FIFTY FIFTY 

FIFTY FIFTY 

Reflections on growing up... at fifty.

Three days in Madrid

Sleeping in the recliner. Wake up with various pains on my back from trying to contort into a comfortable position. Silence, I reach my hand up and hold my mothers hand. It’s warm, I squeeze and feel the waxiness of her skin between my fingers, and her life is just warmth and shallow breaths now. I’m sitting on her lap, we are visiting relatives and it’s the end of the night, dinner, conversation, the grown ups are still deep in conversation but children are falling asleep, my head is resting on her chest, her arms around me. She is talking, but I only hear her voice through her chest, her voice and her heartbeat at the same time and the muffled sound makes my eyelids heavy. The memory makes my eyelids droop now as my bones try to lock into a comfortable position in the recliner. “Good night Dolores” I let go of her hand and fall back into sleep, my ear pressed on the sweaty vinyl.

August sun is flooding the room and mum is still breathing. It’s a body, a body that carried her for seventy-two years and now is hanging on because it is programmed to live. What is a person unless it can be manifested? Where are the signs of her? To her thinness was illness. She didn’t see herself as healthy unless she had reached a social level of obesity. She grew up in the time when only rich people were fat. Anorexia was incomprehensible to her. Now she was thin, very thin and beyond ill. And she was gone, but her body didn’t know how to switch off. It automatically took in the next breath, then the next, then the gasp. I told her it was fine to go, to stop and let go, leave to that place that dead people go to, or nowhere, or just stop.

I thanked her for my life, for being my mother, for holding me, for crying with pride for me. And I told her to go, as if for once she could something for herself. Go, rest, enough is enough. I went home to the apartment and had a shower and went looking for an Internet café to organise a funeral. Things have changed since I lived here, I had had trouble buying credit for a mobile phone now I had to organise a funeral. I sat in a net café near Puerta del Sol and googled “Funerales, Madrid”. Entries with words like Ocaso , sunset, companies with names like dusk and twilight.

Then the phone rang and my uncle at the hospital said “You better come over it doesn’t look good”. The taxi took no time to get to the hospital through the empty Sunday, summer holidays streets of Madrid. My uncle was waiting outside the palliative ward and told me to go in. A young doctor stopped me and asked me if I was her son when I wanted the body released. I told him that he had just told me she was dead and he apologised profusely then pointed me towards the room. She had already been propped with a rolled up towel around her neck and her hands crossed on her chest, her lips, for the first time since we arrived were closed. I touched her hand and it was cold at last. I leaned on the grey steel locker against the wall and sobbed. Then I stood at the window looking at the skyline, Madrid empties out in August as most people escape to the coast, it was Sunday, the pollution was down and it was quiet, for once Madrid was quiet. The air was so clear that the sunlight sparkled like I’ve only seen in Australia. And there it ended. Looking out at the commincations tower, El Pirulí. In the most beautiful, bright sunshine I have ever seen in Madrid and I thought “What a perfectly beautiful day to die”.

 

ARRIVAL

 

THE last time I traveled through the suburb of Springvale, in Melbourne. it wasn't as Asian as this. It was more ... Australian. Actually it was downright British. My memory turns the steering wheel and the car finds its way to the Enterprise Hostel. The car winds its way through a forest of new trees. I'm alone in the car but there is a little boy giving me directions. I'll never forget how to get there.

 

Gliding up to the driveway, the buildings jump out of my subconscious and place themselves one by one in front of me. Not a plate of glass is left intact and the sun glistens on the shards. Weeds pry the tiles apart and the old recreation hall, where Arturo, the boy from Puerto Rico, taught me to draw ships, has been burned out. The reception area is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern airport after a bomb blast.

 

One foot steps out of the car, the door stays open and the engine is running as my eyes drag me out. The perspective of the buildings is wrong, everything is too low. I crouch down to the height I was that day and the rush of memories knocks me to the ground.

