Love Again, in Spain
By Jenny Falloon
Kate stands outside the white villa looking at the small sign on the stone wall. It says BILL JOAN in shiny black letters on white tiles bordered by a tiny Arabic floral pattern.
She does this walk every couple of weeks, usually on Wednesday, to check the mail. Kate is a doer of cryptic puzzles. Toward the end, James had resented the time she put in on them. But it is something of hers alone, one of the things that keeps her sane. Especially now, in the time of Covid. And now there is no one to care how much time she puts in on a puzzle. Freedom, of a kind.
The sign has been nicely done, with a nod to Spain’s Moorish past in those curling black letters. Even so, Kate’s sense of grammatical order is strong. She’d like to jab a conjunction in there between those Anglo Saxon names. Is it Bill and Joan? Bill or Joan. Bill after Joan?
British expats, she thinks, with a flicker of scorn. She can picture them: Retired. Together so long they look alike. Two kids. Grandchildren. Middle class. Capable, good-humored, confident in their Englishness. Smart, but not intellectual. Uncomfortable, even, with those who are.
Bill will have been an engineer with a stint or two in Saudi or Kuwait, building dams or hospitals. Joan will have been mainly a mum, working part-time and raising the kids. Graham Greene called them people nothing has ever happened to. But something has happened to Bill and Joan. They’ve moved to Spain.
Kate looks around at the tiled roofs and stone balustrades. Many of these villas – white, cream, peach, terra cotta – are empty now, waiting for their Dutch or German or English owners to come back when it’s not as hot. The iron gates are locked. Expatland, Kate thinks of it. But not all of them. From across the street, the calle, she hears family sounds, grandkids shrieking in the pool, laughter, a dog running back and forth, barking.
The garage at her left is empty, except for two bicycles, clay pots, bags of soil, cans of paint, rakes, shovels, a Bosch grinder.
She takes off her straw hat, revealing a lean suntanned face under fine gray hair, and peers through the gate. Bougainvillea, plumbago, lantana, the usual Mediterranean suspects. The stone walkway has been swept this morning. Tiled steps lead up to an arched naya. They must have a nice view up there, she is thinking, when she hears raised voices and steps back so suddenly she almost loses her balance.
“I’ve tried, Bill. I’m not cut out for this life! I miss England, I miss my grandkids.”
“Then go home, my love. Go home.” The voice is resigned. “I hate to say it but you might as well. The fact that we’re still calling it ‘home’ is part of the problem. Home should be here.”
Kate looks around at the calle. Not a soul. No cars. No vans. Not even a cat.
“You might as well. See how you like it. But you’re going to have to go without me. All my life I’ve dreamed of being here, we both have, of having a villa like this.”
An arm gestures toward the sea. She knows that view. Ibiza, barely visible in the haze, lolling like a poached egg. She never tires of it, even in winter when the haze is gone, the air is clear, and the sea a hard cold blue.
“But then we’d be separated.” It is almost a wail.
Lunchtime. They will be sitting at the table, one of those round rattan tables that all the expats buy, with matching chairs, maybe a salad or something with tuna or chicken, his cerveza and her wine – Joan will be a white drink drinker – as they do most days, trying to make it work.
“I don’t want to go back without you! It would be as if our marriage was over, you here and me in the UK. I don’t want that. Do you?” A pause. Neither of them wants it.
“No, I don’t want that. You’re right. But I don’t want to go on like this either, arguing all the time. I like Spain. We have made a life here. We have money, friends, the outdoor life we always wanted, that you can never have in the UK. We see the kids. They come here. We go there. Why chuck it all to go back?”
Kate´s cotton shift clings to her legs. Sweat dribbles down her spine. She turns away and pulls on her straw hat.
She knows this story, and her heart goes out to Bill. He will put up a good fight, but Joan will win. In a year or so, if it’s carefully priced, the villa will be sold. He will do the right thing and bear his disappointment with grace and bravado. We’ll be back! he will tell friends. We’ll rent a flat. Much easier! Joan knows this will never happen. Back in the UK, Bill will be surprised how little bitterness he feels. A family man, he will slip easily back into English ways.
But the door to Spain never completely closes. He will remember these years, the long summer nights, the smell of jasmine, the cartoon blue of the Mediterranean, the Spanish families in noisy cafés, talking loud and late, infant asleep on mother´s lap, while the wine flows and the waiter brings more paella. This villa, theirs, with its terraces, its tiled steps, its garden. Was that him pruning the bougainvillea?
“The English have no idea what’s important!” James used to announce, drunkenly, after a party. “But I like them, all the same. They’re good people.”
“Go easy on us! We weren’t raised to question things like you Americans. We were raised not to question things.”
