A Breakdown in Communication

The next morning the questions are still following me around like persistent bees. My girlfriend finally responded to my text, acknowledged that things aren’t okay, but failed to signify why they aren’t okay. I guess I should know. I wanna cut the bullshit so I suggest we meet over coffee. Fine, she says.

So after Spanish class I walk across town to Santurtzi. The rain and the tall buildings lend the place the feel of a dark, damp cave. It’s the type of weather that makes you grimace.

I’m standing outside the café when I see her coming towards me with an umbrella in hand. Now, J looks serious at the best of times, but as she nears I see her eyes are burning with an extra intensity; I mean, she looks like she wants to fucking kill someone. I’m pretty sure that I might be that someone but I have no idea why.

We kiss on the lips.

‘What’s wrong J?’

‘Nothing.’

Well, you should tell your face that.

It’s a terrific quip that I keep to myself. Instead I say, in Spanish, that it’s clearly more than nothing. She makes a dismissive sound, letting me know that I have failed to execute the phrase correctly.

I feel like my stomach is being held hostage by her face. The atmosphere is heavy and I wanna change it.

‘I’ve been worried,’ I say.

She shrugs.

We step inside the café. It’s just another café: pintxos wrapped with cellophane on the counter, elderly clientele, uncomfortable chairs and the owner looks like he hasn’t had a day off in years. He’s in no rush. As he prepares the coffees I think: Am I gonna get dumped here? No, she wouldn’t have kissed me on the lips if she was going to do that. I mean no-one has ever been betrayed by a kiss, have they? We sit down at a table.

‘So. How was Saturday night?’ she asks.

She said Saturday night as if there were quotation marks around it, as if it were some silly made up time in a made up game I play with my friends. She’s looking at me really closely.

‘Fine. Nothing special,’ I shrug. ‘We had some beers in Casco Viejo: Noel, Dave and I. We went around to a few bars and finished up early: got the metro around 130. Sin mas.’

The casual manner which I deploy does nothing to disarm her. She unleashes her second question.

‘When did you make the plan to go to Bilbao? I’m just curious.’

Curious? Furious more like. Another great quip that I keep to myself. Still, I know now what’s up.

‘That morning. Remember when I texted you and you said that you weren’t feeling any better?’

She nods. She’s listening intently and I feel like I’m one wrong word away from a massive argument.

‘So I assumed I wasn’t going to see you and made plans with the boys,’ I continue gingerly. ‘Then you said we could meet for a coffee and I thought Great, but I assumed it would be just that – a coffee.’

‘Things went differently than I had expected,’ she says.

‘You thought that we were going to spend the night together?’ I say, touched.

‘Yes. And over coffee we have this big conversation about spending the future together. Then, I go to the toilet and when I come back it seems suddenly we aren’t even going to spend the evening together.  And I was like ‘Que?’’

‘Okay, alright. I’m sorry.  But, you understand as well, that I thought it was just going to be a coffee?’

She nods.

Something occurs to me.

‘But how come, when we said goodbye on Saturday evening, everything was alright?’ I ask.

‘Sometimes you only think of these things afterwards,’ she says.

‘So, yesterday, I was trying to figure out what was wrong. I figured it was something to do with the conversation we had had, that you had changed your mind about the future and all.’

‘No, no.’

‘And when you didn’t text me back last night I was so worried. I was so worried,’ I say.

‘Yes. I’m sorry.’

Her hand reaches across the table and caresses mine. The tension dissipates and a warmth comes over her features. My stomach begins to settle.

‘I feel better now. Now that we talked about it.’

We finish our coffees. Such is the change in mood I expect that, once we step outside, the atmosphere will have shifted accordingly; the sun will shine, birds will chirp and a barber shop quartet will be on the road singing songs of love. If anything though, the weather is worse. We huddle under her umbrella and set off together.

nocktoebenaughto

Something Similar?An Anti -Valentine’s Story

Something Different? Happy Birthday: Life is Long!

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Airport/Groceries on the Dancefloor

Airport

London Gatwick. I find the boards and scan with tired eyes. My flight doesn’t jump out at me and I feel momentarily vexed. Has it all been one big mistake? Wrong date? Wrong time? (In airports I always feel like I’m on the brink of a huge blunder). Then I see it. Bilbao. VY7293 19:55. Boarding gate will be announced at 19:05. Grand.

