He had stopped at the side of the road for a quick cigarette. He only had a couple more deliveries to make, and then he would return home to his apartment which he shared with Luisa (who had been his Luisa) until he and Pep had advertised for another person to share the apartment with, and then Javier had presented himself, ponytail swinging, earring glinting, and Luisa was lost as was he, Benicio. Lost in his own life, which had been some way along the road towards happiness, or at least well past the point of mere contentment. And then you’re like a stranger in your own home. The walls draw nearer and nearer to you to pen you in, that’s when they’re not receding so that you’re becoming more and more exposed and vulnerable. So that two people you thought you knew are two strangers laughing and joking while eating freshly-cooked pizza which they hadn’t thought of sharing with you, and you’re a million miles away eating a pie straight from the microwave. Even your own personal space seemed fraught with hidden dangers.
But he knew he would always be safe in Pep’s vicinity. His friend had that aura of invincibility about him, mixed with a mild aloofness that wasn’t quite haughtiness, which made Benicio think of Pep as having one of those roped barriers round him like they have protecting works of art in museums and stately homes, those which say, “Don’t come any nearer than this, keep a respectful distance, please.” They had known each other since junior school and a tacit bond had been formed between them. In reward for helping Benicio with his Maths homework (he had a terrible head for numbers) Benicio would let Pep borrow his collection of emerald marbles. These were over-sized globes flecked with a sludgy-green pigment, which, when held up to the light, looked as if they contained within them a whole, perfect emerald. He had won them at a fairground while on holiday at Calpe and had been told by the man at the coconut shy that they did indeed contain real emeralds, but that they were worthless because nobody had ever been able to break into them to extract the stones. Pep hadn’t believed any of this and said he was an idiot for falling for it, but Benicio had pictured scenes from the distant past in which:
a beautiful Moorish woman, cruelly treated by her husband, had fled across the Mediterranean, using some of the stones, which she had stolen from her husband’s collection of treasure, to pay for her and her small son’s passage. Those she was not using to pay the fisherman, in whose boat they were sailing, she had had molded into glass so that they would be taken for her child’s playthings. But as the tip of the Spanish mainland had come within sight, her brigand of a husband had appeared behind them on the horizon. He stood upright in a boat like theirs, surrounded by cronies and brandishing a sabre. No matter how hard they rowed they couldn’t shake off their pursuers and the brigand-of-a-husband’s boat was soon almost touching the bows of their vessel. The beautiful Moorish woman had extracted the pouch from her bosom and thrusting it into her frightened son’s hand had shouted to him, “Jump, my darling. Swim, swim.” Before he knew it the poor boy was thrust into the water, and although he was reluctant to leave his mother to the wrath of his tyrant father he was spurred on by his her pleas that he try to save himself. Swimming with all his might he looked back only once, to see his mother being dragged into the father’s boat, each of her arms held tight by a swarthy ruffian, and the kind Moroccan fisherman who had been attempting to lead them to safety lying half over the side his own rowing-boat, blood pouring into the water out of a gash on the side of his head. Clutching tightly onto the pouch of marbles he had taken refuge inside a cave until they had given up the search to find him. Then, traveling into the interior across hills and scrubland he had come across a woodman’s hut crudely knocked together from wood out of a nearby forest and the kindly old woodsman had let him spend the night in his hut. Soon him and the woodsman had become friends and they would go off to catch fish on the shores of the Donana National park. One day when they had returned to the hut with their catch he had been shocked to find his pouch had disappeared and suspected he had lost it while out in the waters. He hadn’t mentioned anything about the marbles or their loss to the kindly woodsman and the man was worried and disturbed by the expression the boy’s face wore as if…
His adult self could see its way down passages that were off-limits to his childhood self. …As if he was in battle against something, something the boy sensed would beat him eventually but which simply had to be fought, and how he clamped his eyes tight shut as if he would begrudge them displaying the slightest trace of tears, and therefore weakness.
But Benicio’s young imagination couldn’t see how marbles dropped in the Donana could end up in a fairground in Calpe hundreds of years later. But it showed how much he trusted his friend Pep that he let him take them home with him (not all of them, he always kept one back for himself), the only condition he put on it was that he didn’t tell another soul the secret of what the marbles contained. One day when he was strong enough (and he was building himself up with regular portions of tinned spinach which he had to force himself to swallow) he would get himself the biggest sledgehammer he could find and would bring it down with all his force on to his precious playthings, destroying them as toys, but releasing the reward of a fortune in emeralds.
