I’ve been assigned a seat which directly faces another two seats in a set of four. The seat next to me is free, a small victory for my personal space, but the in the one in front of me sits a woman who has taken her shoes off. As a consequence, our little corner of the train smells like feet. Somewhere between a parmesan and a stilton.
I think about how if this was England, there’d be a table separating us, and that it would have functioned as a kind of olfactory barrier. But if this was England, there wouldn’t be a train to Murcia, and even if there was, it would have been substituted for a tedious replacement bus service.
Apart from the smell, I can’t really complain, and so I stare out of the window and think about roses, violets, and other less putrid odours.
My views over rural Spain are rhythmically interrupted by the undulations of the earth, a movement which causes the occasional flash of darkness as if I were watching a slide projector. Some of these blackouts lead to a change in the scenery, others are just momentary interruptions.
One of these interruptions goes on for a while. I eventually realise that we’re passing through a kind of valley that has been cut into a hillside to accommodate the tracks. I pull myself away from the window so that the lady with the feet doesn’t think that I’m weird, although I’m pretty sure that I’m not the weird one here.
The rocky sides of the valley then descend, and I see a collection of buildings protected by an expansive perimeter fence. It’s a place that I know well, although we’ll get to that soon, both physically and narratively. These buildings are highlighted by the setting sun, which is painting the sky with vivid colours. Or at least they would be vivid if the Spanish rail operator spent a little more money on the cleaning of its train’s windows.
The bars of the fence suddenly disappear and I look out over the open countryside once again. My brain switches back to the reality of the stench and the need for me to start packing my backpack in order to get off. I put away my iPad, my sunglasses, and the passport that I had to take out for some police offers a few miles back. Of course they only approached me, I’m the only blonde person on the train.
The train stops in a small, isolated town. With an aggressive pull on the handle, I open the door. Despite the cold, my auntie is stood there on the platform, dressed in short sleeves and some bright pink leggings. She waves her hands violently as if I hadn’t seen her, there between all of the people appropriately dressed for the weather. I drink in the tonic of the fresh air, free of the pollution of Madrid and the body odour of dirty strangers.
In between a collection of bumps and scratches, my auntie and uncle’s car is adorned with multiple stickers of the Spanish flag. This decoration is deceptive with regards to who’s inside the car: two British retirees and me, their nephew.
My uncle greets me with his usual unimpressed look. He then procedes to drive us towards our destination at full throttle, seemingly worried of the risk of getting stuck in traffic here, in this dustbowl in the middle of nowhere. What’s worse, at turns in the road he accelerates even more, leaving the three of us squashed against the doors. Completely calmly, he tells me that the roads are better now, that before they had to use an old dirt track, that there it is, that thank god they built the new one, that now he can go at lot faster. I feign an expression of calm whilst I grip onto the door handle with such force that my hand turns purple, hoping and praying that our destination today will not be the afterlife.
To my relief, we’re now arriving at the place that I mentioned earlier. It’s where my auntie and uncle live.
The place is a huge resort that is isolated in the middle of a valley. In order to get to the main entrance to the resort, we have to drive around almost the entire circumference of the place. As we do, I trace the rise and fall of the wires that connect the vibration sensors that run along the entirety of the high fence, which is dotted with spotlights, infrared floodlights, and CCTV cameras. I suppose that having the entrance so far away from the local populous is something that seems attractive to them. I tell my auntie that it would have been much more convenient if there were an entrance in the corner nearest to the motorway, but she insists that it’s for security reasons. I knew it.
The car runs over a storm drain at the bottom of a small dip in the road and during a split second the three of us are left levitating. My auntie turns hysterical, berating my uncle for our moment of weightlessness. I quite enjoyed it: if we’re going to go zooming around at a hundred miles an hour, we might as well feel like we’re on a roller coaster, I’m a big fan of roller coasters.
Now at the gates, we pass by the entrance sign. Its golden paint is fooling nobody, there’s streaks of rust descending from each of the letters. We approach the barrier and wave to the security guard on duty. My auntie wonders out loud if he’s seen us, if he knows it’s her, if it’s the same guy as the other day.
A screen lights up with the car’s number plate and the barrier rises. We drive onwards, and in doing so, we pass from one reality to another.
The cracked asphalt outside the gates gives way to a series of carefully planned and maintained roads. Any leaves that dare fall onto these roads will be immediately swept away by the gardeners, or perhaps by one of the residents, angry that the gardens didn’t come and sweep it away first.
It would seem my auntie still hasn’t calmed down after the storm drain affair. Waving her finger wildly, she points repeatedly at an abandoned train station, telling me that they might reopen it and launch a service from the resort to the capital city of the Region of Murcia which is also called Murcia.
As I’ve been quiet for a while now, mainly thanks to the g-forces that my uncle has subjected me to, I feel obliged to ask for more details on the subject. She tells me that the company that built and now operates the resort is preparing a proposal that they will send to the local government. I tell her that I doubt that there’ll ever be enough demand for them to warrant reforming the station and changing all the train timetables, but she tells me that there are more than 2000 apartments on the complex and that there’s a good chance that they will.
