‘Afterwards, when I had the breakdown, I dreamt of it over and over again, this place where I came alive.’
– Desmond Hogan, A Farewell to Prague
It was past four in the morning when I got back to my room in the flat that I was sharing with a furtive young theologian from Puerto Rico. I turned on the lamp and sat down at my desk, where I stared through a layer of dust and a spattering of food stains at the black screen of my laptop. In the reflection I saw that for once my hair was sitting just the way I liked it. I poured a tumbler full of Rioja, a wine I did not like but drank a lot of at the time, turned my laptop on, took off my jeans, my socks and shirt, and then, in just a pair of boxer briefs, cobalt-blue with thin white stripes, got down to the business of resigning without notice.
I’d been drafting the email for a couple of days, and began to read it out loud for misspellings, typos, run-ons and contradictions. Addressed to the Director of Human Resources at the school I’d been working in since the start of January, my roughly drafted email announced, in just over 500 words, that due to the gradual disintegration of my mental health, I would not be returning to work on Monday.
‘I’m sorry to email you during the weekend,’ I intoned towards a row of bad Ribera print-offs tacked to the wall, hearing an unsteadiness of tone in my voice, a sort of shorthand for sentiment that I recognised as my father’s reading voice. Out loud I told myself, ‘Cut that stupid fucking lilt of yours, because this ain’t funny, pal.’ This was serious: ‘I’m sorry to email you during the weekend,’ I repeated, much flatter now. ‘I realise that it’s your time off, and that anything I say can only cause you stress. It has been several weeks since I slept for more than an hour, and lately I’ve been feeling on the verge of cracking up.’
One Sunday afternoon a couple of months earlier, I walked over to Elanor’s place for lunch – another English teacher who lived with her Spanish boyfriend, Salvador, in a large high-rise apartment at the top of Calle del Doctor Esquerdo, the steepest four-lane road that I have ever seen. Before moving to Madrid I had promised myself that I wouldn’t hang out with anyone there that I wouldn’t hang out with if I was back in Dublin. I knew you had to be careful with expats – one midweek drink with a persistently outgoing weirdo at work and next thing you know you’re going for mountain hikes every other weekend with a cohort from the local expat Facebook group. In the countless emails I was sending home I tended not to mention that in those first couple of weeks I’d experienced a loneliness I’d never known before. But it must have been there between the lines, for late one evening I got a message from Elanor, explaining she was a friend of a friend and inviting me for a drink with her and her boyfriend. I liked them a lot and for a while they took me in. I’d never spent so much time with one couple. That Sunday, after dinnertime, Salvador got a call from his uncle, who told him he was parked outside and to come down.
‘Venga,’ he said to Elanor, then turned to me. ‘Come.’
Outside I was introduced to his uncle and his aunt. His uncle said a couple of words in broken English and then I said a couple of words in broken Spanish and everyone pretended to find this whole scene more amusing than it probably was. His uncle and aunt were downsizing, Salvador explained, as his uncle opened the boot of his car to reveal a large black chest of drawers turned on its side. Salvador was beaming as we lifted it from the car toward the building. The lift, as he suspected, was too small to take what he called his new baroque furniture. There were Chinese-style figures in bas relief along the side. ‘Okay,’ he said, puffing his cheeks while contemplating the stairs, ‘I’ll do the backwards part.’ By the time we’d edged the chest up all seven flights, it was dark outside. His uncle had arrived back with the chest from a trip to China in the mid-eighties, Salvador recalled. Elanor said she wasn’t sure about it. She said it didn’t really suit the room, or even fit inside; but it was something Salvador had wanted since he was a boy and each time he went to the kitchen to get more wine, I watched him brush his fingers along the top of it. It was about three in the morning when I left, walking down Calle del Doctor Esquerdo, where the traffic lights went green to red to green and not a single car went by.