He remembered he still had them packed away in a shoebox in his wardrobe and even as he’d grown up he still hadn’t entirely been able to rid himself of the residual belief that imprisoned in the spheres of glass there was the impossible, romantic dream of untold riches. But then, he’d always been told he was a dreamer, at least by Javier.
And here Benicio is siting between Javier and Pep in the corner seat of a bar on Calle Humilladero. The hum of voices has settled into a muted murmur as the customers relaxed into the heavy evening atmosphere. Luisa is conspicuous by her absence, but whether she was out with a girlfriend, feeling unwell or had had a row with Javier he didn’t know. He sensed vaguely he had been aware of her whereabouts at the time but that precise bit of information had failed to leave behind any trace in his memory.
Javier was discussing the forthcoming general election. The other two were listening with only half an ear until Javier said, “Look at what happened last time. To think that terrorists could indirectly change the government of a country through their actions.” The words had an unequivocal air about them as if they needed a mere expression to become the perfect truth.
Words seemed to tumble out Pep’s mouth. “It wasn’t the terrorists you can blame if you are apportioning blame for getting rid of Anwar. It was the voters who realized that we were being governed by people who put the safety of the world before that of our country.”
Javier took a deep sip of his beer. His glass wobbled slightly as he placed it back on the table. He licked a residue of froth off his lips with a long red tongue which to Benicio has the look of a red cape being flung forward and backwards by a bullfighter. “And what was it that brought this realization home to us? The fact that two hundred people could be killed because of our support for wars in two different countries. Wars which can’t be proven to have saved one single human life. Or at least not the life of anyone we would ever be likely to know.”
Benicio passed the back of his hand across his forehead, although there was no sweat on his brow. He scratched the back of his neck, but it wasn’t to satisfy an itch. He said, “Wasn’t it John Donne who said no man is an island? Although the cost of two hundred lives would never be a price worth paying for our part in supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, surely we can look at ourselves and feel proud that we took a stand against tyranny, rather than sitting back and doing nothing because we were too frightened of reprisals.”
Javier looked ironically into Pep’s eyes as though they were sharing a private joke. “Listen to him. You can tell who voted for the People’s Party.”
“Actually, I was too young to vote at the time,” Benicio replied.
“And a good thing too.” Pep chipped in.
For some reason the next time Benicio took a sip of his beer it didn’t have quite the same taste about it.
“What has he got that I haven’t got?” This he’d once dared himself to ask Luisa. He hadn’t mentioned Javier’s name, and he hadn’t needed to.
“I can’t explain it. It’s something indefinable.”
Well, that was fine then. It was something indefinable, so you didn’t have to define it.
Luisa, her hands in rubber gloves, was washing the dishes in the tightly packed-in kitchen. The kitchen that was hardly big enough for two people. As she clattered the dishes, it was as if she was making more noise than was necessary.
Benicio tried to place his arms underneath her two armpits as he stood behind her, so that his hands met around her stomach. This was his intention but sadly for him instead of making the move in one sure gesture he had brushed his knuckles against her back. This gave her time to hold in her arms very tightly against her sides. As his hands met around her midriff Luisa shot her arms to either side, breaking the circular bond of Benicio’s arms.
“If you want to do something useful you’ll find a tea towel in the draw just there.”
Benicio got hold of the tea towel. He watched Luisa’s profile as she scrubbed the remains of a macaroni cheese out of a saucepan. She watched him out of the sides of her eyes. Green eyes that glared.
“It’s used for drying the dishes.”
He began to dry the mugs off the draining board. A mug’s surface felt smooth and warm in his grasp, and the motion of the tea towel against the enamel of the mug brought a thought to his mind.
“You insist on doing all these chores, don’t you? Even when we all offer to do them instead.”
“I let you dry up, didn’t I? Anyway, if you can’t do a job properly you shouldn’t be doing it at all.”
And before he knew what was happening Luisa’s arms were encircling his stangely reluctant body. His back pushed up against the draining board, her hands left wet stains on the back of his shirt. She was burrowing her head into his chest as he watched the gap in the kitchen door over her shoulder. The living area existed to them as a long, yellowy strip of light that would be so easy to eclipse. The slightest darkening of the light and he felt his heart would drop or crumble.
