I had been for several days in the contained city of Granada, high up in the Sierras Nevadas, when I first encountered the homeless woman. I supposed she was a few years younger than me but looked a few years older. She had coarse skin that had perhaps too much sun or alcohol; too little water or moisturiser, too little happiness and too much pain. Her skin sloped downwards around the eyes, her hair was frizzy as if even the follicles were exhausted, and she was dressed in jeans and a jumper that were not dirty but looked acquired from the thriftiest of thrift shops. I was coming out of the supermarket and saw in her face a look that indicated she knew exactly how wide the gap between the pair of us happened to be, and I paused for a moment. I went into the rucksack where I had put all the items, and broke open the packaging on three tins of sweetcorn, three packs of sieved tomatoes and a six pack of Greek yogurts. I had been looking for individual items of all three, but they only sold them in packs, and I knew as I bought them they would probably be left in the apartment my girlfriend and I had rented for ten days. Surely better to give some of them away now to someone on the street, I thought, rather than leave them sitting in a cupboard to go possibly unused by future guests, guests that, if they could afford a holiday in the south of Spain, probably would have little need for an extra pack or two of the various items. I handed over the food, gave her a euro and as I did so I saw that she looked as if she were about to cry. Was I the first person that day to part with both money (however paltry) and goods (however modest), or was this response, like the earlier look, indicative of something else?
Sandra and I had rented the apartment cheaply off a friend of her family's. Though we had been a couple for over a year this was the first time I was to meet the parents and believed it would be better if I did so without simultaneously feeling obliged to stay in the family home. Anyway, they lived in a small village a few miles away from the city, and we wanted to remain in the centre without worrying about buses, lifts or hiring a car. We probably couldn't have afforded the usual rental rate but at half the price, and with a cheap flight from London to Malaga, it allowed us to take our first holiday together, and for her to see her parents for the second time in a year. Sandra worked as an interpreter chiefly through the Spanish cultural centre in London, and I worked as a copy editor for a well-known London newspaper.
I have always been reluctant to meet the parents of my partners, determined to retain a feeling that the couple need never expand beyond the two of us, and need have no future that required cementing by familiarising myself with the people responsible for bringing the woman I was seeing into existence. Yet all my previous girlfriends had been from the UK, and I somehow seemed to feel that the cultural gap between Sandra's parents and I would be great enough for any proximity to be countered by geography and mores. I wasn't meeting someone's parents; I was meeting strangers. When I think about this now I see its xenophobic implications, and yet I wasn't so much afraid of the foreigner as unafraid because they were foreign. The demands and expectations I would have sensed in the intonations and choice of words in a parent from Britain, would be lost in the chatter of a language I hardly understood.
I got back to the apartment and put away the things; Sandra was out visiting a friend living in a nearby part of the city: we were staying in Albayzin; the friend in Realejo. Sandra had no reason to ask why there were only two tins of sweetcorn, two packs of tomatoes, and so when she returned and told me about her friend's news, I didn't say anything about the homeless women I had met. As she explained that Maria was pregnant with her second child, that her husband had taken a job in Malaga and would commute between the two cities, so she wondered about her own forking path. She was thirty three and remembered at school talking amongst her circle and they all said that if they weren't married with kids by the time they were thirty, they would be an embarrassment to themselves, a joke to their friends, and would induce shame in their families. Of course, Sandra added, times change and people grow up. She offered the latter remark I suspect to reassure me: to say that of course this visit to Granada where I would meet her parents needn't be pressurising. Yet I asked her how many of these friends were married. Out of about a dozen of them, at least eight that she knew of were settled. Yes, she admitted, most of them were married by thirty.
I didn't need to ask why Sandra had never been married; we had discussed on several occasions her life story and emotional history. She left school with competent English and French, and perfected both languages at university in Granada, before doing post-graduate work at Sussex, then moved to London where she quickly found interpreting work, and knew that it wouldn't be easy finding similar employment in Spain. The person she might have married was a law student in the city, but while the way he slicked back his hair, wore pale cream suits and patent leather shoes appealed to her in the first year or two of her degree, by the time she had finished it she wanted to escape this Andelusian world exemplified in her boyfriend's loud yet conservative dress sense.
