Viva España was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2010
Reg watched the two cyclists, a couple, wheeling their bikes towards the bar. Like a text book illustration of the difference between the human male and the human female in their skin-tight black Lycra shorts, so sweaty they looked spray-on, their every cleft and bulge mercilessly delineated like strange beasts in season.
They scented the air as they tethered their mounts, strode towards the bar, eyes scrunched up myopically as they hunted down food, completely ignorant of Reg’s reluctant survey of their supremely unsexy genitals. Robert and Johnny were oblivious. Once upon a time, Robert would have noticed the bikes, at least, but here and now, his focus was entirely on his brandy and chocolate milk and his packet of B&H, his obese son’s on his banana milkshake and tube of Pringles.
He thought of Steve, his son, grown up now, gone; last heard of in Australia, bumming around. He envied him. Steve and he would have exchanged glances at the sight of these two; there wouldn’t have been any need for words. He could picture the wry downturn of his mouth, one eyebrow arching, one dipping, saying it all. He missed him, a lump came to his throat, and he tilted his head back and looked up at the sky, diverting tears, blinking, as if troubled by dust and they just screenwash, not an overflow of the solute sadness that lapped around him, suddenly deeper, losing his footing in its quicksand. He lurched back onto terra firma, focusing on the cut-out palm tree shape silhouetted against the flat blue, the one piece of nature evident in the concrete fortress, a living souvenir of what once must have been a lovely place.
‘Right,’ he said, ‘Everyone decided?’
Robert wanted a steak, well done, with chips. Johnny chose pizza and chips. The bikers settled nearby; they held hands over the table. They seemed happy. Reg wondered why anyone would stop here if in possession of a bike. Maybe for the supermarket – certainly not the scenery. Reg wasn’t hungry in the heat, asked for another beer and some tapas, with apology in his eyes as he looked at the woman, hoping that she might understand that he was not like them. She took their order with a smile.
She wasn’t young. Her señorita days were gone, her skin was lined with the sun, her teeth tarnished by tobacco and time but Reg noted with surprise that he found her attractive. He watched her weaving between tables and wondered about her. She caught his eye and, what was that? He felt that thing, that thing he hadn’t felt for years – that dart of acknowledgement, that exchange, that receipt, it was there all right. Trade. My God, he could have her if he remembered how. He felt life surge through him like a miracle. No one noticed. Not Robert, not Johnny, not the bikers. A private miracle in this God forsaken place, where he’d come, with his fat, depressed sibling and son to help him through his crisis, the old hand that he’d become, highly qualified in grief, Ellie’s protracted death and his survival had made him the family hero.
The wounded healer, he helped them all through their stuff now; redundancy; bankruptcy, you name it, they all came to him, and he didn’t mind. He’d been given a new role when his primary one had died with Elaine, his secondary when Steve hit the road. From husband to father, from father to brother, from brother to best mate to all; it was a diversion, he knew that, but it worked.
He suddenly wanted to laugh at loud. It was a revelation. That this was what it all boiled down to, feeling alive, being happy again, whole – that mysterious thing, magnetism, a moment of connection, a release or collision of energies, catalytic, incendiary, maybe even made of the same stuff that started the whole damn ball rolling in the first place and keeping it rolling evermore. Something beyond language, or before it, because all the words, all the thinking, have just been rendered meaningless by a shot of the unspoken stuff. And that even when the reproductive bit is unwanted, unneeded, or just long gone, the ability to feel it remains, like a bed-bound ballet dancer, forever pirouetting in his mind. Reg was in love. And even if it was only for the duration of a beer, it was as if the sky had opened and was raining gold on his sunburnt, bald head.