“This weekend, when Javier’s away… If you come…” she said in the lightest of whispers.
Javier would be going to visit his parents in Getafe for the weekend. But he saw his flatmate returning late, perhaps some forgotten clothes or even to satisfy a groundless suspicion. He spent the first night of Javier’s absence alone in his bed with the door locked. Luisa said nothing. He left his door unbolted the second night and nothing happened. The next morning as he was passing the open door of Pep’s bedroom he failed to noticed that the bed hadn’t been slept in. He felt proud of himself and also relived, as if he had escaped something very mixed up and rather tedious. He kept his door unlocked every night. Even when all hope was gone.
But here he was, stopped by the side of the road, an almost empty street of run-down shops and warehouses, a few blocks from the lawyer’s officers to which he will need to deliver the thick, white-enveloped package that lies in the back of his scooter, and suddenly he has a pang of regret for this parcel that won’t get delivered, which will probably be crushed and splattered with his remains. Strange to feel this way about mere sheets of paper, no matter how important they might be to some sleek, pin-striped jacketed professional in an air-conditioned office.
“Javier, I want you to know there are no hard feelings. We’d been growing apart these last weeks. But Luisa can be very temperamental. You might think you know where you are with her and then she’ll pull the rug out from under your feet.”
“Don’t worry, mate. I’ve been with girls like her, I know how to handle them. But I’m sorry for you. Two years, you say… Mmm… Plenty more fish in the sea, and a boy like you… You’ll be fine…”
He could see Javier lying uncomfortably on the floor, his body propped grotesquely up against the wall, one eye shut tight in pain, but it was no good. It hadn’t happened and he was fooling himself that he could ever have harmed him. He’d always been the sort of person who walks away from a fight, not because he was squeamish by the idea of violence, but because he couldn’t see where it got you. The temporary relief from anguished pride on one side, a bruised eye on the other. He would have a brief moment in which he’d feel he’d been a man and stood up for himself and his outraged feelings, and then Javier would go off to the bathroom to apply witch hazel to his eye with a handkerchief, and then life would go on as normal. And why couldn’t things go on without resorting to a fight which, had it happened, wouldn’t have been a fight between Benicio and Javier, but a pale imitation of countless scraps between love rivals since the start of time. They would have been merely going through the motions of a confrontation that was only cosmetic, they wouldn’t unsettle the mild admiration Benicio secretly felt towards Javier, nor the condescending toleration Javier felt for him.
Oh, if only he’d made that blow. That really would have been leaving his mark behind. And soon he would be powerless to do anything ever again. He would be unable to move as much as a grain of sand, his breath would be powerless to budge something as light as a blade of grass. Even the secure feeling of the handlebars on his scooter would be a sensation lost to him for ever. And what will happen to him? Where would he go? Would his soul be forever hovering, unfeeling, senseless, unable to take part in any of the world’s rituals that it would still yet still be aware were taking place without it? And what’s worse, what’s infinitely worse, is that no one will ever know the thoughts that were going through my head at this moment. My mind will remain a closed book always. Nobody will ever know who I was.
And these were his final thoughts before the rubbish skip, something that had never been known to kill anyone, collided with a wooden crate that had contained oranges which was lying in its path, causing its trajectory to take a sharp lurch to the right and vastly reducing its speed in the process. It came to rest up against a portable toilet, which had been put up by men from the water board who were replacing a pipe, only a frayed Persian rug spilling out and rolling up against Benicio’s scooter, which had toppled onto its side as he fell off it and lost consciousness — he fainted. When he came round he saw a swarthy, pot-bellied man come scurrying out of the toilet with his trousers round his ankles. Looking dazed he glanced round him before turning to face the skip, and his arms shot straight out in front of him as if he thought he could still stop it in its track.
