Tierra del Fuego
First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2006
He thought it would be cooler on the flat roof away from the still air.
How wrong could you be?
The sun slit his eyes. Lowering them he saw two women sauntering towards the swimming pool, their shadows as tall as themselves: it wasn't even midday. He wondered if he should say Hola, but it was obvious that they were English.
Usted: you, polite, formal.
They had been hopelessly lost, looking for the hotel where they'd decided to break their drive from Madrid to his brother's apartment on the coast. Mary had insisted that they ask the way. Amazingly the woman had understood his phrasebook Spanish, and more surprisingly he had understood her. Usted.
She wanted them to follow her car which they did for three twisting, turning kilometres until she turned into the forecourt of the hotel. As they sat happy with relief she came over and wished them an enjoyable holiday before driving off.
He looked directly down over the parapet and saw his wife sunbathing on the balcony below.
“So you're up are you?" she smiled. “What time do you call this?” She pushed her sunglasses up onto her forehead so she could see him better.
“I'll get breakfast.” She laid down her book and padded into the house.
Below him the drains of Nineveh belched, their miasma rising, reaching into his nostrils, and making him gag. There was no vine on the bald, flat roof to shade him. To his right three cranes crucified the sky. Jackhammers chirped like cicadas. He looked out over his world and saw the he was at the epicentre of a slow motion explosion of concrete: mature buildings, the bones of buildings, cleared lots, rippling outwards like the concentric circles of hell.
A full moon face stared up at him from the street. It was Reg. Reg had retired full time down here.
“How are you doing?”
“Only your wife said you were having some problems with the tap. The one on the roof.”
He looked at his feet. The roof was covered in fine grit and dotted with bird shit. Turned full on the tap in the corner had discharged a last gasp of dry air and dust.
“I can have a look at it for you if you like. Shall I come round?”
They were only here because Jen had broken her wrist ice skating the evening before they were due to leave on holiday. He had been so grateful to his brother when he'd offered them his apartment for a couple of weeks as a replacement. Now he wasn't so sure.
“No need.” Reg waited for him to explain so he added: “I fixed it.”
“Right then. See you this evening.”
“It was a valve...” he added to Reg's retreating back. A valve?
He went downstairs. The walls were so thin he could feel the sun pulsing through them.
Mary appeared in the gloom at the bottom of the stairs and handed him a condensation fuzzed glass of orange juice. “Do you want some tart?”
He carried his drink out onto the balcony and sat on the lounger where Mary had been sunbathing. She handed him a plate.
“It's not a tart.”
“Story of my life.”
“I thought it was a tart, but it's some sort of cake.”
He sighed. “How much sleep does she need?”
“She's a teenager.”
No wonder so many middle-aged men, faced with such logic, went quietly mad.
“I saw Reg,” he admitted.
“Is he coming round to fix the tap?”
He told himself that this was not a lie, but it bought him no comfort. Nor did the thought of the party for Reg's sister's 60th birthday that night. He knew that Mary was keen to go and even he could see that in such a small community there was no way they could refuse without causing offence. Most of the people living in the complex were retired early from the north of England, and with the time on their hands to organise a rich social life.
"I think I should get some beer for the party,” he said.
The hypermarket was an air conditioned aircraft hanger full of everything you didn't need at prices you couldn't refuse. The checkout girl had looked at him with the blank malevolence of one of Beelzebub's assistants. Even when he had asked her for more plastic bags in his utility Spanish she still hated him. He was no different from all the other pale invaders whose flat-pack apartments scarred the coast, barely able to speak a word of Spanish or Valencian, and caring less. He realised that in this place only his own didn't hate him. And how long would that last?
Outside, as he loaded the car, the horizon shuddered under hammer blows of heat. He hid indoors for the rest of the day. It was a relief when the sun set, and the Earth began to slip into delicious darkness.
The party was being held in the car park, the only communal space in the community, now filled with an assortment of garden furniture people had brought from their apartments. He handed over the beers and Reg insisted that they join his table, introducing them to his wife, his sister, her husband, and various grown up children. He had instantly forgotten all of their names, and he hoped that Mary would remember.
He took another deep draught of sangria. A sound system was pumping out hits of the 60's and he found himself mouthing along to the lyrics. Better watch the sangria. He tipped the red-stained fruit out of his glass into the ash tray. Mary frowned. He shrugged: they shouldn't be smoking anyway, it was bad for them. He refilled his glass from the jug on the table.