He took easily to the expat life. The parties, the dinners, the fussy little clubs. It was harder for Kate. She had wanted Madrid or Cadiz or Seville, somewhere more Spanish, where she could go every day to language school, disappear into urban life, somewhere less thick with the voices of Northern Europe.
“Where are all the Francoists now?” He would ask their Spanish friends in his dreadful Spanish, waving his three-olive martini at the sprawling villas on the cliffs. “Are they the ones with the expensive restaurants on the seafront? The hardware chains? The cocaine habits? The ones roaring along in their BMWs?”
Now it is Kate alone in the villa they bought ten years ago, with its retaining walls – one of which had collapsed that first year during a gota fria – and its view. Nothing else their agent, an Essex girl, had shown them compared. “Hard to beat a view of the Med,” she’d said, with a knowing smile.
Kate alone wearing her N95 mask to shop at the nearby market. Kate alone fiddling with Zoom on her I-pad, where everyone lines up in Gallery View, hands raised like children, trying not to speak out of order. James would have hated it all.
A glass or two of Garnacha or Tempranillo helps.
By then she’s done her yoga – Balasana, Tadasana, Warrior. Taken her Diazepam. Her Dutch doctor, trained in New York and with a nice American tolerance for prescription drugs, prescribed 10 milligrams. But such a dose horrifies Kate, so she splits the tiny tablet in two with her fingernails and takes half a tablet twice a week. James had a special little device for this, which disappeared around the time of his death. Every time she does it, she imagines him watching her, chuckling.
She copes, as she knew she would. She has always done fine on her own. Maybe she will move to Madrid. She has a friend there, a Canadian woman.
One evening, tired of the tedium of herself, she puts on her straw hat and heads up through the azor privado, past tall bushes of red and yellow hibiscus, stopping to get her breath and counting the steps as she goes, 136 of them, rough stone steps, the kind that do you bloody harm if you fall. In the distance is one of the massive tankers that passes every week on its way to Barcelona, a modern day ghost ship laden with red and blue containers.
A man is standing outside BILL JOAN, hands on hips, looking at her in mock disciplinary fashion. It is hot still, dry, the sky a hard blue. She walks slowly, and it takes a while. She has never done this walk with anyone watching. Finally she stops. Two meters? Socially distanced? She fiddles in her shoulder bag for a mask.
“She’s gone.” He announces. “My wife has left me. After 39 years. As soon as there were flights to the UK again, she went back.”
Bill is taller and heavier than Kate has imagined, bearded and with a broad reddish face and piercing blue eyes. He is wearing a faded t-shirt that may once have been white and hangs loosely over Bermudas. When did Englishmen start wearing Bermudas? He isn’t wearing a mask.
“I don’t know what to say.” She smiles and nods at the wall. The sign is gone. “I assume you’re Bill. I walk by here now and then to check the mail. And I like to look at your garden, what I can see of it. I can never get my hibiscus to bloom like that. No matter how hard I try. I’ve given up. People say it has to do with the sea air. But I see them thrive in sea air. Like yours.”
“I know. I see you from the naya. And you’re right. What am I doing talking to you out here like this? You could have me arrested! Who knows what they’d charge me with these days. But I just came back from town and I saw you in the distance, so I thought I’d say Hello. I bet you don’t meet many men who start out by telling you their wife has left them.” He grins. “On the other hand, maybe you do.”
“Well, you meet all kinds.” No one shakes hands anymore, and she doesn’t like the elbow thing, so she stands there, trying to look sympathetic. “I’m Kate.”
“And you’re American. I thought you might be. We Brits don’t say “Mail.” We say “Post.” Would you like to come up for a glass of wine?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t attack you. I’m too fat and well-behaved for that. And my Dutch neighbors are home. They’d hear you screaming and come rushing over with pitchforks like the good Boers they are. Anyway, how can you attack someone when they’re wearing one of those masks? I’d just like some company.”
“I’m actually not American,” she says, as they walk up the steps. “although I sound that way. I’m Canadian, but I lived in California, the Bay Area, much of my life. I’m a mixture: born in Toronto, school in England, years in the States. And now Spain …”
“Do you miss the States?”
“I do at times, for all its flaws. I have a daughter there, and I miss her terribly right now. We used to see each other twice a year. I go there in winter. She comes here in summer.”
He pulls out a chair. There’s a stack of local papers on the table – Costa News, Spanish Life – binoculars, a cell phone, coffee mugs, maps of Barcelona and Madrid, the same copy she has of Birds of Britain and Europe. Just that morning she had logged the pair of Bonelli’s eagles she sees every year.