I head towards Departures, negotiating the wheelie bags and fond farewells. I queue. The guys at security have an impatient air and seem perpetually mystified at the hesitancy coupled with stupidity that comes over the passengers. Every day the same. I take out my laptop and place it in a tray. I pull out another tray and drop my bag into it. I remove my jacket and stuff it alongside my bag. I stick my wallet and belt in the sides. I dig my hands into my pockets and feel for loose coins. None. Grand.

I pass through the metal detector without a beep. I meet my bag on the other side and refill my pockets, slip on my belt, place the laptop back in the bag and heave it onto my back. Passport, wallet, ticket, phone, keys, boarding pass. Grand.

Shiny shops in a busy thoroughfare. I find the food hall. The stench of coffee greets and entices me. I pay for an overpriced coffee and sandwich. The coffee feels good. The contents of the sandwich conspire to create zero flavour whatsoever.

I go down to the seating area. People are reading or pushing buttons on their phones while intermittently checking the boards. It seems a numbness has come over us all. We are in-between, waiting for our lives to start again.

Portugalete, Bilbao

I drop my bag in my room, splash water on my face, reapply some deodorant and go outside. I tackle the hill with purpose. It’s been a long numbing day of travel (3 hour bus journey, airport, flight, airport, flight and car ride) so my energy surprises me. I guess my legs are relieved to be finally set free out of doors.

It’s a big night here in Bilbao. The bars are heaving. Jessica and her friends are in the ‘Why not?’ I’m excited to see Jessica as we’ve been apart over Christmas. I’m also a little nervous as I’m about to meet her friends for the first time.

The bouncer nods at me. The bar behind him seems like a busy cave of activity. He pulls the door open and I step inside, and inadvertently, into a group of eight or so people standing in a crescent formation. They all seem to be looking at me. They must be Jessica’s friends. Meekly I scan the group but I can’t see her anywhere. Then I see her sister Andrea. I smile, kiss her cheeks and wish her a happy new year. This confirms to the group that I am him, Jessica’s new fella. I feel the eyes switch from curiosity to appraisal.

Finally Jessica appears at my side. We kiss, hug and say a few words. A drink is handed to me.People from the group step forward to introduce themselves.  Marie Luis, Alvaro, Luis, Martha, Mirren. We speak in Spanglish. We have to lean into one another to be heard above the Reggathon blasting out of the speakers. Everybody’s nice. Everyone makes an effort. Nervousness has me tilting back my glass with speed.  Aritz, Akine and Ane. After a whirlwind of introductions I’m relieved to be back standing next to Jessica. Another drink is handed to me.

‘I’ll get the next,’ I promise.

I spot a plastic bag on the floor. It’s filled with a box of breakfast cereal, a litre of milk, eggs, apples, bananas and mandarins. How curious it looks! It seems as though  it has been transplanted from somebody’s kitchen of a dreary Tuesday morning to this limitless Friday night of disco balls and lights.

‘It’s for you,’ Jessica says following my gaze.

My face clouds with puzzlement.

‘Tomorrow is a holiday and all the shops are closed,’ she explains. ‘Seen as you were arriving late I thought I’d get you a few things.’

I smile at the bag of shopping and then at Jessica. My fondness for her deepens.

 

Nocktoebenaughto

Something Similar? What is she like?

Something Different? Bilbao Metro 4am

 

Bilbao Metro 4am

I turn the corner and look up. Sure enough, there is a tall pole with the lit red symbol atop. It’s a welcome sight. I walk towards it. I go down a flight of stairs, down a steep escalator, then down another steep escalator. It’s hot. Anymore feckin’ escalators and we’d be at the earth’s core. A train screeches up the track. I quicken my pace and slip my card out of my wallet. I hope it has credit. I see the roof of the train by the platform below. The doors open. A beeping sound warns people to get their asses inside quickly. I run. I swipe my card. The gates open. I take the stairs, sidestepping as fast as I can. But, as I arrive on the platform the train moves off. It screeches in a kind of sneering manner, which I appreciate none-too-much.

The train is like a sideways parting curtain that slowly reveals the other platform and there, casually waiting, are the Bilbao folk that have it sussed. I didn’t miss the train. I’m on the wrong bloody platform. Dumb luck. Anyway, why was I rushing? Even if I had missed the right train there’d be another along in ten minutes. It’s not like I haven’t time to spare; I’ve just wiled away hours drinking in bars.

