the stucco morgue
the party veteran of the costa del sol
Monday night, arriving in Malaga, a BritloutTM stumbling across the aisle as the plane banks for touchdown, a soft German voice, thin and high with outrage and anxiety: please stop that, he says, please. Please stop harassing me. Across the aisle a stylish clubber too rich to be the eighteen-year-old her hi-tech dance gear suggests giggles with her neighbours about how he always does this, she can't believe it, and her last husband he always used to do exactly the same thing, isn't it funny? Small, brunette and understated, they have obviously not been doing this as long as she has and she smiles at them with condescending chumminess, the party veteran of a thousand drunken binges along the Costa del sol. As her husband lurches drunkenly towards her, and the stewards converge like underweight bouncers, she smiles fondly in his direction, blinding white teeth between lips the gleaming pink of exposed intestines. The plane lurches and he collapses uncontrollably into the inconveniently empty seat beside me, face red and fat to bursting with drink. He looks and smells as if he is cooking from inside. The stewards try to cut their losses and despite my no-no-no rays say, sit there if you want to sir, it's OK sir, but another flash of teeth from the woman who definitely doesn't want her hi-tech designer steel-rimmed hand-finished urban-combat platform trainers stained by her husband's vomit silences them. "Go on Del," she says, "Get back to your seat, we're nearly down." She watches him back with a fond smile. The German voice rises up again in thin, ineffectual protest. Under her peroxide mane, her face has the wizened brown cunning of an Indian monkey.
We arrive at the aerporto, ground skidding under our feet, evening sky too luminous and blue. It's just the last in a series of stopping stones; London, Heathrow, Malaga. Next stop, Calypso.
the violet highway
Dianique meets us at the aerporto. She speaks English to us and French to her husband, subtitling every warm phrase of broken English with a sharp barrage of rapid French. We walk past fleets of Mercedes and BMWs gleaming wetly in the belly of the airport car park. At the end of the row, Dianique's car, a veteran Renault in dusty blood, lurks in the shadows behind a pillar. We trade the usual pleasantries as we ooze into the back seat, caught in a tangle of flattened tenses and abrupt word-substitutions, every phrase brutally direct and personal.
As we pull out onto the coastal strip, I slide on my violet glasses to dim the lights and put something between myself and the roads. Neon lights explode into violent colour, the cars drag redder-than-red brake lights into the night, and the street lamps diffuse into indigo haze. The car judders as we leave the feeder road, trying to cope with four people and luggage, but I'm gone in remote and beautiful on the violet highway.
the broken satellite decoder
The key fits the lock, the house hasn't been burgled, the lights are working and there's water in the taps and the toilets. The house doesn't feel empty so much as stopped; I open every door I can find and the air still feels trapped. Neal heads for the television, I go for the kettle, filling the musty air with english coughs.
We sit staring at the blank screen, sipping overstrong tea and talking in short, awkward sentences. Something has fried the controls of the satellite decoder, extinguishing the red unblinking eye which should have given us promise of the Sci-Fi channel Sky movies and MTV. Neal fiddled with it for about an hour, but it remained stubbornly broken, its screen flat and dead as the shiny black shell of a blind-womans' visor. We go in, we go out. We wander into the kitchen, make coffee, forget the coffee. Wait until saying something is unavoidable, talk and then listen, wait until saying something is unavoidable and then talk again. Neal smokes, I do unpleasant things with the joints in my hands, time passes.
It would be better if we didn't, but eventually we have to go to bed. We set up hasty camps in the gloom. A sleeping bag, a scavenged pillow, and a ring of bags, discarded clothes, and other totemic objects are not enough and all through the night we hear each other getting up and trying to do something which will make the room safe enough to sleep in. I pull my bags in tighter around my head, cover the pillow with my grubbiest t-shirt. Curl up as tight as I can. Screw my eyes shut. It's not enough.
the coral hillsides
The coastal strip is a constant repeating pattern. Blinding tower blocks, villas crowded tight as tombs in a Scottish cemetery, sudden clusters of estate agents, casinos, and polyglot restaurants, new developments, re-developments, then back to the villas again. We're going to Marbella today, riding the coastal road in the pitiless 11o'clock sunshine.