She looks out at tiled roofs and a large date palm that has been spared the depredations of the palm weevil. She would spend hours in this room, as she does in her own naya. There is a large couch covered with red cushions, a telescope, a small fridge in the corner. She likes that he is making no attempt to keep it tidy, that it has a casual male comfort, that it is his room. Now.
“Red or white?” He asks, prying open a can of olives. “If it’s red, you can have Tempranillo or Monastrell. If it’s white, it’s been around awhile, but it doesn't matter with white, as long as it’s chilled. I drink red myself.”
“I’ll have the Monastrell.”
“Joan has gone back to England. In the end, she missed the grandkids too much. We have three of them. Now, of course, everyone wants me to go back. I’m the bad guy. It’s a mess.” He pauses. “Are you married?”
“I was. My husband died just over two years ago.” She pauses. “It can be hard, being an expat. It’s not always what we expect it to be. In fact, it’s rarely what we expect it to be.”
“You didn’t move back to the States.” It’s a statement more than a question.
“Well, they say don’t do anything for a year. So I didn’t, and time has drifted. I may still.”
“I get the family thing,” she goes on. “The children, the grandchildren. It’s hard for some women, and being in another country never quite makes up for what you have lost or what you miss. But I’m never sure how much our lives should attach to theirs. This may sound odd, coming from a woman. But I’m not typical. Never have been! Maybe I’d feel different if I were a grandmother.”
“You have to find an affinity with a place. It doesn’t have to be there all the time, but it has to be there much of the time. I was lucky as I had that right away with Spain. It felt right. Still does.”
“Joan was out of sorts from the beginning. She didn’t even like the food!”
“I know, ‘Too much olive oil, too much garlic.’ Spain isn’t France or China or even Mexico, known for its cuisine. But for the English to complain about the food!” They laugh. “James and I were constantly running into English or American couples, single women, who would tell us they really wanted to live in France. But they were here!”
“Some things are terrific.” She goes on. “Peppers, onions, artichokes, the fish, rice dishes, fruit, olives. I’ve become a better cook since I’ve lived here. Not sure why. And if I do leave, I doubt I will ever again anywhere – and certainly not Boston! – be making fresh orange juice for myself every day of the year.”
“We were wrong about other things, too,” He went on. “We thought Spain was all about heat. And it is in summer. And the summer heat doesn't bother me. I thrive on it. And the nights! You can be sitting out at midnight! Unheard of in England. But there’s no insulation in these villas, and in the winter they are cold. Even in October. All this tile and stone and marble.”
“We Expats always wind up talking about heat. Do you have a boiler?”
“Yes. We do. Or I do. But I’m going to put solar panels on the garage roof. That’s where I was today, down at SolAir getting a quote. They’re doing a good trade in spite of Covid. People can’t go anywhere, so they’re working on their homes. This part of Spain is made for solar. Even in winter, you can get five, six hours of sun.”
“But is it worth it if you may be leaving? It’s not cheap. We were looking into it.”
“It’s not as bad as I thought. And if I go, whatever happens, I will have added to the value of the villa. And I like that. Global Warming and all. It feels right to me. Solar is the future. The new owners – whoever they are – their energy will be free.” He grins. “I will have done the right thing.”
“That’s true.” They are silent.
“So what do you think, Kate?” Will I be happy here if I stay? On my own? Or should I do what everyone wants me to do and go back to England?”
The grey days. The wet streets. The smell of beer in the pubs. Darkness at 4 in January. The gloom of English winters can seem unending. But just as people don’t go to a place for the food, do they stay for the sun? Perhaps. But there is more to life than clear skies. She got out of her sister´s car one wintry day in Bournemouth years ago, in a parking lot behind Marks & Spencer, and the smell – rotting leaves, puddles, wet gravel, the damp itself – was so redolent of her childhood it took her breath away. People go back for something they remember, that won’t go away.
“How can I know?” She smiles at him broadly. “I’ve just met you! You’ll have plenty of women after you, that’s for sure. That happens to the men. Less so for us women.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’d want that.”
“Not now, maybe. But you might in six months.”
They sip their wine and look out at the sea.
“Why did you do it?” she asks. “Let her go.”
“I had no choice. She’s her own woman. Joan. Not a big career woman or anything like that, but she’s an independent soul. And it was all we talked about at the end. We’re only two hours away, but it became this huge distance.” He tops up his wine. “Mustn’t have too much. It’s easy to do that here. Did that happen to you?”
“Not yet. But it was touch and go at the beginning. I like my reds.” Another pause. “Are you angry?”
