Short Fiction By Alice Franklin
I fell asleep on the flight from London to Barcelona. Though the journey was short, my dreams were long. For two hours and ten minutes, I was in hell, which turned out to be a doctor’s waiting room. It was noisy. There were coughs, sneezes, crying, ringing and everyone’s name but mine was called. Unable to cope, I went to the bathroom where I promptly fainted. On my way down, my chin connected with the sink and cracked open. I dreamt I awoke in hell, which subsequently turned out to be a hospital waiting room. It was noisy. There were coughs, sneezes, crying, ringing and everyone’s name but mine was called. Unable to cope, I went to the bathroom where I promptly fainted. On my way down, my chin connected with the sink and cracked open.
A neighbouring passenger woke me up when we had landed. The plane had touched down and come to a roaring halt, but I’d been too busy dreaming of another hell to notice.
“I thought you were unconscious or something,” he said.
I smiled weakly and thanked him, though I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be grateful for. Bleary-eyed, I descended the steps. A rush of Mediterranean heat washed over me. I found it vaguely unpleasant. I got a taxi to the hotel, suspected the driver overcharged me, but didn’t care.
The hotel was in an odd location, behind the railway station. It was from there that I could catch a train to the rest of Spain, if I wanted to. I didn’t want to. For the following months I stayed within the city streets, barely ever going to the beach or even the park.
The room was exactly what I expected. Apart from the blown-up, out-of-focus Gaudí photos, there were no indications that I was in the Catalan capital. It was perfect, I thought. I could have been anywhere.
The school was in fact an amalgamation of rooms dotted around a nearly deserted shopping centre. Lit by fluorescent lights, which reminded me of a hospital, or maybe one of my dreams, the students spent the mornings squinting at the whiteboard, lethargic from the heat which was amplified by the glass roof.
It was an odd set-up, but the school was good enough. I learnt my subjunctives, imperatives, conditional clauses, and, for reasons that were a little unclear, and during my first lesson, the words for illegal drugs.
“Hongos,” the teacher said, pointing at the board and a badly drawn picture of a mushroom.
“Hongos,” we repeated.
“Porros,” the teacher said, this time indicating a spliff.
“No, no,” she said. “Porros. Porros.”
“Muy bien,” she said. Suddenly, she turned to me, “What are you doing? What are you doing with your mandíbula?”
I didn’t know that word: mandíbula.
“Mandíbula?” I repeated stupidly.
“This,” she said, pointing at her jaw and imitating me, opening her mouth and clacking it shut again. “Why do you do that? That must really hurt your teeth.”
I thought about it. “I don’t know,” I said, a phrase I used a lot in Spain. “I can’t help it. It’s…a bad hay-bit.”
“A bad habit,” she said, correcting my pronunciation. “I don’t think it’s a bad habit. I think a bad habit is like smoking or drinking. What you have there is a tic.”
“A tic,” she repeated. “You know, when people have weird twitches. You have this.”
I shrugged. “I suppose so.”
She looked at me for a moment with an expression I could not interpret, before turning back to the board. “MDMA,” she said.
“MDMA,” we repeated, which was the Spanish for MDMA.
I went flat hunting. The first apartment I saw was Coleta’s. A seventy-two-year-old widow, she was worried about cholesterol (her own and other people’s), talked frequently about Franco’s regime and had a forty-year-old son who’d lost his finance job in the recession and never got it back. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t looking for it very hard. He spent his days playing video games and the evenings delivering pizza. Coleta spent her days cleaning her already very tidy apartment. She used to be a hairdresser, a seamstress and, yes, a cleaner. She seemed very kind, and told me about her career, cholesterol, Franco and her son in the first ten minutes of meeting. So, even though she was charging an extortionate amount for a tiny room with a tiny bed, I took it and stayed for a month.
She was delighted by me being there, but I sensed it was for the money and not my company, because I was not very good company, knowing primarily Spanish words for drugs and little else. I spent the mornings at school, and the afternoons watching films in bed. I left to buy food from the convenience store run by three men who made small talk which I tolerated, because their Spanish was just as bad as mine. I missed being linguistically on a par with people. I cooked pasta or pizza and ate it in bed. I felt fat, and even though Parc Güell was two minutes away, I went only once before deeming it too touristy, too bright, too much.
