and did a better job than any of us. Carmelo is like, you’ve cleaned once all the time I’ve been living here and that’s because I told you to. I wanna chime in here with a ‘Yeah, what are you on about Ander? You’ve done fuck all and the balls of ya to come out all gun’s blazing,’ but I bite my tongue. Turns out I’m less Wesley Snipes in Boiling Point and more Gandhi, in the film of the same name. Or indeed, Gandhi in his real life.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘What we need is a rota. Pick two days and clean on those days. Carmelo, what days do you want?’

Bizarely Mr Clean himself says that one day a week each is sufficient. So I get a piece of paper and write it down in front of them.

 Pay it Forward…

…is probably the worst, most puke inducing film, I’ve ever seen. The idea is you do a good deed for someone and that someone pays it forward by doing a good deed for someone else and so on until its arms around the world in love and gratitude.

Some good friends do a little Pay it Forward gesture and one morning 24 cans of beer are delivered to my apartment. Touched by the kind deed and delighted that the rota system is working (Ander is no slouch when he gets stuck in and instead of lecturing everyone Carmelo is walking around the apartment singing to himself) I decide to snap four cans off the batch and offer them to my housemates; Ander gratefully accepts. Carmelo politely declines. A couple of days later Ander offers me a pair of gloves, a valuable commodity in these times as the supermarket has been outta stock for weeks.

We’re getting on better now. When all this comes to an end I’m gonna pour three whiskies and invite them out to the balcony. We can sip and chat and let the relief flow through us, like sailors who have been lost at sea for weeks finally in sight of land.

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The saga starts here; Living with Strangers #1

Living with Strangers #3

It started with the Cola Cao. People here are mad about Cola-Cao. They have it with breakfast. I bought a tub outta curiosity. It’s nice, like hot chocolate. Never really made inroads into it though and so the tub came in the boxes of food when I changed apartments. One day, a couple of months into living in my new apartment, I said to myself, I fancy a Cola-Cao. I had plenty of milk, so all I needed was that sweet brown powder. It would set me up nicely for the day. I unscrewed the lid and discovered the container was empty, safe for a tea spoon’s worth.

What? Had I used that much? Nah. I couldn’t have. Or could I? I’ve had it a while. No – Someone took it. Someone is stealing my Cola-CaIo. Not just someone, but one of my new housemates!

This was a troubling revelation. I started to join the dots. I had noticed that Carmelo kept his food in his bedroom. I just assumed he was tight, you know, a peel an orange in the pocket type. Case closed. But in light of the missing cocoa, I saw things in a different,eh, light and reopened the case. Carmelo wasn’t mean, he just didn’t trust the man he had been living with for the last three years. A man who was a dedicated Nini.  A man who was alone in the apartment while we were working. A man who pinched the chocalte flavoured substance, thinking it a perfect crime, thinking that I too had been tipping away on it and so wouldn’t notice. A man whose face I saw after joining the dots. A man called Ander.

And so I marched towards his bedroom door, my body propelled forward by a desire to see justice served. I was about to call his name when something got caught in my throat. Wait. Really? Am I about to accuse my new housemate of stealing when I haven’t seen him? He seems like a pretty affable guy and we get on okay; do I want to spoil that on a hunch, for something that, until today, I had forgotten I had? No. And so I beat a retreat to my room. Still, I wasn’t sure whether to berate myself for not taking the bull by the horns, or congratulate myself for letting him peacefully walk by.

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I know now Cola-Caogate was the start of an insidious pattern and that the aforementioned bull was coming for my money, my cigarettes, my pizza and would end up trespassing on my land.

That’s right.He asked me for money. €20, €10 here and there. Whenever he asked he did it with a pleading, have mercy on me type gesture. I gave him the money and he always paid it back, but it made me uneasy. One time I gave him €20 and he said he’d pay me back the following Monday. Monday came around; nada. Tuesday, the same. Wednesday;

‘Ehhh Ander, have you got that €20?’

‘What? Noo. I told you I’d give it to you on Friday,’ he said, all smiles.

‘Friday? I’m pretty sure you said Monday.’

‘No, no, lad, you misunderstood. Don’t worry. I’ll give it to you on Friday.’