It’s not the same atmosphere of waiting you get during the day; voices are raised and every now and then someone bursts out laughing. I scan the crowd. Gangs crowd around benches. Well, groups. Gangs sound intimidating. Guys and girls. More guys than girls. There’s one woman who stands alone. It looks like there’s a uniform under her cardigan. A cleaner maybe, mid-fifties on her way home. Her thin lips give her an impatient expression. Two good-looking girls come down the steps and stand in front of an advertisement for an English Academy. Tight jeans and leather jackets.  I consider walking over and striking up a conversation, you know, to practise my Spanish. In the last bar I pushed myself to approach a girl and say ‘Hola. Que tal?’ She rolled her eyes and walked away. I was left standing there like a dick. Thankfully, the lads didn’t see it ( although I could feel some fella in some corner laughing at me). Anyway, I decide not to talk to the two pretty girls on the platform. Well I don’t really decide anything. I just stand there near the bottom of the stairs, waiting like everyone else.

A breeze blows through the station. I look down the tunnel and see a huge square can rattling up the track. People stand and survey the carriages sliding by. There’s a gasp and a screech as the train settles. The doors open. We inch inside, disperse, and find a place to park ours bums. Those already seated gather themselves. I sit on one of the flip down chairs near the door. The cleaner sits on the seat opposite, her two hands clasping the strap of her handbag, her back erect and her eyes alert. She’s primed to bolt at a moment’s notice. The two pretty girls find a space halfway down the carriage, sit down and busy their thumbs with their mobile phones. The train moves on. As we enter the tunnel the engine screeches like a banshee.

I can taste the alcohol in my mouth. I try to figure out how much I had. I lose count after six and conclude that it’s enough to secure a hangover, but also enough to engender the current mood of insouciance. I look at my phone for something to do. I go on Facebook. Photos, videos and comments slide by. If I have time for this it’s a lie to say I don’t have time. I feel an aching dissatisfaction slowly rising. I slip my phone away.

A couple of stops later the cleaning lady leaves and a drunk guy staggers on. It’s like the changing of scenes in an unscripted play. He sits where the lady was and instantly falls asleep; head tilted, mouth open and Adam’s apple protruding. As the train gathers speed his head moves side to side slightly. As it slows again he inches forward. When the doors beep he awakes. Confused, he looks around. His eyes meet mine and narrow in suspicion, as if he’s woken up in some hellish nightmare and I’m to blame. I look away. Eventually he gets his bearings and repositions himself in his chair. People let themselves out, people let themselves in.

The drunk guy keeps himself awake by telling himself a story that seems to both amuse and surprise him. He staggers away at Barakaldo.

‘I have no idea how I got home,’ he will tell his friend’s tomorrow.

The train pushes on. There are now just a few people scattered around the carriage. Everyone’s quiet and tired. On the way in we were nicely presented and curious to see what Saturday night had in store. Now, that curiosity has been spent. I wonder if we’re one step closer to, or one step further away from where we wanna be. Neither, I suppose. Saturday night is more a necessary side-step.

 ‘Portugalete’ announces the electronic voice. People stand and gather by the door. We exit the train and ascend the two flights of stairs and escalator.  A few people grimace as the early morning Autumn chill hits them at the exit.

After five seconds the crowd have vanished. I’m alone on a quiet street surrounded by tall buildings. It’s just a matter of getting to bed. Sleep awaits me there.

nocktoebenaugto

Something Similar; It gets off to a bad start…

Something Different; A Black Star on the last Day of School

 

 

Cans on the Bench

Every time I see the date on my phone I feel a jolt, like I’ve just woken up and realised I’ve overslept. September 7th – I should be back at work. Then I remember I’m midway through my two year career break.

My hometown is making the transition from summer to autumn. The amusement park has closed. The Topsy Turvey and The Sizzler are being packed up. Lorries wait to ferry them away. The kids have substituted the bright summer outfits for uniforms. The tan tourists are no longer vying for the attention of the pretty barmaids. The men they leaned across are still there though, the ever-present pint before them. They pine for the barmaid – her pretty smile and perfect ass were a wonderful distraction. But she’s gone too and now it’s just the usual ugly bastards.   

A mist hangs over the town in mourning for the passing of summer. Neil and I have been walking through it for five minutes.

‘It’s like a ghosttown,’ he says.

‘Yeah. Here, where we going anyway?’