 

The airbrakes squeal, the bus comes to a halt. We step down on to the wide reception area, out of the rain. My sister and I, new gabardines, holding hands. My mother and father are standing nearby, unable to take in all the new sights fast enough. It is 24 May 1972. In two days I'll be 10 years old and this is Australia. The four of us, two suitcases and a trunk, our whole world. Our whole world.

 

My sister's eyes look out from under her hood; the resemblance to my five-year-old son who is now the same age as she was then is astounding. My father is the same age I am now. My mother looks around, "What next?" A cleaning lady walks past, looks at my sister and says "Hola! Hablas Español?" My parents' faces light up and for a brief moment the fear - yes fear, that's what it was - leaves them.

 

The doors are locked, and through the broken glass and the weeds and the tall grass lay the basketball court and the walkway that leads to our room, Red B 13.

 

The cafeteria is a cavern of lino and debris. The smells of newly discovered dishes are gone but I'm still there holding up my tray, mutely pointing at different meals, signing to the lady behind the counter. Tea and water, as much as you could drink. I know Corn Flakes are poured in a bowl with milk because on the plane the airhostess showed me how to eat them when she saw me eating them out of the little box like potato chips.

 

At the far end of the hall the word "wogs" has been graffitied on the wall, and I smile at the irony of the word in my own life. I imagine the young kid spraying it on the bricks, and the faces of ghosts looking up from their trays watching the word form. W. Perplexity. O. Spoons float in mid air. G. Heads tilt. S. I think: "We left a long time ago; found lives, destinies. You, young man, are still here." The hiss of the spray can stops and the young man stands to admire his masterpiece, but the ghosts have gone back to their meals.

 

The word "cheese" lays on the floor in the foyer. Cheese was number two and it used to sit up on the board under ham, number one; curried egg was number five. We used to line up here before school to pick up our school lunches. The system was simple in English. Five brown paper bags with two columns printed on them. One column for the number of sandwiches, one column for the corresponding number of the 10 choices of filling on the board.

 

The system was never translated and, more often than not, we collected empty lunch bags that the lunch lady quickly filled with spare sandwiches while she explained the system once again in English.

 

The word cheese is on the floor, written in stick-on letters on a Perspex strip, but that's not the board I remember. On the wall now is a face sheet of card with the ten fillings written in Texta. It seems they had to replace it a few times.

 

The covered walkways lead to the different wings. Green, Red and Yellow. The colors have changed but the little boy is already halfway down what used to be the red block, and I arrive at the bottom of the stairs, down the second floor corridor to the room. Red B 13. Regardless of the new number on the door, it's this room, no question about it. One small bedroom to the left, one to the right, a toilet, a hand-basin.

 

The cupboards and the desk were fitted to the wall in the small living room and were made to last; they're still here but it was a bigger living room, I'm sure it was. The desk where my father put his typewriter, our first purchase in the new country. A typewriter?

 

The mattresses, one in the small bedroom, are not supporting each other against the wall in the living room. My mother and sister fell asleep on one of them that first afternoon while I went exploring and my father went searching. They awoke the next morning. How many people had spent their first night on those mattresses? How many had laid awake that first night wondering what they had done, what now? Staring up at a blank ceiling.

 

The view from the window remains the same, if a little tattered: graveled driveways that haven't felt the weight of cars for some time and have gone flabby. The trees block the view now as they did then, offering little information about what lies beyond them. The hostel is empty, physically and spiritually. It was holding back for a pause in life. Existence had just ended or was about to begin. It supplied food, shelter and human contact filtered by a foreign language.

 

I'm back in the car, in the driveway where the bus pulled up that day. I don't know why the hostel has been left to ruin or if there are plans for its future. As the car pulls out to the West Road I thank it; I know I'll never see it again. The little boy is gone, no longer in the seat next to me; in his place is a Perspex strip with the word "cheese" on it.

Happiness is for Poofters

 

The people that surround us as children are meant to be there forever, but they are not, they come and go and we are left with the hope and the fear that they come back. The primal instinct of attachment.  The feeling that those we trust will come back for us, and so they don’t leave us we develop that personality that we think will keep them there, the performer, the needy, the demanding, the drama queen, the silent one.  I became the good boy, so I was told, the polite, happy good boy.