Sandra did a Master's in comparative literature, writing a dissertation on Julio Cortazar, Michel Tournier and Angela Carter, and then expanded it into a PhD during which she fell in love with her advisor, who had been one of her tutors during the initial post-graduate course. Marriage wasn't probable there: Mitchell had long since left a wife and two young children and was relieved when another man was happier than he was to become their father. He had offered it with cynicism within sadness, Sandra thought, leaving her in little doubt that she was unlikely to be married to him by the time she was thirty. She was twenty six when they met and thirty when they parted, with a doctorate in both comparative literature and heartbreak. That is when she left for London, getting work without too much difficulty, and, more than a year later, affection from me. It wasn't ideal work and I wasn't really the ideal man: she would have preferred a lecturing post teaching literature, and would have chosen to continue seeing Mitchell if he wasn't with another woman half his age and twice as keen. Sandra said it wasn't really Mitchell's fault. He didn't try and seduce the women; they usually seduced him.
Did I seduce Sandra? I don't think so - we were both at a party hosted by someone who worked for the paper, and whose wife was an interpreter. It was a house in Camden bought with a mixture of hard work and parental money, my colleague admitted, and as I moved amongst a crowd of familiar faces I saw an unfamiliar one with a look on her visage that appeared as if it could deflect any opening gambit. I passed her twice in the hallway and it wasn't until an hour later as she was putting on her jacket to leave that I finally found the room to say something. I asked her if was a bit premature to leave a party without really talking to anyone, and she said that now was the moment since I had just said something to her. She offered the remark less ambivalently than clumsily: she later told me she meant it as a joke rather than as a potentially cutting claim. Now that at last someone had spoken to her she could leave; not that she had to get out of there because I had leerily tried to chat her up. So she stayed, we talked, and then I walked her back to where she lived, near the Arsenal football ground, took her number as I stood by the door, and then carried on home to Wood Green. She had seemed not so much uninterested in me; more preoccupied with herself or someone else, and so I was a little surprised but not entirely astonished when, after sending her a message a couple of days later proposing a meeting, she agreed to meet again.
While during our first year together we talked of many things, what we never addressed was that while the relationship was one of equals, it didn't seem predicated on the same feelings and intentions. I always sensed that Sandra was involved with me so that she felt protected from her thoughts about her ex and the feelings that might make her impetuously try and start seeing once again a man who would be neither faithful nor committed. I believed I was with Sandra not because I loved her but because I loved company: I had been with more than a dozen lovers in the last decade and I had no past person to whom my memory was devoted, and no hankering for that one person that I would wish to devote my life to loving. If Sandra's ideal had been the Mitchell that she had lost; I was possessed of no ideal at all, and so we could care for each other equally, but perhaps without great feeling, and without shared premises. We rarely argued and rarely smothered each other with affection, but where she perhaps saw this as the consolidating love after Mitchell, I saw it as another enjoyable love affair that would no doubt end for another to begin again. I offer this without cynicism nor melancholy, but rather as an acknowledgement of my needs and desires seeking no alibi in past pain or present duplicity. I feel I am neither damaged nor a cad.