The harsh light from my reading lamp cast such dramatic shadows on my desk that I had trouble paying attention to the resignation draft on my screen. There were forty-nine unread messages in my work email’s inbox, an address that for the most part received only ignorable group messages from the Director of Staff Development, and unrefusable requests to cover classes for absent teachers at short notice. It was not an inbox I was often pleased to have checked, but occasionally there would be an email from Alfonso, a cheerful, perma-stubbled electronic engineer whom I taught every Friday night, and this would contain links to various newspaper articles about Francisco Nicolás Gómez Iglesias, a twenty-year-old from Madrid who had recently become notorious when he was arrested for forging official documents and passing himself off as an advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister, the secret service and the Royal Household, where in June the previous year he’d managed to gain entry to the reception that followed the new king’s coronation. In a widely circulated photograph, Felipe VI is shown greeting Little Nicholas, whose slickly gelled head is bowed to conceal a grin of just-contained laughter. I recall a synchrony of sighing the first time Alfonso mentioned his name in class. Little Nicholas had become an almost constant presence on the afternoon television circuit, the other students said. They were sick of hearing about his exploits. They weren’t all that interesting to begin with.
Elanor was at the ticket office when I arrived at the entrance of the Cine Doré, a small art nouveau cinema and archive built on Calle de Santa Isabel in 1898, which in emails home I frequently referred to, with knowing inaccuracy, as the Cinemateca, hoping to evoke some soft-focus image of myself, sitting rapt in luminous darkness, like Michael Pitt in the opening scenes of Bertolucci’s terrible The Dreamers, set in Henri Langlois’s 1960s Cinémathèque Française.
‘Long time no see,’ said Elanor as she handed me a ticket for a Buster Keaton film I had recommended we go see. ‘Sal can’t come cos he has to work, but he’s invited you round later, if you want.’
In the lobby of the building, whose linoleum-grey layout was in counterpoint to the ostentatious exterior facade, we each ordered a glass of vermouth and sat down on seats that felt more suited to a school canteen than a 117-year-old listed building.
‘How was South America?’ The question had not landed before I decided to rephrase it. ‘Wait, no,’ I said, squinting slightly. ‘How was the WWOOFing?’ I felt the lower half of my face twist into a smile when I made this sound, a present participle made from the acronym of the organisation that had facilitated Elanor’s placement for the last two months on several organic farms in South America. I’d found the term amusing ever since I first heard her say it, but I worked my face back into a neutral expression as soon as I remembered the annoyance Elanor seemed to take at this amusement, which I am fairly sure she thought was grounded in the conviction that casual farm labour was a risible, faintly bourgeois pursuit. And I suppose, in a way that I might once have given a shit about, it probably was. But no. That really wasn’t it. I just thought it sounded funny: WWOOFing, I repeated to myself; all I thought was dogging.
‘It was great,’ she said, ignoring my insolence. ‘Saw lots of volcanoes and mountains and shit. Not really sure if it went quickly or slowly, though.’ She laughed when I asked if she’d had much spare time. In the evenings on one of the farms she worked at in Chile, she’d done a lot of sitting by herself on the porch of a distant cabin, the only place on the property with Wi-Fi strong enough to stream a Channel 4 sitcom on her phone. I told her I found this image unbearably moving, but there are only so many times you can use those two words together before people stop believing them.
Eighteen blades of light sliced through the shutter, and for a while my room lost shape. The email I was writing to the school’s Director of Human Resources was not the first time I’d complained of nervous collapse. ‘I’m – fever – crazed,’ I’d stammered down the phone on a friend’s couch in Dublin one Monday in 2013. ‘I’m not – can’t – talking.’ I’d been unable to formulate a proper sentence until late that night; or so I’d told my boss at work the following day, and since she’d shot back nothing but a look of mild concern, complaints of this order had become a sort of go-to excuse for me.
