Updated: May 4
Today in Manchester, the sky seems to be refusing to wake up. So even though it's midday, everything feels dark and grey. It's this time of year when I miss Madrid the most. l miss the bright blue mid-morning skies and the sight of students sitting outside eating breakfast. I miss the blossom on the trees as I walk past El Matadero and head to the Legazpi metro station. I miss sitting on the tall wooden stools outside El Greco, an old bar with blood-red walls and bottles of gin, whisky and wine lining the back wall. From there, I'd watch the sky turn, and the old boys move inside and continue their game of dominoes with packs of cigarettes leaning out of their checked shirt pockets.
I've always been slightly obsessed with memories and storing them. I've got countless notepads filled with moments and thoughts since my late teens. I think it may have started after watching my Nan disappear to Alzheimer's. Whenever something happened, I'd consciously force my mind to remember it. Whether it was pushing a wheelbarrow up a farm in Portugal, just north of Lisbon, or riding my BMX through the centre of Liverpool, listening to Velvet Underground as the sun dipped behind a thick cloud casting a shadow over the cathedral, I'd repeat to myself, 'don't forget this moment.' I'd often find myself lying in bed at the end of the day, relaying the moments. It was almost as if I was trying to download the memories onto a hard drive; I wanted to keep them in perfect condition, like a book on a shelf or a file tucked away somewhere safe.
When I first moved to Madrid with a friend of mine. We found an old flat with high ceilings and tiled floors. The rooms were big and spacious, with huge wooden doors that separated one room from the next. In the living room, we had two small balconies that hung over a quiet street with a church to our right and an old second-hand clothes shop to our left. In one of our first weeks there, the landlord delivered two big yellow and blue rocking chairs and a small brown wooden table. We'd spend our evenings swigging beer from big litre bottles without any glasses and playing cards, occasionally walking over to the balcony and glancing out to the city, wondering what the future had in store for us.
Or at least that's what I thought until I mentioned it to my friend. He shook his head, it was the sofa that was delivered, the rocking chairs were there from the start. For me the arrival of the chairs symbolised the flat changing from an empty barren space, into a space that felt like home. But that's the thing with memory, it's never to be totally trusted. As soon as it's being re-told, it's being re-shaped according to the demands of the story one is telling. The further into the past, the more likely you are to change it. I find the first thing that slips away is the narrative. Have you ever tried to recall a film you watched years ago? You know you loved it, but the arch has disappeared into the ether. Instead, you can only recall moments, images, and sounds. You can remember how it made you feel, how you laughed, and how you cried, but exactly what happened has somehow slipped between your fingertips.
I spent a few months searching through all the notepads whilst trying to build my second poetry collection. Moments from my past leaked out of the pages. I returned to being sixteen and finishing work at Primark before jumping on the bus to Littleover to meet my first girlfriend, or standing alone in my university halls and hearing music from upstairs echoing down the stairs, and catching a taxi from the airport into Madrid with my entire life packed into two huge suitcases.
He revved the Mercedes engine. Some Spanish rock played on the radio. My thighs stuck to the leather seat, and the seatbelt rubbed on my neck. I pressed my forehead to the window and stared through my own reflection. We began to drive through the city. Everything felt huge. The tunnels, the roads, the grand buildings with flags flying out front, the bars spilling onto pavements and the hotel windows shining in the night sky.
I never really kept a diary. Instead, moments are told through these inconsistent scribbles and glimpses of imagery. Through them, you can roughly build a picture of what I was doing from day to day. For example, there is a poem about moving into a new room, another about getting caught by surprise in the crowd of the El Rastro market, and a short recollection of an awkward moment at the metro station.
I had already decided not to try and pronounce the Arügelles metro station, so I typed it on my phone and held it up to the plastic window which was separating us. I quite liked the idea that he could think I was a Spanish mute who just couldn't speak. However, he nodded a couple of times, then said something in Spanish as if to prove he knew I wasn't. I noticed that the tone of his voice rose at the end, so I gambled on whatever he said being a question and went with a confident "Si. Si." He began to laugh and shook his head.
I can't remember some of the moments, and I can't help but wonder if they are real or not. For someone who enjoys writing fiction as much as just describing the world around him, I'm fully aware that my notepads can't be trusted. They have their own inconsistent relationship with the truth. The only time I have ever kept a detailed diary is in my last few months in Madrid, where, proud of my ability to speak a second language, I recorded daily events in Spanish. I'd forgotten about them, and when I discovered them, my Spanish was no longer good enough to understand their content. I felt cheated, and like I'd failed a part of my past, who had religiously dated each entry, describing the final weeks of living in a city that I had fallen in love with, sure of my future self's ability to understand the language I was writing in. I stared at the page, aware that the moments I was describing still existed somewhere within me; I just no longer had the tools or resources to access them.
I close my laptop and glance out the window of Chapter 1. It's begun to rain; people huddle by a bus stop with their hoods pulled up. Two cars pass, their window wipers going back and forth, pushing and pulling the water from the screens. Around me, people chat, write, and stare at their laptops. I get my phone out of my pocket and send my friend in Madrid a video of the rain; he replies with a laughing emoji and one of a blue sky, and a cold beer, I watch as a bird slowly flies through the screen; I know the square he is in, I recognise the metallic chairs and tables, and for a moment I’m back there, beer in hand, twenty-three years old, dressed in my old blue and white Adidas jacket that I loved, telling my mind that I should never forget this moment.
A marble cross peeps between peeps the terracotta rooftops as bent trees screen the sun
from us, the young and idle. A low flying pigeon sweeps
amongst the criss cross of casual fin de semana smiles
that stroll like sundays naked in thought breathing in the white spring air
This article is part a long term project I'm working on with Clark David, a writer and creative practitioner living in Madrid. The project looks at our relationship with memory and nostalgia. As well as writing his own novels, Clark David works with young people empowering them to write and perform their own plays and theatre in their second language.