After Johnny had gone to bed, he’d spent yet another agonising evening with Robert going over the same old stuff. Susan had left him. That was the fact of the matter. But the whys the wherefores and the infinite possibility of what was in her mind could fill time like time itself. Reg listened or pretended to. He pitied his brother, but he didn’t blame Susan. He had never known her; they lived too far apart for that, never particularly warmed to her. They’d met at family occasions, but in fact, after Elaine’s death, she’d been kind. Hadn’t avoided him at barbeques, had made eye contact when she asked how he was doing. Through the brandy blur, he saw her that day, it was Steve’s leaving do, and again, he felt the urge to laugh. One arm folded across her body, propping up the other that held a fag close to her mouth, her breasts pressed together, tanned and lined with a geological cleavage in a low-cut yellow T-shirt, flame red hair, styled and immobile, hard-faced with determination, she’d again asked him how he was doing.
‘Makes you think, doesn’t it Reggie?’ she said, and it always irritated him when people called him that. That had been his Ellie’s prerogative, not hers, ‘Life’s too bloody short.’ That old chestnut. So there it was. She’d been planning it then. Took her nearly a year to do it though. Left him a note, took the car and that was that. She’s written to him; she’s in Wales, so she says.
It was the booze that made it funny. That Ellie’s death could have led inexorably to this. To sitting here, listening to the endless monotone self-pitying drivel issuing from his brother’s mouth, the corners of which were marked with the revolting concoction he insisted on drinking, his chocolate milk and brandy, a super-calorific Alco-Pop he liked to think he’d invented, as if it could be an achievement. Soon Reg ceased to hear what he was saying, just watched the wet lips moving, thinking about Steve as a boy, and a day at Margate when he’d cried because a dog took his ice-cream, very gently, out of his hand, and swallowed it whole, cone and all.
‘Wales! Wales! Fucking Wales!’ Robert says this as over and over as if it was the worst thing about it, more unbelievable than a woman deciding that the life she had left was not going to be spent preparing food for a fat man who took her for granted. Apparently, some bloke called Bryce, Bryce! again, as unthinkable as Wales, had left the chip shop at the same time. So life can change overnight. And the chips were never the same again, said Reg, but Robert couldn’t do humour. He had been able to once, when they were kids, he could see him, hand pressed to his face, biscuit crumbs shooting out from between his fingers, bright red, doubled up, as they watched Mrs Andrews next door wrestling with her washing in the wind.
He realised he didn’t know this man, his brother, at all, and he didn’t really care. He wanted to shout at him, to say that her staying with him would have been the bloody mystery. After another hour had passed, Reg said he was going to bed. Either that or he was going to blurt out what was in his mind, ‘But at least she’s not fucking well dead you fat bastard!’ Robert got up, bulldozing through the plastic furniture. ‘Night bro,’ he said, smacking him on the back as if trying to dislodge something and stumbling to his room.
Before he went to bed, Reg looked over at the bar. A few late birds still in there, the cyclists long gone, continuing their weird migration, and he watched as she came out and started to pile up chairs, chaining them to the wall. She looked over and he raised his hand. She did the same, one hand on the small of her back as she pushed her shoulders back, stretching; she was tired. Reg wanted to stride over and help her, carry her back here and … Jesus, he was more than a bit pissed.
‘Uncle Reg I don’t feel well,’ Johnny, in pyjamas was standing in the doorway. Reg wasn’t surprised. The assault on the lad’s stomach had been violent. Big tears were rolling down his round red cheeks, and Reg sat back down at the white plastic table, pulling another chair close and patting it, the boy coming to him, lost in his tummy ache, his wanting Mummy. Reg’s heart went out to him. After all, he knew the pain of being denied access to the woman you love. He wasn’t an appealing kid, not the sort of nephew you’d be proud to take to the park, happy for other people to assume was yours. On the contrary, you almost wished you had a sign saying, ‘He’s not mine.’
Poor Johnny, pupating inside his cocoon of fat, wrapped, as if one fine day he might emerge a fully formed man. He was angry with Robert and Susan for allowing this to happen to their child, this warped version of love, that for whatever reason, just cannot say no. That can only supply attention of an edible kind. He pulled the chair closer, put his arm round the chubby shoulder, clammy in the heat, shuddering as the boy sobbed.
