By Parson Thru
En abril, aguas mil.
April is Madrid’s rainy season. I never knew that. I’ve seen a lot of rain when I’ve visited in the past: Sleet and even snow in February; great thunderstorms as I rode in from Paris in May, years ago, swinging-off of the Autopista and around Puerta de Alcala to spend a week with a dear old friend. But the rain this April reminds me of most of the summers in Weston. It barely stops. Both my visitors came in April – within three days of each other.
My daughter managed two dry days out of four. We still managed an open-top bus tour and a few drinks in the plazas. On the wet days, we hit the Prado and Reina Sofia museums. There’s nothing like Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” or Dali’s “The Invisible Man” and “The Great Masturbator” (hanging alongside each other) to brighten-up a rainy Sunday. I had to work on the Monday, whilst C collected her thoughts to the sound of the apartment’s overflowing guttering. Rain or no rain, it was a beautiful four days.
N rented her own flat for some respite. I moved in for eleven wonderful nights. I switched my morning work routine, swapping breakfast for an extra half-hour in bed; the luxury of rising at 0630 and heading straight for the Metro. I’m sticking with it.
We’d planned to get away from Madrid for a few days, but the rain made it an imperative. On the first Sunday, we walked down the street to Atocha and joined the queue in the RENFE ticket office. It was a long wait. We’d given up on the Website and ticket machines. It was worth it to talk to a human. I used the time to walk across the ‘70s / ‘80s concourse and up the escalators to use the toilets. Sixty cents, but all the piped-music you could want. I stood peeing to Sacha Distel, but the tune was evading me and I had to Google it: “This Guy’s In Love With You”. Rain ran from the roof into yellow buckets placed around the concourse. Madrid leaks badly in places.
The following Friday, we were sitting on an AVE fast train from Atocha to Valencia. My mellow was shattered straight away by a big man who’d poured himself into our seats. We took the ones opposite, hoping we could just sit there without any hassle. He sat dead opposite me stabbing at his mobile phone and snorting. I thought about saying something, but the time had passed. It would have been ridiculous, so I sat and tried not to brood as we slid out of the station and through the suburbs.
N and I chatted and squeezed hands under the table. She knew I was bugged and kept telling me to forget it. I smiled and boiled a cauldron of plots featuring the demise of the big man.
The speed indicator on the train bulkhead crept up to 298 km/hr and held there for long periods. I willed it up to 300, but it stuck stubbornly at 298.
Glowing in red next to the speed indicator was the carriage number: “Coche 11”. Our tickets had “Coche 10” printed on them. Shit. I did all I could to rehabilitate the big man, turning down the gas under the cauldron, but it’s never that easy. I showed N what I’d found. When I looked up, the speed indicator was showing 300 km/hr. We watched the scenery go by. Nice train.
The room in the hostel was basic: salmon-painted plaster, high ceiling and a shower cubicle that reminded me of a bomb-shelter. But it had three single beds and a tall window, outside which screeched playful swifts. And the sun was shining. Valencia was warm and dry. We took a bus straight to the playa.
The Med was a beautiful sight for two landlocked souls. We walked along the marina for a while past bars and restaurants sporting Ballearic beats and heavy security. Fish cruised the clear water of the marina between expensive-looking hulls. Some of them looked like small sharks. An aircraft carrier was moored out on the end of the pier, brooding, grey and impressive.
We walked along the beach, skirting the sea. It was as cold as the Channel back home – maybe as cold as the North Sea. To N, recently flown in from Africa, it was arctic.
Valencia had a nice feel. Almost lazy after Madrid. The heavy presence of palm trees suggests a warmth still to come, with the temperature reaching twenty-seven while we were there. A hospital by the beach looked almost Indian or North African with its shuttered windows. I could imagine being sick under a ceiling-fan in there. Or maybe not.
I have a cousin living somewhere around Valencia. He retired from the Fire Service back home years ago and bought a bar here. We’ve all lost touch, which is a shame. Another cousin lives in Palma de Mallorca. I have a lot of cousins.
The mystery of the aircraft carrier was resolved by a larger-than-expected population of young, crew-cut men – all of them surprisingly polite. They were wandering around the old town in small groups, hanging around ice-cream parlours and sitting in bars. One of those bars was selling Absinthe – Absenta in Spanish. How could you not?
While I was waiting for the waitress to concoct the shot, I said Hi to a group sitting behind me. “Is that your carrier in the harbour?” I asked. “Well, it’s kind of a mini-carrier”, one of them answered in an unmistakable drawl. “Just big enough for helicopters.” They were heading home to the States after seven months away. Tattoos, muscle-packed physiques, and so polite and friendly; you couldn’t help liking them.
An hour later, we were back in the bar to retrieve N’s coat. The clientele had all changed – young warriors replaced by tourists from Sheffield – but the coat was exactly where we’d left it.
Finding fresh seafood away from the beach was harder than we thought. Maybe we weren’t looking in the right places. The paella around the mercado seemed a bit pre-prepared compared to what we’d found on travels elsewhere. There’s a brand that’s sold all over Spain – we had it in Astorga on the Camino. You can imagine the factories where the stuff’s churned-out and chilled. As usual, we ended up wandering around late at night, starving. Amazingly, everything seemed to be closing at eleven. Madrid conditions you.
Around the corner from the hostel was a traditional taverna run by two quietly in-control men who might have been brothers – two lifetimes of experience bringing order to the chaos of coffees, tostadas and deliveries. We had breakfast there on the Saturday.
The taverna was closed on Sunday. Opposite was a tiny corner tapas bar we’d passed half-a-dozen times in the last few days, but it was always full. We squeezed into a corner and stood at the bar. The camareros were so in love with their work and with what they were serving. We stood and ate cones of fried mixed fish, whitebait and raciones of fried vegetables. It was worth waiting for.
Three months is a long time to be out of each other’s sight and touch. The sunshine of Valencia was the perfect catalyst for recuperation and rediscovery of why we work so well. The salmon-painted room took on a beauty of its own. In the mornings, the swifts sang harmonies to our love-songs.
The AVE brought us back into Madrid on Sunday afternoon. I had to work a long day on the Monday, but we met between classes in Plaza de Gregorio Maranon for a coffee.
N has broken my media blackout slightly by re-introducing me to BBC Radio 4’ “Desert Island Discs”. On Sunday and Monday night, we watched “Il Postino”. It was a shock to read that the actor Massimo Troisi died just after finishing filming. Neither of us knew that.
I saw N off from T4 on Tuesday night. We won’t see each other again for another three months at least, and we both have much to do before then. Yesterday, I walked through Lavapies for the hell of it. The streets around the plaza are still ringing with her voice.
And - who knows? - maybe my daughter will come to Madrid again before I head to the UK for August.
Summer is on its way.