The street light cuts out again.
I look up at the blinding, dotted flow of headlamps that sweep uphill from the city and pass me by; the majority of them attached to heavy goods vehicles fresh from the port. It’s noisy with their motors and hydraulics but across the street and just beyond the electrical plant a full moon – piss yellow and hanging low – illuminates the cloud above and below it; it is enormous and silent and very far from here.
On the embankment by the roundabout a whinny in the shadows. The horse is always there, tied to a stump and describing circles all day as it grazes. I feel sorry for it as I always do for horses in urban settings. Earlier though I saw its owner with it, giving it a run, and there was no bad feeling; they looked like an old couple – each knowing what the other was going to do next.
The light comes back on.
My eyes drop to the page. I’m reading novels again. This one is good even if the author has felt compelled to assign an adjective to each and every noun. It isn’t pocket sized so I need to carry it in my leather satchel; travel time is reading time these days since I spend so much of my day on the bus. I have also honed my skills at walking and reading as I saunter along between here and the school, dodging lizards and grasshoppers and the odd snail migration.
Our hero has become embroiled in a slowly unravelling mystery. His father shares secrets with him as he comes of age, obsessed by an older woman.
The light cuts out.
Down the hill and dead centre a serrated factory roof pokes its teeth up amongst the suburban mess of Algeciras‘ southern edge. Refrigeration plants and car repair workshops, discount superstores and nightclubs. A rough, salty city; laden with the grind of heavy industry and just about overrun by port traffic, in and out.
Closer to me in the middle ground – the blinking neon of the slot machine bar and opposite that the fish shop.
The lamp comes on.
I find myself in the cone of orange light once again, reading. The protagonist has outgrown his obsession and finds himself torn between two more attainable women. The mystery of which he has become custodian has deepened. The boundaries have been blurred; dusty details and distant, craquelured accounts of lives long over have come closer, breathing mist on the pane between fiction and truth. The tips of the story’s tentacles begin to curl themselves around the characters of his own life. There is a sense of danger. I hear the broken buzz of shorting electric current.
The light cuts out.
I’m in front of the Venta de Los Pastores. It’s a bar and guest house and looking at it I can make out something of its story; the original one floor structure and behind it the newer accommodation block. Next to them on the street corner a large extension. Four floors and much bigger than the building it appends. A successful family saga laid out in concrete; a plain if handsome and well kept property, it somehow suggests that it has peaked – that there will be no more optimistic additions.
When I first went in there to wait for my bus with a beer you’d have thought I was the new sheriff, from the reception I got. It was a warm September evening and the place was empty except for a table of men and their dominoes who nevertheless managed to fill the room with noise. I waited at the bar. And waited. Everybody took a good look. Finally a middle-aged, bespectacled woman of hostile demeanour asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted a beer. She gave me one, angrily.
With his bookish confidante he reviews what he knows – the story so far. As his friend recounts it the parallels with his own life are enough to nauseate him with fear. He stumbles towards the bathroom in shock. Impossible threads of similarity weave themselves into his world from the pages of a book he had taken to be fantasy. Identical paths, the same jealousies, love trysts, rivalries.
Is it magical, or meant? Or are we all re-living the same few stories? Perhaps there is nothing out there, or back then, but gut-wrenching, shifting reflection.
The villain, shadowy and deformed, sidesteps nimbly from page to wintry Barcelona street.
Never one to be put off I kept returning to the venta for beer after work. There was no noticeable warming in the welcome I received, but at least I wasn’t asked to leave. It seems we got used to each other and a routine established itself; I would order a bottle of beer and hand over my 1.75 and then I would get a little tin of nuts or corn from the vending machine and nibble away till the bus arrived. I wouldn’t say a word to anyone and no one would say a word to me.
Then the promotions began. About two months in I was handing over my beer money to the grumpy lady at the till when I thought I could detect the trace of a smile on her lips. She mumbled something that I suspect would have been incomprehensible even to a Spaniard and handed me my change – 25 cents more than I was expecting. It seemed that I was no longer to be overcharged for my beer! Of course it might bother some that they had been fleeced in the first place, but not me; I drank with a swelled chest that day.
About six months in she asked me who the hell I was. I told her I was a teacher and worked nearby, but lived in Tarifa and came here to wait for my bus. She took it in and walked away. We had had a conversation! Her husband, who spends his time on the customer side of the bar, wasn’t so interactive. He would simply stare at me.
“Hello!”, I would say to him.
And he would stare. In my ninth month at the bar she asked me if I would like some olives with my beer. I told her I would. She said there was no need to keep putting Euro coins in the nut machine; she hadn’t realised I liked olives. I felt like family! Apart from the staring man.
“See you later!”, I would say to him as I left.
And he would stare. When I returned to work after my first summer off she asked me where I’d been. She asked me where I’d been! My absence had been noted! These days when I go in they get the bottle and the olives and plonk them on the bar. I feel I belong. It’s like being in Cheers but not so much on the conversation.
“You like olives don’t you?”, she asks.
“Yes”, I reply.
“So do I”, she says.
The lamp flickers back on.
In the distance I recognise the blue-green glow of the 150 – my bus. I have my change ready and wave it down although the driver knows to stop here now. I’ll read a bit more of the book on the way to Tarifa, warmed a little by the beer I’ve had. They know me now, in there. I watch them with their family members – the children and grandchildren – and try to figure out who’s who and what the story is.
“See you later”, I said to the staring man this evening as I left.
“See you later”, he replied.
I tell you, give me a year. Two at the most. I will have their names!
I step up onto the bus and the street light cuts out behind me.Follow @RobinJGraham