Even for that season it was hot. I went west along the coast and found myself in Nerja, everything shivering like cellophane in the haze.
I saw they had built a palace where the dunes had been. Once, the dune pools held egrets. They had reminded me of home. Creeping close I could glimpse the birds’ reflections in the water. Now there were fountains, but the fountains were turned off, and the swimming pools empty. After the first palace was a castle. After that castle another castle. Or palace. Each castle was fifty apartments piled on top of one another. Towers and minarets, but all empty. No cars in the parking places and the dune grass like wire breaking through the tar. And everywhere the signs; some Se Vende, some For Sale. But the English have stopped coming. Suddenly there are no English.
At last I saw a man and I asked him about a job. A watchman’s job. A caretaker.
I’m going to Madrid, he said. My cousin has a tapas bar. The polytunnels are for the Africans.
I was in Madrid once and saw the living statues in Plaza Mayor. It crossed my mind. Who would I be? I thought of Picasso. They named the airport in Malaga after him. Then I thought of Lorca. I saw a plaque for him in Benal Madena. I looked up from the street and there it was. But how does a poet dress?
Then I thought of Clint Eastwood, the man with no name, the thin cigarillo between thin lips. Who would dare refuse him money? A fistful of dollars? But I would have to stand on a box. No men are tall where I come from. Even in this place, they call me Lazarillo. The little Lazarus.
I turned a corner and war had been declared. There were the Rangers supporters and there were the police. Grown men were vomiting in the street. There were police horses with white eyes, men with helmets and shields. The warriors are called The Gers, a Glasweigian tribe half naked and painted blue, singing outside GMex and The Thistle. I trod the broken glass around the Briton’s Protection Hotel. A gallon of Grunt, an eight pack of indigo SuperT. Bellies brimming with gold. I thought of the desert I had once crossed - all that ash as if the world had burned. Goat herders in their cinder-coloured rags.
I used to sell the Big Issue outside Woolworths. I used to tell the people who I was and that I had come here for a better life. Across the road outside Streets night club, a woman older than my mother would play the accordion, its white teeth brown as nicotine. She knew only one tune. Then Woolworths closed. Then the night club closed. Some boys took her accordion and stepped on it. How it groaned in terror. I heard its protest and went to help. The boys were gone and I was glad. Those boys in their hoods, their trackwear, glancing at their screens.
Today I have been cutting cloth. When he gave me the job, the man didn’t ask my name. The bale of silk was cold as river water in my hands and upon my chest. We might have been anywhere. But there was a newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, and packets of teabags. After a few days I knew where I was. We were working in a warehouse on an estate off the Salford Road. There were two English women who smoked when the bosses weren’t looking. One burned a hole in the fabric and they had to hide it.
There are no windows in our building, and the strip light hums. Our toilet is at the end of the corridor. How the women sigh when they see it. They bring their own soap, their own paper, and there is a bootmark on the door.
Have a break, the man said yesterday. We were all surprised, but we couldn’t go anywhere. There is a yard with puddles and piebald ice, and the german shepherd on a chain keeps the people out, keeps the people in.
When I woke this morning it was dark, darker even than the Euphrates where I once rolled at night in its velvet bed.
I found the costume outside the Piccadilly hotel. Somebody had been sick on it but I sponged it down with hot water and Lenor in the laundry room.
This evening I walked into the Woodlands lounge. There were a good group of the residents there. Two or three saw me at once, then all turned their heads. The men cheered. Then everyone clapped. It was December 28 and I was Santa Claus, a green Santa Claus in a green Santa costume, a green Santa hat. Only the boots were missing. I have a pair of trainers from the sale they have at St Michael’s every Saturday. My other shoes have come to pieces.
Bit late aren’t you, Laz? called one of the men. Or do your lot have Christmas on a different date?
My room at Woodlands is small and next to the boiler. Sometimes I hear the pipes grumbling, like an accordion. The manager said it’s not ideal but she needs people to stay overnight.
I understand that. Night nurses are expensive. Roisin said they used to have schoolgirls and they slept in the lounge. But they were bad. They were wicked girls. They took the box of Yellowtail wine from the cupboard and lay on the floor and drank from its tap.