‘Buenas noches!’ the sound of her voice floated over, but it was for the last straggle of drinkers, not for him.
Reg woke at dawn with a thumping headache. Already the light was surgical, lancing his eyeballs, the sun hammering on the balconies and the piazza, the white concrete batting it back. The place was like punishment. Why the hell he’d agreed to come along he didn’t know. He’d hire a scooter later, go into Benidorm, at least there was variety there, some feeling of real life somewhere, behind the offers of full English breakfasts and shops selling mugs with pink ceramic tits sticking out of them, postcards of girls’ bronzed backsides in string like the gifts they looked like to some, not to him. He wasn’t interested in girls. Never thought that time would come, but it did, when he met Ellie. Oh, he looked, at beauty, at youth, but in the same way that he looked at animals, or the sea. He’d learnt about friendship in love with her, about a whole person, just like him, in constant flux, known but unknown, but who knew him better than anyone, loved the parts of him that didn’t change, and the parts that did, rubbing his bald patch, kissing it.
She was like university to him, that’s what he thought. He’d never been to university, but Steve had, and told him about it, about a place where you learn through your own interest, for the right reasons, for the love of it. He’d never get over it, didn’t even want to. It was a mountain in his life. A huge mass of memory. He could sit on its slopes for a while, tend them, grow things on them, or he could avoid it, turn away from it, but disappear? No. It couldn’t. It was there in place of her, the antithesis of her, the night where she’d been the day. He accepted it now as the price you pay. Understood it and lost his anger. If loving her was his first degree, then grief was his masters.
He made himself a cup of strong instant coffee with holiday UHT milk, and drank it, looking out towards the bar. Still shut. Where was she? Asleep with someone or alone? What had they seen in each other? What are we capable of knowing without having to be told? Was he just imagining things? Now that he was feeling it, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. But just a day ago it had been impossible. He thought that place in him had died with his wife. He’d wanted it to. Whatever she’d said about being happy, about finding someone else was just rubbish. Just stuff that you’re meant to say. He couldn’t have said the same if it was the other way round. No way. He was no hero; he knew it then for sure. And anyway, he couldn’t ever feel that way again could he? How? When? He’d be dead first. He wanted to be.
He recognised what had happened as a sign, a staging post in what was called, so neatly, the grieving ‘process’, like shifting the furniture, or hoovering under the bed where her DNA would lie in microscopic drifts. A miracle then. And he wanted it. Just a taster, just a toe in the water. He rummaged through his wash stuff for Alka-Seltzer, endured their fizzing, knocked it back. The bathroom was clinical, with that particular smell of foreign dampness and a bathroom that belonged to no one.
He thought of his, emptier these days, no make-up, no potions, no lingering smell of perfume, or some special bath stuff a friend had bought her. Clearing away her smell was worse than burying her. He bought vacuum bags for her jumpers, smelling of her through and through, sealed them up tight so it could never escape, and on drunken nights, deep in the madness of his early grief he’d open them, releasing the ghost of her, holding his head over the precious ether then clenching the bag shut like a glue sniffer saving every molecule. The gulp of her in his nose hitting his bloodstream, he’d sit still, savouring it with his eyes shut for a desperate moment of denial.
Outside was more pleasant than it looked. He could smell coffee on the breeze a sweet smell of something baking (though that seemed unlikely), the high note of ozone from the sea; hear the murmuring of radios. He walked across the piazza, even behind his sunglasses he had to scrunch up his eyes against the glare. It was probably hotter than it felt, and he feared for his sunburn. He should have thought of that, but still, he wasn’t going to go back for a hat, or for sun cream. He’d sneaked out, the others were still asleep, and he didn’t want to take Johnny for a walk, to play with him, or talk to him. He felt bad then, resolving to spend some time with him later, allow Johnny to show him his world, his Gameboy, the football game he was always playing, his thumbs seeing action of which his legs could only dream.