Benicio blinked quickly several times, rubbed some dirt off his face and picking up the scooter he got back on the vehicle. After making sure the skip was relatively unscathed the pot-bellied man, who had still neglected to pull his trousers back up, began to move towards him in short, mincing steps. He was either coming to make sure Benicio was unharmed, or possibly because he thought Benicio was to blame in some way for what had occurred. Benicio stood watching him as though spellbound. The man’s legs looked like two raw chicken legs, his boxer shorts were patterned with the Spanish flag. He always felt uneasy when he saw that flag, as though it was reminding him of, and also reprimanding for, his parent’s immigrant status. As the seconds passed the distance between him and the man didn’t appear to be diminishing, nor the flag of Spain growing larger. Benicio, feeling suddenly guilty for no reason, started up the engine and sped away. He made his last two deliveries in a state of suspended animation where his limbs seemed to move of their own volition, as if he had no control of them whatsoever.
When he got back to the apartment he could hear Luisa and Javier laughing in their room, which had previously been Luisa’s room, and before that had belonged to Luisa and Benicio. And it occurred to him that although he might not have been standing there at that moment, so might Javier have not answered his ad for a room to rent, just as he, Benicio, might not have stumbled on this particular apartment in which to rest his weary soul. And yet the fact that he still existed meant that he had to inhabit the cubic inches of space necessary to accommodate his body and this space, like that of every other living, breathing thing, was his right and entitlement. He would inhabit his own atmosphere wherever he went. And his space, his private home, was the most precious thing because even death couldn’t take it from him, not unless his bones were ground to dust. And what was more, it was inviolable, no one could impinge on it. Not all the Javiers or fickle Luisas of this world.
The pair of lovers were entitled to their space, this pocket of love they had carved out for themselves. And so it followed that it was no degradation for him to have been cast into the role of spectator. Because his time would come again. In fact, this was his time too and he was playing his role in it, and this sense of life as a role play took the edge off of life’s bitterness. Everything that has ceased to be will always have been and may be once again. It was as if there was a constant battle taking place between the forces of permanence and mutability and it was impossible to say which would be the definitive victor, if either.
The bedroom door opened and two shadowy figures emerged and slithered into the living room. Benicio didn’t look up. He hated seeing the sheepish, coyly-embarrassed expressions lovers’ faces display when they rejoin company after being alone together. When he did look vaguely up into his surroundings he saw that Pep was there sliding into a sofa with Luisa by his side. Benicio felt a sharp tremor pass through him as if the world had wobbled on its axis, momentarily jolting everything on it. How had Pep appeared there, and where had Javier vanished to? But there was only Luisa and Pep, very quiet and stiff, staring at a point in the middle distance (and it did seem to Benicio as he followed the sightlines of their two sets of eyes that they did meet at precisely the same point in mid-air and as if they both saw something there that was invisible to him).
Benicio reflected that he felt as someone might who had come unscathed through a long, gruelling war, only to be run over by a bus when he returned home. He blinked quickly, a nervous tic he had of straightening himself out, readjusting himself, after a trauma, and he knew that this had been the second time he had done this today. He couldn’t recall what had caused it to happen the first time.
“There’s some pizza in the fridge if you’d like some.”
It was Pep who had willed himself to speak. The whole room visibly relaxed, its furniture settling back into its relevant spaces. Only Benicio looked out of place in his surroundings. He seemed far away, as if he was grappling with something stronger than he was. As if the fight itself was more important to him than any victory. But he was relieved that someone had spoken, and he was glad it had been Pep. Like at school during gym class—Senor Calderon was always on his back about something. He had been struggling to get his shuttlecock over the net during badminton. “You really need to pull your socks up,” Senor Calderon had told him. And Benicio had obediently bent down and pulled his socks as far up his ankles as they would go. Senor Calderon lips pouted slightly, then his eyes squinted, as though he wasn’t sure. But Benicio wasn’t being impertinent, nor did he really believe his socks needed pulling up. He simply assumed his teacher had made him do a pointless act in order to humiliate him. After his teacher had strode away shaking with laughter his humiliation was complete. Pep, who had seen the whole thing, had rushed over and explained. It didn’t make it any better.
“Thanks. It’s nice to be thought of,” he uttered very softly under his breath in reply to the offer of pizza.
Luisa said, “We’re thinking of going out somewhere tonight. Just a few drinks… Somewhere very quiet…”
“Don’t let me stop you, then,” Benicio said.
“I was talking about all of us. And there’s no need to look so miserable. Just look at you. Anyone would think you were angry, or surprised or what?”
“This is not the first time.”
