The plane was descending. Rory felt that slight pull on the back of his skull, that snap, crackle and pop in his inner ear. His face was white. Anyone looking at him would have assumed that he was a bad flier, but it wasn’t that. He was worried.
He better not be there to meet me, was all he could think. He better not be there.
John, who was a tease and a taunter – he called himself and incorrigible slagger – had threatened on numerous occasions, and as recently as the night before, to pick him up from the airport.
“I’ll meet you in the arrivals hall and plant a big, wet kiss on you, ” his smiling voice said over the phone. “I’ll have a sign. WELCOME BACK RORY. Heart balloons. And a rainbow flag. The works. Hell, I might come in drag. Bring some of the boys.”
Rory knew that John was mostly all talk. It was one of the things he liked about him: he talked big, made lavish, elaborate plans, wove shimmering, improbable dreams. But, when push came to shove, he usually calmed down and took the sensible path. Usually. And it was usually Rory who did the talking down, the scaling back.
“The Voice of Reason speaks again,” John was wont to jokingly proclaim.
What worried Rory was that he had had very little opportunity to impress upon John the logic of his not turning up at the airport. To talk John out of one of his notions usually required firm and prolonged nagging, as John called it. They had only spoken a couple of times a week in the last month. And they were catching-up conversations, with very little room for nagging in between their bits of news (I met so-and-so in the Plaza Mayor the other day; I took mother to Galway this morning; it’s wild hot; it’s rained solid for five days). But Rory tried to slip in some nagging anyway.
It wasn’t that Rory wasn’t looking forward to seeing John. It had been almost six weeks. He missed him. He always missed his wild hair, strong back and shoulders and deep brown eyes when he was away. The hum of energy and possibility that accompanied John wherever he went enervated and lifted Rory. Its absence in his life was like a vitamin deficiency, making him feel slow and heavy and dull. Sometimes it was small things that got him: the whiff of John’s brand of aftershave from a passer-by, a song on the radio, a shade of peach or a pair of cuff links that would have set John off.
Rory always took six weeks’ holidays in the summer; had done so since his very first summer in Madrid almost twenty years ago. To get out of the heat of July and August which oppressed and disoriented him. Finding it impossible to sleep for more than a few turbulent hours, he woke up bothered and drained every morning, craving a freshness in the air that wouldn’t be there until mid-September. The heat made his thoughts and actions sluggish, his legs leaden. The very colour of the Madrid sky during those months – a watered-down blue tinged with sulphurous yellow from the pollution – instilled a dread in him.
“Turn on the bloody air conditioning!” John used to bawl at him, but Rory couldn’t conscience running it for more half an hour, not to mention through the night. It was an obscene waste of resources, in Rory’s opinion (that was the science teacher in him), not to mention expensive. He was sure John would have had the thing on full-time in his absence, something that would be confirmed when the electricity bill came. John probably had it running while he wasn’t even in the flat, with windows open, to boot. Trivialities such as electricity bills didn’t bother John.
Or cleaning and tidying. The flat was guaranteed to be in a mess when he arrived back. Not a cup washed or a floor swept or a shelf dusted in six weeks. The only thing John did around the house was the laundry, but that was partly out of selfishness and vanity. John wouldn’t be seen dead in a stale shirt or grubby trousers.
Rory wondered how John had been feeding himself in his absence.
Probably hasn’t eaten in for one single meal, he thought.
John was a good cook, but hated cooking for just himself. He also enjoyed, as did Rory but not to the same degree, the buzz of the summer terraces, with their eclectic mix of clientele – locals, tourists, young lovers, ancient retired couples, hippies and businessmen, scholarly types with piles of books, old ladies with yappy dogs – live music, and cold drinks. There was probably a path worn from their flat to various outdoor eateries in the Barrio de las Letras or La Latina.
John gingerly laid a hand on his belly and confirmed once more that he had put on weight over the holidays. Half a stone when he checked that morning on the old rusting scales in his mother’s bathroom, the faded red hand creeping up past twelve beneath the bubble of cracking and yellowed plastic. Mother’s cooking was just too good to resist. The stews, the fries for breakfast every morning, bacon and cabbage. Roast beef, carrots and parsnips and mashed potatoes on Sundays, stuffed pork, leg of lamb, soda bread, fairy cakes, scones, rhubarb tarts – the list went on and on. He’d have to go easy for a month or two to get the weight back down. Maybe walk to school a couple of mornings a week instead of taking the metro.
