In my room. On Tinder. A match! Jackie. Her photos look as though they were taken by a professional backstage at some glamorous event. A beautiful face framed by a huge afro. I send a message. Nothing big, just a hello. Jackie replies. More messages. Yes she speaks English. This is encouraging. Less so are her monosyllabic replies. The conversation needs a shot in the arm. I look through her photos again. I decide to say what I see – a quiet, creative type who perhaps has done a bit of modelling.
Her reply is instant.
I can almost see her sit up and pay attention.
Vitoria. Old Town. Vitoria is colder than Bilbao. One jumper colder. Jackie is showing me around. Cobbled streets, cathedrals, a cosy little park, winter sunshine. It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday and most of the city’s inhabitants have retreated to their homes to sleep off the afternoon wines and calamari. The streets are ours.
She buys roasted chestnuts at a stall. She tells me how she and her little brother used to put them in their pockets to keep their hands nice and warm. I picture the two of them trailing behind their mother, chatting happily and nibbling away. I’m charmed.
We have a beer. It’s a terrible thing to say but trotting out the usual stuff about work, friends and family is becoming a little jaded to me so I’m happy to listen to her talk about her business.
On the tram we stand close, face to face. Loosened by the beer and encouraged by her warm smile I get over the shyness and take her hand.
At the station the passengers board the bus. How often have pleasant days been cut short by the rattling of an impatient engine?
I have a lot of questions but there’s no time to ask. I like her. I know that.
She tells me all I need to know with a kiss.
Vitoria. Jackie’s rehearsal. We step out of the cold and into the apartment of Jackie’s teacher. We are greeted by warm smiles and the smell of baking bread. We remove our jackets and move into the studio area.
Jackie takes the stage. I take a seat. The piano accompaniment is barely there. Chin up, back straight and hands clasped lightly in front of her, she sings. Her mouth stretches wide and high, yet through all the manoeuvres she smiles. She looks so at peace. When a song finishes she looks at me and gives her full radiant beam. There are soft spoken exchanges between teacher and student. She leaves through her sheet music, stands erect and sings again. Her voice is like a finely tuned instrument fulfilling its full capacity.
After the rehearsal we walk happily hand in hand back to her apartment.
You know that period? That sweet getting to know you period where you come to learn the other person’s habits, idiosyncrasies, intimacies and routines; you walk around wide eyed in a strange new world; craving and being craved.
You know that period?
This is beginning to feel like the beginning of that period.
Vitoria New Town
Vitoria, Jackie’s apartment. We’ve just eaten a nice meal that Jackie prepared. I’m washing up. The atmosphere is stifled. There are long gaps between exchanges. What to say? I wanna lighten the mood but feel too tense to wisecrack. She’s hovering around me, watching me wash up. An inevitable sigh.
‘What are you doing? Not like that. Here.’
‘It’s fine. I got it.’
‘I want to do it. Just step aside.’
I sigh in exasperation and let her at the sink.
You know that period when everything you do gets on your partner’s nerves? That’s where we are.
Jackie dashes off to rehearsal. I take a walk through her part of the city and ponder it all going wrong. We’ve known each other a few weeks but bicker intermittently. Is it a cultural thing? Did Irish girls just turn a blind eye to my shortcomings or drop subtle hints that I failed to pick up?
The streets are empty and the buildings unlovely. It’s beginning to feel more than just one jumper colder.
The writing’s on the wall. Looking at the situation in cold logical light I can see we’re going nowhere fast. But, I like her, and a stubborn desire overrides logic.
I do the romantic equivalent of driving down a one way street.
So, late one school night before Christmas, because the bus timetable says yes (though in between the lines Jackie said no) I find myself on the bus to Vitoria with a plant on my lap. When I arrive at her apartment, she graciously accepts the plant. Looking at her beautiful face I understand why I made the trip. But the dizzy romance is short-lived. Tiredness, the desperation in my effort, sloppy table-manners and the thought of sharing a bed with a restless soul culminate to help her realize she hasn’t got time for this carry on. She spells it out for me.