• FTB Literary Group

Villancico - Anita Haas

Jackie whacked at her alarm clock, but succeeded only in beating everything else off her cardboard nightstand. As the bell persisted, she surfaced from her recurring dream of missing subway trains, to find it was actually the phone demanding her attention. She rolled off the mattress. From the hammers in her head and the snores behind her, she realized with a heave that she had overindulged the night before. Again. Was she late for work? Had she missed a class? Was it her boss? Weaving through stacks of textbooks, notebooks and papers, she grabbed the first thing she could find to cover herself. The first myth she had debunked about Madrid; winter was freezing. “Si? ¿Quién es? Oh. Hi Auntie Marlene …” Aunt Marlene always called at 5 a.m. That explained the darkness. “Jackie dear,” came her aunt’s urgent whisper “The nurses are poisoning me.” “Don’t worry, Auntie.”, Jackie reassured her, as always, “I’m sure they take good care of you.” And as her auntie went on with the same details as she did with every call, Jackie craned her neck to see who was sharing her mattress. She saw longish dark curls. She winced as embarrassing fragments flashed in her memory. Every time she woke up this way, she swore it would be the last. She curled herself into the foetal position and made cooing sounds to comfort her aunt. “Are you coming to Dublin for Christmas? Oh, no. Now, I remember. You told me your friend’s little sister is going to stay with you for a while. Well, don’t forget to go to church and to sing some of those lovely carols I taught you.” “Yes, Auntie.” “And make some good New Year’s resolutions.” “Yes, Auntie.” “Work hard and save your money. You don’t want to end up being a bag lady.” “Yes, Auntie.” Jackie felt her eyes droop. “Don’t drink so much, don’t smoke so much dope, and don’t sleep with so many strange men.” “Yes, Auntie. What?” Jackie jerked awake to hear the beeping in the receiver. How much of that conversation had been a dream? Her watch told her thirty minutes had passed, and she noticed the boy from her bed had grabbed his opportunity and fled. Jackie hung up the phone. It was now almost six a.m., and she felt another kick in her head as she thought about getting ready for work. Her flat was tiny, in the centre of Madrid, and one that had not been retouched for decades. There was no heat or air conditioning, and she was lucky she had hot water. But it was cheap and charming, with its high ceilings, French doors and woodwork. She had been lucky, “inheriting” it from a co-worker nearly a decade before. Although it was supposed to serve as her shelter, she succeeded in spending as little time there as possible. A full day of English classes awaited her, so she stood up straight, took a deep breath, and prepared her breakfast of coffee and painkillers. One had to be, above all else, fun and dynamic in this line of work. She would punish herself for her nocturnal misdemeanours at another moment. As the water in her shower trickled over her, she began to hum, then sing her aunt’s favourite, The Wexford Carol. “Good people all, this Christmas time …”. She often sang ballads in the shower. Most of her neighbours were elderly and deaf, and several other flats were empty. And then there was Enrique. She noticed through the French doors as she stepped into the living room, that her neighbour across the tiny courtyard, was awake. In fact, he always seemed to be awake, typing or drawing away, lit by the glow of his desk lamp, his computer screen or, in this case, by the tip of his cigarette. In his late forties, he wore his salt and pepper hair in a ponytail. Round, gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, and his tall, slim, build swayed when he walked, aided by a cane. --- “Puta! Puta!” cackled the dwarf bag lady who lived in the boarded-up display window below Jackie's flat. It was Monday, and Jackie was embarking on her end-to-end week of wall-to-wall days, a roller coaster ride of hop-on, hop-off, grab and go, eye on the watch, mechanical racing. Her academy functioned more like an agency, sending teachers all over the city at all hours of the day, to teach everyone from executives in their lunch hours, to kids after school. Her bag, filled with all the books and photocopies she would need from her first class at eight a.m. to the last, which finished at ten p.m., weighed like bricks on her left shoulder. Just as drivers with the sweetest dispositions can become monsters in a traffic jam, Jackie found herself in a constant