Now they have me. At night I walk the corridors. I stand in the kitchen reading the rotas, the tickets on the fire extinguishers. I open the freezers and their doors rise with a sigh and the cold smokes. And there is tomorrow, foretold within the freezers.. There are our burgers, our frozen fairycakes. There are all tomorrow’s parties. All in their icy envelopes, our industrial ice the colour of old women’s skin.
I look around the kitchen. How still it is. Like a photograph of itself, I think.
There is a cockroach on the floor. I listen to the sound it makes, an electrical sound, a tickering of a watch. I once shared a room up a flight of steps in Malaga. We were watching television in the afternoon and I had poured orange juice. When I picked up the plastic cup there was a cockroach in it. We all gathered round to watch it swim. All seven of us, making bets on whether cockroaches drown.
There are only mugs here so I make a mug of tea and take it to the lounge. Three a.m. I put the television on, very low, and flick through the seventy-two channels. There are always more channels now. Like books and magazines. Like cockroaches. Sometimes I play the DVDs the residents’ families bring. I have watched Titanic and listened to the real ice rise in its cliffs, its cordilleras. I have watched Descent and seen the women lost in the dark caves.
What a strange film, I think, to bring your mother, your grandmother. Women lost in the dark, their torches dimming, almost out. And I have settled back and listened to the silence.
At 4 a.m. there was a good show. The British are pure, it said. Eighty per cent of the British have common DNA. It can be traced back 12,000 years to hunters who followed the reindeer to Britain. Not so many, those hunters. A few hundred. There was a picture of people in skins, children wrapped in furs. They trudged the frosty ground, past stunted trees. Then on the news there were more demonstrations. British jobs for British workers, the banners said. Yes, I said. Yes I understand.
But do they understand, I wonder, the old people here? Understand that it’s only me tonight? The manager away, Roisin away, everyone else away. Only me on duty tonight, only me in my green Santa suit.
I. Me. Their only guard. Me in the silence. Not even a clock tickering. All the clocks digital here, and all around me the Christmas food. Boxes of liqueurs, mince pies in biscuit tins. And chocolate money in gold, in silver foil.
I collect the chocolate money and look at it. My treasure. These coins I can see in the dark, a glint from the coins, a glimmering. Maud who knits, Magdalena who knits, gone to their beds whilst here in the darkness are their fortunes abandoned. String bags of coins as a miser would hoard. A miser from the fairytales.
Those tales make misers miserable but I have always believed misers the happiest of people. It’s not what money might buy that makes the misers happy. No, it is the metal of the money itself. Its chinking coin, its smell of other hands, its coolness on the skin. And such a pillow those coins make. For the head or for the heart.
I bite into a chocolate liqueur. Its dark green taste is a mouthful of the night river. I steal the chocolate, I who was once the night swimmer, I who kept the key to the city of Babylon on a cord around my neck.
I had seen Woodlands when delivering leaflets in Slaughter Street. The Alpha Interiors leaflet was orange and said all blinds were 10 per cent off, plus free home consultation. The leather sofa people were offering 50 per cent off the Relaxo Recliner, and more for the Ritzy. Happy Dreamz was half price too, all their beds unbeatable bargains.
I remember that often in Babylon, Aadam’s car wouldn’t start, which meant we couldn’t get home to sleep. Business was always bad in Babylon when I was there. Not that I stayed long. There were only Russian tourists then, and few of them. Sometimes a bus would come with retired doctors and teachers from the city. But it was usually quiet. Aadam sat and smoked like a grand vizier while I took the entrance money, sold postcards and maps, water and dates. When his Nissan couldn’t go we would lock the gate and wander around.
I sat with him once in the Street of Processions, the car pushed under the wall, and listened to his stories. Aadam, with his yellow skin, his camphorated clothes, knew all of our history. His father or his grandfather had fought the English in the 1930s. Now there are jobs in the English graveyard, he told me. Cutting grass, keeping the children out. Steady work. Above our heads, carved in the stone, I knew there were creatures not from this world.
One night we sat in the weeds beside the black lion. The masters of stone had carved the lion devouring a foreigner, some enemy of our city.
