I was in Madrid for a week on a grant to do research. Before, I had always stayed with my friend Regina, a sculptor. She lived with her parents on the long, urbane Castellana, in an apartment that took up the top two floors of the building. The top floor was for storage. One long room was Regina’s studio: bare walls, a skylight; a series of works-in-progress in plaster, marble, and stone. Downstairs was crammed with gilt-framed paintings and chaise longues and the air cloyed with pot-pourri.
This visit, I stayed with Alfonso and Emily, who were working long hours starting their Irish bar on Calle Almagro. This way, I could come and go as I pleased, and see my friend. It was perfect, I thought. But when I called by the morning after arriving, Rosi the maid said she was sorry but Regina was in Valencia for the week.
Security guards and metal detectors protected the Biblioteca Nacional. In the reading room, ruff-collared busts of Lope de Vega and Calderon peered down from eyries high on the shelves. Sitting at one of a hundred mahogany desks I glanced at my neighbours: female students serious at their laptops; grey, bearded men taking notes from ancient tomes. They looked up only to stretch or rub their eyes. When the library closed in the evening, they would go home.
Without Regina, it seemed my main reason for being in Madrid was gone. After three days spent alone and frightened, I decided I had to do something. I would go for a walk.
It was about half-eight that Holy Thursday when I took the Metro to Malasafia, one of the oldest parts of old Madrid. A boy and a girl in grimy denim jackets and faded jeans were leaning on the handrail at the top of the stairs. A taste of hash smoke lingered about them, dissipating softly into the twilight. Young and dark, they were watching the sunset spreading yellow and deepening orange along the horizon. It lit up at the end of the avenue like a palace of gold, almost reachable.
‘Que fuerte,’ they whispered, how beautiful.
I lingered for a moment and then turned eastward, where the sky was darkening into purple. In the side-streets all the shutters were down, except for a few dimly-lit bars where men were drinking quietly. Scattered traffic moved on the avenues. Half of Madrid was away on holiday. Sedate, well-dressed families were out walking, coming and going from Mass, stopping nonchalantly to let their poodles drop yellow turds on the pavement. In a backstreet, two little boys were holding a conversation from opposing balconies.
I’d been wandering for about an hour when I came to Plaza Alonso Martinez, the intersection of four boulevards. No cars passed. It was quiet now. A man in an overcoat went by, walking his dog, his breath steaming. Black trees lined the traffic islands like an etching. In the windows above the square, curtains -were being drawn against nightfall.
On the comer was a cafe. It seemed dark and old in the dusk light; self-assured, almost, with its domed conservatories. One by one, the street-lights began to come on. Red at first, coagulating, they flickered uncertainly; elongating, playing like fireflies in the glass. Old, yellow lamps floated within.
I sat up at the bar. Bronzed with foundation, two elegant women in their forties sat a few stools down from me, talking in husky tones, gesturing intently. Young couples were sitting down to eat at the tables by the windows, where you could see the twilight coming down.
After ten minutes, a woman breezed in and perched on the stool beside me, positioning her garish handbag before her on the bar. She knew the barmaid, and talked on about husbands and work, smoking, sipping her tea, talking even when the barmaid walked away to serve someone else. I pushed an ashtray down the bar to her when I saw the ash on her cigarette pluming.
‘Very kind of you,’ she said, turning to me with a smile, and the drift into conversation began.
She looked in her late fifties: her skin soft and powdered, her flesh contained by her make-up; her bottom teeth left the gum at strange angles, donkey-like, and some of them were stained brown with coffee. She dropped saccharine tablets into her tea and offered me a cigarette. She was well groomed, in a check suit and a silk scarf pinned by a brooch, but her legs hinted at the dumpiness of a peasant.
She talked about her relations who lived in the United States; half-joking, she called her brother a traitor for changing his nationality.
‘Now my nieces speak American better than Spanish. I don’t understand it…’ She shook her head sadly, then she brightened. ‘I usually meet my sister here, she might be along tonight. You’d like her. She has very pretty daughters, you know. I’ll introduce you. Are you American? Or English?’
