A Couple and a City by Justin Fenech

Someone new was passing by the old men sat on the benches of the dawn-weary square. The men were dressed in grey shirts, their once-blue eyes faded into a universal fatigue, and they looked at the couple as if they were watching one of those new-fangled films they showed in the cold, modern cinemas. The couple wore bright summer clothes; she had a short, strapless yellow dress that exposed her shoulders and waxy collar-bones. He wore a sea-blue shirt and shorts another shade of blue – in all, he had an oceanic hue, more spring than summer.

The old men stopped talking about last weekend’s inconclusive elections and perked up their tufty ears to listen to the shouting couple. They came from the direction of the Gran Via. They spoke English and certainly looked foreign, though their skin was an olive-hue similar to the Spanish’s own colouration. They must have been staying in one of the Gran Via’s luxurious three-star hotels.

Pedro, a retired fisherman originally from Galicia, knew some English and could make out the couple’s argument somewhat. They were stood a few feet away from the bronze, shimmering statue of Federico Garcia Lorca, in the middle of the square, shouting, rabid, ignorant of all around them. Pedro translated to the three others who were with him.

“Why are you doing this to me now? When we’re abroad – how can you be such a bitch!”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s being here, with you, it doesn’t feel right. I’ve wanted to come to Madrid for so long, but it’s letting me down. And it’s not the city – it’s you.”

“What in God’s name have I done!”

“I don’t know.”

She walked away from him. He followed her as she walked into the Cerveceria Alemana. She wanted breakfast.

Inside the Cerveceria there was a British man having an early-morning drink. He had been in Spain when the referendum back home took place. Now, he didn’t want to go back. He was thinking about his parents. His mother was getting on, and his father was showing early signs of dementia. His brother had moved out years ago. He has his own family now. Not me, not I. I have nothing left back home except responsibility. I should make a clean break and stay here. God knows how hard it would be to come back to Spain when it’s all over.

The couple were talking in animated but subdued tones now. They ordered an omelette and tea. As they spoke they tried to eat but none of them could stomach the food and the tea grew hotter as it touched their lips.

The British man welcomed their distraction. He could put off thinking about his purpose in life just a little bit longer. Thanks to them; my God she blends into this place! That yellow dress, yes, I always thought this place had a remarkably yellow feel to it. She proves it, she’s bloody camouflaged. But her words are red. A Communist red, you know?

“We’re not right for each other.”

“Since when?”

“Since… I don’t know. But you know how they say never travel with someone you don’t love…?”

“That’s not right, it can’t be right… I love you.”

“I know you do. And I love you too. But it’s not enough.”

“It’s enough for everyone else!”

“I know, and I’m not special. But still.”

“You’re not making any God-damned sense!”

“I’m sorry.”

“That isn’t enough!”

A long silence suddenly fell over them. She looked like she was crying and he looked like he was holding back some nasty anger. The British man sympathised with both of them. He was neutral. He ordered another beer and lamented being too broke to ever make the permanent move to Madrid. He felt an early-morning drunkenness setting in. A buzz-free headache that moved in like a southern storm. He knew he was buggered. And when the couple left the Cerveceria an hour later, he felt himself empty once again.

There was no one in the balconies along the Calle del Prado, yet the windows watched them all the same. Though they were shut and polished and smooth their rising voices disturbed their taut stillness. Windows that could close out the light of a star many times larger than the earth and that dominates its solar system like a Genghis Khan, could not keep out those indignant voices.

The street leading to the Retiro and the Museo del Prado was not as clean as it normally was. The election had left the country in a bad state. The referendum, too. There was one road-sweeper out as they passed. Its operator was a tall, handsome Romanian man and as the couple passed him by he was indifferent; he was more concerned about what the locals were saying of him under their eye-lids.

It was midday by the time they made it to the Retiro. It was radiant and sparkling with sunlight. The green lake flickered golden and the many boats sailing its still waters wore the colours of happiness. Summer suited Madrid, suited the Retiro, though these days it dragged on a bit too long and the late-summer storms were becoming more intense as the rotting years went by.

Stubbornly, indifferently, the couple rented a boat and took to the lake. They were silent as he rowed but then he stopped, let go of the oars and sighed into the humid air. She looked to him and demanded to know, arms crossed like a fascist, why he was stopping.

