K is just where I like her: beside me.
We sway a little in our seats as I look across the aisle at a couple of bored-looking boys, obviously brothers, who remind me a little – because of their physical resemblance – of my brother and I when we were young and lived in this city for a short time.
We’re on the metro, linea 1, heading north beneath the city towards Pinar de Chamartín and the boys seem too young, as we would have been, to be unaccompanied. The doors open at the Plaza de Castilla stop and I see that they aren’t – their father has been sitting opposite them, beside us, and now stands and calls for them to follow him onto the platform.
We came here fatherless, my brother and I, for a new life in a new and exotic country, in a big new city and a hot summer, with our mother and her new Spanish husband. I was never to get on well with him. That’s life for you. The two boys don’t remind me of my brother and me in every way; the elder has his arm around the younger, who rests his head on his brother’s shoulder and dozes. My big brother and I fought tooth and nail, relentlessly. That’s brothers for you.
I was going to do this on my own; the plan had been that K would go shopping while I wandered down this memory lane of mine. We’ve ended up on the train together because we’ve spent much of the morning bickering – over the price of breakfast, would you believe. It was one of those stand-offs where, both standing our ground and the argument – which like all the best arguments went from ‘price of breakfast’ to ‘outlook on life’ in a flash – reaching a high volume climax there was nothing for it but to kiss and calm down and make up, so now we want to be together rather than apart and since a cold day in hell is a stronger likelihood than my getting on a shuttle bus to a designer outlet “village”, K is coming with me to see my old neighbourhood.
I prefer it this way.
We slide to a stop at the end of the line, and finding our way upwards and outwards exit into Madrid’s winter sun: a constant reminder of the compass points. One is either walking away from it into one’s own long shadow or towards it, the pavement shining luminous, the head down to shield the eyes. We immediately find ourselves on Arturo Soria, a wide road that runs north to south on the north-eastern side of the city. Having come here underground, my sense of direction deserts me despite the sun and I have to ask someone before we orient ourselves and set off southwards.
We are a little distance away from our destination, but the neighbourhood already seems familiar. This is the Madrid of my early memories; residential and leafy, to either side of the main road little cul-de-sacs and capillaries lined with simple, unprepossessing apartment blocks, red brick and brown, balcony awnings and well-tended trees.
As we near the street I’m looking for and pass a sandy-floored playground I think I might remember, the Naval college appears on our right. Ramón Fort, our old street, is opposite. I know where to look for the building – about halfway up on the left – and recognise it immediately. A squat cube of a redbrick block, I’d forgotten that it was number five. Four storeys, our flat was at the top and toward the rear; when I step to the side I see the glass-enclosed hallway that was at the back and I take a picture. I take one too of the front, keenly aware that pointing a telephoto lens at a perfectly ordinary apartment building in a quiet neighborhood can cause people to make phonecalls.
At the other side of the building I can make out the high-walled garden we used to look down on from our tiny balcony. The tree is bare now as I look at it on this bright January day, but when we lived here the place was baking. Everything was dust and heat. We learned what real heat was here, and watermelons. I had the first steak sandwich of my life at the bar on the corner, now gone.
I never saw the inside of a Spanish school – the one up the road wouldn’t take us because we didn’t speak the language and anyway, for much of the time it was summer holidays. When it wasn’t we would watch as the other children from our block filed home, and after their lunch a woman from one of the apartments would watch over them in the garden as they played.
I remember the time – I think my mother and brother were daring me – my brave, seven year old self went down there to say hello, and the courage deserting me as soon as I stepped out amongst them, and kicking the dirt for a little while, and running back up as the woman beckoned for me to ‘come here’, and thinking that she meant ‘go away’, and the back door of the building that was so heavy to me, and the cool dark stairwell.
There is no door to knock on now, as there was in Galicia. I don’t know anybody here, and no one knows me. The waste ground where we would build little houses from discarded bricks has been built on. It’s time to go. I don’t feel particularly emotional, merely pensive. I’ve written about joining the dots before but so many of ours are joined by invisible lines. Veins and arteries that must remain within us, underground connections, secret tunnels; we’ve had to smuggle ourselves from scene to scene, showing up here and there with little explanation, disorientated by the glare. My returning to these places has, for me, been about retracing the lines; making them visible and perhaps – who knows? – revealing a pattern.
I don’t feel like going back on linea 1 so instead we head a little south to a bus stop and go back on one of those, taking a good look at the city and giving it the chance to get a good look at us.
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