He hated himself for feeling so uncomfortable with people who were so kind to him, just because they weren't like him. Did that make him a bad person? That was something no one could truly believe of himself. He was sure that even the Devil didn't. Especially the Devil.
"The Devil? You don't hear much about him these days,” said Reg.
Mary looked at him narrowly and so did Jen. He'd told them both they could shoot him if he started speaking his mind again.
He didn't care. The air was comfortably warm for the first time since early morning, he was fed, pleasantly intoxicated, and the Beach Boys were reminding him of California Girls. He leaned back in his chair and let it wash over him, nodding and smiling from time to time as if he was listening to what was being said. He was so relaxed that he didn't even notice when the music stopped.
A large, well tanned man looking like a retired butcher flicked a microphone with his thumb.
“Now you know it is the lovely, Suzy's birthday today.” He paused, “Though I wont say which one...” The man winked broadly: he was enjoying the heckling he had provoked. “And in case you'd all forgot it's Karaoke night. So we're all going to sing her a song. That's all of you.” The man's sausage forefinger strafed the crowd and ended pointing straight at him.
He coughed and clutched his chest as if shot.
Jen glared at him reprovingly. “You are so messed up,” she hissed.
After some persuasion a man got up to sing along to Sweet Caroline. Then his best mate sang Daydream Believer. One by one a string of mostly male guests got up to do their party pieces. Their women, wisely, stayed out of the limelight. He slid lower into his chair.
He saw Mary looking at him. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I am going to rain down fire and brimstone.” In this heat it would be a welcome relief. “All who do not flee this gated complex will be turned into a pillars of salt.”
Reg and his wife laughed politely. “You don't have to sing,” said Reg. “You could tell a few jokes. Or do a recitation.”
The dread progression of performers at the Karaoke machine continued. Frank Sinatra died. Elvis left the building.
These were good people but they were like a biblical plague. He remembered the medieval square of the town where they broke their journey: the statue of Pissaro, the church with rice spilled outside, the pavement cafes. It was 10 pm and family members from 8 to 80 were sat at together at tables or, in the case of the children, running round them in circles. And all dressed to the nines. Of course the teenagers were probably bored out of their minds in such an out of the way place, wild on drugs and callous sex, and desperate to get away. He told himself they were mugging old people in dark alleys while their parents enjoyed a digestif. But he didn't believe it.
“We know how to live out here don't we?” asked Reg's wife, as if she had read his mind.
Reg nodded. “You wouldn't find anything like this back in England.”
“You wouldn't.” he agreed. It would be cold and wet and they'd all be locked up in their houses, nodding acquaintances. How could you begrudge them their day in the sun, after working in a dead end job for forty years under the grey skies of England, dreaming of owning a perfectly ordinary house only a millionaire could afford. They deserved it. How could he be so mean spirited as to deny them this?
“Are you going to give us a song then?” asked Reg.
“Yeah,” said Jen.
He looked at his daughter dumbstruck. She hated it when he attempted to sing – she stuck her finger down her throat. She had threatened to run away from home if he danced at her school disco.
”No!” he said to Jen.
”You're really anti-social.”
He couldn't sing. When the teachers were encouraging everyone else to sing up in school assembly, he was the only boy told to be quiet because he made the others laugh. Why don't we solve quadratic equations, or work out the distance from the earth to the moon with a tape measure and two towers? He wanted to say. Then I could make you look stupid instead of me.
“I can't sing,” he admitted.
“Doesn't matter,” said Reg generously. “You could do one of your monologues.”
Reg turned to Mary. “He does monologues, doesn't he?”
“He will if we don't stop him,” said Jen.
“I could...” His mind became solid; he could not think. At last his mouth spoke and when it did it was someone else speaking through him. “I could witness. I could tell people how I opened my heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, and how he washed away my sins with his blood.”
The table sat in silence. He counted to ten before anyone moved. Reg smiled weakly. “It's all right lad.”
Without a word Reg's wife filled his glass with sangria and he took a grateful draft. He caught Reg's pitying look at Mary out of the corner of his eye, but he did not care: he was satisfied, ashamed and alone. He felt the heat of the day rising from the earth through the soles of his shoes.
Fly me...... to the......... mooooon
And let me...... dance among..... the staaars
Frank was having a really bad night, but somehow it didn't matter any more.
“At least I'm not going to hell,” he said to no one listening.