Cold Comfort

We were in Paula’s kitchen. She had a beer in her hand. She was more interested in the ring pull than its contents. My beer was drained. I wanted to grab another but she was about to say something. Her eyes, a mixture of confusion and sadness, were searching the crumbs on her plate as if they might gather to show her a way outta this situation.

Her throat admitted a trembling sound. Her lip wobbled. Tears rolled down her face.

‘I’ve been working so hard…but for what? What am I doing with my life?’

I had never seen her like this.

It had seemed to me that she never entertained negative thoughts.

Like me, she was relatively new to Bilbao. She moved into a large apartment in Casco Viejo in January and began a new life. She started working in a clinic and secured a side gig in a university.  She created a social life through couch surfing events, dance lessons and Tinder. She made new friends who showed her around the city.

 Then, into the stream of things that seemed to be flowing in the right direction, I jumped.

I liked her instantly. She was beautiful, smart and kind. On the first date my loves and hates of Bilbao made her laugh out loud. On the second she introduced me to two of her new friends. On the third, finally, she kissed me. It was a surprise how uninhibited she was; kissing me passionately in front of the people on the metro platform. I was dazed the whole ride home.

She brought me around Bilbao; to the old town with its labyrinth of narrow streets, to polished bars famed for delicious pintxos, to hidden restaurants stripped of any pretension, to hipster cafes along the riverside and to San Francisco Street, a place that pulsed with an energy more frenetic than anywhere else in the city.

But, in the kitchen that night, she was just bringing me down. She was upset because her career wasn’t progressing as she had hoped.  I tried to take the fact that she was dropping her usual assured optimism and showing a vulnerable side as a positive step forward, but something wouldn’t let me. 

She fiddled with the ring pull on her can. I moved to the chair next to her and put my arm around her. She pulled the ring pull off, dropped it on her plate and sighed. She fingered the busted mouth of the can. I was worried she might cut her finger so I took her hand in mine. She pulled it away and returned to the jagged edges. I felt sorry for her but my sympathy was overridden by a selfish fear – it wasn’t just work that was upsetting her – her feelings towards me had changed.

She wiped the tears from her face, took a deep breath and said;

‘In three weeks things are gonna change- for better or for worse.’

That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay next to her, burdened with an unspoken awareness that she would rather I wasn’t there. She couldn’t sleep either. I could feel her eyes searching the darkness.

 I replayed a conversation we had weeks ago.  We were talking about the dating scene. I was pessimistic.

 ‘I dunno – with all these dating apps, it’s like everybody’s looking over their shoulder – looking out for someone new, instead of giving their current relationship a proper shot. So we end up having lots of relationships and each one leaves us a little more scarred, a little more confused.’

She was more positive.

‘I think it’s a good thing because you meet lots of different people and you know better what you want.’

She threw the covers back and got outta bed. She stopped in the doorway for a moment and her naked body was silhouetted in the light. She looked so beautiful I ached with sadness and yearning. She went to the bathroom. When she got back into bed she sighed. I was losing her. I needed to do something.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Fine.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Well, can you move over a bit please?’

‘Of course.’

I moved.

‘Okay?’

‘Yes thanks.’

I needed her to tell me that it wasn’t me, that she was just upset about work.

‘You know the way you said in three weeks time things would change?

‘Yeah.’

‘I hope that in three weeks time – you and I are still together .’

She smiled, kissed me on the lips and said nothing.

If you liked this you might also like; A Bit of Romance

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A Post-Holiday Whatsapp Crisis

Four people in a car, returning home after the Easter holidays. Trouble is, everyone else is too. There are traffic jams all over Spain. The same songs we heard on the way down, soundtrack the return journey. We don’t talk much. We sigh. 

I look through my photos.  We had a busy weekend of eating, drinking, sightseeing, hiking, eating and drinking. It was our first holiday together. We bonded well, but now we crave solitude.