‘No, Irish,’ I replied.
‘Ah! Irish! Good. I prefer the Scots and the Irish. I have a business: we buy material from Scotland and make sportswear. We used to buy from the Catalans, but their prices were too high.
‘My name is Elisa, I’m from Bilbao. I left it when I was a child. I’ve lived all my life since the age of seven here in Madrid.’ But there was still a trace of the north in her girlish voice: a subtle inflection, at once snobbish and egalitarian, which told you that she would offer her opinions to anyone.
‘Make sure you find yourself a nice Spanish girl. She must have good manners and be a good housewife. There are bad girls out there, you know,’ she clucked.
After we’d been talking for a while, I found myself asking: ‘How was it under Franco?’
I was slightly shocked when she said: ‘Well, very good, actually. My mother could walk through San Sebastian with a brooch as big as my fist and no one would bother her. For those of us who weren’t political-those of us who were normal, I mean-life was very good. No crime, everyone respectful. No one dared to rob or steal: they knew what they’d have coming to them. There were no drugs either. Now look at the streets. A minister recently got it into his head to let all the thieves out of prison. It was summer, they had nowhere to go, so of course: “Let’s get stealing!” They should have stolen his car, see how he’d like it, the socialist!
‘On my way here tonight a boy asked me for some money. I stopped and asked him: “Son, where are you from?” “Ciudad Real,” he said. “Well then, what are you doing on the street in Madrid? Why are you begging? You should go home to your mother: go home to your friends and your family in Ciudad Real.”‘
At this point I misunderstood her.
‘You know his mother?’
She looked at me, horrified.
‘Me, know his mother? No, no,’ she laughed.
It was my turn to be surprised. All the tenderness that had been in her voice had disappeared in an instant.
‘But no, he didn’t look like an addict,’ she went on. ‘I hope he goes home soon. The young men on the street become pushers very quickly: the dealers give them some money and some drugs, and in exchange they run for them. They fall into the whole mess then. But I gave him enough money for a sandwich. My friend, her husband is a colonel in the army, their son was an addict. One morning getting up for work, they found him in the bath, fully clothed. It was an overdose. The heroin had been too pure. It was very sad.’
I could feel Madrid encroaching all around us, drawing close. Its pulse was slow, and the blood that flowed into its sick heart was infected, with what disease or sadness I was afraid to know.
We sat on through two of my beers. The cold dregs of her tea still sat before her. She’d been talking so much she hadn’t had a chance to order another. Night settled. The window-seats filled up with families. Behind us a group of elderly German tourists talked excitedly over bell-shaped snifters, quarter-filled with amber. Elisa talked on. ‘I myself was attacked last summer: by a drug addict, I think he was. I was wearing a gold chain, how stupid of me, but he only wanted my bag: the money of course. I tried to hold on, but he threw me to the ground. My back wasn’t right all summer.’ Her lips shook slightly as she spoke.’Luckily, some waiters heard me scream. Three of them ran out and wrestled him to the ground. I couldn’t see anything they were kicking him so much. He was Portuguese, and when the police came they found a knife this big,’ she motioned with her hands. ‘I was glad none of them got stabbed because of me. I got everything back, but they could only hold him for twenty-four hours, or whatever amount of time it is now. “‘This is a disgrace!” I told the sergeant. “This would never have happened under Franco!”‘ she stage-whispered under her hand, laughing, as if she knew how people would take it if they heard her.
She went on her way after spending a long time paying her bill and talking to the weary barmaid. She insisted on buying me a beer, and told me as she left: ‘When you go back over there, tell your mother: “Hello from a Spanish lady in Spain.” Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, goodbye.’
I returned the compliment, smiled and said goodbye, and thanked her.
Outside, night was fully down by now. The radio was warning holiday-makers to take it easy on the road. I sat on for another while in the stillness. Then I drained the beer she had bought me, shook my head, smiling at the contradictions, and went out into the cool, clean night.