Towards the sea, the tower blocks jut up into the painful blue sky, white as refridgerators, each balcony a black morgue-drawer waiting for an occupant. Inland, villas and apartment blocks crawl up the sides of the mountains, stucco scabies creeping out of the armpits of the hills. Scrawny worker-cranes tend rectangular skeletons, cement-block walls blossoming between girders softening in the heat, stucco crawling down the outer surface, a final protective layer. Like an expanding reef, the buildings are colonising the mountains, setting up their own environment of palm-trees and sprinklers, lemons and swimming pools, dogs and ants and starlings: and deep inside their gleaming shells, the creators of this bright new world, brown-faced and white-haired, temperate aches easing in the Mediterranean sun, far from rain and whining families, the soft-bodied inhabitants of the Costa del sol.
Back at the villa we close the door and collapse in the 3 o'clock heat. Measure out the rest of the day in cups of coffee and cigarettes. Watch bad television, think about how much we have to do and if we can avoid doing it. Find an episode of The Simpsons neither of us have ever seen, Ai Carumba and incomprehensible high-speed Spanish in juddery over-saturated colour. Outside something is chirruping in a high, desperate voice. The only other sound is the soft dribble of the urbanization's swimming pool.
In the silence, I suddenly hear the traffic on the coastal road, a hum so constant I had mistaken it for silence. It hums through the night in a swirl of white dust and exhaust fumnes, a tarmac groove worn by endless leisured tires driving from bar to golf-course to chinese-indian-mexican restaurant to casino to estate agent to bar in Mercedes and BMWs and Lotuses and gleaming sports utility vehicles, a loop-track playing on through the eternal summer.
the vision of the mortuary
I wake up in thick, stifling air. I was dreaming, repetitive and horrible; we were future archeologists investigating the huge stone tombs of long-dead superheroes. The caves were flooded with bright lights, each enormous cavern filled from floor to ceiling with the stacked-up dead, each grave a heavy stone drawer we laboriously pull open to examine the remains; ashes, a possession, a battered logo. The drawers are just shy of solid blocks, only a small depression in the lid to take the relics. I'm reminded of cheap chocolate bars, Trios or Clubs, the sort whose solid ridge of chocolate you can chew off before starting on the biscuit beneath. We find a cave of super-kids graves, you can tell because the drawers are smaller; the relics are allocated body-space, for symbolic reasons. I pull one open, it's the grave of Superboy, I pick up his logo, it's metal, scored and scorched. I wonder how they cremated him. Superman, perhaps, with his heat vision. I make notes, glance down at the drawers. There are hundreds of them. It's the find of a lifetime. I wake up bored, tired, and sick with disgust and hate. I turn over and drag at the curtains, and it's another beautiful day.
Outside the villas settle back into the hillside, well-tended walled tombs, windows black behind their bars. Everything is closed, locked, turned inwards; sealed tombs and private memorial gardens, respectable and decorous. On the far hillside, another white apartment block is going up, a hygienic white morgue waiting for the next outbreak of wealth and old age to fill it up. Nothing is moving anywhere; the view has the eerie perfection of a promotional brochure for an exclusive graveyard. A dog barks, and then another, and then another, each a little Anubis sitting at the gate of his long-dead master. Bodies embalmed in sun-oil, laxatives and preservatives, they sit in funereal splendour in their dark inner chambers, sangria in one hand and remote control in the other, blank eyes glazed with flickering television glow.
I stagger out into the light trying to blink the dead out of my eyes. Neal is distracted, head full of lawyers, papers, problems. We talk listlessly about fiction, and when he goes I try to finish Cocaine Nights for maybe an hour and then go through the cupboards until I find the real coffee and make myself a pot. I go back to Cocaine Nights but it's a disappointment. I'm after hard drugs, buggery and cataclysmic disaster and all I get is designer shop-lifting, petty crime and the inevitability of exclusive property developments. I yawn my way to another pot of coffee, duck into the dark kitchen to find the milk. The draining board is lost under washing up, the fridge foul with rotting lemons, and suddenly I know exactly how I will be spending the next few hours.
the butterfly path
It's another beautiful day. I try to finish another book, fail, drink coffee, make desultory attempts at cleaning. Neal has to go, and I keep daytime television on for company. Wonder and worry. At around eleven I crack and head for the beach.