‘Lets see where our feet take us,’ Neil says.

I have a good idea where our feet are gonna take us. Twenty minutes later we are settling down on a bench overlooking the bay with a bag of cans and a packet of fags.

‘So how’s San Francisco?’ I say cracking open a can.

‘It’s wonderful. I really like my life there. The people there aren’t afraid to be true to what they want to do and I respect that.’

Some people can’t tell you how great their life abroad is without shitting all over Ireland . Neil is one such person. I ignore what’s implied because I don’t wanna get into an argument. He offers me a box and I draw a cigarette. We share a light. We smoke and contemplate the sea and the orange lights illuminating the deserted promenade.

‘ I hear you’ve extended your career break,’ he says.

‘Uno mas por favour!’

‘What do you want out of it?’

‘Em…well if I can come home with a good level of Spanish that’d be something.’

‘So, you’re not just pissing around.’

‘Well, some people may beg to differ.’

‘You looking forward to getting back out there?’

‘I am now yeah.  It has the potential to be a great year, now I have a certain standard of Spanish, a group of friends and work experience. ’

‘It’s gonna fly.’

‘I know yeah.’

We slug from our cans.

‘You could be there for a few more years yet,’ Neil says.

‘Well, she’d have to be pretty special…Nah.I wanna settle here eventually. My family are here, my friends too. Except for you ; you’re not my friend.’

‘Haw-hawww.’

‘You still single?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. A few false starts but nothing that lasted. Ah, I’m enjoying the single life. There’s a good social scene out in San Fran; a lot of thirty-somethings that don’t wanna grow up yet, so it suits me.’

‘ So when are you going to grow up?’ I ask.

‘What? Settle down and have kids and stuff?’

‘Well – you went to college, you got a job…It’s the next stage isn’t it?’

‘Well,’ he says taking a final drag from his ciggy. ‘If I don’t do it soon people here might start thinking I’m weird. Or worse, gay.’

 ‘Do you want kids even?’ I ask.

‘I’m thinking of it a little more these days.’

‘I was over at Willy and Roisín’s the other day, to see their little fella. Jesus – even walking out the door was an operation; have we got this? Have we got that? It’s tough. There’s a dramatic loss of independence. And there’s  the cost of child-minding, the sleepless nights and all that. But, when they talk about it, you know they wouldn’t change a thing.’

‘Yeah. I saw them too. I remember Roisín telling me – ‘There is no love in the world as strong as a mother’s love for her child.’ I was like ‘Well what happened to my Mom?’ Neil sparks up another cigarette. ‘Not everyone’s supposed to be a parent, I suppose.’

I don’t know what to say to that so there’s a spell of silence. Then I start thinking about a kid I once coached.

 ‘A few years back, I was coaching a football team. There was one kid; a scrawny little fella. He never missed training and had all the gear and stuff. He had a nice stroke of the ball but he was a coward. Anyway, we put him in the full forward line. He was hanging back out of the melee, as usual, but at one point, the ball bounced over his man and nestled into his arms. He turned. It was just him and the goalkeeper. Me and the other coach were holding on to each other. He took three steps and with a sweet strike, delivered the ball to the back of the net. We were buzzing. That kid had a glow about him for the rest of the day, as had we. And we fucking lost that day and all. The thing is, how happy we felt for him. And we were just the coaches.’

‘Imagine how his Dad felt.’

‘Exactly.’

We drink in silence another bit.

‘ I might never come home,’ Neil says, playing with his ring pull.

‘Really?’

‘Maybe. I dunno. It doesn’t have to be wife, kids and mortgage next.’

‘True. I was in the park the other day with my niece. All the kids were swinging, climbing and spinning saying; ‘Look at me!’ and all the adults were bored off their tits. They’d love to be doing what we’re doing.’

‘What? Drinking cans on a bench?’

‘Yeah!’ I laugh.

‘There are many ways to live a life.’

‘Sure are,’ I say.

We bump our cans together.

‘Lucky,’ he says.

‘Yeah.’

‘One short year in Spain. And then what?’ Neil asks.

‘Ah, I’ll just follow my feet.’

 ‘Is it wise, the way we are?’ he asks.

‘Whattya mean?’

‘Just making it up as we go along? Not having any set plans?’

‘Well. We have two more cans. How’s that for a plan?’