I got it on Friday but I didn’t like how he played me for a fool, blaming it on me not understanding the language. I needed to put a stop to this. A straightforward way to do that would be to say, ‘Listen Ander,I don’t feel comfortable lending money to you so please stop asking,’ but no, I turned it into a big pantomime. The next time he approached me in the kitchen,

‘Bri-yan, puedes prestarme €20, porfa?’

I let out a sigh, scratched my head, creased my face, said , ‘I’ll see. Wait there.’ I walked to my bedroom, opened my wallet, saw €30 inside, closed my wallet, returned to the kitchen and said, ‘Naw,I don’t have any money mate.’  Ridiculous way to go about it, but he stopped asking for money after that.

Instead, he often knocked on my bedroom door of an evening looking for a pinch of tobacco, rolling papers or a cigarette. I’ve bummed plenty of cigarettes in my time so I understand. Thing is, when I’ve a box, I offer my cigarettes wily-nily to the people I’ve bummed from. Not so with Ander. It was as if he viewed my goodwill as a never-ending cigarette and he just kept taking drags, never thinking about getting his fingers burned. In the end, I stopped smoking in the apartment. Being taking advantage of was harming my health.

But that didn’t mean peace of mind. Or should I say, piz-za mind.

I bought a pizza. It was too big to fit in my freezer drawer so I popped it into the middle drawer, Ander’s one. A week later he came to me and said he had eaten the pizza. He thought it was his cos it was in his drawer, he explained and laughed in a ‘ain’t life’s little misunderstandings funny’ kind of way. I wasn’t laughing though when he didn’t replace the pizza he ate – something I found difficult to swallow – but I swallowed it nonetheless.

And that ain’t the worst of it. With me no longer doling out ciggys and lending cash Ander was becoming increasingly desperate.

A few months later, I left my bedroom door wide-open and went to the balcony to take my clothes off the line. As I was doing so I caught a glimpse of Ander in the corner of my eye passing through the hall. On his way to the toilet, I thought. I returned to my room, clothes heaped over my forearm, noting en route that the bathroom was empty. That’s strange, I wonder where Ander was go-

He was in my room. I froze in shock watching him scouring over the items on my desk.

‘Que pasa?’ I said.

He jumped.

‘I was just looking for a bit of tobacco,’ he said.

‘I don’t have tobacco. I told you, I’ve quit.’

I fixed my eyes on him as he walked back to his room, bearing the look of a man who got caught in the act. It wasn’t until later I approached him in the kitchen.

‘Ander. You are not allowed in my room. If you ever need anything from me, you have to ask me here, in the kitchen. You can’t enter my room.’

He said ‘Okay, okay,’ like he didn’t see what the big deal was.

But something had to give.My patience was a tub of Cola Cao and Ander was a tea-spoon that was taking from it without authorisation. It was only a matter of time before the tub of Cola-Cao became like Wesley Snipes in that film Boiling Point where Wesley’s character is being jerked around so much he loses his cool and starts karate chopping lads in their faces. Needless to say, the tub of Cola Cao was pretty damn close to reaching boiling point and the teaspoon was about to get scalded – or at least  have a blog post written about it listing all the reasons why it’s a shitty housemate. Right, this metaphor is getting out of hand, so let’s just leave it there…for now.

Boiling Point

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Living with Strangers #2

I moved my things by foot, criss-crossing from my soon to be old apartment to my soon to be new apartment; rucksack, wheelie bag, bag for life and an extra bag dangling from my neck that bounced off my thighs as I walked. Looked like an eijit it but it was a rigorous form of exercise and it got the job done.

It was roughly 10:30 on a Wednesday night in January 2018 when I arrived in my new apartment.

The bedroom seemed to be in a limbo state. Lots of plastic bags in a large box under the bed and a miserable looking pillow were all that remained of the previous tenant. I loaded the shelves with my books and photos and placed my clothes in the wardrobe but nothing could shift the feeling of being in a strange room. It wasn’t quite mine yet. It’s embarrassing to admit but I forgot bedclothes. I put on a tracksuit and got into my sleeping bag. I stuffed my day-bag with jumpers as substitute for a pillow. There was no way I was using the pillow that had been left behind. It was covered in stains – perhaps the tracks of the last tenant’s tears. It was eerily quiet and I had a shite night’s sleep.