The contemporary art museum of Barcelona, or MACBA, houses a permanent collection of five thousand pieces. With a focus on Catalan and Spanish artists active after the Second World War, it includes works by Tàpies, Fontana, Saura and Klee. Around the corner there is a small supermarket selling cans of Estrella and San Miguel for fifty cents. In the plaza the museum dominates, skaters state, drinkers drink and stoners stone. Around three p.m., the adjacent primary school closes and police officers arrive to ensure the safety of the children. At this point, the skaters cease skating, the drinkers cease drinking and the stoners cease stoning. At four p.m., the police officers leave, and normality resumes.
I was never a skater. I wanted to be, but the urge to fly by foot was overridden by the desire not to humiliate myself in front of Azeem from London, Fanny from Sweden, Ryota from Japan, and Merin from Germany. They were beautiful, wore t-shirts because it was twenty-five degrees, and beanie hats even though it was twenty-five degrees.
Embarrassed by my rolling skills (or lack thereof), I let them silently pass me their porro as it was nearing its end. Embarrassed by my tics, which were numerous and unusual, I waited impatiently for this to happen, as I found my body was my own only when I was high. When I wasn’t, my head was jerking, my limbs flailing and my lips whistling. Sometimes, I found I could suppress these sounds and movements, but to do so cost me a lot of energy and was uncomfortable, so I tended not to bother. As a consequence, the people of Barcelona – the Catalans, tourists, immigrants and tourist/immigrants like me – would turn their heads and stare. Mothers would usher their children away. Occasionally, someone would point.
On my way back from MACBA one day, I saw a wild boar charging down the street being chased by two people. It had a strange quality. It was like a poorly drawn picture of a boar, rather than an actual boar. The people too were like sketches. They were dressed entirely in black, and had shadows emanating from them, and were neither male nor female.
Emotionless, I watched on as the three of them disappeared around the corner, though the street was a dead end, and there was no corner.
Back in bed, I messaged a friend I hadn’t spoken to in six months.
Are there wild boars in Barcelona?
Can weed cause hallucinations?
There’s not much to say about the district of Sants. It is neither picturesque nor ugly. Remnants of its working-class roots can be found here and there, but mostly Sants looks like Sants: a nondescript corner of the Catalan capital.
Five minutes from the metro station, and ten minutes from the station station, there is a third-floor flat which two twenty-something-year-olds sublet. They smoke inside, fall asleep on the sofa, and do not clean very often or seem to work very much. Outside, there are roadworks, which means from nine to five, Monday to Friday, the flat is unbearably noisy. You can only block out the noise if, stoned at three in the afternoon, you fall asleep.
They sublet the apartment because they are poor. They accept cash only, and do not declare this income to the tax authorities. Also living there is a Georgian immigrant, who fled her homeland when she was a young girl. She couldn’t go to school because she was in the country illegally. She works full-time in a shop. She has no qualifications. Her colloquial Spanish is better than yours because she learnt it in real life. Your grammar is better than hers because you learnt it in books.
“You look nice,” my flatmate said, on the seventh day of my stay with her. “You’ve got makeup on.”
“Thank you,” I said.
My flatmate seemed surprised at my response, and afterwards, was cold towards me.
Weeks later, I learnt in class that, if you are on the receiving end of a compliment, you are supposed to ardently disagree. It is arrogant to accept praise.
We practised this.
“I like your t-shirt!”
“Stop! It’s very cheap and old!”
“Your hair looks good today!”
“It’s needs cutting desperately!”
“Your eyes are so pretty!”
“My eyes are pretty? Your eyes need glasses!”
“You look nice today,” my other flatmate said. “Your dress suits you.”
“It’s an old dress. My mother bought it in a charity shop. It needs washing desperately.”
Looking repulsed, my flatmate walked away.
“What are you doing?” a man with a trolley full of scavenged metal asked me. I was smoking a porro outside school. Despite the cannabis, which was weak and poorly rolled, my eyes were darting, my face grimacing, my fist punching my chest.
He peered at me intently. “Are you OK?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “I just have tics.”
“Oh,” he said. “You have Tourette’s?”
“Yes,” I said, although I had received no such diagnosis, had never given much thought to what was happening to me, and didn’t even really care what my vocal cords and muscles were doing.
“My brother had it,” he said. “He’s dead now.” He thought for a moment. “Do you have any spare change?”