Starkly illuminated by the light of the reading lamp above my desk, Saint Paul of Egypt looked crazed with death and loneliness. I poured another glass of the Rioja, pulled the shutter up and looked out into the wide courtyard, across which I was sometimes able to watch football on the widescreen television in the apartment opposite. I knew that if I leant my head out and looked up, I’d catch a cerulean square of sunless sky, but there didn’t seem much point. I sat down. The screen said: SUN 6.23 a.m. ‘I have been suffering from depression more or less since I got to Madrid,’ I read, with that same unsteadiness of tone, so automatic at an hour as late as this, and then coughed twice in a failed attempt to shake it, ‘but in the last few weeks, the stress I’ve struggled with has plunged me into a much more serious depression, one I haven’t known for years and which feels more frightening than ever.’
When I stumbled through the front door a few hours earlier, Jonathan, the Puerto Rican theologian who lived across the hall, was standing in the kitchen, making what smelled like his usual late-night toasted cheese sandwich. Jonathan was someone who wore a cross around his neck and drank precisely half a bottle of red wine every day; before finding God, the man inhaled so much aerosol that he’d landed in hospital several times. One evening he confided in me that five years before, a neighbour had discovered him passed out on the front lawn of his parents’ house in San Juan. He said those had been his wild and terrible years and they hadn’t stopped there; not until one summer night when, after inhaling a particularly strong dose of the stuff, he lay down on his bed, took off his trousers, switched on his laptop and streamed pornography until such a time as the devil appeared to him.
‘He had a body,’ he told me. ‘He had arms and legs,’ he said. ‘But his face – his face was the pornography.’
As I passed the kitchen door, he called my name. ‘I went to Sevilla last week,’ he said, refusing to anglicise the name of the city where, not long before, having heard it might be cheap enough to live there without a job, I told him I was planning to move once my lease ran out midsummer. He raised the sandwich to his mouth. ‘Strange voices,’ he said, chewing. ‘So hard to understand.’
A couple of priests, collared but in casual dress, stood up from their seats at the table opposite Elanor and me, prompting her to check the time. ‘This is about to start,’ she said, suggesting that we sit upstairs on the old-style balcony where, in the front row, almost as soon as we sat down, I took off my shoes and through my thin black socks gripped hold of, with my toes, an ornate swirl on the heavy iron railing. ‘Mate,’ she whispered as the film began, with a shot of Buster Keaton looking much the same as ever in the role of Alfred Butler, the effete son of what, judging by the size and splendour of the drawing room he sat in, was clearly quite a wealthy family.
‘What?’ I whispered back, unsure if she meant me or him.
‘Your feet,’ she said, as the doleful look on Alfred’s face was interrupted by the film’s first intertitle. ‘They’re fucking rank.’
‘Get a camping outfit,’ the intertitle read, giving voice to Alfred’s fat-cat father. ‘Go out and rough it. Maybe it will make a man out of you if have to take care of yourself for a while.’ At this the film cut back to Alfred on the couch, doleful and silent as ever.
‘Fuck you,’ I whispered, my toes strengthening their grip.
When I’d signed the lease on the room on Calle de Granada, with Jonathan and his Bibles across the hall, I had done so because of its relative proximity to the Reina Sofia Museum. In the afternoons of early May, however, when I experienced the heat outside as an almost spatial property, I tended not to walk to the museum but take the metro, for I told myself the air was cooler and more comfortable down there, though in truth it was much worse: too close, almost airless. One of my former students, a friendly retiree named Monica, lived with her husband on the street between my place and the Reina Sofia; and the fear of being seen by them, or any of the two-hundred-odd other students I’d been teaching regularly, even the children, who presumably had parents, influenced my behaviour more than I liked to admit. I’d covered almost nothing I was supposed to, and I doubted anyone I’d taught bore much chance of passing their exams. When the metro pulled into the platform, I looked, as I tended to do, beyond my own reflection, peering far into each carriage to ensure that I would not be stuck in a space so cramped as that with anyone I even thought I recognised. Boarding an almost empty carriage near the back, I sat down opposite a middle-aged man with long hair, wrap-around shades and a Guns & Roses T-shirt, and picked up a discarded paper next to him. Little Nicholas was in the news again, I saw. He’d been arrested for running out on a €500 restaurant bill, but no charges had been made. He was planning to run for parliament now. Things seemed to be going good for the guy, I thought as I got off the train. They were going pretty good for me as well, I told myself, as I left the Atocha station, waiting for the traffic lights to change.