“I don’t deserve this. I’ve been nothing but good to you. I’ve taken care of you when your family left you behind, I’ve worked twice what I should have when you were out of work. I’ve done too much to be dumped like this.”

“You’ve only ever done those things ‘cos you were gagging for it.”


“It’s the only reason you ever got with me. You like how I fuck and that’s it.”

“If you think so highly of yourself why the hell did you ever get with me, then?”

“Oh I don’t know, you were safe, had a good job, and you cared for me more than anyone ever did, granted. But you never meant it.”

“How dare you be so callous, how, how could you!”

She shrugged. And there was no one to see the rising anger on his face. All the boats rowed on behind him, the rowers could only see the back of his head. And it was a normal, decent head with a good row of straight, jet-black hair.

He didn’t want to be with her now. When they came off the boats he began walking away. She shouted at him, I want to go to the Lavapies. What’s that? That Bohemian area I told you about. Hippie streets, great. He followed her because he was terrified of being alone with his anger.

In the plaza of the Lavapies a man and his friend were playing bullfight with a stray dog. The stray dog was shaggy, greyish brown and his eyes wore an expression of red fatigue. He was a mongrel but looked something like a retriever. But patchy like a faded map of the world. The men were young and as scruffy as the dog. They had kind eyes and their faces were as bright and happy as a cherry blossom in the spring.

One of the men had a beach towel and he was using it as his cape. He kept shouting “toro! Toro!” and waving the towel in the dog’s face. The dog snarled but wouldn’t charge. Then the other man came from behind and pinched the dog’s tail. He put his tail between his legs and snarled more determinedly. The towel was now waved in his face but he still wouldn’t charge.

So the man behind the dog clipped the dog’s heels almost tripping him over and the dog moved a few inches closer to him, now completely ignoring the towel-cum-cape. From behind the suit-less matador slapped the dog’s backside. But still: only a half-glance. No matter how angry they tried to get him, he wouldn’t charge, wouldn’t play along. No one in the plaza looked at them. It was as if they were alone.

The men stopped the horn-less corrida when the couple came storming down the street, shouting like a squealing lobster being dropped in a pan. As they stopped the dog began walking away but, distracted as they were, the two men still got in his way. Later on, the dog would be killed, not quite as bulls are killed, and not as publicly. But for now, his fate was on hold:

“Who is he, who the fuck is he?”

“He’s someone from work.”

“How long has this been going on!”

“Nothing’s going on!”

“But you said!”

“I’m not having an affair you thick-shit. He’s just, I don’t know, made me re-think things.”

“What things?”

“Only my whole life. He’s like me. He wants to travel, wants to live, wants to do things not rot away. He and I, we understand each other. Talking to him, I feel dangerous.”

“Rotting away… is that what you’re doing with me?”

“It’s not because of you. It’s everything. Life doesn’t inspire me. I’m scared of it, bored by it. I don’t know what I want but I know it’s not this. And I know you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re happy with your life. And I’m glad. But we can’t live together and be on opposite sides of the borders of happiness.”

“And this colleague of yours… he feels the same way?”

“About me, I don’t know. He’s got a girlfriend too. But yes, he feels the same way about things. He’s unhappy. Even though he has everything.”

“You have everything too.”

“Then why do I feel so alone?”

The dog was dead at five in the afternoon, the hour of the corrida.

There was a bullfight on that day. It was the 15th August and the city celebrated the feria of Las Palomas in Madrid. But the couple didn’t go watch the bullfight. He hated it anyway and would never let her go see it.

Instead they went back to the hotel on the Gran Via and had a siesta. They slept back to back. She dreamed of Cervantes, dreamed of meeting him, and she told him about Spain as it was in her time. She told him about the EU, about the monarchy, about the unemployment and about Podemos. She told him about all the technology too, about planes that can take you across the world in hours, about trains as fast as bullets, and cameras that can mummify reality and crystallise memory. “Keep it, guapa.” He told her. “All sorrows are less bad with bread. Menos mal, menos mal.”

He didn’t sleep well. He was kept awake by the noise from the room next door. The hotel was good, had good views and cleanliness, but the walls were wafer-thin. The noise wasn’t anything amorous or obnoxious. It was music, Arabic music – or was it flamenco? And he was kept awake by it because he kept trying to explain to himself why he didn’t like it, why he didn’t like whoever it was that was listening to it.

“Let’s have a baby.”

