We touchdown in thick drizzly clouds. My iPhone told us it would be a sunny 24°C here. My iPhone lied.
The stag party in front rises in pitch.
“Whose idea was Barcelona?” one stag crows. “Fucking chump!”
Spain smells of sickly sweet granny talcum powder mixed with strawberries & cream boiled sweets.
There’s lots of cute lost in translation graffiti saying things like “SPERM” and “mixed media.” The clouds start to clear, and there are parakeets. And palm trees. And youths with mullets. The food shops are called SUPERMEERCAT (well, almost) and the announcements on the Metro sample Electricity by OMD. I’m starting to like this place.
We’re renting a private villa with a swimming pool, so Esther can hide from the world in style and minimal clothes.
We’ve been contacting our villa’s owner via email.
“Check in is from 6-7pm. Ring my son Sergio from airport if you want,” he’d written, “he speaks good English.”
Me: “Shall I ring Sergio?”
Esther: “No, he’ll be there at the villa at 6, he’s expecting us.”
Me: “Are you sure we shouldn’t ring him?”
We get a train to Sitges, the nearest town to the villa. The entire population is made up of gay clones with big beards and shaved heads.
Coincidentally, I have exactly the same hairstyle.
“Where are all the fem gays?” I think aloud. I’m getting dizzy from all the testosterone in the air. It’s all bears. And no goldilocks.
There’s a man wearing a t-shirt that says “Bear Construction” on it.
Another man has a picture of one on his.
We have a coke on the strand and watch the waxed abs of the sea and the endless hairy abs of the bromancing bears in the briefest briefs I’ve ever seen.
“It must feel nice for you here,” says Esther, “being fancied.”
“Maybe. Is it a relief for you,” I say, “not being stared at.”
“I guess so. It’s like I’m invisible. I imagine if we were here for a while I’d start to feel really ugly.”
Truth be told, I feel like a minibar in a room full of fridge-freezers.
We watch a younger Spanish man with an umbrella. He starts chatting to a big hairy man who could eat him up. The big man laughs and pats his shoulder, squeezing lingeringly. It’s like watching a lion toying with a hyena. They walk on a bit before the big man heads off in a different direction.
The umbrella man walks back and loiters against the sea wall.
Two older, chunkier men stop near him and he starts chatting to them.
“I think he’s a rent boy,” Esther says.
“How much for a threesome?” I voiceover.
Another couple joins the convo.
“How much for a fivesome?”
They laugh and then move on.
“I wonder if the umbrella is gay code for ‘For Sale’?” muses Esther, “Oh look, this guy has got an umbrella and a jumper over his shoulders. I wonder what that means.”
“He wears a condom?” I say.
About 5.30pm, we get a cab to the villa which takes us up and up through the hills, past desert scrubland and coniferous sprawls and mini chateaus and crumbling postcard farmhouses in 80s Ralph Lauren colours.
It costs €27.
We’re getting a bus back.
As we’re early, we sit with our food shopping and rucksacks at the end of the road and wait.
“Do we look normal?” Esther says.
“I don’t know.” I say. “I never know.”
Bang on 6pm, we go and ring the bell.
No one comes.
The beer I had in town is making me dance.
“I have to wee,” I say.
“Hold it in,” hisses Esther, looking at the villas around us, “please.”
“I can’t. I’m going to go up that hill.”
“Well, be quick.”
I walk until I think I’m out of sight. But I can still hear Esther’s stern voice.
“Hurry. I don’t want you pissing against a tree to be the first thing they see!”
My wee seems to go on forever, but finally, I run back down.
Neither of our phones work here.
It starts to dawn on me what’s happening.
I’m going to have to go knocking on villa doors.
“Go and knock on all the doors,” orders Esther.
She watches me disappear up the road.
Dogs are going mental in every garden.
I choose a house where kids are running around outside.
When I ring, three tiny children open the gate with their huge guard dog.
They talk fast Spanish at me.