Yet here I was in Spain about to meet Sandra's parents, and I of course knew from discussions that we would have, how important it was for them to believe that in her early thirties she was with a man who wanted what her parents wanted for her: a husband and children. We arranged to meet them for lunch in a restaurant they liked in Albayzin, one of many cafes and restaurants in the area that took the Alhambra on the other side of the valley as its view. Her parents were a slim, well-defined couple, the sort of spouses one sees that provokes no immediate questions about why they are together. Her father had an even tan and cropped grey hair, and reading glasses he wore sternly when scanning the menu. The image I had of Mitchell was of a scruffy figure in worn cords and elbow-padded jacket, but meeting Sandra's father I had the idea that perhaps he looked more like this, and something close to jealousy briefly arose in me. Her mother's hair looked delicately dyed, a shade of brown I would have assumed close to her original colour. I couldn't help but feel they were sizing me up as they might buy a breeding horse, and were wondering about the quality of my genes. The menu was exclusively meat and fish based, and, while in London I would be a strict vegetarian, when travelling I occasionally ate fish. As I ordered the prawn paella the father glanced at me as if to say he approved of my choice - that I had chosen seafood over meat - while I wondered how disapproving his look might have been if he knew that the steak was never going to be an option and the fish only a last culinary resort. He seemed the type of man who viewed vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice rather than a dietary decision and would have had little truck with such faddism.
The mother spoke hesitant English but the father was fluent, and I asked him where he had mastered the language. He learnt it at school, he said, but improved it while travelling around the US, where he worked at a couple of fun parks. He noted my look of surprise and said that he helped construct and take down the rides, the big wheels, the big dippers, the ghost train. It was good work for a young man of nineteen, and he returned to Spain fluent in a second language and with muscles he didn't have before.
He seemed like a man consistently proud of his achievements, yet also one who was perhaps proud of them because he could see in anybody's life alternatives they might have taken. As we talked during the meal, and then walked around the steep, sinuous streets nearby, as we found a vantage point with which to view the city's sweep, and then took a coffee at a square, so I saw that he didn't expect me to marry his daughter; more that he thought people should live according to their own choices. At one moment as we walked a few feet in front of Sandra and her mother he said that a man is under no obligation to make the woman he is with happy, but he oughtn't to make her unhappy either. He didn't elaborate, but I supposed he was aware that his daughter wanted to get married but might have wondered whether I wanted to do so too. If I didn't, I should leave his daughter. But he offered the remark as if to a friend; elliptical and advisory - as though he didn't wish to impose, only suggest. I asked him how old he was when he got married and had children. He said he met his wife when they were both twenty eight. He thought he would never marry and there he was with a daughter by the time he was thirty. He laughed but there was no regret in it, and while before he would have believed that marriage and children might have depleted him, instead it gave his life a richer, textured meaning. Pleasurable things contained refrains and echoes: the hard work didn't only make him feel better, but he saw the extra money he could earn make his wife and his kids happy as he bought them little gifts or when they went on family holidays. He was always careful never to work so hard that he couldn't be with them; and never treated his children so often that they took his generosity for granted. His life had moved from being self-rewarding to rewarding.
He then added that he had no lifestyle to sell me, no advice to give. I appeared like someone who wouldn't be inclined to do anything unthinkingly, he said, or through the advice offered in someone else's reminiscence. No, I said, but a life explained is always more useful than an unlived life pushed and prodded in a particular direction. He looked at me a little puzzled, and so I added that my own father, never an easy man, had often given advice about what I should be doing with my future but never explained his own existence. I said I would have preferred personal recollection than hectoring expectation. We started walking down from the square Mirador San Nicolas towards the town centre.
Intermittently behind the white houses, clustered and compact, entangled as if growing out of each other, we would see the view across to the Alhambra, this languorously long palace taking up a large section of the opposing hill. I would visit it with Sandra the following day.
As we said goodbye to Sandra's parents I realized I had hardly said anything to her mother at all, but when we parted she kissed me on both cheeks and grabbed my shoulders with a warmth indicating that Sandra had spoken well of me, and that she could see that the conversation I had with her husband was meaningful and complicit. I remember Sandra once saying that her father didn't have many friends; that he was often enough liked but didn't always find it so easy to like people back. As we parted she put my hand into hers, as if saying that I should look after her daughter while she remained in Britain, but as though I needn't feel any obligation to her beyond this demand.
