I leave the house and the air smells of shit. But it’s not the stench of rotten sewer that lingers around the streets of Madrid, it’s different. It’s sweeter. It smells of rural England. It smells of home.
You can tell that the former that has been spraying his fields has been doing so with abundante glee, spreading his manure far and wide. At least he’s not splattered our road with it.
But now I see that he won’t need to either, as three of his sheep have escaped and are now sauntering up the footpath with a look in their eye that tells me that they’re looking forward to mucking it up themselves. I observe the comical scene of the three beasts set against the backdrop of a perfectly kept home, a setting provided courtesy of the nervous anxiety of our beloved neighbour. At least whilst her brain has her cutting her grass for the umpteenth time we don’t have to listen to her subpar gossip nor suffer her snootiness.
As I watch the sheep approach her lawn for a quick snack, I resolve that I should probably tell my dad about the unfolding chaos so that he can let the farmer know. I don’t know how this communication happens. Does my dad have the farmer’s phone number? Will he shout out towards his tractor from a window? Smoke signals? Who knows.
My dad’s strategy for now seems to consist of making angry faces at the sheep until they go away. I leave him there whilst I head down the rest of the street, passing by the houses of the neighbours that I’ve never spoken to. There’s the house of the kind old people who didn’t charge me for scratching their car with mine. There’s that of the chavs whose child leaves its toys all over the place. Then there’s the home of the decoration fanatics who mount so much stuff in and around their house and garden that we are sure they must have a second house just to store so many plastic snowmen and inflatable pumpkins.
I then pass in front of the high hedges that surround the home of the drug dealer. I could wonder about the familiar collection of random and ever-changing cars which are parked out front, but my big question is whether the guy is at home or whether they’ve banged him up again. I see that they’ve converted one of their illegally-constructed garages into a kind of B&B and I ask myself how this supposed moment of entrepreneurship fits into their criminal universe.
Living alongside criminals is the price one must pay in order to live in a pretty village near the town. They say that my village is posh, but I disagree. Saying that is like saying that I’m fancy because I live in a bin whilst everyone else lives in a tip. It’s all relative.
I arrive at the village square, where one can find all of the recreational activities on offer: a church, a tearoom, a chippy, a pub, a gastropub (an expensive pub serving microwaved food), and a clothes shop for old ladies that was set up in the premises of the old Post Office after it closed. The owner was still a bit young to retire, but being threatened with an axe and told to empty the till isn’t exactly a great working environment, so we’ll let him off.
At the bus stop I try to figure out the timetable. Creased with time, stained by the rain, and a little hard to make out below the massive penis that someone has etched into it, I eventually decipher the thing and see that there’s a while to wait yet. I nip into the shop and buy some sweets like I used to do when I was little, asking the lady for a quarter of strawberry bonbons. To this day I still don’t know what it’s a quarter of exactly. A quarter of a tonne? If only.
The bus smells like burning, a pleasure for which they have the cheek to charge me nearly three pounds. Avoiding the glare of the fat man who seems to be melting into his seat, I head towards the back of the bus – but not the back row, I’m not a criminal. Ensuring I don’t sit on some chewing gum pressed into the seat fabric, I settle in for the 20 minute journey to the town centre.
We pass through the area where all the old people live. At each stop more and more of them get on and so the smell of burning begins to be tinged by a smell of death. I guess this might be what a cremation oven smells like.
In order to leave this neighbourhood the driver has to turn right onto a busy road, which in England can be quite a tricky operation. During one of his attempts to do so, the driver slams on the bakes, causing a sudden jolt that leads one of the old ladies to fall to the floor with a thud.
Drama on the bus.
Whilst those at the front get up to help (except the fat man, naturally) and check that she is okay, I remain seated, scrunching up my face and making the obligatory gestures to show that I am indeed concerned. If only they knew that my concern is not for the old woman but rather the delay in my journey: if this mess takes a while to sort out that I’m going to have to walk the rest of the way, and I really don’t like walking.
In the end they manage to get her on her feet and off the bus. Fabulous, that means we can carry on with our journey. I get off at the town’s bus station and take a look around at what I had been missing so dearly.
Below the roof of this modern and admittedly impressive construction can be found a collection of unfortunates unmatched virtually anywhere else in the world.
The chavettes are there with their oranges faces, blowing clouds of smoke from their vapes. Beside them are their boyfriends, all dressed in the same black Helly Hansen coat and with an angry expression that I can only assume comes from their dangerously high levels of masculinity.
During this anthropological safari I observe that these form the two uniforms which you can be assigned at birth in my town: orange makeup for girls, a Helly Hansen coat for boys. I should probably get myself one of those coats; it’s freezing in here. The architect’s work is very pretty and all, but I don’t know why it’s nearly all glass in a town famous for being one of the coldest and rainiest in the region.
The one character missing is Mad Mary, the town’s crazy woman. I say this lovingly, as there’s plenty of weird people around here, but she was different. Between violently shaking her walking stick at teenagers (I get you, Mary) and furiously shouting at pigeons (something I can also understand), she had become an iconic fixture of the town. May she rest in peace.
I begin walking into the town centre via a route that takes me past the club that’s been abandoned since I was born, the greengrocer where I once bought cherries with my grandma but which has now been made into yet another betting shop, and then the pub famed for housing some of the roughest characters in the whole town. I’ve been, they do a good roast.
They’ve refurbished the high street. The elevated flowerbeds have been swapped out for other flowerbeds, the bins are now different bins, and they’ve pulled up all the street tiles and put down other street tiles. Lots of innovation.
But for all the aesthetic changes they have made, they haven’t been able to change the people that frequent the area. I dodge between drug addicts and beggars in order to get to my favourite café, a tiny oasis in the middle of the streets of this supposed “shopping centre”. If I come across as sceptical here it’s because I’ve never seen another shopping centre in my entire life that has so many charity shops.
As I arrive at my café, I hear a commotion on the high street. It seems like a young motorcyclist that was speeding up and down the street has crashed into something – or somebody.
Now tired of all the day’s drama, I head inside and order myself a coffee. It tastes like piss. I make a note to go for a hot chocolate next time.