“Habla Inglais?” I ask.
They look at each other.
“Where are your parents?” I ask.
They babble at me cutely.
“Father and mother,” I say, raising my palms, “mama and papa?”
“Mami et papi?” says the boy.
“Yes, mami et papi,” I say, “can you get them?”
I point at the house and then at me.
The little girl twirls her fingers in the guard dog’s hair and stares blankly. The dog starts to lick my fingers.
“I’m sorry,” I say, walking away, “I don’t know how to say goodbye.”
They chatter to each other, staring after me down the road.
“I think there’s a phone up the road,” Esther says, “I saw it on Google StreetView.”
She’s been virtually up and down these roads for weeks in preparation for the holiday.
So we walk in single file up the tiny hard shoulder because there are no pavements anywhere.
There isn’t a phone, just lots of unfinished concrete and breezeblocks and signs with the Olympic symbol on.
There are acres of vineyards and white pine forests, and the few villas are all new-build holiday homes with interiors that look like kitsch pre-industrial cottages.
I read later that the Olympics were in Barcelona in 1993. I guess everything around here was built in a hurry for that, and the builders left in a hurry when the money and tourists sloped off.
Eventually, I ring the children’s doorbell again, planning to mime a phone and say “mami et papi” until they go and get them.
A woman’s voice comes over the intercom. I think it’s a video one, and as I try to talk into it, I imagine my shaved head and wispy beard looming on the monitor.
“Hola?” she says warily.
“Non,” she says definitively.
“Erm, telefono por favor?”
Silence. “…Una momenta.”
There’s a heated discussion behind the gate, then a chavvy man answers in a vest.
“Hola,” I say, trying to smile innocently, doing the phones4U sign, “telefono por favor?”
I show him the email from the man, pointing at the No Signal sign on my stupid phone.
“Una momenta,” he says, closing the door and restarting the heated debate in loud whispers.
Thankfully, he reappears and keys the number into his phone.
5 minutes later, Sergio is here.
10 minute later, we’re alone in our new house.
It’s massive, with 7 bedrooms, all of which are locked apart from ours.
There’s a pool out the back, and a chicken coop, and a spiral staircase, and a vegetable patch full of massive green tomatoes.
On the first night, we get massacred by tiny mosquitoes with stripy legs.
Esther spends the first of many nights scratching meatily at her calves and moaning.
After running around the place like fools, discovering the pool is freezing cold, looking in cupboards and drawers (especially the ones with a big sign on that says “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THIS”), we have a 2 hour-long brunch on the wicker chairs overlooking our olive tree grove, before going for an afternoon nap. A siesta.
“Have you realised how my daily routine is perfect for this country,” says Esther.
I’m snoring away when I hear something heavy hit the pillow.
My eyes flicker open to see that something scuttling past my head.
Before I know it, I’m out of bed and across the room, back against the wall.
I appear to be moaning.
“It’s only my hand, silly!” says Esther giggling, “I was just trying to pull the duvet up over you. Sorry.”
I look around the room suspiciously.
“Are you sure it’s not a tarantula?”
“No, it was my hand.”
I come back to the bed and check under the pillows.
“It was my hand!”
I still don’t trust her, so I get up and go for a walk.
There are no pavements anywhere. I walk up a bank and into a field of lush crops. Massive butterflies lurch up from baked mud in every direction. I give up trying to chase and photograph them, and cut through the woods.
The only things that grow here are sinister succulents with evil leaves as high as horses and as tough as fascist epaulettes. Soon I’m surrounded by scratchy, vicious plants. I’m in my shorts.
I want to be back at the villa, not tearing my shins through bush bullies.
I make it back to the road and try to find a short cut.
The only people I see are a woman in her 50s wearing a shocking pink trackie top under a Hoxton facelift, talking to a small chubby boy. It sounds like she’s either interrogating or propositioning him.
They stop and stare, slack-jawed.