A dusty sheet of sun had drawn across my room before I noticed the squashed beads of sweat that had run off my clammy palm onto the tumbler, almost empty now. I was feeling drowsy, feeling rough, and the skin around my eyes was irritable from lack of sleep. Outside the birds were singing. I breathed deeply and faced the screen again. ‘Early this morning,’ I read out, ‘I had a long conversation with my parents on Skype. As you might imagine, they are very worried. My mother is flying over this afternoon and together we’re going to fly back to Dublin tomorrow evening. The tickets are already booked.’ I pushed my weight off the desk and in my seat I rolled towards the window, where finally I did look up, towards the frayed old towel which had been hanging from a line of rope drawn three floors up, untouched since the beginning of February at least. ‘The plan,’ I read, rolling back to the desk, ‘such as it is for now, is for me to start seeing my psychologist again.’
Dressed up in full tweed and a deerstalker cap, Alfred Butler was walking through the woods with his diminutive valet when clumsily, by accident, he fired his rifle backwards, the bullet coming close to hitting a coquettish mountain girl played by Sally O’Neil, who, as you might expect, became confrontational in response. For some months, using screenshots of movie characters watching movies, I’d been trying to write an essay entitled ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Movies’. The task was proving difficult, however: not so much because I couldn’t find the right screenshots; but because, when I really thought about, the ways I looked at movies were, lately at least, much more limited than I liked to believe. The first was watching movies alone on my laptop, pausing every two or three minutes to take a screenshot and post it on Twitter, causing even short films to go on as long as Béla Tarr’s. The second was watching movies I had never seen before in the company of another person, whose opinion I would second-guess throughout, so that when the film ended conversation could pass smoothly and with a minimum of stress, conflict or even civilised debate, which I often come out of looking stupid. The third was watching, with another person, a movie that I’d seen before and had for some reason recommended. As someone whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture, this way of looking was the one about which I’d had most opportunity to think, and about which I found myself thinking once again as I sat with Elanor in the front row on the balcony, my toes gripped onto the front railing, watching a silent film that she knew I’d seen already.
There in the darkness of the Cine Doré, I was no more attentive to Alfred Butler than Alfred Butler was to firearm safety. I was looking straight ahead, but it was Elanor I was watching. Or, rather, it was Elanor I felt myself watching as. Which is to say that it was Elanor, some hypercritical approximation of her, that I was watching myself as. I was looking straight ahead of me, but with my right ear and the edge of my right eye, with the whole right side of my body in fact, the toes of my right foot included, I was watching out for signs of her approval. Finding none, I felt myself judged. ‘Some prize fighter has taken your name, sir,’ the intertitle read, before a close-up shot of a photo of a boxer on the front page of the newspaper. I grew restless, feverish. The film seemed a lot less funny now than I recalled. Christ, I thought. Did I really like this first time round? What time is it? How long is left? Drawing my feet back from the railing, I edged my phone out of my pocket. Over an hour, I saw. Squirming and much inclined to leave, I crossed my legs, uncrossed them; clenching my teeth as I pledged never to recommend another film again, never to talk about another film, or think about another film, or even watch another film again, when Butler, after no more than a single date with the mountain girl, announced that he would like to marry her, and Elanor let out a laugh, an actual laugh, and I turned to find that she was smiling.