Look, said Aadam, pointing up. That is Mars.
The planet was bright as a spark from his cigarette. Then Aadam asked me what I would do. Where I would go.
A friend is in Spain, I said. Good prospects.
It was so hot that sleeping out was no problem. Sometimes I eased myself into the river and allowed my body to be wrapped in its green sheets. And many times I lay under the palms and listened to that river sliding by. Slow as blood. I could hear its echo in the ground, the current breathing in my ear.
I also heard another sound. Two lovers crept into the grove. They paused and whispered, embraced and lay down, whispered and laughed. Then went their way. I could see the stars through the trees. Silverfish, I thought, on mother’s pantry stone. Mars was lower now and red as myrrh. It seemed to be coming nearer.
No one in Slaughter Street would ever buy a new leather sofa. I could have told them that. But I delivered the leaflets anyway. When I came back I sat on the wall of the Mount Joy Club. Tanya would be singing there next Tuesday, followed by karaoke. I watched the taxis pass. Every one was driven by a Pakistani. In town, the people selling the Big Issue were now Romanians. I sometimes see them go behind Boots and speak on their mobile phones. A beautiful language, I have come to think. But all the morning I looked at Woodlands.
One day I remember I call the good day. I turned down Evening Street, which was a redbrick terraced street. Once I had delivered leaflets here. Now it was morning and people had gone to work. There was a milk carton on the step of the first house. I took it. Halfway down Evening Street was a packet of two Sheldon soft white batons on a doorstep. I took it. At the end of Evening Street was a wall with a bramble growing over it. Snagged on the thorns was the green string of a purple balloon. Attached to the string was a card from the Salvation Army. I read the card. It said come to our hostel. Our army hostel.
Two streets later was a park behind railings. I sat on a bench there and ate the bread and drank the milk. The bread stuck to the roof of my mouth in a paste but I finished every crumb. I watched a woman put a Tesco plastic bag over her hand and pick up her dog’s s**t. She placed the s**t and the bag in another Tesco plastic bag and tied the bag’s mouth. The woman looked at me. Then she spoke to her dog.
On the next bench was a postman. He was wearing blue shorts and had orange flashes on his pouch. I looked at his pouch and it was bursting with envelopes. Every pocket in that pouch bursting with envelopes. What a good man, I thought. Such a solemn duty. Delivering letters to the world.The world’s news. Like me, he was drinking from a milk carton. Cheers mate, he said.
Bins and beds, the woman in Woodlands had said. That’s easy to remember, isn’t it?
Yes it is, I thought, because I am a quick learner. Bins and beds. I take the black plastic bags that the residents leave in a place they call the scullery and put them in the wheelies outside. The wheelies are emptied on Monday and Thursday mornings.
There are forty residents, and I thought that would mean many bags. But these old people don’t waste much. They are careful people, they have always been frugal.
The beds are stripped every week, the sheets, the duvet covers, the pillow cases. We also have the residents’ clothes for their weekly wash. Mostly, their strange underwear.
How we laugh, Roisin and I, at the underwear of every Lady Ga Ga. Zhao Li never laughs because he is a real launderer. How sad it is, that underwear. Revealing their last secrets. The last secrets of their lives. When Roisin says ‘gussets’ we know when to laugh. It is our codeword. A detonator.
And it will never end. When someone leaves, a room is not long empty. Another woman arrives, frail, tearful, making the best of it, her family around her, soon glad to get out. Up or down in the lift they go and out into the rain, across the road to the Mount Joy Club car park, over to Slaughter Street. Back in the rain to their Ford Fiestas, the husband and wife, the son or the daughter. Crying. Sighing with relief.
I opened the lounge door, closed it carefully, and crossed the grass. The wall is only one metre high and then I was on the petrol station forecourt. Then another wall, then the slip road and I was within the Tesco car park. Trains of trolleys in their bays, one car in all the frozen field, frost on its windscreen like a grey eggshell. An egret’s dirty egg.