I shook my head but passed him the porro.
A couple of days later, I turned to Google and found that Tourette’s syndrome does not affect life expectancy. Years later, I found out that individuals may feel like they’re dying, especially if tics affect your lungs and you find yourself gasping for air uncontrollably, on the floor, your body convulsing, panic and fear and anger consuming you all at once.
Once a week, there was an optional get-together for teachers and the students in a nearby bar, which was both shit and expensive. The bartenders were constantly new, unsure of how to make even the simplest of drinks, the floor was unclean, and the music was the same reggaetón songs on repeat, forever.
I went religiously.
One time, a drunk teacher asked me if my parents had pasta – something which confused me. I struggled for the phrase “gluten intolerance” when she told me that pasta was slang for money.
“Oh,” I said, annoyed that she just hadn’t said money because surely, she knew I wouldn’t have understood. “Yes, they do I suppose.”
“That’s why you’re here for months, without a job? Because you can?”
“Lucky you,” she said. Then: “The food in London is awful, isn’t it?”
The job was at a juice bar. I would be making juice, or zumo: a word I struggled to pronounce. I found out there that Spanish job interviews are much like English job interviews: absurd.
“What makes you angry?” the interviewer asked.
We were sitting in the middle of the café which was made up mostly of solitary drinkers who had ordered coffee even though they were in a juice bar and the coffee was shit. Everyone could hear my broken Spanish. Everyone knew we were having an interview.
“When people ask me to make drinks,” I answered.
On the other side of the shop, a woman laughed, but I wasn’t sure if it was at me or not.
My interviewer didn’t get it, and as the subsequent weeks of silence suggested, neither did I.
(Months later, I would discover that jokes do indeed exist in Spain, but that they tend to be accompanied by a laugh or smile. If unaccompanied by a laugh or smile, there is a high risk that the interlocutor will think you are being entirely serious.)
My interview was not helped by the fact that I threw a glass of water on the floor, showed my unprepared interviewer the back of my middle finger, and yelled out some of my answers.
“I love working in TEAMS!”
“My ambition is to work in HOSPITALITY!”
“One day, I would like to have a JUICE BAR of my own!”
One night, me and someone who I called a friend, but wasn’t actually, went out with a forty-four-year-old man for drinks. He had been our teacher, had recently quit, and had asked us if we wanted to go out one night. We accepted, even though he was twice our age, and that seemed important.
We went to a gin and tonic bar where we ordered gin tonics without the “and”, because that’s how they do things in Spain.
I was carrying the gin tonics to the table when an image of me dropping them to the floor flickered to the front of my mind. Seconds later, I was placing the gin tonics on the table, and an image of me pouring the alcohol over my former teacher’s head came to me. Minutes later, when the glasses were empty, I had an image of me smashing the glass over his head.
The thoughts were just thoughts, but they were extraordinarily vivid, and presented with such clarity I had to remind myself they weren’t real.
I had never experienced these sorts of images before. They struck me as curious, and in the weeks that followed, would follow me around me such a ferocity it was dizzying. In the forty-minute walk to school, I would kick toddlers, stab strangers, and strangle the elderly as I sauntered on, insouciantly listening to music and smoking cigarettes.
On the two-hour-twenty-minute flight from Barcelona to London, I did not dream of waiting rooms. I was wide awake, trapped in a body and a mind I could not control. Violent images flickered thick and fast through my mind and my body jerked of its own accord. I couldn’t sleep.
When we landed, I made my way to the front of the queue to leave (“Sorry, con permiso, sorry, con permiso.”) The other passengers seemed alarmed by me, so they let me through without protest. As for the stewards, they had kept a wary eye on me for the whole journey but said nothing.
I got a taxi to my flat, told the driver to wait, dropped off my bags, and went to my local hospital. I didn’t know what to say when I got to the front desk of the emergency department. Of course, I was saying things because I was ticcing. Random sentences, phrases, words. “I am going to kill you, you motherfucker.” “Lemongrass cheesecake!” “Boobs!” But the receptionist ignored these and waited for me to say something coherent.
“I can’t – SHUT UP – I can’t – BOMB – stop,” I said. “I need to – FUCK YOU – see someone.”
The receptionist looked at me for a few seconds with a steady gaze, and after ascertaining that I wasn’t in possession of a bomb, told me to take a seat, which I did.