There Goes The Neighbourhood…

Traveling in London (1)

I am not always comfortable around people.

I enjoy being with people, don’t get me wrong. I like spending time with people. People are great! I have a lovely time whether I’m out with friends or at home chatting over tea.

It drains me though, and it drains me fast. Fast like my Samsung S7 battery that runs down after a few hours of intense usage, not like ye olde Nokia 3210 battery that lasted five days if you played Snake on it constantly, and twenty-three days if you barely touched it at all. When I spend time with people, afterwards I need to retreat, relax, and recharge, and usually my recharging station is my home, where I work or study at the dining table next to the window.

This is how I first became aware of my neighbours.

My window overlooks their balcony, and every day out of the corner of my eye I would see a man and his dog – who we will call Frank for the purposes of this post – coming and going on their walks together.

I can’t fully explain my obsession with Frank. It started out as a pretty benign distraction from my day; I would see Frank (an English Bulldog) and Frankman (the name I gave his owner) exit the building, and then I would watch, amused, as Frank lay stubbornly down on the grass and refused to go anywhere.

Frankman would sigh, exasperated, and half-heartedly tug on the lead.

Frank would dig his barrel chest into the grass.

Frankman would grumble and pull with all his might.

Frank would duck his head and hunch his stocky shoulders, as immovable as a rock formation.

Frankman’s pleas would go from an exasperated, “Come on, Frank” to an increasingly desperate “FRANK! FRANK! COME ON! FRANK!”

Frank would stare implacably at his owner.

Frankman would yank on the lead in a sort of daily exercise in futility.

Frank would lie on the grass stoically refusing to go anywhere before he was ready. Then, as if he hadn’t just been making a scene for the past five minutes, he would calmly get up and trot off with a flustered Frankman in tow.

This would happen before almost every single walk. I would watch these scenes, and over time I grew fond of both Frank and Frankman. There was something really endearing about Frank, who made it clear that if he went anywhere at all it was only because he was allowing it, and there was also something endearing about Frankman, because he always looked so buttoned-up and serious but would lose all and any air of authority around Frank.

Frankman also has a wife (Frankwoman) and together the three of them were the Frankfamily. They brightened up my days considerably with their Frank-related antics. Even on his own, Frank would bring a smile to your face. Like a creep I would sometimes take photos of Frank’s more memorable moments. I have, for example, a video of Frank falling off a chair and quickly getting back up to look around and check if anybody witnessed it. He was a character.

And then one day, Frank was gone.

One week he was being his usual obstinate self, and the next there was no Frank, no walk, no tug-of-war happening in the garden. I barely saw Frankman or Frankwoman. Where was Frank? Considering I had never spoken to Frankfamily, there was nothing I could do but wonder. I rationalised it to myself coming up with a variety of reasons he wouldn’t be at home, but in three years Frank had never to my knowledge been apart from the Frankparents. If they were at home, so was Frank. The whole thing was worrying.

The following weekend, I watched as Frankman arrived home with a tiny bulldog puppy in his arms.

Frank was gone.

Since I never spoke to Frankman and Frankman never spoke to me, the mystery was unresolved until one day when my father dropped over for a visit. As I walked in with him, we met Frankman and the new addition walking out. Unaware of the delicate neighbourhood ecosystem in which nobody directly addressed anybody else, and instead only ever communicated through comments directed at each others’ pets, my father asked Frankman what had happened to “the big dog”. Frankman looked down at the ground and explained that Frank had had a heart attack while they were out for a walk. A congenital heart defect, undetectable until it was too late. He said it casually, scuffing the toe of his shoe into the grass as he spoke, but his voice was gruff with emotion.

The new addition was called (let’s just say) Ariadne.

Ariadne was adorable, but she wasn’t Frank. She was too small, too cute. She bounded out for her walks with great enthusiasm. She didn’t know Frank’s trick of standing up on the chair and placing both paws on the balcony railing to survey his domain. She didn’t bark as often. Her best moments came when she attacked Frankman’s shoes and when she waddled off with a leaf or a stick she’d found, proud as punch.

We switched Frankwoman’s name to Ariadnewoman, but Frankman remained Frankman.

You know, in memory of Frank.

A year on, Ariadne is almost Frank-size. Oscar and Maya are fascinated by the way her stocky little body romps around the garden. She’s a fan favourite. She still doesn’t know the trick of standing up on the chair to look out over the garden, but she has been starting to show sure signs of stubbornness. The other day I had to retreat to the back of the apartment laughing because she wriggled under a bush, sat down, and no amount of begging, shouting, pleading, threats, offers of treats or cajoling would coax her out. Ariadnewoman eventually sat, defeated, on a bench to wait out this episode of hard-headedness.

And now, Frankfamily are moving away.

Naturally, I didn’t get this information from the source – I still have never had an actual conversation with the couple – but the information is legitimate. They are leaving. When I first heard this, I was more upset than anybody should be about strangers moving house.

“They should have warned us,” I muttered darkly to Scrubs.

“Don’t be weird.” He said.

“Do you think we could start a petition for them to change their minds?”

“Definitely not.”

“We should be able to lodge an objection. Do they not know Ariadne is essential to neighbourhood morale?*”

Scrubs sighed and eyed me with considerable alarm. “Please hide your obsession with their dog for just a little while longer.”

Of course, I couldn’t do that. How could I let Frankfam move without letting them know they would be missed? I decided to buy a card. I went into town and bought a card that said, “Sorry You’re Leaving” on the front and, “Wishing you all the best” on the inside. Perfect, I thought… But then the overthinking started.