Measles, every child got the measles, and mumps, they were diseases you had to have. Measles made your skin go blotchy and bright light, apparently, hurt your eyes. So I lay in that bed in Dusseldorf at the back of the German lady’s house looking up at the red cellophane covering the light bulb. My father came home took one look at me lying in the huge bed and threw himself at me crying. I asked my mother why he was crying and she said because I was sick. But now, looking back I realise it was because he was drunk. My father rarely cried unless he was drunk. He cried or he looked for someone to have a fight with. This scene always went with the worried look on my mother’s face, which may also explain the sad look on the wedding photos. It’s a set of looks we learned over the years. The bulging eyes of my father, an underlying anger on the verge of exploding, an uneasiness that overtook my mother, the glances at whatever he was drinking. My mother always counted my fathers drinks. It was her who had been the sole witness of his drinking and his black moods on her own, by now for years. And yet she married him. The same panic that set in when her father would come home drunk, she knew that panic, expected that panic yet never questioned that she had a choice in dealing with that panic. To her the black moods belonged to someone else and it was her fate to deal with them.

How my father treated her when they were alone and he had been drinking I can only imagine but it would not have been easy or pretty and I don’t remember her ever asking for help. Those things were kept in the family, the fear of “what would they say” ever present. The outside world to my father was never to be trusted. People talked. They criticised. Few more than my father. The world was divided into to two shifty money makers who only made money by being tight or ripping other people and the others who were the poor, innocent ignorant masses who were unaware of the mechanics of the capitalist world. For, you see, nobody had the insight to see the deception that capitalism was playing on the planet.

To my father happiness was for poofters. Men, real men, were serious men of suffering. He didn’t have a sense of humour as much a sense of sarcasm; his laughter was always aimed at the ridiculous world he was born to suffer through. His laughter was a deflation of negativity at any comment he disagreed with. A shake of the head at how any one could come out with such a stupid comment. My father was twelve, emotionally, he was twelve, and till the day he died.  My mother was older, a year younger in age, but older in her soul.

I can only guess why my father stopped maturing. Born in the middle of the Spanish Civil War where half the country killed or betrayed the other half. Where neighbours pointed the finger at each other and watched as people were taken away and tortured, shot, or as the case was in his village rounded up and burned at the stake in the outskirts by the railway line. The story of the train passing and the windows being shut so the passengers would not witness the horrific sight was told at family gatherings in the few times that the war was ever mentioned. His father had died when he was ten and left a mother with five boys to fend for herself. His father, my grandfather had died a sick man but his involvement in the loosing republican side meant my grandmother was left without a pension. He had spent sometime in a concentration camp but this was not a detail I ever managed to get out of my father, and his grave was lost. How can you loose a grave? My grandmother was always as vague about this as everyone else. The loosing side of the Spanish Civil war was taught to forget. To avoid any conversation of the war, to fear the civil guards, to never ask questions and not look for graves that were moved or lost. My father had lost the sight of his eye as a child and this gave him a cross-eyed look, which meant he was teased and nicknamed, as would have been the casual cruelness of a Spanish village in the forties. He had been born with a lazy eye and my grandmother refused to give him glasses because it would make him look silly. Thus losing sight in that eye altogether. The eye was also a point not to be mentioned as I learned once when I pointed out his affliction to a friend of his in conversation. I was ten at the time and the fact that I had mentioned “the eye” was reminded to me over and over. I never mentioned the eye in front of him ever again.

Essentially nobody in the world could be truly trusted according to my father. Even strong friendships eventually turned sour.  My parents would return from Germany loaded with gifts for the family, every few months making the trip back to Spain in their car. It was a time of youth, of stovepipe pants, brilliantine hair. My fathers hair combed into a cow lick at the front of his head. A drop of water hanging from it, which would sometimes freeze into an icicle in the bitterly cold German mornings. There was no wind-chilled factor in those days, just cold, bitter, bone bristling cold. While my father and my uncle worked in the glass factory in Dusseldorf The Beatles were playing in Hamburg. There were motorbikes, leather jackets, and chiffon petticoats, stockings clipped at the thigh. Reel to reel tape recorders where the family back in Spain would gather to listen for the first time and cringe at the sound of their voices. My grandmother made the trip to Germany by once with me, my mother would recollect this trip with resignation as apparently my grandmother spent most nights of her stay worrying about dying in Germany. She didn’t, actually she didn’t die for many years to come.