With the thought of going back to work, a nervous pang squeezed his stomach and darted up his chest, and Rory became annoyed with himself.
You’ll be fine, like you are every year. You’re at this game a long time now. It’s hardly your first year.
The pre-term jitters were almost an autonomic response, something his body had grown into the habit of doing since summers started to tail into autumns and he and his mother would go shopping for books, stationary, a new uniform and shoes in Galway city. On the bus back to their village his mother’s conversation would be all about Rory’s doing well that term. If he couldn’t be top of the class, then second or third would have to do, but . . .
Twenty years, he thought. Twenty years teaching. Twenty years in Madrid.
If you’d told his teenage self that his middle-aged self would be an established, successful science teacher at one of Madrid’s leading English-speaking private schools they would not have believed you. Even the Rory who graduated from University College Galway with his science degree and higher diploma in education would have been sceptical. He had no interest in Spain, Spanish culture or even travel as a young man. A job at a rural county Galway secondary school would have done him fine. And mother would have been so proud. But it was not to be. There was no work for a recently qualified science teacher in the early 90s. The country was coming out of recession alright but there was nothing for Rory. If he’d come from a better family, one with connections – a bishop for an uncle, or even a priest who would have been on the board of management of a school – but his mother was just a poor widow, scraping out survival in a council house on the edge of a village in the middle of nowhere. He hung on in there for a year, taking scraps of work here and there, until a friend he did the diploma with wrote to him from Madrid: “There’s plenty of work here for English teachers. They’re crying out for native speakers. And you’d like it here, if you know what I mean.”
Rory had deciphered the code easily enough. The underline hinted that being gay over there was not only possible, but fun. And so it turned out to be. Instead of slinking timidly around Galway’s tiny gay scene, one eye always open for neighbours or third cousins who might see you slipping in or out of a certain bar or club, he threw himself into Madrid’s gay universe, as he liked to call it. There was a whole district, Chueca, just off Gran Vía, which gay and lesbians had colonised and made their own and where you could be yourself. No looking over the shoulder or down at your feet. No sneering or mockery or abuse from strangers. Only acceptance.
Rory found that his story was common enough among Madrid’s ex-pat Irish, the majority of whom were also involved in the English teaching industry. He estimated that more than half the male English teachers were gay and a good percentage of the women lesbians who had fled the confines of conservative, repressed Ireland for the freedoms of post-Franco Spain. These formed a little sub-culture within a sub-culture and, over the years, as members came and went, the hardcore who remained became something resembling a family. They celebrated key dates together – birthdays, New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Eurovision – helped each other out finding work, pitched in during house moves, and threw parties and soirees for the group. He wouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the solidarity between them, but it was understood that if you were in a fix, something would be done to sort you out. They also adhered to one golden rule: no talk of anyone else to people from outside the group, especially people back home.
It was a constant worry of Rory’s that word would reach back home that he was gay. Although he had moved on so much from the secretive, almost hunted sexuality of his adolescence, he still could not bring himself to be out to his mother, relations, neighbours, pre-move acquaintances and friends. There was only a handful of people living in Ireland to whom he had revealed his sexuality prior to moving to Madrid and thank God that these had kept silent over the years.
He was still careful. He was not out in Madrid except to his circle of friends. For one, his students would make his life hell. They suspected, of course, and there were always mutterings and sly winks and nudges, which was the main reason why he avoided social media completely. A teacher was almost a public figure and prone to as much on-line rumourmongering, abuse and bullying as any Hollywood star or J-popper. Secondly, the Irish ex-pat community was, although large, tight-knit. And gossipy. No matter how much you avoided the Irish bars, Gaelic football matches, official embassy dos, and events such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, you invariably found yourself mixing with the community a few times a year. All it took was for Séamus, who’d been working for Zeneca in Arturio Soria for years and who had over-indulged in the free Murphy’s Red to point out Rory to Roisín, who was over on Erasmus and a daughter of Paddy and Bridge Mulvaney from down the road from his mother, and mention that he was from county Galway, a teacher and gay and that would be it. Word would travel back in Roisín’s next WhatsApp message and spread like wildfire through the village, eventually finding its way to his mother’s ear.
“Why don’t you just flippin’ tell her? Get it off your chest! Be a man!”
If Rory had a euro for every time an exasperated John had said that. And another euro for every time he had said it to himself.