At exactly 9:09 a.m., the sound of an incoming email alert shook me from the half-sleep into which I’d fallen and my elbows, both lodged into the window frame, were forced forward so abruptly that the skin on each was shredded. I wheeled my chair across the room, picking up a sock to stem the flow of blood. On the other side of the wall, just above the threshold of the audible, I could hear the plaintive sound of Jonathan practising the chorus of David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ on his unplugged electric guitar. I squeezed my eyes open, shook my head and then looked back at the screen. Not only was the email still unsent; the ending, the part I was most worried about, had yet to be drafted. On top of that, I now had fifty unread messages. ‘I don’t know how long I will be back in Dublin,’ I wrote. Then I stopped. Was there not some other, more ambiguous, way of phrasing this? The crisp clanging of Jonathan’s guitar, coming in under the door, was starting to grate. It was just past nine in the morning. And on the weekend. What the hell was he doing playing his guitar so early? Shouldn’t he be at Mass or something? I stood up. I opened the door. I slammed it shut. The playing stopped. I deleted ‘I don’t know how long I will be back in Dublin’, picking up the sock again to pat my elbows dry; then I pinched the skin around my eyes, digging out the sleep dried into them. I puffed my cheeks out and exhaled. Then I began to type once more: ‘I don’t know how long I will be off away in Dublin, but certainly too long to think about continuing to work at Global Language Place.’
The Reina Sofia, which operated as a hospital before it eventually reopened as a museum, seemed such a large and imposing building as to wipe every other structure on Plaza Emperador Carlos V from memory and possibly even consciousness. In all the times I went there I did not seem to register the existence of anything else in the square; with the exception, that is, of the tall grey staircase leading up to the museum, where a bunch of interchangeable skaters with weirdly stylish mullets sat smoking weed beside their portable speakers playing old electro-indie hits, mostly by MGMT. As I skipped past them, not looking but looking all the same, I felt my hand sweep through my hair, and I wondered who or what I thought I was, exactly. Something that I’d obviously been aware of before I quit, but of which I hadn’t really taken stock until after, was that on my newly idle afternoons all my friends would be busy with their own jobs. I raised a single and somehow apologetic finger to the man at the ticket office. ‘Sí,’ I said, pushing a handful of coins beneath the glass. ‘Una solo.’ When I passed security, I turned right, following the high ceiling of the stone-laid corridor until I came to Room 1, where an exhibition of some hundred-plus modernist pieces on loan from the Kuntsmuseum in Basel had been running since March. Among the borrowed paintings there was a single Mondrian grid, a composition in white, black and red that seemed more modest and, if possible, more reticent than the few I’d seen before. In one of the notebooks that he kept as his work began to approach full abstraction, Mondrian asked: ‘Rembrandt, are we going wrong or aren’t we?’ The stress does not fall kindly here, and I have often wondered about the translation, but in the spring of 2011, when I first read this line, I remember feeling strangely reassured to know that a figure of Mondrian’s eminence had been burdened by this weight of doubt. The work seemed so assured of itself. I kept a look out for this tension. I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance up without me knowing why or how. What I liked to look at most, however, was the white, the off-whiteness of the white, his brittle, brittle white, shot through with cracks, like almost every grid by Mondrian; who, as his style developed, had rejected oil-based paint in favour of a petroleum solvent which, though disastrous in conservation terms, dried much quicker, allowing him to get more work done with a lot less waiting around. My reflection was not visible on the glass, and so I looked beyond it, beyond the glass, into the scarring of impatience, strewn across a canvas on which emotion had been disavowed.
‘These people will never know the difference,’ the screen read. ‘The champion will win and no one will ever hear of Battling Butler again.’ The impish valet had drawn Alfred Butler into the well-furnished interior of their woodland marquee to explain the lie he’d had to tell to get the mountain family onside. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Elanor stand up and leave. To go to the bathroom, I assumed, but who could say. Not infrequently, I am told that I’m the strange one for announcing whenever I’m about to use the bathroom. But it seems much stranger not to, to silently stand up, turn around and walk off with no clear sense of when or if you intend on coming back. After a few minutes, though, Elanor did come back, sitting once again to my right, whereupon she leant over, said she’d had to take a call, and asked me what she’d missed.
‘Well,’ I whispered. ‘Big surprise. The newspaper got it wrong. Battling Butler beat the champion and now Keaton’s gotta pretend to the girl and the in-laws that he’s the new champion.’
‘They got married?’
‘Yeah, sorry, just there. After he returned triumphant.’
