Fiction by John Saul
Rob finally exploded at me over our plan for churros in the middle of Granada. We were stopped at another street corner, we were always stopping now, at corners and on squares, the Plaza Trinidad by the hotel, Plaza Nueva, del Carmen, plaza this and that, and now he was slapping himself with his baseball cap, saying how extraordinary it was for me to have been a hospital consultant and committee chair and turned to by ministers and so on and here I go dithering over drinks here and tapas there and should we go to this café or this gallery well no, well yes, will they have food and since it’s funded by Russians will it be Russian food and then it won’t be gluten-free or will it, what do you think, maybe they’ll be closed so why don’t we go to that gallery they may have food there again they may not and will they be open and if they aren’t what to do then shouldn’t we consult the guidebook again, yours or mine, the Rough Guide or the Routard, and in the meantime a cash point would be handy but one that’s sure to work and give a decent rate and do they all give the same rate and where is the nearest one why don’t we go down this street they’ll have a cash machine don’t you think, where is the map, we passed one yesterday that looked safe enough, I don’t want a cash machine where kids are about as sometimes they have stones. Stones, Rob shouted, stones?
He’d begun the morning saying churros—it was all he’d said since we met in the hallway—one word, churros, and after breaking into this rant all he could say was stones. Rob, Rob, my old friend Rob.
I was so upset.
Basta, he said. Enough. We are going in this café.
He calmed. Wound up by the hours and days of my indecisions, driven into spluttering churros! through the streets of Granada, he had finally exploded.
It made the day we saw the Alhambra unforgettable—unforgettable for the Alhambra in the afternoon—who could not feel pleasure at the workmanship, the harmony in the courtyard of the lions—but more so for the explosion, for the churros word, for how Rob had grabbed my elbow and steered me through the streets as if I was a child.
We sat, subsided. The café was busy. On their way to work, customers sat and stood, talking, over modest plates of food. The plateful brought to us by the waitress, darkly pretty waitress, had twice the quantities.
Well, I said finally. Now I know what to put in the postcards. How I got an old schoolfriend to go stomping across foreign plazas shouting doughnuts.
We laughed. And I shall add, said Rob taking from the plate, these are good churros.
Good, I agreed. Very good.
One way this moment, he said dabbing a tissue at sugar around his mouth, another way the next. It’s not like you.
I know, I said. I’ve been in a bit of a daze.
Apparently. Or you’re a dangerous anarchist.
Do I look the part?
He pushed the plate across, wiped his fingers, took out his guidebook. Everyone was talking, talking. In the background early Beatles’ hits played. The darkly pretty waitress brought chocolate, like shots, in the bottom of two cups. On the house, she said in English, try. She smiled and went. I watched the confidence with which she moved, sweeping between the tables and the counter.
So many things had happened to lead to this, a table among strangers in the south of Spain.
I lost my man to illness. He disappeared and disappeared and one day he was gone.
We’d been so long together.
I was shaken.
I stayed home.
I stared at our patch of grass. The house felt huge. I boiled the kettle, constantly, forgetting why.
Then—the dominant feeling—came this quake beneath my feet, everywhere I went. That day in Granada, licking the sugar off our fingers, so much sugar, another realisation dawned. Buried somewhere I had words for it, words I’d heard before. I knew the gist. Something like: until you do it yourself, you don’t really know. Were those the exact words, the phrase?
Are you all right? Rob asked.
Thinking, I said.
Until you do … you know … I tried the chocolate. Thick, delicious.
It was the sort of line Nora Ephron might have come up with. Or Paul Simon. I felt I was in the right area, though it wouldn’t quite fit When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle. I never saw any of her others. I should recall the exact line first. Until you get there for yourself? I wouldn’t put it past Paul Simon, him or Joni Mitchell.
Do you know Nora Ephron? I said.
Nora Ephron? said Rob looking up from his guidebook. No. Who is she?
Never mind. She’s dead now.
You’re losing me.
Don’t say that.
So what about her?
She said funny things, interesting things.
Never mind. She’s gone, and I’ve lost the thread.
Rob tried the chocolate. Hm, he said, not sure about this, he said. So rich.
Suddenly the volume of the voices swelled, into a barrage. The Beatles went under. As they would, as they have been for a while. All the coming and going, I wasn’t ready for it. My man. Nora. Next the Beatles.
The Beatles, I said.
Beatles? What happened to what’s-her-name?
Yes, I said—I would demonstrate I could be resolute—Yes, the Beatles. Over time they’ll mean less and less, to fewer and fewer people.
Yes and no, said Rob.
Don’t you start dithering, that’s my territory. They’ll … mean as much to the next generations as Hoagy Carmichael did to us.
Exactly. But don’t mind me, I’m on a jag. At sixes and sevens. All Hoagies and Noras.
I think I’m following you, said Rob. They don’t all go down the plughole though. There are exceptions.
He has more to say by the day. Then … there’s Elizabeth the first, Beethoven …
Yes, Beethoven. But I interrupted you reading.