state of stress and sometimes rage while waiting for trains, missing busses, arriving at curbs to see the lights turn red and navigating pedestrians who blocked her way. Those, she punished with elaborate revenge fantasies. Always running, she fought a constant battle with her clothes: blouses came unbuttoned, skirts rode up, and blisters formed, burst and bled. Run in your stocking? Heel broke off? You can still teach. No time to stop. Might be late. Jackie was punctual to a fault. Then there were her rebellious possessions. When she dug around in her book bag for a pen, she found chap stick, when she looked for chap stick, she found tampons. One morning after missing the metro, she dumped out her whole bag in blinding frustration, right there on a platform bench. Whenever a class came up, or one of her colleagues wanted to rid themselves of a difficult client, Jackie offered to take it. “Why Jackie?” Elaine, her director of studies asked one day, “You are already stretched to the limit.” “The challenge! I can do it. I just have to get more organized.” She told herself this too, as her stomach twitched, and she imagined herself never stopping. Ever. The metro finally roared in, reminding her of a long, snaking sea creature complete with eyes, snout and whiskers. Would she see the beggars, the peddlers, and the pickpockets today? Or maybe the Romanian gypsy who played Viennese waltzes on the accordion? A group of young South Americans entered the car and began playing Pastores Venid, a traditional Christmas carol. Two sang in harmony, while another strummed the guitar and a fourth blew into a pan flute. One of the singers gazed into Jackie’s eyes. His dark skin, high cheek bones and long, sleek, ponytail made her think of the Andes Mountains. She imagined herself there with him, exploring the Inca ruins hand in hand. The train stopped and the singing boys collected their donations before the doors shut. Jackie’s hero held out a hand with an expectant smile. She fumbled in her bag and handed him several euros, generous even for her. When she reached her stop, the crowd carried her along, past white blankets from which Africans sold mock designer bags and sunglasses. Pamphlets waved in her face as she sprinted up the stairs to the tender morning. “Unas preguntitas señora …” A television reporter shoved a microphone in her face. “No! No tengo tiempo!” This was true, but she was also offended that he had not called her señorita instead. But for all her efforts, when Jackie arrived panting at the office of her first class, the Miss España of a receptionist just shrugged, smirking at Jackie’s frazzled appearance. “Hoy no hay clase. Señor Fernandez is not here.” Jackie had been standing outside a closed door in an office building for twenty minutes. With nowhere to sit or stand, people pushed past her left and right. Finally, Miguel arrived and gallantly led her into the boardroom. Jackie knew they would never get through the lesson which had taken her hours to prepare. “And Fernando? Is he coming?” “Ni idea. But we begin, no?” Jackie repressed a sigh. Today’s lesson was an article she had found about insurance, their line of work. She had taken all the difficult vocabulary and prepared pre-reading exercises, so that when the students started reading, they would understand, and not break the flow to ask “What mean?”, and Jackie wouldn’t have to correct them in a voice that quickly degenerated from sweet to snarl. Then, an interactive role play would follow, where they could use their new vocabulary and knowledge from the article. She was so proud of this role-play, but it would only work if both students participated. If she used this lesson with Miguel alone, it wouldn’t work well. A lose-lose situation all around. “Is there any way we could ask if he is coming?” “I don’t know. No pasa nada. We start, ok?” She knew he would never understand that teaching was more than just turning the page and picking up from where you had left off. After working thoroughly through the vocabulary exercise for twenty minutes, and Miguel was confident enough to begin reading, Fernando burst into the room, shouting sorries and pulling out a chair. “Come on! Let’s go!” Jackie could now either walk Fernando through the pre-reading exercise, which would be unfair to Miguel, or let Fernando dive into the tricky article with no preparation. She chose the second option, fielding the stream of What means? so they could get to her fun role-play. But even before finishing the article, Fernando, who had been concentrating