I prepare to say “Hola,” in a friendly, probably camp way.
They turn their backs on me, so I keep walking.
Back at the villa, I play with the massive TV.
There are over 2000 TV channels.
The only English one shows back-to-back Friends.
The rest are German.
There’s one with German girls singing folk songs to boys on horses.
There’s one with a dirty old man in a flat cap shouting at the camera as topless girls primp and pose behind him.
I watch Twilight in German for a while. What an unsexy language it is. If only Bieber and One Direction were German, they never would have made it over the border.
Later, I rescue a big grasshopper out of the pool and in return she lets me photograph her. She knows how to work it.
Esther spends half an hour lowering herself into the water.
“Oops, I’ve done a wee,” she says halfway through. She hasn’t even got her bottom fully under yet.
This is why I hate sharing her bath water. She usually only tells she had an accident in it afterwards, with a cute grin and a little “Oops, I forgot.”
When she’s fully in the pool, she screams.
“What are those?!”
There are 2 water boatmen swimming around in there. I don’t know how the hell they got in there, seeing as they can’t fly.
“They’re coming for me!” she yelps.
“Don’t be silly, they just want to be your friends.”
“No! Get them away from me!”
I watch and laugh.
We go on the beach, where there are no less than 4 topless women and the rest have string bikinis. This isn’t even the nudist beach. All the men are topless too; tanned, and hairy.
I suddenly realise how Celtish we are. Pink, with belly tyres and no muscle definition.
After a few minutes, Esther gets grumpy.
“I’m going over there!” she says, stomping off towards the road. “I want to go back to the villa, I hate people.”
Back at the villa, Esther watches my attempts to swim.
“Is it imperative that you spit while you do it?”
“Yes, if I don’t want to drown. Why don’t you teach me how to do the breast stroke?”
She shows me. It’s not what I meant.
“Oh I get it,” she says after several more attempts, “swimming requires co-ordination. That’s why you can’t do it.”
As I doggy-paddle up and down, I realize that men spend their adult lives finding someone with the right voice for their conscience.
So now, as I go about my daily business, Esther’s voice keeps up a helpful and authoritative narrative that stops me from feeling too lonely or too carefree.
‘No!” it says, “think what’s likely.”
[It’s only recently that I realized there is philosophical precedent to Esther’s catchphrase: Occam’s Razor holds that the most probably explanation is usually the correct one. I’m not going to tell her, it’ll only go to her head.]
Later, I find a dead water boatman in the chlorine filter.
“There were 2 in the pool,” I say, wringing my hands, “Where’s the other one? Have I killed its partner?”
“Don’t be so silly,” says Esther. “Name me one insect that mates for life.”
I think of spiders, though they’re not insects, then I remember that the females eat the males after sex.
It’s always the case that the things you hate the most are most like you.
After ten minutes of searching, I realise there are actually 4 water boatmen in the pool. Thank fuck for that- the other one was just a gooseberry.
There are 4 eggs in the chicken coop. The chickens are staring at me, so for something to say, I show them what’s in my hands and say “thank you.” But then I think I was rubbing it in their faces that I stole their babies.
“Well, they shouldn’t have let them go cold,” I think to myself. I don’t feel any better.
It’s hot and Esther is snoozing, so I decide to have a naked swim. I look all around, checking for telephoto lenses or giggling children, then whip off my jean shorts and boxers.
As soon as I hit the water, my penis and balls shrivel, like a timelapse shot of how a grape becomes a raisin.
Oh well, no-one’s looking.
I do a few lengths before I hear a loud noise, and look up to see all the shutters shoot up on the one villa that overlooks us, the villa which is only half built.
It must be the estate agents showing people round.
Shit shit shit.
I tread water in the deep end, trying to pretend I haven’t noticed.
Then a woman comes out into the garden talking on her phone.
I start to get annoyed.
It’s a private pool – I can swim naked if I want.
I look down at my child’s penis.