I still hadn't spoken to Sandra about the homeless woman, as if the moment had passed and I couldn't quite find the sentiment again to explain how much I was moved by her and how much she had been moved by my gesture. It was as though meeting her parents had replaced the woman not only in my mind, but as if in other parts of my body too. The next morning as we walked up to the abbey by the road that passed through Sacromente I asked her a few questions about her father. She had talked very little about him in London, and I wondered why, since he seemed to be a man about whom much could be said. As we detoured briefly and stopped off at a bench above the main road, I absorbed the view rather as I had taken in the father: in an awed sweep. This was a magnificent landscape, with the Alhambra a similar colour to the rock and as if chiselled out of the stone. Some of the houses on the side where we were sitting literally were: they were cave dwellings, yet with the facade of a house like any other. Between the majesty on the other side of the valley and the simplicity on this one, lay in the deep crevice a force of spirit that couldn't easily be explained, but was nevertheless effortlessly contained, and I had felt a similar power in Sandra's father. I asked her if they talked to each other very much; whether she knew about his life before he had married her mother. She said that she never felt that close to her father and it was always the same with her sister. They never doubted their father cared for them, never thought that he regretted the choice he had made, but it was as if they were always aware of the son that he never had.
She said that a couple of years earlier her mother had told Sandra of his time in the States where he had been staying with a young woman and her young son. The mother worked at a diner in a town where he was visiting for a couple of weeks, and though there was no affair with the woman there was a strong affiliation with the boy. The child was around eight and on his school holidays, and he would hang around the diner since his mother didn't like him to be too far from her sight. Yet she seemed to trust her father, and the boy played the host as he took her father fishing, showed him a well-known bridge in the area, and introduced him to his friends as if he were the long lost uncle returning from adventures elsewhere. It was these few days that made him see that he might want a family of his own. This is what he had told his wife before they were married, and this is what Sandra's mother told her many years after he had two daughters but no sons.
I might wonder what was implied in this story that had passed from father to wife, from mother to daughter, and from the daughter to me. It was as if before I had been fretting over meeting Sandra's parents because of the son-in-law they might have expected me to become, now I felt like I would be the son her father never had. I knew her sister who was a couple of years younger had married a boy whom she'd met at catering college, and knew that Sandra had described him with the same dismissive tenderness she had offered when describing her college ex. He was never going to be more than a son-in-law. As we started walking again, Sandra said she could see her father was attracted to my company; the first boyfriend her sister or Sandra had introduced her father to that seemed to interest him. She said it was obvious to her that I found him no less fascinating, and as we walked we fell into a silence that indicated two people thinking thoughts that were in parallel but not coincidental.
At one moment we stopped and asked a woman who sitting on the side of the road how far it was to the abbey. She said around twenty minutes, but that it was closed; it would be open the following morning. The house looked like the last one along the road, and its facade was covered in religiously inclined plates and paintings of Jesus. We enquired how long she had been living there: she said seventy five years. She had been born in the house and would no doubt die in it or in the hospital. She had lived in the place with her sister for many years, but her sister had passed away a couple of years earlier. There was no sense that she had ever married. We turned back and along a high road that took us past jumbles of houses, built as if on top of each other and as though hanging off the cliff. They felt both precarious and permanent.
That evening, after visiting the Alhambra, we were making dinner and Sandra asked how was it that we only had two tins of sweetcorn, two packets of sieved tomatoes: she couldn't recall us using any of them. And so it was that I told her about the homeless woman, but didn't say anything about how we were both moved by the exchange. She wondered which supermarket, and I said it was the one over in Realejo. She said it was one her mother would often go to when she was in town, and one Sandra admitted she herself would avoid: the woman who begged there was a friend from childhood, someone whom she couldn't face as much for the humiliation she would feel as for the shame the woman would suffer.