Five minutes away as the starling flies, the beach is clearly not intended to be accessible to non car drivers. Once upon a time access was through an underpass beneath the coast road, melted now into another building site, wire and warnings and tiny diggers guarding its entry. I cast around, and find a footbridge in a twist of litter, a no-entry sign and a bollard barring vehicles from its skinny ramp. I imagine tribes of bewildered drivers of anorexic cars squeezing onto the bridge, desperate for that costa del beach. Up on the bridge the air is a sauna of exhaust fumes, damp and acrid. A greyish haze terminates the coast road at the limits of vision. I look in one direction, and then the other. Only the physical act of turning differentiates the two views. I swim through the thick air to the other side, heart pounding and sweat on pale skin as I drop below the polluting haze, and follow a small road wavering down between clinics and restaurants and apartments.
At the end of the road the blocked-off underpass, and a thin trickle of foul water draining from it to disappear behind a nest of wheelie bins. I follow it into a dusty ditch, the rattle of dried weeds in the wind, the smell of sun-baked mud and foetid water, birds scattering at my approach, and a path opening up through weeds and reeds and unfamiliar bushes, foot-worn yellow dust. Everything is golden, dust the colour of yellow ochre, darker where it becomes mud, golden light filtered through sun-yellowed reeds, opaque water the colour of butterscotch. Mating butterflies whirl in the dust-hot air, birds scatter like black confetti, canes and reeds rattle like bones and small things make abrupt scuttling noises. I walk carefully, trying not to disturb the smooth water and the stagnant air, thinking about silent places, Ian McEwan short stories, River's Edge, averting my eyes from imaginary corpses, trying not to disturb my lurking horrors. The water deepens and the reeds open out and the air dissolves from golden to blinding white, to the thin smell of salt and seaweed and the soft hardly-there beat of Mediterranean waves. Almost alone on this thin, mean beach; just a dog barking, a long way down the beach, and two people, slowly walking. Under my feet, a thin column of water dissolves into the beach, snaking through the litter (wire, a can, a washed-up tree in an attitude of awkward desolation) to bury itself in green rocks and black surf, and the hammered silver of the Mediterranean sea beyond that stretching out into nothingness.
I pull my feet from the clinging mud and head for firmer sand. Pick up stones and let them fall again. Look out to sea for a horizon invisible in the haze. Inland, a thousand dark cave-mouths in the white cliff-faces of the sea-front apartments stare down, roofs bristling with satellite dishes, daggery green ornamental palms guarding every door.
the ultimate whiteness
I'm still cleaning when Neal gets back. I don't like to clean with someone else watching.
Cleaning. There is a satisfaction in it, despite the tedium, and the muck, and the unendable nature of the task. To take an environment (or, in extreme cases, an ecosystem), and so comprehensively force your will upon it; to watch the march of entropy retreat beneath your hands. It's like a magic trick; a little skill, a twist of cloth, an important secret, and hey presto! a bathroom appears. But the resemblance to magic is unfortunate. Each stroke of my cloth is the fruit of a thousand wrong turns on the path to the ultimate whiteness. Each scrubbing action contains every similar motion that has gone before, and all the learning from that, all the experience of that. In my time, I've done a lot of scrubbing.
