Puerta del Sol, Madrid, 2009. We were having breakfast in one of the few cafes here that cater for the early risers. Our table was next to the window, and we could see the sun strip the square of night and the morning commuters dress it for the day. I was having a jamon bocadillo and Helen a croissant with tea. We were going to be walking to the Prado soon, so we needed good, proper fuel.
We ate in silence. Helen and I were always silent when happy, we knew that talking was a risk, a bore; to be happy with silence is to be allergic to noise. We were happy that way. And Madrid was good for us.
Seeing as it was too early to set off for the Prado I went to the counter and ordered myself a fresh orange-juice. The server indulged my poor Spanish and I left her thinking Spaniards were the least snobby of Mediterraneans, not like the French or Italians, but without being downright third-world, like us. When I came back to our enthroned table, I saw Helen’s gaze fixed studiously outside. I just knew, then, our silence was over.
“What’s that homeless guy doing?” She asked me without looking at me.
I looked out the window and saw a dirty man, not old, in a faded shirt, blackened jeans, greying stubble, peering into the El Corte Ingles book department, which was still firmly closed.
“He’s been looking in there ever since we got here.”
“Poor guy? Poor Madrid! It’s not right; a city this rich; that shouldn’t happen. He looks like a zombie enslaved in paradise.”
“You know what I mean!”
I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. But Helen, like any good girlfriend, could see what I was thinking.
“Don’t you feel sorry for him?” She lashed out, as if it was my callousness that dictated his misery.
“I do I do, but what can I do?”
“At least feel for him!”
“Fuck lot of good that’ll do for him!”
She sighed and crossed her arms. She knew I had a brutal streak, she often called me a Social Darwinist, which I wasn’t, though I was selfish. I had my own problems, my own dreams, let the rich take care of the outcast, and let everyone else leave me alone.
But I do have a conscience: “If my stories ever make it big, I’ll help out, alright?”
Calle Campomanes, Madrid, 2013. “It doesn’t make sense. How would a Hemingway, signed first edition end up here?”
“We know good people.”
“Man, even from his handwriting you can tell he was pissed.”
“This was only two years before he died. The man was fucked then.”
“Not fucked enough to stop having affairs with Italian baronesses.”
“That’s why he’s Papa. And that’s why it’s a thousand euros.”
“But Jesus, for a thousand euros I could stack up my whole library. You’ve got good stuff here. Lots of Vargas Llosa, Bolano, Camilo Cela, Borges, Carpentier; you don’t get that shit where I’m from. Hell, I don’t know: love, what do you think?”
Helen came to whisper in my ears so the hipster student running the bookshop couldn’t hear us: “Love, you can buy those authors online, but you can’t get a Hemingway like that anywhere else.”
When we walked out of the bookshop, Helen was hanging onto my arm. Now you’ve indulged yourself, it’s my turn to be treated, let’s go to the Salamanca, I fancy some long-overdue Prada, she said to me, lovingly. I looked around the street plotting the best route to the Salamanca and from the direction of the Teatro Real I saw coming towards us the same homeless man from four years ago. In the same clothes, the same stubble, the same tired, beaten-dog eyes. I kept looking at him as if he were some leaper left un-healed by Christ. “Come on Mr. Big-Time Writer, let’s go.” Helen tugged at my arms, but I remained rooted.
Helen saw him and I could feel her growing stiff when she noticed him walking straight towards us. She guided me discreetly away, though the man hardly noticed our presence. As we moved away he went onto the threshold of the bookshop and stood there, merely stood there, not going in, not looking around, just a statue with lungs.
“What’s he doing?” Helen whispered to me.
And it wasn’t because I was a famous writer now and somehow an intellectual, it was more basic than that: but I just simply knew what he wanted.
I let my arms loose from Helen’s constricting, nervous embrace, reached into my pockets, for my wallet – Helen whispering “what are you doing?” incessantly like a buzzing bee in my ear – and I walked over to the homeless man. I took out a five-hundred euro note from my pocket and told the guy: “go on, treat yourself.”