‘Fucking idiots believing that. Look at the guy.’
‘Mm, but the little one’s a wily prick. Persuasive, like.’
‘Yeah, still though. Where are they driving anyway?’
‘A training camp his in-laws heard that he’d be training at. Keaton’s gotta be up there to answer any letters the wife sends.’
‘Can’t see this ending well, can you?’
Several rows back, someone shushed us, and on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere on the screen, the mountain girl appeared and flagged the car down, taking Keaton and his valet by surprise.
‘I’ll say nothing,’ I whispered, staring straight ahead.
One night I went to Mass. Let’s say a humour took me. It would probably do me good, I thought, for my Spanish or whatever. ‘Redentor mío, me pesa de todo corazón haberos ofendido,’ I repeated, in increasingly exaggerated tones, as I snaked across the park, where darkness stole from thickening trees, towards the Portada de San Jerónimo, a sixteenth-century gothic structure, chalk-white and luminous in the sun, but inside somehow colder and murkier than the atmosphere outside. I sat down on an empty pew not far from the altar, where several members of a television crew were rolling up thick television wires, whistling back and forth to one another, shouting out instructions less than reverently, taking their goddamn time.
Sitting on her own in the chancel to the right of the Portada de San Jerónimo, a prosperous old lady with an ashen face and crimson hat met my gaze, and together we shared a quiet look of wearied disapproval at the unkempt roadies in the television crew. Under a red cape, a cardinal came out, apologising for the long delay, saying something I could not quite follow about the church and this modern world we live in. He cracked a joke, or so it seemed, for I’d lost the train of what he was saying; I was wondering what I’d have to do, exactly, to wind up in that woman’s will. Perdona, perdona. El mundo moderno. He cracked another joke, it seemed; then started to perdona, perdona once more. I tried to catch the woman’s eye, but no such luck this time; and when I turned back to the altar, the cardinal was gone, replaced by a lesser cleric, a bog-standard priest, who instructed the congregation to stand before continuing, incredibly, to apologise. ‘Perdona this, perdona that,’ he said, though not, I finally realised, for the delay, but for the sins of all humanity. At this small misunderstanding I smiled, a private smile intended to be seen, and as I turned once more towards the prosperous old lady, I noticed, to my surprise, not to say horror, that standing just behind her was Alfonso, the follower of Little Nicholas who I’d left totally unprepared for his exams after months of convivially running down the clock in class. He’d noticed me already, I think, for no sooner had I seen him than he’d caught my eye, raised his eyebrows and smiled.
The back entrance of the park was so close to where I lived that I could go there most evenings, confident that nobody I knew from work would see me getting there or getting back, or sitting on the bench I always sat on, contemplating the same view, always the same one, of the Torre de Valencia, a granite-brown brutalist skyscraper on the corner of Calle O’Donnell, just outside the park, framed by a fortuitous arrangement of trees within it. With darkly cavernous balconies rising up along its body, like the rungs on a ladder, or the minor keys of a piano on its side, the tower seemed at once monumental and discreet, modern in a way that was not coming back. The Torre de Valencia was just under a hundred metres tall – I checked – and continued to reflect sunlight for as long as two hours after the trees in the park had obscured it from me. So consistent was its texture and its colour, burnt-bronze with the last blaze of sun, that the tower looked, or almost looked, as if it had been lit from within. There in the safe obscurity of shade I would sit, reflecting on how unbearably moving it always felt to watch this silent rage against the dying of the light, as inch by distant inch, floor by distant floor, the half-darkness by which I had already been enveloped climbed up the structure’s rungs until, having seemed to dwell that bit longer on the final rung than any other, the light of day ascended into nothing.
It was still bright when we left the Cine Doré. I asked whether we should take the metro to Salvador’s, though I knew it wasn’t a long enough walk to justify the three transfers it would have required from Antón Martín. ‘Nah, don’t be stupid,’ said Elanor. And so, as the sun was getting lower, we began to walk down Calle de Atocha, amazed at how much mileage the film had gotten out of a single lie.