He knew the answer to the question, though. Knew it all too well: shame.
It was ridiculous, absurd, nonsensical, pathetic – you could throw as many adjectives at is as you liked – but Rory was ashamed to come out. Shame was at the root of years of smiling wanly at relations’ “when are you going to settle down?” probings, of reading books on trains and planes which were carefully concealed behind the dust covers of other books, of sketching a false life in letters and phone calls to his mother, of leading her around a straight mirror image of the city on her annual visit over in April (before the weather got too hot), of leading her up the garden path on marriage and grandchildren and the works – of lying. There was a shame in his heart about who he was, and any amount of talking, therapy, workshops or self-help books would not shift it. It had been sown when he was still in the cradle, nourished through the years of his rearing and schooling, reinforced at every step through his young manhood and it could not be excised. At this stage, Rory accepted it as part of him. He saw his personality as a pie chart with one generous black slice labelled Shame.
“Come out and get it over with. It’ll be a catharsis,” John had urged him.
Rory didn’t believe in catharsis. And who would he come out to and where and when? He was an intensely shy person, hated drawing attention to himself, hated giving away intimate details. If he ever came out it would be flying in the face of another big slice of that pie chart. And if he came out only to his mother, she would be in on the secret, responsible now for hiding it from the rest of respectable Ireland, and his shame would seep into her like a brown smudge on the ceiling caused by a leaking pipe.
No: things would stay the way they were. And he would just get on with life.
Rory looked up from the chairback he had been seemingly studying and scanned the plane’s cabin. There were many familiar faces. The woman from the embassy with her ever-growing brood of loud and giddy children. He would swear that she had been on every flight he had ever taken between Madrid and Dublin for the last fifteen years, Christmas and summer. She was always either pregnant or holding a new-born. Her colleagues at the embassy were either delighted with her perpetual string of maternity leaves (Rory had found her overbearing and superficial in the few conversations they had had) or resentful at the extra workload these implied. There were numerous couples in their thirties and forties with one or two kids, the majority of whom were SWIMs (Spanish woman, Irish man), and the man of which he recognised from previous flights (the women, for Rory tended to blend into one another). There were a couple of young TEFL teachers who were friends of friends, with whom he might have had a drink as part of a large group at a mutual acquaintance’s going away party or the like. These teachers had a short life cycle: they did a few years in Madrid, taking in the nightlife, the food, the scenery and the culture, before returning to the rain of Ireland and regular, nine-to-five work. Only a few ever settled down in Madrid, either because they had found love or a move up the food chain in the English teaching industry.
Rory looked around for a priest or a nun. When he started flying to Spain, you were guaranteed to find a man or woman of the cloth on every flight, as if some government quota system was in operation. You could even find yourself on a flight where a couple of rows were occupied by novices, and with their bull-necked and watchful superior recumbent in business class. On this flight he failed to spot a single collar or veil. What there were plenty of, though, were pilgrims setting out for the Camino. They were instantly recognisable with their brand-new hiking boots, cargo pants and rucksacks which took up far too much space in the overhead baggage racks. The majority were retirees having a final go at finding themselves or, as his mother would say, making their souls.
They don’t know what they’re in for, Rory thought. The heat at this time of year! And the dust!
The pilot made an announcement for the cabin crew to take their seats.
Rory tried to catch a glimpse of the mountains around Madrid through the windows of the rows opposite him (he always chose an aisle seat for easy egress). He saw snippets of parched scrubland, the odd pine or broom breaking up the yellow and dun tones.
He saw the first little scheme of chalets with their white walls and sparkling blue swimming pools.
Oh, the Madrileños and their chalets!
He wondered if he and John would ever own a chalet. That would be another step in him becoming almost completely Spanish. Instead of spending weekends in the sweltering city, from early May until late October he and John would pack up their little car and join the thousands of others escaping to the mountains. The traffic jams, Rory believed, were epic. A journey which would normally take you an hour could see you crawling up the highway for three, maybe four. He imagined John at the wheel, singing raucously along to the radio tuned to a station emitting the worst kind of flamenco pop and reggaeton, making cutting remarks at the appearance of the occupants of other cars and honking the horn for the sheer pleasure of it. Rory would be one part embarrassed and one part thrilled. They could buy a fixer-upper. Do it up themselves. The rows they would have over the décor! He could picture John with a roller in his hand, slapping some delicate shade of grey onto a wall. Rory would take care of the little garden. He would grow rhubarb, parsnips, turnips, gooseberries, blackberries – all the things he missed from home.