The next morning I padded quietly to the bathroom. The shower was filthy. I tip-toed about, only touching things when I absolutely had to. Thankfully, the water was hot and powerful. I dressed in standard male teacher’s uniform – shirt and slacks. In the kitchen I picked through the delph on the grimy rack for a bowl and a spoon, washed them with a torn sponge and fixed myself some Corn Flakes.

Okay, wait. Lemme explain. I had viewed the place before so I knew what I was getting myself into.  The viewing, like most viewings, was awkward. The landlord lead me around, opened a door and somewhat needlessly said what room it was and named each item of furniture. I didn’t say much. What can you say? Instead I weighed up the positives and negatives in my head. The negative was writ large on the wall – the apartment was dirty. I had heard the words ‘deep-clean’ before. I just assumed it was something bored people did. But this apartment was screaming out for a deep clean. Actually, even a surface clean would have taken years off it. That said, scratch beneath the surface and there were quite a few positives; a bigger bedroom, a balcony, better toilet per tenant ratio, it was cheaper and there was a contract (something my last landlord did not offer which meant I was not entitled to empadronamiento ; the health card). So I shook new Landlord’s hand, signed the contract and took his bank details.

That Thursday morning though the negative was really throwing its weight around. It was like an extra tenant, crowding me, making the room smaller. The kitchen table was destroyed with coffee stains and breadcrumbs – from a breakfast made 10 years ago- so I kept the bowl in my hand and gingerly parked my ass on one of the chairs. The chair broke under me. The leg just snapped. It was a fright but somehow I managed to spare my clothes from getting covered with milk and soggy flakes of corn. I abandonded breakfast.  I couldn’t wait to get into work where a clean toilet awaited. How can you people live like this? I asked the shut doors of my new housemate’s rooms.

‘How are your new housemates?’ my Dad asked a few weeks later.

‘I’m the clean freak of the group.’

‘That’s a bad sign.’

‘I know.’

I was worried my girlfriend would be put off and had given the place a good scrubbing and bought bed-clothes before inviting her over.

‘It’s not that bad,’ she said. ‘Reminds me of my student accommodation.’

Bit by bit I got to know my housemates. Ander is what is known as a NiNi (ni estudia, ni trabaja = doesn’t work or study). He spends all day in his bedroom, chuckling away at TV series and surfing the net.  He’s about 47 years old. It’s not like he’s got agoraphobia – During the summer he goes down to the pier and sunbathes. He is very proud of his tan. He seems like a friendly chap, on first impressions.

Carmelo is small, squat and gruff. He sleeps in the apartment three or four days a week and heads off somewhere, I presume work, for a few hours each day. The rest of the week he sleeps somewhere else. He doesn’t talk much and when he does he seems determined not to part his lips.

Which leaves me; suddenly a clean freak and always the last to understand.

The lazy one, the grumpy one and the stupid one. Knock the three of us together and hilarious consequences would surely ensue. Well, no, not really.

Something Similar? Living with Strangers #1

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Living with Strangers #1

Renting shared accommodation often requires an effort to get along with strangers. Sometimes folk of different ages and backgrounds share a living space in a convivial manner and even become friends.  Other times, people are getting by on strained politeness and buckets of patience. There’s no end of things that can cause tension between housemates: spending too long in the shower, banging doors, snoring, coming in late, leaving clothes on the drying rack too long, smoking, hogging the washing machine, hogging the good frying pan, hogging the TV,  leaving unwashed dishes in the sink, the continual disappearance of teaspoons,  cleaning rotas and varying definitions of the word clean  – to name just a few. It’s a minefield. No wonder many tenants spend all their time holed up in their little bedroom, listening carefully to the opening and closing of doors for an indication that the coast is clear and they can steal into the kitchen to fix themselves a Pot Noodle.

In my five years in Spain I’ve lived in two apartments. The first apartment was in the old quartar of Portu and had 5 rooms. Unlike a lot of rental accommodation it was nicely furnished – there was a well-stocked bookshelf in the sitting room, a classic typewriter on the coffee table and art by local artists hung on the walls. Given that there were five rooms I got to meet a lot of people.