His words hardly disturbed the music that surrounded them like a steam-train’s whistle in the Corte Ingles later that evening.

They were in the men’s clothes department, four floors up, and he was looking at a Hugo Boss shirt which he could never afford.

Around the corner from them was a smartly-dressed black man with an unfocused look and a concentrated walk.

The camp blonde man at the counter was looking at the black man thinking he might be a shoplifter. Or at least, that he was thinking about shoplifting.

The black man was British, and like the British man in the Cerveceria, he was actually thinking about moving to Spain.

“Are you out of your mind?”

“No, no. I hear you. I know what you’re saying. You’re lost. You need purpose in life. So do I. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Let’s have a baby. What’s more meaningful than that?”

“You say you understand, but you don’t. I’m not that kind of woman. I’m not middle-aged. I’m not a mother… he would never have suggested it.”

“Well what would he have suggested? A line of cocaine in the bathroom of a kazin!”

“He would suggest something fun. Something to make me really happy. Not what he thinks would make me happy.”

“You’re talking like a waste. You talk a lot about being happy. But no matter how happy you are, you’ll never live a life worth living.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I’ve been with a woman who really lives a worthwhile life.”

“You only have one ex-girlfriend and the only thing worthwhile she’s ever done is get dumped by you!”

“I’m not talking about an ex-girlfriend. I’m talking about Jade.”

“Jade, your boss, Jade?”

He nodded.

“What do you mean you’ve been with her?”

“We went out for a drink. We had a few. We kissed.”

“When did this happen?”

“A few months ago.”

“You’re still speaking to her?”

“Yes. I’m helping her out.”

“What does that Joan of Arc possibly need help with?”

“She’s trying to adopt. It’s a girl she knows. Wonderful Libyan girl who refused to go back to Libya with her parents. Social security took her and now Jade’s looking to adopt her.”

“Figures that such a saint would be barren. She is biologically designed to be a nun.”

“She’s doing a good thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“And you want to play daddy with her? God, I knew you were boring, but not like this!”

They were now finishing off the day at the Chicote nightclub right across from their hotel. There was a hen’s party on at one in the morning and the bride-to-be was dancing with a female stripper. The stripper was Bulgarian, ample, and stunning. But the bride was looking over at the couple. They were sat quietly and she saw in them an image of what her and her husband would be like. The idea put her off but even so she fancied the idea of a threesome with them. But no, bitch, damn it, focus on this gorgeous stripper – if only Camilo was here, he’d love her! My God, my breasts look like moons around a star compared to hers! When I’m at the altar I’m going to shut the priest up. I’m making my own conditions. Will you, Camilo, take Alba to be your wife, and promise to pleasure her, to turn her on, to drive her wild, until death makes orgasm impossible? Yes – I do, we do! Otherwise, caro Camilo, it’s no deal!

“We haven’t talked about the house.”

“Fuck the house.”

“We’ll sell it.”

The two men who were playing matador with the dog in the Lavapies walked into the Chicote. They were dressed in tight shirts, wore raybans on top of their heads, and were scouring the club like sharks inhaling the bloody electricity of the waves. By the end of the night the men who had killed a dog would end up bedding a drunken bride-to-be.

By the end of the night Madrid would still be without a government, bankrupt, full of disgruntled foreigners and exalted matadors, its jobs unsafe and its streetscapes laden with 21st century paranoia.

By the end of the night a couple will be asleep, back to back, each thinking of suiciding, half-heartedly, each of them unsure Madrid actually exists, their problems like dictators closing off its borders to any outside news or influence, each of them sure that life would go on, though it had no right to, both of them terrified of staying together, but knowing that they had no other choice, the other, the unknown being too overwhelming, yes, life would go on, as it was, ad infinitum, till death did them part, and everything that was said that day had to be forgotten.

But how could it be?

Not even Madrid could forget.



Justin Fenech is a 27 year-old writer from the Mediterranean Island of Malta. He is a graphomaniac with an Epicurean bent. He has a long-held interest in travel writing and in his fiction he is fascinated by how people in such dire circumstances (be it poverty, war, oppression) still find a way to be happy!

He has had to be used to the simple pleasures as growing up in Malta there wasn’t much else; in such climes you learn to make the most of food, drink, sea, books and friends. He was a finalist in the IEMed Sea of Words short-story contest which dealt with cultural integration in the Mediterranean and has had poetry published in the Art Against Discrimination anthology.