And there she was, like a scene from a bad film, the beach was empty apart from one woman and a dog. It was her; he knew it was even before he had the right to be sure. Strange, but not really. He was the one that was out of place. She probably did this every day, every day when he was back at home, lying in their bed, a pillow in his arms, not wanting to open his eyes and face the quiet house, stretching that moment before truth, trying to make it an eternity.
The day had seemed endless after their meeting. Killing time, that’s all it was.
He went with Johnny to the supermarket, steering him past crisps in bags the size of pillowcases, tried in vain to tempt him with plastic tennis rackets and other beach games. He asked him about school, wondered whether it was right or wrong to mention his mum, took him for a paddle, but Johnny wanted to go back to the apartment. The boy was unreachable, lost in his fathoms of fat. Reg wondered how bad things had got at home, the rows, the atmosphere. With no sibling on hand to escape with, maybe he’d nurtured his obesity, like hiding under the duvet in a storm, he took his protection with him wherever he went.
Robert was sitting on the balcony with the Daily Express and a mug of tea. God, it wasn’t even lunchtime. Reg took a towel and headed back to the beach with a paperback he’d picked at random from the pile in Steve’s room, science fiction; he used to like that sort of thing. ‘A Cult Classic!’ it claimed, he skimmed over the first few pages, feeling old as the characters wrangled with metaphysics and quantum mechanics, hyperreality, wave functions and fifth dimensions, quasars, quarks and walking through walls, sex with hot humanoid aliens and with no detail spared as if its intricacies were as new to the world as cyberspace. He put the book down. Sex.
He allowed his eyes to linger on a woman who was applying suntan lotion to her midriff. He remembered Steve bringing home his first serious girlfriend, her staying the night. They’d laughed about it, just another of those parental conspiracies, like swapping 50p for a tooth or leaving out a saucer of milk for Rudolf. Ellie put earplugs in that night. For Steve, not for herself. His stomach twisted with longing and dread. Tonight. Only five hours to go.
He hired the scooter, showered, shaved, put on a shirt.
‘I’m off out Robert,’ he said, offering no explanation. Two rotund faces looked round at him, taken by surprise at this irregular behaviour.
‘Oh right,’ said Robert, feigning disinterest. Boys again, Reg going out on a date, jealous Robert destined to stay in with Mum, only now it’s with Johnny.
She spoke a bit of English, of course. How come she’d agreed? Although grief had made him slim, he was no oil painting. But that was daft. As far as he was concerned, she was not acting with free will. It wasn’t possible. She had been lined up for him by the fates, part of the grieving ‘process’, prescribed by some supernatural doctor, by Ellie, even, knowing what was good for him as ever, like making him eat more fruit and veg though God knows it hadn’t worked for her. He had to ask her if she’d like to go out for a drink. She had to say that yes she would, and it had to be that tonight was her night off. Now her arms were around his waist, and she was pressed to his back. A woman and a man on a scooter– can’t have looked like much to the rest of the traffic, but to Reg, following her directions as she pressed on his leg and pointed down streets with her fingers, it was The Great Escape.
She’d put her hand on his when he told her about Elaine. Kindness, it always floored him. Like someone giving you their pay and display ticket for nothing, or dodging through the traffic to help push your car. Tonight, it was his turn for comfort, and he was going to accept it. It had been offered, endless offers of dinners and walks, drinks, rounds of golf, tickets to a game. Nothing touched him. They were the wrong drugs. What he needed was a woman’s touch, homeopathy – a minute dilution, a drop of the essence, like with like, but with no comparison, no contest.
On the way back she made him stop to look at the view. He looked back at the Mecca that was Benidorm; the coastline lit up never to rest. There was a path leading down to a bit of beach, too small, too rocky, too difficult for the developers. She asked him if he’d swim, laughed at him as he shivered. He didn’t have to act tough tonight. She was naked. In the darkness there was no detail; detail was unimportant, just like he’d told Ellie when she showed him her scar; when he’d lifted her hand away from where her breast had been, her eyes lowered, allowing him privacy in his reaction. He reached out for her. Laughing, they lay down on the sand.
Photo: Annie Spratt