Inside I walk the aisles. Such a strange light. A dead light, I think, yet bright. Deathly bright. A camera follows me, then another, and a security man stands at the end of the aisle, watching, arms folded. Then he moves. But not far. I pass the avocados, I pass the butternut squash. Like bells, I think, the squash. I pass the toothpaste, I pass the place where people buy Caribbean holidays and insurance for their silver cars.
Tesco is open twenty-four again. Life is returning to normal. I put the chocolate money in my basket. They are half-price now, the golden coins. I go through the bin with its cut-price DVDs. Here is one, Day of the Dead. I put it in my basket. So many movies now about the dead, the dead people who cannot die.
Maud broke her hip today. She slipped and the ambulance took her away. We know she will not come back, that she has taken the last step but one. Maud’s knitting is on her chair in the lounge but I am thinking instead about Roisin in the laundry, where she showed us her own underwear.
Enough of these, she laughed. These crappy keks. Cop this, Lazza.
And she unzipped her jeans and there was her red thong. Red fur within the squash. No, I thought. Cleft of a peach. An Andalusian peach. I stood in the street eating a peach, its juice dribbling on my chin and I looked up and saw Lorca’s plaque. So many poets.
I used to stand under the statue of the poet outside the Baghdad museum. At five, the girls would pass, in their dark glasses, their red lipstick, hurrying from the Ministry of Information.
Now that’s what I call underwear, Roisin said. Even Zhao Si laughed and leered, who never laughs but leers as a lizard will in its cold blood. I remember the wall lizards at home. They smiled like old men. Never trust the old men, my mother said. Do not go with them.
At the checkout the man looked hard at me. Then smiled.
Bargains, he said. Lots of bargains now. Bit late for that, isn’t it? he asked, and brushed his fingers on the sleeve of my green suit. A gentle touch, I thought. But a dismissal.
Outside, the Fiesta was still there. I tried to scrape the ice on the driver’s side but it was too thick. I wanted to look within, I don’t know why. Such a winter. I remember Malaga’s yellow steps, the peaches piled in pyramids on the market stalls.
It was 3 a.m. and I crossed the car park with my Tesco bag. I pictured myself in the stony light of the camera screen. When I paused the camera paused. When I passed the camera followed.
Roisin has often asked how old I am. She knows I am older than I look.
We were in the Tesco cafe where we meet two other Iraqis. And the Albanian. We go there because Roisin says it is good to get out. To see friends. Roisin says she is going mad, surrounded by all the old women. All she can think of, she says, are the tea stains on their blouses, the old women’s tights like seaweed flung over the Donegal rocks.
But the Tesco girls are kind to us. One teabag and one lemon slice costs me one pound sterling. But there are free refills.
We should plan a night out, Roisin says. Go across to the Mount Joy. The Albanian boy smiles and smiles. The Iraqi boys smile and smile. Everyone loves Roisin.
I think of the couple under the palm trees, lying upon the crackling fronds. Aadam once told me there were crocodiles in the river and not to swim there. He said it was in the Christian bible, in the Book of Isaiah. All the children who went missing, Aadam insisted, were eaten by the crocodiles.
So I pointed towards the palace on its hill. To the ziggurat where we were never supposed to point. I said to Aadam, yes, of course. And is the great crocodile himself at home today? If so, from which of his six hundred rooms is the great crocodile spying on us?
Aadam laughed and rolled his eyes. Not so loud, he said. Not so loud.
That day in the Plaza Mayor, I had looked at the human statues. No, not a poet. No, not Clint Eastwood. Instead, a terrible thought had entered my head. I gasped at myself. I reeled at the impact of such a thought.
Why couldn’t I be the crocodile? The crocodile dressed as one of the Bedouin still dress, in the black jalabiya of Badiet esh Sham. Those desert-coloured robes. Yes I could be the crocodile. The crocodile with his fierce moustache. His hand held up in peace.
Hey Lazza, said Roisin, reaching out to touch me. It was as if she woke me from a dream. When are you going to tell us what door your key opens?
'El Aziz: Some pages from his Notebook' from The Keys of Babylon by Robert Minhinnick, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times short story prize 2012. Robert Minhinnick has twice been awarded the Forward Prize for 'Best Individiual Poem' amd twice won Wales Book of the Year for his collections of essays. His novel, Sea Holly, was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prze.