He blinked himself out of this latest reverie. They were now flying over the edges of the city. The four skyscrapers at the top of the Castellana looked like the fingers of a hand welcoming him home, with the nearby hospital of La Paz the thumb.
Oh, please don’t be there, John, he thought.
He found himself at the baggage carousel surrounded, ring-a-ring-a-rosy style, by the embassy lady’s children, who were playing some sort of game of tag. He had been on his own, texting his mother to let her know he had landed safely when, all of a sudden, he felt the breeze of them darting around him, and caught dark peeks of their darting movements in the corner of his eyes.
“Sorry,” said the embassy lady, setting herself up beside him, “they’re hyper. I think it’s the pressure. It does something to them. Once they get down on the ground and their ears pop, they go nuts.” She paused, acknowledging polite Rory’s smile with one of her own. She sighed. “Anyway, that’s the end of the holidays for another year. Back to the grindstone now. Jesus, is it ever worth it? Hauling them up on to a plane for a couple of weeks in the shaggin’ rain. Going up the walls at your folks’ place with nothing to do and only six TV channels. Thinking of things for them to do. Pony rides, Tayto Park, Seaworld. The zoo. Jesus. Then dragging them back on to another plane at the end of it all, more frazzled than when you left. And broke, to boot. I’m glad to be back, I’m telling you. I need the rest.”
Rory ended up feeling sorry for the woman and found himself waiting with her until her bags appeared and lifting them from the carousel on to a pair of trolleys he had rustled up. She had six pieces of bulging luggage. After placing his own modestly sized case on top of the trolley that he took, he led the way towards the arrivals hall, with one of her eldest kids, a bony girl of perhaps eleven, struggling with the other trolley directly behind, and the embassy lady marshalling the other kids at the rear. He had to pause several times to allow the others catch up and make sure the little convoy stayed together in the busy baggage hall. By the time they had snaked through customs and passed beyond the double automatic doors into the arrivals hall, he was too frazzled to be worried about John being there. The kid had clunked him a couple of times in the heels with the trolley she was barely managing, and Rory was sore and certain he was bleeding. She hadn’t even noticed what she had done, not to mind said sorry.
He found a spot beyond the seating area where they could regroup and plan their next move – finding a taxi large enough to take the family and their luggage home. Rory didn’t know where to find such a taxi – he always took the metro home – but the embassy lady had “done this millions of times. There’s a special queue outside Terminal 1 for minivans. I’ll lead the way.”
Their party went outside, and Rory was knocked back by the heat. Even though it was almost nine o’ clock it must have been over thirty-five degrees. The woman lit up a cigarette and they followed its scent along the perimeter of the long terminal until they reached the noisy and bustling area reserved for taxi pickups.
“We just wait by the little kiosk over there until the next minivan thingy comes and we’re sorted. Shouldn’t be long.”
Rory nodded. He was sweating and his arms ached from pushing the heavy trolley. His fellow trolley-pusher looked as fresh as a daisy – and did not have aching heels.
“I’ll stay with you,” he said. “Help you with the bags.”
“Ah there’s no need. The taxi driver’ll do that. You toddle off.”
“Sure. Thanks for your help. You’ve been fantastic. See you at Christmas!”
Rory was glad to be back in the air-conditioned terminal. He’d gone to the bathroom, where he’d checked his heels (only scuffed, no broken skin) and splashed cold water on his face. Now he was on his way to the metro station at the far end of the airport. With any luck he’d be sitting in a carriage in ten minutes and home in half an hour. He checked his shirt pocket once more for his rail card as he stepped off a moving walkway.
It was then when he heard a voice behind him say: “Hey, handsome – wait up.”
He turned around and saw John’s beaming face.
“I was so intrigued by that little scene of domesticity, I didn’t want to interrupt,” said John. “So I spied on you from afar.”
“That was my good deed of the day.”
“And there was I thinking you’d a secret family.”
Rory laughed at the ridiculousness of it. He did a quick mental calculation: it was fifteen, no twenty minutes, since the bags had come out. More than half an hour since they’d landed. There’d be no one from the flight left in the airport. It was safe. He held out his arms, inviting John into a hug and, as the two of them embraced, said “I’m glad you came.”