“Yes. A little.” He looks away. “We worked hard for this, Joan and I, we visited different parts of Spain and finally settled here. It took time, and now it’s gone belly up. Whatever happens, it won’t be the same. Either we’ll live in separate countries, which means separate lives, or I do the right thing – is it the right thing? – and go back and knuckle down like the good husband. And I give up on something I’ve dreamed of all my life. Joan can’t help what she feels. But I am. A little.”
It is October when Kate heads up again to the Correos. The straw hat is in the closet. The air has the melancholy of autumn. Most of the townhouses are closed. The gardens look worn out after the heat of a Spanish summer.
There are two stray magazines in cellophane wrappers in the box and a handful of small flyers: builders, gardeners, pool maintenance. Dog walkers! She hangs on to one of the gardeners. She will call him next week. The avocado she grew from a pit years ago is twenty feet high and needs topping. The oleander needs pruning.
She has avoided the villa – not wanting to see the likely sign on the wall - Villa en venta - from one of the local immobiliarias.
But it is autumn. And life is shifting.
The garage is shut. There is no sign of life. He could be shopping for food, of course. Jogging maybe? Something tells her Bill is not a jogger. He is more likely to be at the hardware store. Men can spend hours there. Kate used to wait in the car at Bricolae reading The New Yorker while James bought paint, light fixtures, pool filters, long planks of pine for some project or other. They had to be wedged down the middle of the car for the breezy drive home.
Or he might have met someone. Men get snapped up quickly in Expatland. She looks up at the naya. No heads to be seen. No clink of glasses. No agreeable whiff of grilled prawns or chicken floating down to the gate where she stands again, peering in. Reserved, solitary Kate.
Or he might have done the right thing and gone back to England – “knuckled down,” as he’d put it – to Joan, the daughter, the grandkids. She pictures them in Arrivals lined up in descending order, like an old photograph. Bill, the Prodigal.
Long branches of bougainvillea hover over the walkway. James called it the vicious plant and would yank it out. But back it would come. Hibiscus blooms lie on the walkway like spent fireworks. She almost calls out, so strongly has she hoped – without knowing it until now – that he’d be there, watching for her. A gust of air makes her shiver. She pulls her jacket closer around her neck and shoulders, hunching them.
Reflexively, she presses the latch on the gate, and it eases open, like something out of a movie. This strikes her as prophetic, an invitation. She goes in. On the walkway there are three large terra cotta tubs of roses she doesn’t remember seeing in summer. They are still in bloom, big fragrant blossoms. She walks up the steps to the naya, counting them as she goes, as she does with all the steps in her life. She knocks on the door. Silence, except for the dog barking across the street.
“Who is it?” Was he asleep?
“It’s Kate.” She stops. “Remember me? The American woman … Well, the one who isn’t really American. We met, we talked, this summer.”
She hears him moving around inside and looks off toward the sea. She needs her composure. He opens the door.
He’s thinner. He’s not eating as well – Joan will have been a good cook – except when he’s invited out, and that won’t be often these days. But maybe she’s wrong on that. Maybe she’s quite wrong. And he’s being invited hither and yon by widows and single women everywhere.
The tan is still there. He’s been working in the garden, building things, driving into town now and then and having a caña at one of the cafes in the Port, where the terraces are open now, with a plate of grilled sardines or Gambas al Ajillo. No problem now with too much olive oil or too much garlic. He can eat what he wants.
That nice dishevelment is still there. She gets an odd little quiver. She hasn’t been looked at that way in a long time.
“Come in! Come in!” He stands back and looks down at her, appreciatively. She had forgotten how tall he was, like James. “It’s great to see you again.”
“I’ve got something to show you, Kate. In fact, I was thinking about you when they were putting them in. They just did it two days ago.” She follows him over to the archway. They lean over the balcony together and look down at the garage. There are eight of them, two sets of four, lined up on the roof, shiny and new, in military precision.
“Like my solar panels?”
“I do!” She smiles with delight. “You’ve done the right thing.”
“Would you like a glass of wine?” He rubs his hands together like a little boy. “I’ve got some nice olives I get in bulk at the market – and a great Monastrell. I bought a case of it! There’s a small bodega, you probably know it, where the owner lets me practice my Spanish. 2018, I think, from Alicante.”
She takes off her jacket and sits down on the couch. She watches him pour her a glass.
Olives in bulk. Wine by the case. Solar panels. Practicing his Spanish.
Is he staying? Is she staying? Only time will tell. That is the nature of being an expat.
© 2021 by Jenny Falloon. All rights reserved.
Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago wrote articles for San Francisco Bay sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the U.S., the West Indies, England and Spain. Since retirement, she has won prizes in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. Her short stories have appeared in The Writing Disorder and Belle Ombre. She writes political satires, flash fiction, and short stories. She doesn’t live with a dog.