more on his phone than on the class, announced he was off to a meeting, thus successfully defeating the purpose of the lesson, but enjoying a sense of power he could not find in his job. Company classes were so often like this. Busy people with little interest forced into English class by their bosses. Most of them never studied or did homework, and when they did come to class, they came late or left early, and usually spoke in Spanish. On the other hand, there were some lovely and fulfilling classes, and now she was on her way to one. Candela and Rafaela were twelve-year old twins, who lived in Barrio Salamanca, the ritzy part of town. A uniformed maid answered the door and ushered Jackie to the girls’ room. It was there that the twins, in the almost perfect British English of their private school, confided their dreams to her. Jackie felt honored when students told her about their crushes, their frustrations, their secrets and their fears. The girls were quarreling over a sandwich when they saw her and their faces lit up. “Jackie!” they shrieked and raced to see who got to hug her first. “Hello my dear li’l missies! What a surprise I have for you today!” “What is it? What is it, Jackie? Oh, tell us!” “Well, you know this is our last class before the Christmas holidays, right?” The twins nodded. “Well,” She had taken a c.d. of popular carols, and prepared a worksheet with the lyrics and activities for each one. The task had literally stolen her entire Saturday, but she was so excited to share it with these sweet girls. “¿Villancicos?” the girls squealed. “Ta da!”, Jackie reached into the side pocket of her book-bag only to find it empty and her fingers poking out through a massive tear at the bottom. It must have happened when she scraped against a worksite fence as she ran to catch a departing bus. “Fuck!” she heard herself spit as her brain kicked into improvisation mode. The girls gasped, then broke out into hysterical giggles. --- Jackie’s last class finished at ten, and she was exhausted, but the prospect of going to her cold, empty flat turned her heart to stone. Something always pulled her to the same place, and that place was La Madera, in Lavapiés. A group of friends had taken a run-down old man’s bar and converted it into a popular hipster hangout. With its original tiled floors, marble-topped bar, wooden trim and furnishings, it provided a supportive venue for musicians to jam, poets to recite and painters to exhibit. Tonight, a small flamenco-pop group Jackie recognized was singing carols. She took a seat near the bar and watched them. "Hey, Jackie!" It was Tim, the British bartender, and Jackie’s ex. “A caña?” Trying not to look eager, Jackie nodded and reached for the small glass of draft beer. “Since when does Paloma sing Christmas shit?” Paloma was Tim’s new girlfriend. Jackie knew the jibe would anger him, but she couldn’t resist. Tim was an atheist. How could he let his girlfriend sing commercial religious songs in counterculture Lavapiés? She relished having the history to needle him with. No one else would dare. She punctuated her question by clacking her empty beer glass on the counter. Tim shook his head as he filled another one for her. “It happens to be the season. It is part of the culture.” He placed the foam-topped glass in front of her, “Have I not heard you sing them yourself?” The ache in Jackie’s stomach swelled. He remembered her singing! Did he miss her voice? Obviously not, said the nasty self-talk in her head, or he wouldn’t have left you for another singer. He turned to smile encouragement at Paloma as she began White Christmas, and Jackie knocked back the beer. The drink gave her that mean courage she found so hard to tame, “But why this American crap? Spaniards have their own traditions. You know what I mean, Tim. We’ve talked about this a million times. Remember how we used to hate seeing Spaniards sell themselves out?” her voice was getting sharper, more righteous, her cheeks flaming. “How all the old family-run shops and restaurants are being replaced by American chain stores and fast food franchises, how everything is now in English. Everywhere!” “Yes, Jackie, yes. But it is their choice after all, isn’t it? If they think they can make a better living, who are we to tell them what to do? By the way …” Tim leaned over the bar and beckoned. Jackie felt that old skip of hope in her chest, "Yes?" "Listen, Jackie. I'm your friend, okay? And I'm concerned because you're getting a reputation around here." Jackie's eyes widened with hurt. First, she