It was on one of this trips of this sketchy time lime that nobody seems clear about that my parents decided to take me back to Germany and this is where most of my memories of this time take shape, in fact my memory then continues uninterrupted from the time I was finally with my parents. 

“We are going back to Spain tomorrow” I said to the Spanish neighbours across the street. But my parents were loading up the car as I spoke. They told me we where going to Spain tomorrow yesterday but to me that was the answer to the question. And as I was waiting for tomorrow the car was loaded, my uncle and father sat in the front, my mother, my untie and me in the back. The car was a wagon and my mothers head rested on a wall of possessions filling the back. Why did we leave? We left because my father said it was time to go. Because after five years of good wages, trips back to Spain, motorcycles, smart clothes, dancing at the Spanish Club, driving an Opel car and sponge birthday cakes with peaches and cream it was time for my father to leave. Back to a Spain that was still recuperating from a civil war, in a dictatorship, where people didn’t like talking about politics, where people couldn’t talk about politics. Where the sight of a civil guard froze a whole street.

There are three things I clearly remember from that last trip across three countries. One was driving through the steep winding roads of the Pyrenees. My mother reaching above her head having to hold on to the bullfighter painting which was sliding above our pile of possessions.  I remember Spanish people in France, the south of France, this were the Spanish people that did not go back to Spain, the ones that had escaped the war and had settled in many French villages, especially around Lyon. The exiles, the ones that could not make that drive across the Pyrenees just a couple of hours away. The war had finished some twenty years ago and then they had to endure German occupation in France, and there were thousands of them clumped in communities throughout the south. Their conversation about Spain was always short “We’ve been here since the war”. There would always be a meal and a laugh for a passing Spanish traveller and a wave outside their houses as we drove away to a place they could not. To families who could not talk about Franco the way they could, to families that chose to stay and live in fear. And yet here we were going back to that place. For living in fear is easy once one has come to terms with the boundaries of that life. My mother had learned those with my father. Spain had learned those with Franco. It’s easy; one is respectful even if requests lack reason. One never asks detail questions. Avoid certain subjects, never expect empathy. Never expect that your wishes will be considered. You may ask but accept the answer as readily as it is given. And be happy; amuse yourself with the simple things in life and not the cumbersome questions of existence. Live for the moment and remain childlike. Defer all decision to a higher better knowing being. One day one can look back at this time through the prism of a simplified view of the world where choice was eventually discarded as inconsequential and just remember the blue sky, the taste of food and the feel of chiffon. And not the sense of dread, the trepidation at saying the wrong thing, the careless word that unleashed the wrath. The slap across the face that you must also keep to yourself. Remember the clapping and the dancing; didn’t we have a great time? Didn’t we?

And the third memory of this trip is holding my mothers hand at the base of the Eiffel Tower. For at that moment she was all mine and I was glad I was too short to go up with the rest. We sat at a bench. She pointed up to look at my father and she held my hand. It was just she and I in Paris, our Paris, and I was in love. She was beautiful, I didn’t understand why men whistled at her and she looked embarrassed. Sometimes she would look out into the distance as she pinched my face gently between her fingers.

The gravel crunched beneath my feet and she held my hand. And she sat me on her lap, and she held my hand, and my head rested on her chest and I could hear her heart while she talked to me in Paris.

 

Looking Up at the Eiffel Tower

 

There comes a time to write novel and one searches for the story in ones life only to find a collection of stories that lead to one. They may lead to one person, a friend, a lover, a family member, sometimes a stranger. Sometimes the known person becomes a stranger or vice versa. In this case they lead to a place, or returns to a place, a place that holds dreams and allures for many people, Paris. It’s a dream city for many, not necessarily for me though some of my experiences there have been dream like. Like dreams, my experiences in Paris are sometimes hard to remember, sometimes surreal, sometimes sensual, others confusing or painful.