I start in a corner, forcing the dirt back in a tide, working with a section large enough that it feels like an achievement, small enough that I can reach it without moving too much. First pass removes large loose pieces, dead insects and other solids. I shake the cloth into the bag between each pass, small shiny carapaces sticking to my gloves. At this point, regular rinsing of the cloth is crucial. Second pass attacks the ground in, or sticky, dirt. Cleaning fluid, which ideally should contain bleach and detergent, is now required. I pour a quantity of the cleaning fluid directly onto the floor, and quickly smear the thick, over-fragranced liquid across the area to be cleaned. It needs a few seconds now, to loosen the dirt. The water needs to be as hot as you can stand for this, so I run the hot tap until the cloth is steaming in my hands. Then I start to take up the dirt, using a scooping motion to remove as much of the detergent and dirt mix as possible with each stroke. Each cloth full of dirt goes under the hot tap, swirl of bubbled grey down the plug hole and then back to the floor. On stubborn bits, repeat the process. The third pass, a scrub with a different, cleaner cloth impresses the cleanness upon the area. You can look on it as a rinse, but I tend to think of it more along the lines of varnishing, and my tools vary accordingly. In this case I'm using Vim, scrubbed in with a brush, and then wiped off with a hot cloth. The Vim stays in the grouting between the tiles, but wipes off the tiles themselves. (It was in the cupboard, I usually work with what I can find in the cupboard.) But lots of different things can be used for this final stage, from simple clean hot water to high-cost hygienic wipes. I wipe the surface with a stray tea-towel at the end to dry it, and there is a clean, white space on the floor. From then on, it's only a question of expanding that space until it fills the room. I pick up my tools; cloth, liquids, brush and gel, move backwards into the next space that needs cleaning, and start again, pulling the whiteness out, forcing the dirt back, moving the bathroom slowly from entropic slide to steady state, aided in my task by arcane super-heroes; Vim and Harpic, Flash and Dettol, the mighty Domestos, and of course, the invincible Toilet Duck.
I fill another black plastic bag, ruin another pair of gloves, weaken and grow strong, shout in disgust and laugh weakly. It's nothing special you get at the end, just a clean floor, not even perfect; the best you can ever achieve is good enough. There's always more cleaning you can do. It's in the nature of the task. My father was obsessed with finishing cleaning, always telling us to go back and do the floor again, scrub the sink again (10p off the pocket money, 20p off the pocket money), wipe the mirror again, never really understanding that there is always another dog hair, always another smear on the glass.
I'm still working when Neal gets back, but he doesn't come and watch. When I come downstairs he tells me what a great job I've done and I try to explain my ambivalence; but all I can think of is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, blood from his humiliations seeping through his shirt (sick stink of rubber gloves on my hands, pin-ache in my elbows) demanding to be released from his rank and privilege (feminist, university girl, and a proper job, too, I'm no scrubber) because you don't understand, I enjoyed it.
I step out into the white four'o'clock glare and listen to the silence, letting the light and the heat burn off the sick damp sweat of too much cleaning. It's a poor sort of pleasure, thin and weak and foul, but even to feel it is to run the risk of the world deciding that it's all I'm fit for.
He knocks on the door and asks if my better half is in. I stare at him murderously, rubber gloves heat-welded to my hands, and he quickly modifies his statement ... your husband, is it? he asks. He has the brutal face of a terrorist turned gangster, a hard Irish voice and eyes glassed over with avarice. I'm speechless, and not sure whether to blame fear, anger, sleep deprivation or four hours straight of cleaning. Neal takes over, and I dab ineffectually at scraps of dust and listen with half an ear. He wants to buy the house. That makes him the fourth or fifth so far. It's a feeding frenzy. By the end of the conversation he's dropped back to the desperate fall-back position of partner. Neal is far more reasonable than I feel like being.
I heft another pair of black bags, take them down to the bins at the end of the street, nervous, fast steps. I can feel them watching me from their balconies and terraces, half-lidded eyes in crocodile faces, floating sleepily in the afternoon heat. If they could be bothered to move I wouldn't stand a chance. I feel young and tender, like the isolated buffalo calf that signals carnage to come on a nature programme. If I hesitate, or show any weakness, they'll be on me, burnt-brown bodies thrashing over each other in the blue liquid air, a flash and gnash of expensive teeth, their reptilian eyes gleaming glassily behind German glass or Swiss corrective surgery.
the dog singer
In the heat of the morning I sit out in the garden, curled into a white plastic chair. It's hard to curl up in moulded plastic garden furniture, but I persevere. A pot of coffee sits souring in the morning sun. I'm waiting for the night to evaporate so that I can start cleaning again but I'm slow off the mark this morning, slow as if my mind were whitening, like the dazzling houses, like the sand on the beach, the floor in the bathroom. A dog barks, and then another, and then another, and then they are all barking.