‘Perfect.’

nocktoebenaughto

Something Similar? Hanging with the Kids

Something Different? A Bit of Romance

Learning Spanish

‘So, you are going to Spain for the year?’ people asked when they heard about my career break.

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you speak Spanish?’

‘Not mucho. I’m trying to learn at the moment.’

‘Ah sure, you’ll pick it up out there,’ they said, like learning a language was as easy as picking up a tin of beans in Tesco. I’ve been to Spain a few times and come home with – a Barcelona jersey, sunburn, a hat, a fridge magnet, stories; but Spanish? Not mucho. Yes the Spaniards were filling the air with their rapid fire dialogue but it was just background noise and after a while you could tune it out.

Despite what people said I knew learning Spanish was gonna take time, effort and concentration. However, with work and a part time course on the go, I lacked the first ingredient; time. I looked forward to the summer holidays when I could really get stuck into the language. I’d attend classes, listen to CDs, devour textbooks. Soon, long monologues in Spanish would issue from my mouth.

When the summer finally came about and the days opened up, I discovered that there was another factor preventing me from becoming a fluent Spanish speaker; being a lazy bastard.

Learning a language seemed so daunting a task. Wouldn’t it be easier to not start at all? Why don’t I just pick it up out there? – like everybody  told me I could. No, success in Spain (wait, that’s too hard to define) –getting by in Spain would mean learning the language. So, I eased my way into it.

I decided I was gonna learn through song. Why not? I am more of an auditory than visual or kinaesthetic learner and music appealed to me a lot more than the pile of text books on my desk.

Devandra Banhardt, unknowingly, became my teacher. He was born in Texas, raised in Venezuela and sings in both English and Spanish.

Perhaps that wasn’t the best place to start for some honest, down to earth, man on the street Spanish. Devandra seems like the kind of guy who lives up a tree and dabbles in sorcery. Sample lyrics from his track Little Yellow Spider include;

‘And hey there little sexy pig

You made it with a man

And you’ve got a little kid with hooves instead of hands.’

But then youtube offered up a song that tickled the ear and delighted the eye – Brindo. After repeated listens the Spanish lyrics slipped into my head as if they’d been there as long as the prayers I learned as a kid. I was worried that what seemed to me like the most tender love song would turn out to be an ode to sexy pigs but, upon translation, these fears were nullified.

Brindo este amor un amor tan raro/Brindo este amor un amor tan claro.

Cheers to this love a love so rare/Cheers to this love a love so clear

Repeated listens were easy because in the video a gorgeous beauty is lounging around Devandra’s house (the rainbow house) in her white underwear. I learned new words. I learned a song. I was learning Spanish!

But, in fairness, getting by on pop music alone wouldn’t work. Imagine a Spanish person doing the same with English.

‘Well Pedro- where are you? You are late for soccer.’

‘Hello. I am slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.’

‘Pedro. I have no idea what that means.’

‘Okay yes. In which direcíon I go after the wonder wall?’

I was looking for other doors to the palace of Spanish. My housemate told me to try the duolingo website. I signed up, for free, and began progressing through the levels. You listen, you type, you get points for every level you complete. With those points you can pay for bonus lessons like ‘Flirting’ – ‘No estoy barracho, solo intoxicado por ti’/ ‘I am not drunk only intoxicated by you.’ It breaks down the language into small, manageable lessons which aren’t very time consuming. The lessons are divided into categories like food, clothes, animals. It gives you the vocabulary; manzana (apple) Yo como ( I eat) and before you know it you gotta sentence; Yo como una manzana/I eat an apple.

I was learning Spanish but I wasn’t sure I would succeed in the thick of it. So say I meet a girl in a bar;

Brindo este amor un amor tan raro.

Cual? Tu estás barracho.

No estoy barracho solo intoxicado por  ti.

What you want? My boyfriend is there.

Yo como una manzana.

Obviously I would have an apple with me, so as not to come across like a complete weirdo.

I got talking to a Spanish teacher. He gave me eight Michel Thomas CDs. Michel Thomas is a polyglot linguist and Nazi concentration camp survivor. His name had come up in conversations with other friends learning languages. ‘All you gotta do is listen.’ I put on the CD. Michel sounded like a learned middle aged man.

‘You do not have to write anything. You do not have to learn by rote. You do not have to revise. You do not have to revise mentally. You have to be relaxed…’

Michel – you are speaking my language.

nocktoebenaughto