He took the note, smiled from half his face, as if the other side had been killed off by a stroke or despair, and his small eyes suddenly grew red and teary. He nodded his head, tapped me on the shoulder, and walked into the bookshop.
“Are you crazy – five hundred fucking euros!”
“Love, I’ve just spent a thousand on a book I’ve already read, I think it’s only fair.”
She huffed, unconvinced. I knew I would have to buy her something, spend more than five hundred euros on her at the Salamanca, just to assuage her. Assuage her, for what? Keeping a promise she forced me to make!
Puerta del Sol, Madrid, 2019. The morning was violet. The spring air permeated the café. It felt like the last day of school. In the café, over breakfast, Helen and I, celebrating our ten-year anniversary, were talking to a couple we had met in the café and recognised me. They were young backpackers from Bilbao trekking through Spain and the man was writing blogs about it. We were discussing the merits of travel-writing but I think he had it all wrong. He made his need to write sound like too much of a mission. He sounded like a hipster. You travel because you admit you don’t know how to live and you write so you don’t forget what you’ve learned, simple. There’s nothing divinely ordained about it.
As we talked and I was getting tired of talking I looked outside, towards the silent Puerta del Sol, and saw, though I wouldn’t believe it, the same homeless man I had always seen in Madrid, in the same clothes, all-white stubble, sitting on the threshold of the Corte Ingles and opening a book! Was this man following me? No, don’t think in conspiracies – that’s that hipster’s fault. I excused myself, lying that I wanted to go buy cigarettes from the kiosk, and with a creeping sense of dread, walked over to the homeless man.
As I got closer, I saw he was reading The Secret History of the Mongols, a contemporary account of Genghis Khan’s conquests. Of all fucking things!
“Hey, hey, man, it’s you! The madman!” He said pointing a crooked, blackened index finger at me, laughing a wheezy, defiant laugh. I presume he said madman because I gave a random stranger five hundred euros. I despised his arrogance.
“I’m beginning to think you’re some kind of fucking fraud.”
“On the contrary,” he said, getting up laboriously. “I’m the most honest son-of-a-bitch you’ll know.”
He began to walk away from me. “Then why didn’t you do something with that money I gave you, instead of just wasting it?” I sounded like my debt-fearing father. I liked it.
“I did, I bought this book.” He laughed, facing away from me.
I caught up with him and came face to face with him.
“Not for five hundred fucking euros.”
“Oh no, ay, no, claro que no! I spent it on metro tickets and wine as well. And as you know, they’re not cheap.” He smelt like he wasn’t kidding about the wine. I hated being confronted by the stench of stereotype. I was fuming.
“But thank you, caballero, you made an old man very happy.”
“How?” I howled in desperation.
“You got me the book I always wanted.”
“About Genghis fucking Khan.”
“Yes, you see, when I was small, my father and I used to love that film, you saw it, no you’re too young, Omar Sharif played Genghis Khan!”
“I have no idea!”
“Of course, of course, you weren’t even born then. But, mira, my papa and I always wanted to go to Mongolia, to ride horses and shoot arrows like Temujin – that’s Genghis, caballero. But he died young, my papa.” I was getting restless, he could see it too. “Don’t be in such a rush. All I ever wanted in my foolish life is to go to Mongolia. But I know my fate, it’s not written for me. But thanks to you, I can spend my days reading up about the man, about the steppes, and living, at least, no, like a nomad here in Madrid.”
“So you’d rather spend your life being homeless, a nomad, than making something of yourself.”
What he replied would haunt me for the rest of my life:
Mater Dei Hospital, Malta, 2055. I’ve spent my whole life trying to slake a thirst I never had. My whole life has been a sedentary journey trying to get away from wherever I was or whoever I had become. Everything was so tantalising. So tantalising. And now, on my deathbed, I finally know peace.
Helen, tell Alex, our boy, not to waste his life looking for what he already has. Please.
Helen, can you hear me? Helen? Helen!