 Ariadne can’t read, I reasoned. A card won’t make her happy. I bought a dog toy – a white, fluffy alpaca – and a gift bag to put it in. I nodded, satisfied with myself.

Maybe I should add a dog treat, I thought.

I grabbed a pack of chicken twists from the shelf.

Maybe two, just to be sure she’ll like one of them.

I grabbed a Jumbone.

I turned towards the till, but it was too late.

I had lost the run of myself.

I can’t just address the whole thing to Ariadne… My brow furrowed. What about the humans? What about Frankman and Ariadnewoman? Is it rude to exclude them?

A couple of lollipops, a bag of fizzy sweets, a couple of chewy bars and a box of maltesers got swept into the basket.

When I got home, I wrote the card to Ariadne and her humans. I thanked Ariadne for brightening up the block, told them we (the humans and the cats) would miss seeing them around and good luck with the move. I threw everything into the gift bag, took the maltesers back out because they seemed like overkill, and left it on their balcony.

Then I went home, sat down, and realised that:

  1. Having never had a conversation with them ever in my life, it might not have been the most reasonable thing to go so overboard with the goodbye present.
  2. They probably wonder a) who I am and b) how on earth I even know they are moving.
  3. I now have no choice but to avoid them until they leave because I am so embarrassed.

When I told Scrubs he groaned and asked why – WHY – I would have done such a thing without consulting with him first. He is naturally mortified by association, but at least he can claim ignorance since I am obviously the nutter who wrote the card.

So.

I am still sad that they’re leaving our neighbourhood. They just seem so lovely and I like to think in another life they would have stayed another four years and eventually we might have worked up to greeting each other with actual words and eye contact. Who knows. Dream big!

On the other hand, at least once they leave I can stop feeling myself turn red with embarrassment every time I see them, now that they know without a shadow of a doubt that I am their number one fan.

Swings and roundabouts.

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Maya and Oscar watching Ariadne; people’s heads have been cropped out to protect the innocent (Frankman)

*Not complete hyperbole; for about a year somebody in our apartment block named their wifi ‘CAN WE PLAY WITH ARIADNE PLS”

 

 

Madrid Memories

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Madrid is my soul city.

I haven’t been there in about nine months now, and I’m starting to feel that familiar ache that comes over me when I go too long without visiting. Half of my extended family live in the city, and I have been faithfully flying over at a rate of at least twice a year for the past thirty years. Three years ago, my last remaining grandparent – my Yayo – passed away, and I worried that this would change things. I worried I might not feel as welcome in Madrid now that I no longer had somewhere to stay. I worried that the connection I felt with my family and the city might loosen or come undone now that we no longer had La Comida del Domingo (Sunday lunch) to bring us together each week.

I needn’t have worried.

I still have a place to stay. In fact, now I have places, plural. My aunts welcome me with open arms and comfortable rooms. They feed me and fuss over me and keep me up to date on their lives as if nothing has changed. I visit cousins who are more like older siblings, and walk the streets searching for churros just like I’ve done since I was a child.

I miss the apartment I grew up in, though.

The loss of that apartment and the loss of my Yayo are completely enmeshed in my mind. When I think of him, I think of him sitting in his chair by the window, watching the world pass by. I think of him flipping through the leather-bound photo albums I’d taken down by precariously balancing on the armchair next to the bookshelves. I think of him napping in his armchair and then pretending he had actually been watching mass on the TV, even though we both knew it was untrue. I think of him teaching me to make Arroz Con Leche in the kitchen, with military precision and instructions that bordered on orders. I think of sitting on the leather Chesterfield in the study, watching him write poetry about his childhood or my Yaya. I think of him combing back his hair in front of the bathroom mirror before leaving the house. I think of him sitting at the head of the long dining table at Christmas, proudly watching over his family as we laughed and chattered over wine and homemade food.

Somebody else owns the apartment now. A young family bought it and, as far as I can tell, renovated it from end to end. They closed off the balconies and changed the windows. Even when viewed only from the outside, it looks different to the place I once crawled, then toddled, and later walked through during different stages of my life. I am a really sentimental person, and I feel a bone-deep sense of sadness at the reminder that things change, and people die, and we can’t always hold onto the things and people and places that make us happiest.

Then again, they say ‘Good things fall apart so that better things can come together,’ and while I throw that phrase a highly skeptical side-eye, it’s true that without the sale of the apartment, we would have struggled to save up a deposit for our own place. It’s true that at the moment, as I sit at my own dining table, I can reach behind me and touch onyx figurines that used to sit on Yayo’s sideboard, and now sit on my own. I have reminders of him and of that apartment dotted around me; the onyx elephants, the silver Mexican plates, the vintage glass sweet jars and the art deco cutlery set.

Some days, I wish I could sit down and write Yayo a letter like I used to, complete with drawings and addressed to YAYO! (block capitals as standard), telling him about my life and my worries and my thoughts. After he passed away we found all the letters I had sent over the years stacked neatly in the drawer of his desk under lock and key. He had kept my cards, my letters, my childhood drawings of the apartment (complete with a very questionable grasp of perspective), and anything else I had sent tucked neatly between his pages of poetry and his bank account statements.

I’m not sure why I’m in such a melancholy mood today. Perhaps it’s due to the sun having disappeared, or just because I feel exhausted, or because I have a low-level headache happening at the moment that I’m about to bomb out of existence with some industrial strength ibuprofen. Lia is currently snoring away on the floor at my feet, somehow managing not to wake herself despite sounding like a anthropomorphised jet engine with sleep apnea.

Or maybe I just have Madrid withdrawals.

There’s only one remedy I know for Madrid withdrawals…..