Hannah had the longest residency. She had been living in the apartment nine years before I came along. She was a kind-hearted German woman in her forties who ran a German Academy in Bilbao. When I first moved to Spain, I had a readymade Spanish sentence that I dished out to everyone I met;

‘Trabajo como profesor de ingles y quiero aprender castellano.’ (I work as an English teacher and I want to learn Spanish.)

As soon as the sentence left my lips Hannah only spoke to me in Spanish, despite having perfect English. In fact, she forbade English. ‘I know how hard it is to learn when everyone wants to practise their target language with you,’ she said.  I wanted to say not to worry, I wasn’t demanding  that she spoke to me in Spanish , but of course I couldn’t explain that in Spanish and so I was stuck. And she was stuck too, waiting patiently for me to think of the word for heating as I tried to clear up some mundane bit of housekeeping that, had we spoken in English, would have taken ten seconds. It was quite a feat of patience on her part, bearing in mind her working days were spent listening to the nerve shredding, hesitant speech of students trying to get to grips with a foreign language. Hannah had a French boyfriend who came and stayed the odd weekend, but he kept himself to himself. In fairness, everyone was pretty understanding about partners staying over once in a while, something I appreciated when I started going out with my girlfriend.

Rosa was also there for the two years I was. She was a forty-something year old florist with a sing song voice and a penchant for poetic expressions when talking about flowers or a walk she took. However, as the song says, every rose has its thorn and Rosa was no exception. She would eventually end up playing a part in my wanting to leave.

The other two rooms were like revolving doors. It wasn’t that we were terrible to live with, nor was it part of the landlord’s plan- it just happened that the people who stayed in those two rooms were unsettled or just passing through.

There was one guy from Barcelona -can’t remember his name- but Hannah knew him as he had stayed in the apartment before. She greeted him fondly so I figured he was sound. He had a wild energy about him, like a barely contained madness. He came into the kitchen one night while I was cooking.

‘I’ve just been fired,’ he said.

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. My boss, he just went crazy.’

He was gone within a month.

A nurse came along not long after that. I have no problem remembering her name. It was Irene and she was in her early twenties. One hot day I drank a can of Radler from the fridge, thinking it was mine. When I realised I actually had no cans of Radler left and had drunk one of Irene’s cans, I apologised to her and replaced the can of lemon flavoured beer. Nevertheless, she took to writing her name in marker on all her items in the fridge – even on a green pepper. Such blatant mistrust left a bad taste in my mouth and, I suspect, in hers.

Yassin was another fella who lived there. He was in his twenties and from somewhere in the Sahara. He’d offer you the food off his plate if you entered the kitchen while he was eating. He was equally generous with the beer in the bar he worked in. Wasn’t a drinker himself but there was often a sweet smell of weed lingering outside his door. One day, he showed me how to make a Spanish omelette. Fair to say Yassin must have broken a few metaphorical eggs too, cos things went South fast with him and the landlord. I came home one night to see all of Yassin’s belongings packed up in the hall outside the apartment, his bedroom empty and his shelf in the kitchen cleared. A shit and a cigarette butt in the toilet were the only traces that remained of him. I figured it was a message to the landlord but I doubt he ever got it, given he didn’t live with us. What was I to do? Send a photo? Yassin left this for you. I flushed it away. Still, some shit you can’t un-see.

Do not let Yassin into the apartment, the landlord advised in a text. The next day he arrived with a locksmith and had the locks changed.

Despite that, we lived in relative peace which is good going seen as there were 5 people and one bathroom. We managed with the whole bathroom/kitchen situation cos we all had different timetables and rarely got in one another’s way. That is until Rosa’s boyfriend started shacking with her full-time. Francisco was a big friendly fella with two passions in life; cooking and showering. Six people and one bathroom? It wasn’t working anymore.

On my last day, I said goodbye to Hannah and Rosa (and Francisco who had blustered into the goodbye like he had everything else) and wished them luck with, well, everything.  We said we’d all go for drinks one day but it was a vague commitment no one felt obliged to keep. Nobody’s heart was breaking; it comes with the territory. Living with them had been, on the whole, pleasant and for that I was grateful.  Onwards and quite literally upwards, for my next apartment was across town and up a hill.

HT2

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Something different? A Day at the Beach