There are so many dogs here. Dogs of every size, shape and persuasion. Dogs with bows, dogs with hair, dogs so small they would comfortably fit under Damian's foot. Dogs with teeth, barky dogs, dogs which probably seemed like a good idea at the time, huge slavering beasts that drag their little old ladies from corner to corner, until it's time to go on back to the house they protect (along with the bars, burglar alarms, walls, security lights). Usually I'm fond of dogs, but here I'm not so sure. They keep appearing out of strange places: Their heads pop through balustrades and out of shopping baskets, they peer out of bushes and up from under steps. Every so often I feel eyes on me and look up and there's another dog staring over a high wall with a lolling tongue and big, barky eyes. They all have a hard, brittle look about them, as if the constant sunshine has burnt away some of their essential doggieness. Their domestic veneer is cracked and peeling. If this place goes to the dogs, they'll all be fine. They can sleep in the sun and eat garbage. They can do that for years.
The barking dies away, one last spatter and it's gone. Now it's just me and the sky, the twisted whistle of the starlings and the chir-chir-chir of the crickets. In the quietness, a strange wailing groan arises from a nearby house, some particularly repellent musical instrument, a recorder, a melodica? The notes are disharmonious, a grating groan which starts softly and then builds to an almighty crescendo, an irritated fuck-you to the peace of the morning. The note sounds again, and this time a dog joins it with a soft, keening howl. (In some white light-drenched room, the melodica player pauses and smiles to hear the first little doggie.) The notes build, squalling discordantly in the white morning. Another dog howls, then another, then another... soon they're all at it, and the unseen player's horrible note playing out over them all, cutting a dog-shaped slice through the peaceful community. I feel like cheering, but instead I start to join in as the dog-chorus swells, alternating faint howls with shaking silent laughter.
I want it go on, preferably for days, but the note cuts out with stop-that suddenness, and the dog chorus falters and dies, stray howls shrivelling in the whitening day.
the fishing fleet in the sky
When it gets too late, we walk down the hill to the sea. The light is fading fast, and by the time we reach the pedestrian bridge the coastal strip is a haze of dull pink sliced through with the red and white streaks of cars. We stand and watch the pollutants build up for long moments before heading down to the beach. The stream bed is almost too dim to see, and I mince around the stagnant water with exaggerated care. Neal's walking boots are good for much worse than this, and he splashes happily through it all, stream, surf, slime.
The beach runs less than a block in each direction before being stopped by breakwaters, masses of tumbled stones the size of major appliances (ranging from microwave to industrial driers). Whether they are there to stop people moving between beaches or to stop the thin stretches of sand from washing away, they are in our way, so we scramble across them, reckless in the dying light. On the other side, an identical stretch of sand and stones awaits us, backing onto an identical stretch of apartments and villas, abandoned for the most part. It's the wrong time of year, and the occasional lit window is nervous and self-effacing, tidying itself back behind palm trees or awnings.
Suddenly a broad black shadow rises out of the dimness in front of us (Is that wood or stone? I ask. Stone, Neal replies.) We climb up the broad cone of black rock and sit staring out to sea. In the thick evening air no horizon bounds the water, glittering with a faint reflection of the coastal lights. At eye level, the sea begins to dissolve into the sky, above us the stars shine weakly. A quick look for constellations reveals the big dipper inconveniently behind us. A thin line of pale yellow lights mark what might be a line of buoys, distant ships, or the horizon. It is by far the easiest constellation to observe, and we watch its stately progress across the far-off blackness with incurious eyes. Neal tell me it's a fishing fleet. I wonder whether five makes a fleet. Above, low stars twinkle fitfully. Below, the boats continue their awkward progress. Neal comments on it when the boats cross over into the sky; I make weak jokes about catching starfish, talk about eating sea-urchins, realise I'm repeating myself, jolt into silence. A star breaks away and starts heading back to shore.
Click and turn. Swap cameras. Click again. Memories, mementos, souvenirs, proof. The mirror in my room, a blank space in the bathroom. The picture on the wall of the living room. Two yellow flowers I put in a cup three days ago. Click. Click. Click.