As we ate, she told me that she was part of the group who would insist they would be married by thirty. Angela married first, but her husband left her within a year, saying he had married too young and needed to live. He travelled and never came back, with some people saying he was in the States, living with a Spanish woman he may have followed there. Angela, who was delighted on her wedding day and mildly boastful in being the first to wed, appeared after her husband left her to seek humiliating experiences, and went from one hopeless man to the next until she was living on the street. Initially she was doing so as if a lifestyle choice, learning to juggle, staying in squats or in a tent, travelling around the south of Spain with a street guitarist she was seeing, but about three or four years ago she returned permanently to Granada, and had been begging in the town ever since. She doesn't even pretend now, Sandra said, to earn money from any of the street activities she would have performed in the past - juggling, making enormous soap bubbles, offering henna tattoos. She relies, as they say, on the milk of human kindness. Sandra smiled sadly at an idiom that worked both in Spanish and English. Sandra's mother would still stop and talk to her, giving Angela money and food, and Angela sometimes asked her how her daughter was doing - was she still living in London?
The following afternoon Sandra got a bus to her parents' house. We were flying back in three days' time; she wanted to see more of her mother, and would stay for two nights. Her father was away on business in Madrid, and they would be alone. I wasn't invited and felt the decision lay partly somewhere in that silence between us the previous day while walking through Sacromente. I saw her off at the bus station around two, strolled into town and up around the park by the Alhambra. Walking back down the steep streets that always seemed to be hastening one's walk, I turned off and in the direction of Realejo. I could see Angela standing by the main entrance but went in through the other door. I bought a few things for dinner, and a few additional items for her. Leaving through the main door, I gave her the food and also a ten Euro note. This time she looked at me not with tears in her eyes but a complicit smile on her face. I smiled back, and wished her a good day.
When Sandra returned we went out for dinner both to celebrate and commiserate over our final evening in Granada. She chose a place in the nestle of streets that was made up of markets selling Moorish goods, and cafes and restaurants offering Moroccan tea and couscous dishes. The food was edible and the atmosphere intimate. As we ate she said her father had come back early from his business trip and was obviously disappointed to see me absent. She told him that I would have come, but I thought he wouldn't have been there. He said to her that I was interesting, a young man who seemed to think through the choices he made. She offered the phrase ambiguously and I didn't enquire further, but I did wonder whether she meant the choices I had been making, or that the choices I had thought through resembled those he had thought through too.
She also told me that she had talked to her mother about her childhood friend; that I had given a homeless woman food and a little bit of money and that it happened to be Angela. Her mother said she knew, and explained that she talked to Angela a couple of days ago after getting some shopping. She didn't ask as she usually would how her daughter was; she instead said to her mother that Sandra seemed to be doing very well indeed. She saw her walking along by the river with a man and they appeared very close. As Angela had watched us from the distance she admitted to her mother that she felt sorry for herself as she saw her school friend returning to Granada with a man she was happily strolling through the city holding hands with, pointing out one medieval building after another. However, it was the next day when this same man stopped and gave her some items that she was overcome by a feeling not at all of envy for what her friend had; but for what she had lost or never managed to possess. Sandra offered me this story ambivalently, as if wondering who exactly I happened to be as I was perceived through the eyes of others.
As Sandra looked at me admiringly she appeared to do so with a gaze which wasn't that of a woman looking at the man she expected to spend the rest of her life with, but a man retaining a healthy ambiguity that might have been due to the choices he had made, but equally, in that moment, through the projections laid upon him. I felt strangely much more than the sum of my parts, much less than the master of my own destiny. I felt simultaneously that I was expanding in the eyes of others, and shrinking, healthily in my own. I wondered if this was what had happened to her father, and turned him into a man I found as admirable, in his way, as the monumental palace that most of the visitors to Granada expected to be awed by. I was unlikely to become a surrogate son that he never had; but I am not sure if he wasn't likely to become the role model that I might have been looking for. I thought also of Angela, and what failure of belief led her to become a homeless human bundle, and whether my brief gestures of feeling may have helped her to have faith in others as she had projected decency and kindness onto me.
© Tony McKibbin