I do my version of the breaststroke for a few lengths, making sure that I turn with my bits concealed, belly down.
After 4 or 5 lengths, I’m knackered and starting to get hungry.
Dammit, I want to get out.
There’s only one thing for it.
I manhandle my bits until it’s an acceptable size, but then it keeps on growing, so I have to flounder around in the cold water till it goes down again. It’s so cold that it starts to shrivel instantly.
I heave myself up the ladder and into the sunlight, imagining that I’m Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
I walk leisurely over to the decking area and slowly put on my shorts as if they’re an afterthought.
I go for another walk while Esther lazes in her airless mosquito-proofed room (towel rolled up as draught excluder; windows shut tight). I pass a gang of local teenagers in a beer garden. All the boys have shaved temples and a longer Mohawky bit on top, with a curly rat’s tail at the back. Proper trailer trash.
They make funny noises when I walk past, so I grit my teeth, that thing handsome men do in films that makes their jaw muscles stick out, but in my face only produces a kind of sunken slump.
Unlike the nice, innocent graff of Sitges and Barcelona, I’m starting to see anarchist As and swastikas around here, on the semi-rural unfinished surfaces.
According to Google, this one says either:
“Death fucking master”
“Fucking loved to death”
”To death male prostitute loved”
I’m going for the second one, it sounds quite sweet.
Everywhere is so dry, all the riverbeds are barren and it’s making me thirsty. I can’t stop thinking about getting a cold coke from the trailer trash bar. I wonder if the mullets are anarchists or Nazis, and which one is least scary.
I give in and walk back to the bar.
As I’m walking away guzzling the ice cold brown poison, I realise with acute embarrassment that I’m wearing a vintage “Enjoy Coca Cola” t shirt.
I must look like a rubbish walking advert.
After afternoon tea of white chocolate-dipped Orios, we watch The Purge. It gets my dander right up.
“Torture ‘em,” I scream, “feed them their own ears and such!”
Esther remains impassive. She knows not to indulge my adrenaline fantasies. And she saw me cry when I accidentally killed a mosquito last night.
Adrenaline and testosterone are such afflictions. It takes ages to calm down after seeing men hit men on TV.
I keep getting the desire to watch Jason Statham movies end to end. It always goes away when I start watching one.
While we wait for the rickety minibus to Sitges again, two police cars screech up next to us. A man and a woman get out of the closest one. He ignores us, but the woman says “bon dia.”
She has blonde hair plaited at the back and is very imposing.
“She’s impressive,” Esther says, “blonde and handsome.”
They stand at the junction and stop every black car that drives past, with a harsh whistle and authoritative hand gesture.
Esther & I cower by the wall, feeling like we’re in the middle of some sting operation and a mistimed smile could get us arrested.
Finally, the ‘Plana’ minibus arrives.
“Quesilla dos billete a Sitges” I say in a rubbish accent. I’ve been rehearsing that the whole time we were waiting. The busdriver grunts and I just say “Sitges” until he agrees.
We look a right pair. Esther has to hold her period-swollen boobs while I cushion my cake-filled moobs as we lurch over endless speed bumps and up and down hills.
Luckily, it seems that only old women and young girls use public transport in Spain.
I read in my Lonely Planet guide that most Spanish housewives are on the dole. And that Spain has the lowest fertility rate of any country in the world. There’s something weird going on here.
Sitges is snided with chunky clones again. Some are so tanned they’re nearly black.
We see a gay guy on his own, wearing a t-shirt with moths on. The kind I would wear.
“An MIT gay,” Esther says, “poor thing.”
We watch his lonely trawl along the strand for while and wander off. There’s one vintage shop in Sitges, and we spend about an hour in there trawling through stuff.
We end up spending about €40 in there. As we leave, I try to sound more Spanish by lisping.
“Grathee,” I lisp, “muthas grathee”. It feels very weird to deliberately do what I’m scared of doing accidentally.
“He’s always smirking,” says Esther, “it’s really annoying.”