I go into my whatsapp. A girl I’m dating was last online five minutes ago. She wasn’t texting me. On the journey to Salamanca I dispatched a little text reassuring her that my life was fantastic. She replied appropriately. Since then though, nothing. I don’t know what to say now. I feel far from fantastic.

It’s not just the end of a holiday, it’s the return of the hamster to its worry treadmill. At the start of the holiday there was no room for the bastard amongst the positive vibes created by getting outta town, breaking the routine and anticipating a weekend brimming with potential. The hamster was left behind on the motorway somewhere between Valladolid and Salamanca. The treadmill was blissfully still for a few days. But, the crafty little bastard was waiting for me on the return journey.

‘Wha’s wrong?’ D asks me.

‘What?’

‘You keep sighing.’

‘Oh. It’s just I’m trying to send a text .’

‘To who? Paula?’

I look at her

‘You told me last night.’

‘Oh.’

‘So. What’s the problem?’

‘It’s just – I’m not sure. Maybe I should leave it. I’m always texting her first.’

‘Text her. It’s nice. Let her know you are thinking of her.’

‘But surely she would understand that without me having to text it.’

‘Well I don’t know. How many times have you met?’

‘A few.’

‘It’s a nice thing to do,’ D says shrugging.

‘Maybe I should play it cool, you know.’

‘Ah – don’t play games. Besides, she probably knows you’ve been on whatsapp and maybe she’s wondering why you haven’t texted.’

‘But she’s been on whatsapp! Why hasn’t she texted me?’

 ‘You may as well just do it now, you’ve been thinking about it so much.’

‘Right. I will.’

I start typing.

Hi Paula!!

I delete one exclamation mark.  I don’t wanna appear too excited. Then I change my mind and put it back to two exclamation marks because what’s wrong with being excited? Then, I check to see how many exclamation marks she uses in her messages. One. Right, one it is. I start typing.

Hi Paula! How are you??

Then I delete one question mark.

‘For fuck sake.’

‘What?’ D asks.

 ‘Fucking…I’m 33, you know?I should be beyond this shit.’

I contemplate tossing my phone out the window. Then again, phones are what brought us together. And she’s nice.

 ‘I know. I’ll just send her a friend request on Facebook. That’s a good idea, isn’t it?’

‘Sure,’ D says.

‘She won’t think it’s weird, will she? That I wanna be friends, just so I can check up on her?’

D sighs.

‘If she thinks you’re nice, she’ll think it’s nice. If she thinks you’re weird, she’ll think it’s creepy.’

‘Creepy? Really…Well we’ve met a few times now, so she must think I’m nice, mustn’t she? I mean it’s weird that we are not friends when you think about it.’

‘Really?’

‘If I can be friends with some lad I met on a stag and chatted to in a bar for five minutes, I can be friends with someone I’ve had sex with, right?’

‘Probably.’

But then I start thinking about my Facebook photos and I change my mind. Back to whatsapp.

Hi Paula! How are you? Would you like to meet up this week?

I press send and put my phone into my pocket. Done. One minute elapses before I check it again. Two blue ticks confirm she has seen my text. I put my phone away and try not to think about it.

A glorious beep. D looks at me. I can’t stop a grin. But it’s only a message from my Mom. I reply. I put the phone away. Why hasn’t she- It beeps again. It’s her!

Hola! Yes sounds goods. Maybe Tuesday night?’

I smile. Whatsapp suddenly seems more bearable. Same for the traffic.

nocktoebenaughto

A Boozy afternoon in a Portuguese Village

A Trip to Quirky Salamanca

A Bit of Romance

Message

A Bit of Romance

Tinder

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.

Close?

Her reply is instant.

Very close.

I can almost see her sit up and pay attention.

First Date

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.

Rehearsal

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?’

‘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.

Last Christmas

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.

The end.

nocktoebenaughto

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Tinder in Bilbao

Connections

‘Okay boyeez. I am in contact with two Spanish ladies,’ Tim declared, after spending a considerable amount of time pushing buttons – the ones on his phone instead of ours, for a change.