The setting cannot be bettered. A city trapped in time by a perfect civil planning discission, don’t build anything new in the heart of Paris. A book found at a French café far. far away from France once showed photos of Paris streets side by side taken one hundred years apart, but for the fashion and the cars a lot of the photos of both eras could’ve been taken on the same day, nothing that a good film art director couldn’t put together in a few hours.

Paris is a set for souls from all over the world to play their fantasies in a never changing film set. The corner where Doisneau photographed a couple embracing in a mythical kiss is still there with the Place de Ville in the background. Many lovers have reproduced that photo for themselves, probably wondering where the Parisian passion went once they returned back home. I’ve been to Paris. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a lover, once with my parents, once with my wife and once with my sons. Sometimes I didn’t get there at all. Plans were made in romantic embraces that were eventually forgotten when paths took us in different directions. Sometimes Paris was the dream of one and not so much the other.

The first time I remember being there it wasn’t planned, simply on the way to somewhere else. My earliest memory of this city is standing beneath the arches of the Eiffel Tower holding a woman’s hand. I was four and the woman was my mother. I remember looking up at the tower where my father, my uncle and aunt were knowing that I had to stay down on the ground with my mother because I wasn't tall enough to be allowed up there. Like a fairground ride the Eiffel Tower in those days had a height restriction, or at least I think it had, maybe my mother had been too scared to go up and used me as an excuse to stay back. Fear was a reason for a lot of things my mother did in her life.

We had driven from Dusseldorf, Germany and we were on our way to Madrid. The drive took three days in those days and it was a journey of winding roads and cobblestone streets from village to village. My parents had migrated there just before I was born, actually my father had migrated there and my mother, like every decision in her married life, just followed. My father had finished his military service and left for Germany with his brother before getting married. Once settled in Dusseldorf he suggested to my mother getting married by proxy. My grandmother response to her first daughter getting married by mail, as it were, was nothing short maniacal and my father returned to Spain for a full-blown wedding. If it was the happiest day of her life for my mother it didn’t show in the photos, there was not one of her smiling, more a melancholic look that years later she would joke it was because she knew what was coming. Though my grandmother got her way in the end it didn’t show in the wedding photos either. In fact my father was the only one smiling come to think of it.

After a seven year courtship with, as my mother often put it, the only man she had “known” the joy of the day seemed to escape a couple of the key figures.

If they had waited seven years to consume their relationship, something my mother always held true but which I doubted the older I got, it didn’t take long after the wedding as I was born exactly nine months later in Dusseldorf. At Saint Vincent hospital where my father saw me lying in a crib next to another newborn missing a hand. Whether it was a case of thalimide as was the case around that time or not, the one handed baby tended to pop up in conversation for years after.

To a two-year-old child a tinned peach with syrup on a cake looks like an egg. An early memory of my father making a birthday cake, sponge, tinned peaches and whipped cream. It’s still the best cake in the world, specially if the syrup has soaked the sponge and you can get the peach, the cream and the moist sponge all in one bite. I looked at the cake as my father dressed it quizzically for ages trying to figure out why he had put a raw egg on top. I was in my mother’s arms and I remember looking at her horn-rimmed glasses looking for an answer and back down to the cake. My arms around her feeling her heartbeat, the most soothing sound in the world. When I’d sit on her lap I could hear her voice inside her chest twirling around her heartbeat and the world was safe. There was no other world that sound was my universe. Just two years before that sound had been beating right above my head inside her. And now I’m back there, floating warm and safe inside love.

My mother would look at me wondering why I looked so quizzical. “Una tarta, para ti” she said in Spanish. A cake for you. A smile, glasses and a beehive. For the first five years of my life my mother wore her hair in a beehive. How she would tease her long hair every morning, then brush it into a cylinder like fairy floss ten inches above her head was always a source of admiration. We were in Germany but our world was Spanish, it belonged to a far away country, one where you had to drive for three days to get to. One far away from the neatly dressed blonde people outside. Far from the landlady that lived in the big house out the front while we lived in the one bedroom outhouse in the garden.