I also realize that Talking Heads are the best band that has ever lived. What a noughties think to think.
When Esther opens the door to the outside toilet, a gecko scuttles from behind a plantpot and hides under the hose pipe holder. I spend half an hour trying to shove my phone up there to take flash photos (nothing shows up on them), and banging it with the pool skimmer to make it run out. Nothing works. I end up believing it was never there in the first place.
“Wildlife is just too wild,” I moan, “I’m fed up of trying to see birds who don’t want to be looked at, and trying to catch butterflies that don’t want to be touched. I’ve had it with nature. The mofos can come to me from now on.”
Our evening film is Branded.
The actor’s face makes my jaw ache. I’ve only ever had this before with Rooney Mara. So attractive it hurts.
His deep black rock pools for eyes. His ability to grow a thick beard overnight.
I can’t bear the idea of Esther drinking him up with her eyes, those bumps and caverns in his bone structure where desire lurks like lizards.
“He makes my face ache,” I admit to her, “he’s too good looking.”
“Yuck,” says Esther, “he looks like a skeleton.”
“B-but his cheeks…”
“Sunken like a skull. Disgusting.”
Well alrighty then.
While Esther goes out for a fag, I turn the overhead fan on full, trying to recreate that scene in Apocalypse Now.
I find that if I flick my eyes quickly from right to left, I can momentarily pick out an individual blade from the blur as it passes by. Of course as soon as I realize this, it becomes almost impossible.
I try whipping my whole head round to see if that’s better but it only makes me sick, so I try imagining I am a paraplegic and can only move my eyes. They roll around like marbles in a plughole and start to ache.
My whole body has gone rigid with effort. This isn’t making me relaxed and ready for bed at all.
At this point, I notice a spider, which was once over Esther’s side of the bed, now over mine.
“Keep to your own side, fucker,” I snarl, hiding my terror. It doesn’t.
Esther comes back and sees me staring up.
“If you don’t stop looking at it, I’ll turn the light out and then you won’t know when it’s coming for you.”
“But I read that they climb down in the night and drink from the dribble at the side of your mouth,” I say in rising pitch.
“In that case it will already have done that every night this week, so get used to it.”
I lie in the dark, waiting.
Day 7. Last day.
Esther: “I dreamt I took the police exam and failed, and then I cried and said, “I’m mentally ill, you have to let me take it again.” And then I failed again.”
Then she says those three little words. The ones that fill me with terror.
“Let’s make lists.”
“Come on,” she adds, “it’s what helps ill brains.”
My brain isn’t ill, it’s normal. Mental illness is a normal response to the world.
“I keep thinking how if I fast forward a week,” I tell her, “it will be me sat somewhere else; then another week, me sat another place, and so on, forever.”
“Healthy brains don’t think like that, “ she says, “they just get on with it.”
“I wish I could infect healthy people with my worry,” I say, “see how they like it.”
We get presents for the folks. I get a wind up donkey that hops with its back legs. It’s for my parents.
When we get back to the villa, we wind it up. When I look up, Esther has a funny expression. Oh no, I recognize it.
“I really want it,” she says in her baby voice, “please, we can get your parents something else…”
There’s no point arguing.
“You bugger,” I say, “What the hell am I going to get them now?”
“We’ll find something,” she says, winding it up again, that look passing over her face like a butterfly of innocence. “I’m going to call it lavabo.”
It’s Catalan for washbasin.
On the plane back, there are two girls behind us are saying Jimmy Carr things but without any irony, like:
“I’d love to sleep in a shack.” And
“I love monsoon floods, they’re so refreshing.”
The Duty Free trolley is selling a perfume called Urban Decay.
What’s going on?
This ranks along with The Health & Postcode Lotteries as something life-sapping and depressing made into something money-sapping and depressing.
Someone is having a cosmic joke. Well, I want in.
Here’s what my perfume is going to be called: Slum Smells for Infidels.