Our shadows got pointier and pointier until we reached the end of Paseo de la Reina Cristina, when the buildings on Avenida del Mediterráneo blocked out the falling sun entirely. Yet since I knew it was here that a retiree I used to teach lived in an apartment with her husband, I flicked my sunglasses off my head and over my eyes. Feeling a knot in my left shoulder, I told Elanor I’d spent a lot of the last few days lying in my room in the dark, with a week-long headache, or possibly a migraine, I didn’t know.
‘I think it could be the light,’ I said. ‘I’m not exactly sure.’
‘Have you been stressed or something?’ Elanor asked.
‘Not really,’ I told her. ‘I sleep till three in the afternoon. I’ve nothing to be stressed about. Except the headaches, I guess.’
The birds had stopped singing by the time Jonathan had shut up. Someone across the way was unloading a dishwasher, but otherwise the room was at peace. A chill rushed through me and I realised that I had been sitting around in my boxer shorts for much longer than I’d anticipated. The email was almost finished, but I stood up for a moment to put on pyjamas and go to the bathroom. ‘Buenas,’ I said as I passed the sitting room, where Jonathan was slouched on the sofa watching a flashy TV quiz show. ‘Buenas,’ he replied, as I passed him coming back. In my room, I looked at my laptop and sat down for about five seconds. My body is too tired for this, I thought. I stood up and when I pulled the shutters down, the room again went dark except for eighteen blades of light. I unplugged my laptop and got underneath the bed sheets. ‘I’m very sorry to do this without giving any notice,’ I typed, my laptop sitting on my stomach, ‘especially at this point in the academic year. But I can’t put my job before my health. Thank you for your support in the last four months. Yours Sincerely, Kevin Breathnach.’ I hesitated for perhaps a second, but thought fuck it and pressed send. A wave of euphoria rushed through me and I felt a warm-cold sweat against the sheets. I realised it was going to be hard to get to sleep.
When he heard us coming in the door, Salvador stepped in off the balcony, holding a plate full of burgers in his right hand. He put them down on the coffee table before he asked me how I was. ‘Not bad,’ I said.
Elanor had wandered into the kitchen, but the door was open and we could both hear that she was laughing in there. ‘Kev was just in the middle of telling me he’s started going to church,’ she called out.
Salvador turned and looked at me curiously. ‘A, sí?’ he said. ‘You are becoming religious?’
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to hear a Mass in Spanish.’
‘Ah, okay, I see. And how did you find it?’
‘The whole thing was quite familiar,’ I said, ‘The sound of it, like. But I had trouble understanding the specifics.’
I sat down on the couch and told him about the TV crew and, after exaggerating the extent to which I had misinterpreted the second priest’s apologies, I made a couple of pithy remarks about Catholicism and guilt, the first couple of which went down quite well. Salvador was laughing as I took a bite out of my burger. He asked me if I had taken Communion on my knees. He said he’d heard that some Spanish church leaders had recently instructed that this was the only proper way of doing it.
‘No,’ I told him, explaining that about halfway through the service, on the other side of the church, I’d seen a former student and I’d frozen. ‘For the rest of the Mass,’ I laughed, ‘I didn’t turn so much as an inch in his direction.’
Elanor walked into the room and sat down next to Salvador, her back to the window, her face somewhat obscured.
‘I guess it looked like I was ignoring him,’ I continued. ‘But I wasn’t. I was doing this sort of looped montage of tics and expressions for him, so that he’d think I was mentally ill, like, maybe fully deranged.’ I don’t remember how many times I repeated, by way of demonstration, the long sequence of expressions I’d made at Mass, but my stomach had grown sore with laughter before their stillness struck me and I stopped. The sunless sky behind them appeared to hold its breath. I took another bite of my burger. ‘You have a good view,’ I said, chewing slowly, my hands clasped upturned in my lap, and Elanor finally smiled, a careful, unemphatic smile that looked like it meant something else.
Photograph © jninophotos