My uncle was there, so was my aunt, in those early years they were always there, the two couples were inseparable, my father and my uncle worked in the same glass factory and my mother and my aunt in the same floor wax factory. I don’t know the name of the factory but the brand had a picture of a finch and we had a couple of spoons at home from the cafeteria. What factory has its own branded spoons in the cafeteria?

My godmother lived at the back of the house next door. She had a daughter my age and I think she was my godmother because they were the only other Spanish people we knew at the time.

This is the part that was never clear to me, at three months my parents drove me back to Spain to stay with my grandmother because it was hard to rent a place with children. My other uncle had the same problem and all three; uncle, aunt and cousin packed themselves in the car and went back to Spain.

But at three months my father decided the best decision was for me to live in Madrid with my grandmother, three aunts and a ten-year-old uncle. This must’ve broken my mothers heart and to this day I don’t fully understand what effect it had on me. Apart from the fact that my memories of this period are totally disjointed. At times I’m in Germany watching my father trying to defrost the lock on the car in the freezing German winter with a cigarette lighter. At times it’s a warm night in Madrid and we are in my grandmothers street and my uncle is kicking a balloon trying to keep it up in the air while La Bamba is playing somewhere, for years I thought La Bamba was a song about a balloon, it wasn’t. At times I’m sitting on a bar in Madrid and my aunt's boyfriend, who in the Spanish way of family had already become my uncle, is peeling peanuts and giving them to me. I think I was taking out a lot by my aunts and their boyfriends on the insistence of my grandmother as a way of keeping everybody on a path of decency.

At times I’m at the Spanish club in Dusseldorf, I’m walking up to the stage to pick up my Christmas present from the young priest, a cellophane tube with a toy shaving kit inside.

At times I’m going to church in Madrid with my two grandmothers, one dressed in black, my maternal grandmother wearing the purple religious habit with a chord around her waist that she wore till the last day I saw her.

The story goes that during the civil war republican soldiers surrounded her house and her mother as plea to God swore that if they got out alive her daughter would wear a habit for the rest of her days. The soldiers didn’t attack the house and my grandmother’s fashion choice was set for life.

At times I’m outside our house in Germany an “El Señor de los berberechos” turns up, this was a Spanish man that loaded up his car with tins of smoked muscles, oysters and sardines in Spain and drove all the way to northern Germany to sell to the Spanish migrants missing the food back home.

At times I’m in a supermarket eating a German sausage on a long paper plate with mustard and a glass of orange juice. If I tasted it today I could tell you if it was the same one. At times I’m at the Spanish club in Dusseldorf, my arms stretched carrying a painting of a bullfighter, Manolete, from the stage, across the dance floor, to my parents. They had won it in a raffle, the painter’s wife had died and two paintings were being raffled to send the poor woman back to Spain. At times I’m in my mothers arms at the same club, beehive hair and baby blue chiffon dress, her face panicked as a brawl breaks out at the other end of the hall and we can’t leave because the police have locked the doors. Eventually we leave and as we are walking down the street, my dad, mum, uncle and aunt, mum and my aunt burst into tears, the men tell them not to be silly.

And at times I wake up, though I know I shouldn’t wake up. I know my parents go to work early and for an hour I lie in bed alone until my godmother walks across from her house and, still sleepy takes me out into the cold and across to her house. I know this happens and I know I shouldn’t wake up but one morning I do. One morning I wake up when I hear the door close and my parents leave. And I sit up alone in that room in that huge bed and I cry, I cry because I’m alone until my godmother arrives, I cry while I look out the window, I cry looking at my colouring book with pictures of cowboys and Indians, the paper pages divided by wax paper pages to keep the paint from smudging. I cry while I rip the pages of the book, slowly, while I rip the cowboys and the Indians and the wax paper. I cry as I sit there knowing that I have been left there every morning, but today I woke up to see it. I cry until I fall asleep again and my godmother comes to pick me up just like every morning but today the colouring book is ripped to pieces..

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