I passively agree that they’ll definitely try their best, seeing if this way she’ll change topic. My attempt is successful and so I am able to continue observing the surroundings.
We’re now crossing over some unoccupied parking spaces. These lie at the edge of an excessively wide road, one decorated with intricate streetlights and flanked by rows of perfectly trimmed hedges. I also see the first of the buildings, all designed according to the ideal standards of a Spanish house as imagined by a British person: white, with arched windows and pagodas made of dark wood.
Through the window I see more white buildings pass by, each one set back from the street such as to leave space for little gardens. These gardens are full of flowerbeds, outdoor lanterns, and wooden benches, and each is equally perfect as the one before, equally as big, equally as artificial, equal in every way.
After driving through almost the entirety of the resort, every section a copy and paste of the last, we finally reach the block where my auntie and uncle’s apartment is. I say apartment and not flat so that they don’t get mad: flats are for poor people, people with class live in apartments.
We drive past the spot on the street where they usually park and I wonder if the stress of driving his own car down roads he already knows has made my uncle forget where he lives. I contemplate this mystery for a couple of seconds until my auntie informs me that the new rules mean that they now have to leave their car in the underground car park.
I take a deep breath and shove my hands under my thighs. It’s going to be the first time of many that my uncle is going to nearly smash us headfirst into the concrete columns of the underground car park. I rationalise that we’ll only wind up reliving the final moments of Diana’s life if my uncle actually manages to get down the entrance ramp. Right now, the prospects aren’t looking great.
Miraculously he manages to get down the ramp, through the car park, and into his assigned space without any incidents or scares. He proclaims proudly that he always guides the car in using the pattern that the light from the headlights draws on the wall of the car park. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether learning this has left me feeling more or less calm about the whole affair.
We get out of the car and I open the door to the stairs, an action which receives a perplexed look from my uncle and a stern shout from my auntie. She asks me where I’m going. I tell her that I don’t want to go in the lift because I don’t like enclosed spaces. She tells me to close the door of the stairwell properly in case there’s a fire. I think about pointing out that in the case of fire, her beloved lift would be transformed into a crematory oven, but I don’t want to start off my holidays on the wrong foot and so I close the door with the all the poise and grace of the Queen of England, may she rest in peace.
Now in their fla-, apartment, sorry, I inform them that I’m going to make the must of the last hour of daylight to go for a walk and stretch my legs after a long journey. The two of them look at me as if I had two heads, but I turn around and close the door before they have chance to ask me any further questions.
The air smells of wet grass and dry earth. The silence, interrupted only by the sound of crickets, is a welcome relief.
I follow the curves of the pathway, stop to see if any cars are coming (there never are), and then cross the street to the wild side. This area is further away from the buildings and is pretty sparse; there’s a track for the golf carts, a smattering of wilder vegetation, and the odd sprinkler pape that has risen to the surface.
Here I feel more comfortable, closer to the chaos that reigns outside of these imposing fences. If I partook in the Spanish national pastime of smoking, I think I’d have a smoke right now. I decide to ring Gonzalo. He smokes like a chimney, something which has left him with a raspy voice and a comforting disposition. Whilst my phone rings through, I wonder if people are even allowed to smoke within the resort, what with all the rules and such.
He still hasn’t picked up the phone. He’s probably going to ignore me.
Oh, he’s picked up. We chat in Spanish, but I’ll translate.
“Oh, you’ve picked up.”
“Yeah, you catch me at work but I’ve come outside for a cigarette.”
Who’d have thought.
“I just got to Murica.”
“Oh. Are you with your auntie and uncle?”
Whilst I respond, I hear a swan in the background. I know exactly where he will be: in the pond with the aggressive swans which sits alongside the university department where he works in the US.
“Yeah, they’re here. Careful with the swans.”
“I know, they’re stressing me out.”
“My auntie and uncle are stressing me out.”
Whilst we chat, I see a lone car appear on the street. As it approaches, I see that it’s one of the security cars. They always drive them slowly, but I think this one’s going even slower than usual, probably because they find it suspicious that a person as young as me is here at the resort and they’ll be wondering what the hell I’m doing half hidden amongst the bushes. With a nonchalant wave I manage to assure them that all is just fine. They carry on with their patrol, their headlights lowered.
This interaction makes me realise that, whilst complaining about life with Gonzalo, day has turned to night.
“Gon, I have to go.”
“Me too, I’m being exploited out here.”
I’m not really so sure about that. My phone informs me that we’ve spent over thirty minutes on the call. That’s half an hour that he’s been mooching around the lake.
“Yeah right. Get a move on. Take care.”
I hang up and I hop on back over to the apartment. Arriving at the main door to the building, I search for the right doorbell, passing over the stickers which have been placed over the numbers. All of the names that they contain are of old British people that have retired here to Spain.
They might be old, but not in the same way that my grandparents are old. Every wrinkle of my grandma’s face seems to form a smile, but every wrinkle of the face of the majority of these people only serves to further highlight how bitter they are.
Unlike the carefully pampered lawns that surround their houses, these weeds never die.