Mac and I stood either side of him and looked at the screen.

Gabriela. Her dimpled smile and perfect teeth dazzled beneath a beret. Tim’s finger swiped right.  She was cycling down a country lane. Swipe. Beautiful brown eyes peering up from a huge mug of coffee. The photos finished.

I wondered what she did for a living. Maybe a nurse or Montessori teacher. A model perhaps. Not the high, haughty types of the catwalk but the ones you see in magazines wearing sweaters or smiling in summer dresses.

‘So. That’s her,’ Tim said.

Mac and I made approving noises.

‘She speaks English too.’

‘Perfect,’ Mac and I agreed.

‘And this is Roberta.’

We huddled back over the phone. She was standing in a football stadium; broad-shouldered with long corkscrew hair. Swipe.  An  Athletic Bilbao tattoo on her left arm. Swipe. A raucous, drunken scene crowded with people.

‘There she is there, I think’ Tim said pointing to the woman in the middle towering over everyone else. He pressed a button and the photos disappeared.

‘Thing is…she doesn’t have any English.’

Mac said what I was thinking.

‘Surely you gotta put your time into Gabriela.’

‘Why?’

Mac struggled to get the words out.

‘Cos….’cos…’Cos the other one supports Athletic Bilbao and you support Madrid!’

‘I don’t support Madrid.’

‘ That’s not the point.’ I protested. ‘Gabriela looks gorgeous and speaks English. I mean – Did you see her photos?’

‘Roberta’s the one,’ Tim said and slipped his phone into the front of his shirt.

It didn’t stay in his pocket for long. Every time he received a message from Roberta he had to Google translate it to English, then translate what he wished to say into Spanish and copy and paste that onto his Tinder messages. Thus, Roberta was unaware that Tim hadn’t one word of Spanish and arrangements for a date were being made.

Tour Guide

We had timed our holiday to coincide with Festival Bilbao in August. The festival was essentially a massive three-day street party where the city centre was hectic with pop up bars, food vendors and tents housing DJs. The party would start around 11pm with a jaw dropping firework display, after which the revelry would unfold. Thousands of people could drink, dance and merry make openly on the streets until six in the morning. The police presence was minimal and we witnessed no fights.

Pause for a second and imagine the nervous breakdowns people in Ireland would be having if we tried to launch a similar festival considering the furore over a mild-mannered country singer playing from 9pm to 11pm for 5 nights.  In a stadium. To a broadly middle-aged audience. That’s how uptight we have become.

Anyhow, on with the story.

We happened upon a group of local girls clad in green, white and orange.

‘Right,’ I said.  ‘That’s gotta be a sign. Let’s go talk to these ladies.’

The lads shrugged. Mac had a girlfriend back home and Tim was clearly working off the philosophy that a girl on your phone in the palm of your hand was worth ten standing in front of you. Despite the lads’ indifference we managed to build some sort of a rapport with the girls. They were friendly and spoke English. One of the gang was going to work as an Au-pair in Dundalk, Ireland and her friends were saying goodbye by dressing up like Yanks on Paddy’s Day. They certainly stood out in their tri-colour inspired costumes, but Ireland t-shirts were a common sight on the streets of Bilbao. I got chatting to one of the gang, an attractive girl called Mariana, and I put it to her that I found the frequently spotted green jerseys a peculiar sight, given that we were in Spain.

‘This is not Spain. This is Basque country,’ Mariana corrected in a calm but firm manner. She explained that the affinity with Ireland stemmed from the fact that, as a small nation, we fought to hold on to our language and culture despite efforts from England to stamp out our identity.

‘That’s interesting Mariana. Please tell me more.’