“And what if it isn’t? What do you expect of me? Do you expect me to behave like a nun or something?”
“Now, now, children…” Pep said. He usually knew how to defuse a heated situation, but now his words were like the breeze that fanned the flames of anger.
“And aren’t you worried about Javi finding out?” Benicio said.
“Javi sleeps in his own room now,” Pep explained. “Has done for a while. It’s been about three weeks. Three weeks?”
“About that,” Luisa said.
“Nobody tells me anything,” Benicio said, “but you have to admit at the rate you go it’s hard to keep up.”
“Don’t even think of judging me. People move on. Things change. Haven’t you learnt that yet? Or can’t you deal with it? Can’t you cope unless things are always the same?”
“Do you know what you are?”
“Tell me what I am.”
Benicio shook his head. He wanted to get up and flounce out of the room. He had done just that during his first week in the apartment and he’d walked into a cupboard.
Javier appeared in the doorway. It’s often said that some people can sense an atmosphere when they come into a room where there has been tension, heated words. Not Javier. A muttered greeting, a quick wash in the bathroom and he was slouching into his chair, his long legs stretched out and very wide apart. Teeth glinting in a half-smile.
Benicio closed his eyes. Nobody was looking at him. Rough circles of a coppery-red colour jumped and burst behind his eyelids. When he opened his eyes again they took several seconds to evaporate. Had he been spared to witness a crumbling edifice that was his life, its logic and rules torn apart? Life at the whim of feckless individuals who would just as easily change partners as change their clothes, and sometimes more often. Nothing was sacred then and nothing was set in stone.
He could hear them making plans for the night ahead. A few drinks at their local, followed by a pizza at an Italian restaurant and rounded off with that new Bardem movie, the one where his urine comes out red apparently. The prospect of such entertainments didn’t exactly appeal to him, but the apartment had become hateful to him, and so here he was in the doorway of his room trying to comb his mop of thick hair into some sort of style.
Luisa and Javier swaggered down the corridor together.
“Taking a comb to that hair’s a bit like using a pea shooter on a battleship.”
Luisa nudged Javier in the ribs, but it was too late. Benicio’s hand froze in mid-air, and it was as if something inside him broke.
He complained of a headache and said he wouldn’t be joining them. They all looked at him strangely but no one tried to persuade him to change his mind. When he was alone he went to his bedroom and took a shoebox out from where he’d hidden it at the bottom of the wardrobe. He lifted the lid and took out a large pouch of a black velveteen material. He poured the gleaming contents onto the floor, ran to the kitchen and came back armed with a hammer. No matter how much spite he put into his blows he couldn’t get the marbles to smash or even so much as crack. They were impervious to his anger. He put them back in the pouch, replaced the pouch in the shoebox and put that back, lovingly, in the wardrobe. He felt better, calmer. Some things were simply stronger than people. Human emotion couldn’t touch them. He felt buoyed up by his failure to destroy. He had come up against a permanence that he quite admired. He could feel tears coming to his eyes along with a hope that hung somewhere just out of sight.
In the passageway downstairs he met his neighbor Jose. With his ruddy cheeks and kindly, benevolent facade the old man looked the sort of person to whom you could bare your heart as easily and naturally as a caterpillar sheds its skin. In fact, he saw himself as something of a father figure to Benicio.
“Is everything all right up there? It sounded like you were trying to break through the ceiling.” He sounded more concerned than angry.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that. I was trying to knock in a nail. Er, a picture came down.”
“What, on the floor?”
Benicio’s mouth creased into a tight-lipped smile. He could feel Jose weighing him up. Did he look different, strange? “They’ve all gone out to the town,” he explained. “I’m just on my way to join them.”
“Good for you. You have a good time then.” Jose was about to turn away but checked himself. “Come round some time, if you’re not doing anything exciting. These long nights can get pretty dull for an old fogey like me.”
“Thanks for the offer,” said Benicio. He paused, unable to string together the requisite words to form an excuse. “We’ll arrange something,” he found himself promising.
“No need to. Just knock on the door anytime. I’m almost always in. And almost always alone these days too.”
“Goodnight to you.”
As Benicio hurried down the corridor, he strained to hear the click of Jose’s door, which never came. He could feel his neighbour’s eyes boring into the back of his head. But his steps felt lighter, springier, as the street swallowed him up.