I go down to the beach in stages. Down the road on the edge of the urbanization, stucco cliffs and lizards, dryland flowers in yellow and purple, the cream walls and palm trees in one eye, roughlands awaiting development in the other. Next a dog-leg out to look at the latest housing development, rough areas of wasteland scattered with coke-cans and jemmied safes, scaffold-cradled ranks of apartment boxes, looked over by proud banners and cranes. Back to the wasteland, offerings of shattered marble tiles and broken bottles gleaming in the sun around the wrecked shells of utility vehicles. Grey concrete mixer striped with rust, tanker remnant squatting on its black shadow. Twists of wire: barbed, razor, and plain. The main road then, baking in the sun, shadows of palm trees and white dust in the drains and solid German women carrying shopping bags full of ten types of inedible bread back to their bloated recreational vehicles. Off that as soon as possible, down a long curving drive to nowhere, not much here: scattered bins, an abandoned tennis court behind a rusty fence, complex drainage spotted with burnt scraps of foil. The drive peters out into another new development, a broad scrape of torn-up soil and proto-foundations and half-hearted barriers, a tiny digger perched on a mound of earth keeping a proprietary eye on the site. I sneak past it and onto a slip road, dodge the traffic outside the taxi rank and the church and catch my breath in a tiny car-park between a tourist office and the coastal road. Cypress fragments and road-dust and faded glamour magazines at the base of the footbridge, and then it's over the rumbling road and between the apartment block cliffs and down into the sticky drain which leads to the sea. At the far end of the beach, a brickish edifice crumbling into itself, an awkward conjunction of white walls and the wrecked remnants of the last decade's tennis fences.
My finger clicks on the end of the film and I walk back into the sun, slowly rewinding. The tide is low, and there are people walking on the beach; just a few. The water's edge is a maze of weedy rocks and tiny rock pools and scored rock pavements. Something bright catches my eye in a drift of small rocks and fragments of shell. I pick it up; it's an abalone shell, barely bigger than my thumb nail, as rainbow-perfect as oil spilt on water.
For the next few hours I think of nothing much. Feel the sun on the back of my head. Pick up shells.
the orange square
Monday morning, waiting to leave, oranges in the air and the soft play of fountains. We got up early and struggled to a taxi, no real sleep for a week now, the world hazing in and out of morning bright, there-and-gone landmarks against a backdrop of brown-grey-green hills, as we play at spotting the inspiration for Cocaine Nights out of the taxi's back-seat windows.
On the the way to the aerporto we stop, and blunder into a quiet square, fountains filling pale blue pools and channels, and clipped, dark-green trees, fragrant and peaceful. There are roses, and decorative bricks and tiles, geometric shrubs and tiny, symbolic, walls. Despite the formality and the signs and the obvious richness of the square, the pools are littered with oranges. I ruminate briefly on drunken orange fights, well-dressed men and elegant girls pelting each other, well-fed sangria-drenched laughter in the soft midnight air, and then I see the fruit, hanging lamp-bright among the dark leaves. The tiny trees are orange trees, of course.
We sit on the pumping unit to rest, suitcase and rucksack leaning drunkenly against a modestly decorative wall. Thankfully, no-one calls the police. After a while, Neal heads off, and I wait with the bags, eyes half-closed against the morning sun, smelling oranges, but that's OK, it's not such a bad place to be waiting.
From here the fountains and channels and pools stretch back in comforting symmetry, the gentle arcs of water echoed by the sweeping curves of low walls and planted beds, the sharp vertical of the prime fountain caught and echoed back by slender orange trees, each terminating in a fountain of scented green leaves and ripe fruit. I hum a Nyman tune, probably something from The Draughtsman's Contract. In the pool immediately in front of me, three floating oranges intrude on the symmetry, bobbing in the plash of the fountain, a twig and a cigarette butt floating in to add to their crime.
I watch the bright orange globes bob in the turquoise pool, thin scrapes of twigs arc and twist, accent points of floating detritus speckling the arrangement with brown and black. Abstractedly watch Miro paintings appear and disappear in the blue fountain. Sit and breathe in the sweet air in the square and wait for Neal.
We arrive at the airport far too early. The cafe has huge fish and fresh orange juice. We sit and drink coffee and, having exhausted our capacity for small-talk, discuss the nature of consciousness, inbetween staring sullenly at the fish and other people's planes.
Eventually, an aircraft lands which will take us away. Halfway home, staring out of an ice-fogged window, I spot a grey wall in the sky, straight as a ruler line, dark as a thundercloud and pull Neal's head towards the window until he can see it hurtling towards us in the half-moment before it's gone, as the plane bursts through the contrail, as the pilot announces rain in London.
Cover · Ballardia · Gallery · Escape