‘As Basque people we too are proud of our culture. Although Spanish is the most widespread language in Bilbao, Basque is also spoken. You may have noticed the many red and white striped jerseys. Those are the colours of our football club, Athletic Bilbao. The club has a Cantera policy meaning they only sign players native to or trained in the Basque region. They have never been relegated from La Liga. This inspires a very loyal and passionate support…’

Roberta’s tattoo certainly testified to that.

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Lost in Translation

Mariana seemed to be enjoying acting as Tour guide. She told me loads more stuff that would have been very useful for a site such as this but I forget nearly all of it because my concentration was diverted towards a new venture; how to charm Mariana. This was concentration poorly spent. Charm, to my drunken brain, consisted of picking a few Spanish compliments that were swimming around my head, getting them all wrong and pouring them out my silly mouth.

‘…And that is why the flag…’

‘Tu eres muy hermano,’ I blurted.

Mariana, naturally, looked a little perplexed.  To recover I racked my brain to think of the Spanish for eyes.

‘Tes huevos son –‘

She cut me off, just as I was about to complement her eggs.

‘Your friend is very quiet,’ she said looking over my shoulder at Tim and shifting her posture. In this deft little motion the cosy personal bubble in which we were ensconced burst and it was no longer just the two of us. I knew I was a busted flush but had just remembered the Spanish for beautiful.

‘Tu eres muy hermosa,’ is what I meant to say.’

‘He looks like that actor Leonardo Di Caprio,’ she said, ignoring my compliment and still looking at Tim.

This was a little annoying. There I was, putting myself centre stage, taking the tightrope walk from friendly chat to daring flirtation and she was more interested in the guy backstage, showing little regard for anything but his phone. Just as well I had the safety net of alcohol to save me from any hurt.

‘Uno momento,’ I said – the first bit of Spanish that warranted a smile.

I went to the nearby Portaloo. While at this bastion of reflection it occurred to me I had to tell Tim to forget about Tinder and go start a real fire. I was amused and a tad disappointed at how quickly I accelerated from happy-go-lucky tourist to pandering idiot. All it took was a flutter of Mariana’s eyelashes. When I got back I expected those eyelashes to be fluttering at Tim – and they were, but he was unaware. Mac and I had a pint at the bar and then he went exploring. I swallowed beer and pride and went to set Tim straight.

‘Well. Are you meeting Roberta or what?’ I asked.

‘I dunno. She sent a few messages but Google can’t translate them. She’s around somewhere. I think she might be  drunk.’

‘Told ya you shoulda went for Gabriela.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing. Mariana’s nice isn’t she?’

He glanced at her, then back to his phone.

‘Yeah.’

‘I think you’re in there man. Maybe you should talk to her.’

‘What?’

‘Mariana. Over there. You should go talk to her. Might be worth your while if you know what I mean.’

Tim looked up. He caught Mariana’s eye. He smiled at her. She smiled back

‘Maybe you’re right,’ he said and strolled towards her.

Convinced I would be recounting these details on their wedding day I watched closely. What I witnessed though was  defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory in three quick and easy steps;

 1.Tim producing his phone and showing it to Mariana.

2. Mariana stepping back and looking askance at Tim.

3.Mariana berating a sheepish Tim.

Knowing I would be recounting this story to everyone in every bar ever, I stepped closer to hear.

‘Why do you ask me this? You want me to translate messages for you so you can hook up with some girl?’ Mariana spat.

‘I’m sorry. I’ve been messaging her all day. I just thought maybe you could- ‘

‘I don’t know what is wrong with you,’ Mariana said and walked away, all clacking heels and indignant face (a little overdramatic I thought considering she had hardly conversed with Tim all night. Perhaps she wasn’t used to not getting what she wanted. I, you will have noticed, handled it like an old pro).

After a flurry of 11th hour messages Tim’s date with Roberta got lost in translation. We had to postpone dwelling on our catalogue of errors as Mac rushed towards us with exciting news of bars dispensing free booze for a limited period. We hurried through the streets, dashing towards the next adventure like the Famous Five. Except of course, we were still a trio.