I was about to say, said Rob holding a page of his guidebook in his fingers. They have timed tickets, but we’ll find some way round it. Let me see what your guide says.
Beethoven, I thought. Wild and raging. But what was that line, who said it. Until you get there … I was wracking my brains to no end. It was a wasted brainwrack, I told myself, and what the hell, wasn’t it all a wasted brainwrack, with bits and pieces everywhere tiring, breaking off, dropping away with hardly a sound, brain bits, organ bits, bone bits, sight, hearing, speaking, walking, who doesn’t know this list, this list waiting to be worked down, on and on, down a tunnel ever dimming and ever darkening.
Rob had both guidebooks pinned open.
Were there at least compensations, some light, upsides, some pleasurable surprises in the general dimming? The way that gardens have come along as an activity, as if they have evolved from something else. Could driving, say, turn into gardening?
Until you’re there yourself you never really know.
The words are almost right. I’m sure now it was sung.
But the loss.
I remember now. The sink was becoming slow to empty and—I did nothing. I just watched the water. Would I ever tell you Rob, I knew the camellias would be in bloom but could not be bothered to go and see them. They were just yards away.
Then came the hidden shaking thing inside.
You all right? he said again.
Feeling, more like. The camellias must have gone over long ago. Weeks ago. Weeks had passed. Months. How has it been? What happened in this time? I need bearings, my bearings. I should reconstruct, from the beginning. The kettle, the camellias. Grey water, weeks of grass. Then came the wondering what to do—when I stumbled on an idea, latched on to this idea, the idea that brought me here. Yes, that was it. It dawned on me, I would take a holiday. But where. Wisdom said nature gave solace, not that I recall Nora Ephron, Paul Simon or even Joni Mitchell saying so. I would look for nature. Yes, no.
I forgot nature. I decided to go to Nice. No, Barcelona. No, Malaga. Of all places Malaga. I told Rob, others too, I was going to Malaga. He always said he’d like to practise some Spanish, maybe he would come along? I was sure he wouldn’t. But he would, he did. There: one of the surprises I was referring to.
It was Joni Mitchell singing the line. Was it in that song about Amelia Earhart? A ghost of aviation.
Aviation. Malaga airport was a hell hole. I won’t forget that either. It was as much under construction as the Alhambra must so many times have been. Arriving before Rob on his flight, I walked round and round and not once saw a plane. I could not find the passenger exit—our meeting place—but at the last moment there it was. I saw him from a distance, wearing a baseball cap.
I’d forgotten. He was always losing hair.
We got the hire car.
Look, I said, how about we leave straight away?
Granada. The Alhambra.
All right, he said. Está bien.
Bien. Les gustó? It was the waitress. She was urging more on us, in vain.
She had such a glow to her. The fancy crossed my mind: she was the camellia, the beauty I hadn’t been bothered to go and see.
On we went to the Alhambra.
We could walk the hill or take the bus, there were pros and cons. Bus, said Rob, bus.
We took a bus.
Rob, male, liked a task. Proud he had finally grasped the protocols of drinks and tapas—when to pay for tapas and when not to—he saw in the Alhambra an even greater challenge: how to get in using the inscrutable ticket procedures. To unravel them we queued for what seemed hours, in a labyrinth of lines to desks and machines and gates, as if it was all we ever did, and suddenly we were inside.
I held on to him. He had rough skin at the elbows.
The Alhambra revealed itself as a sometimes beautiful jumble of palaces with courtyards, belvederes and gardens. Parts had evidently been demolished, restored, neglected, reinvented.
Amongst the crowds, the serenity of the courtyard with the lions offered a place to think.
When you lose someone close to you, I said, the ground beneath you stops being solid. Things aren’t sure, the way they were. But until you get there yourself, I thought to add, well.
I know, he said. I see it’s unsettling you.
I want you to know, Rob. When I suggested the trip together, I didn’t see it coming.
That’s fine, he said. But I don’t know what to do.
We came to the so-called hall of the two sisters, thronging with visitors with mobile phones thrust towards the ceiling; a pool; the room of secrets. Underground, a vault. Rob read. I stood. They were just rooms. I would be glad to go back outside, back home.
I don’t know either, I said. What to do. What to learn from it. Is there an upside?
Rob shrugged, gently.
That was the first time the line I keep referring to went through my head. It was clear to me then. I heard it, heard the tune. I imagined myself up in the sky in a roaring, throbbing plane, swallowing something down. I was searching, in hope or was it prayer, I don’t know, looking out for land.
© John Saul[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read John’s interview]
John Saul’s fiction has been published widely, appearing in several anthologies and in four collections, three at Salt Publishing. The Times has described his fiction as ‘witty and playful’, proof that ‘the short story is not only alive but being reinvigorated in excitingly diverse ways’. Aidan Ellis also published the novel Heron and Quin, and his novel Seventeen is digitally available. His work was shortlisted for the international 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin prize for fiction and for Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction. In 2016 he had work included in Best British Short Stories (Salt). He has a website at www.johnsaul.co.uk