was speechless, but then decided there was more dignity in defending herself. “What do you mean? What are people saying?” Tim looked around, but there were very few customers to hear them. "Jackie, look. I think you should just go home and get some sleep. You look knackered." Jackie's eyes filled with hot tears, "Oh, come on Tim. Please!" "No, Jackie." "Can’t we give it just one more try!" "We've discussed this. What's past is past. I'm thinking about your future. Coming here every night, getting drunk, picking up blokes. Besides, some TV people are coming tonight, and we don't need bad publicity." Jackie had already finished her beer. She slammed her empty glass down, “You’re worried I will give this place a bad reputation!” "Jackie, blokes take advantage of drunk girls. By the way, what happened last night ... really?" She mimicked Tim, "What happened last night! What happened last night! You wouldn't be jealous, now would you?" Tim had lost his patience, "Okay. Have it your way. Drink all you fucking want, but you don't have anything to do with me. Just thought you might like to know what your 'friend' from last night has been saying about you. Take a look at yourself, Jackie. Just take a look at yourself!" He pointed at the antique wood-framed mirror behind the bar. Jackie took the challenge. She saw a haggard, drunk, disheveled, middle-aged woman with dark circles under her eyes. That couldn’t be her! She was only thirty-seven! She winced and looked away. Paloma was stunning and sexy, with shiny dark locks. Of course, he would prefer to be with her. Who wouldn’t? Tim pushed another beer her way, "To your health!" and turned to serve another customer. Jackie's eyes smarted. She had thought going off with other guys would make Tim see how desired she was, show him she wasn't hung up on him. She knew she should leave. Yet she couldn't. A contradiction of pride and desperation trapped her, even as she saw she was making Tim despise her. --- That night Jackie dreamt she was in a dark movie theatre, choking, as she always did, on a kernel of popcorn. Suddenly she saw herself on the screen, shouting at a reporter. It was a commercial for a relaxing urban spa. The ad ended with an image of her own drunken face in La Madera, and the announcer concluding, “Because you don’t want to end up like this!” "Butano! Butano!" Jackie jerked awake to hear the gasman call in the courtyard. She rolled off the mattress, shivering. Clutching the sheet to her body, she called out from the balcony, "Si! Si! Aquí! Tercero B!" Her neighbour, Enrique, called for one too, then turned as he heard her, smiled and waved. It was 10:00 a.m. "Oh my God! My class!" Holding her aching head, she fumbled through her purse. "Shit!" She must have spent all her money last night in the bar. She turned towards the mattress, her heart sinking. No! "Uh ..." she pushed the inert body. The gasman would be ringing the bell any minute. "Ja ... Javier? Ja ... Jaime..." The doorbell rang. She found a bill and some change in the boy's trouser pocket and ran to the door. When the gasman left, she plugged in her phone, which had run out of battery some time the evening before, and planned the excuse she would give Elaine, the head of studies, or Adam, the director. There were several messages: three from her Auntie Marlene; one from Elaine, suggesting they meet for a little chat. Ouch, Jackie knew what that meant. The last message was from her friend Barbara. "Jackie! Barb here. Just calling to remind you my little sister is arriving in Madrid tomorrow. Thanks so much for having her. Talk soon!" Jackie was horrified. Wasn’t Michi coming on Tuesday? Fuck! Today is Tuesday! She looked around the apartment. Papers, books and clothes lay everywhere, mugs filled the sink (good thing the little she ate was on the run), her head was taking revenge on her, and a strange man was occupying her bed. Not the kind of first impression she wanted to make on her best friend’s sister! She called Elaine, claiming she was sick with the flu. She had her back to the bedroom door, giving the boy a chance to escape. Elaine took it well, although Jackie wasn’t sure she believed her. Relieved, she prepared her breakfast of coffee, cigarettes and pain killers, and sat by the French doors, which opened onto the tiny balcony, to rest a bit before getting up to clean. The rundown courtyard might not have been everyone’s idea of a good view, but Jackie loved letting her mind trace the cracks in the walls, and admire the bizarre shaped stains left by dampness and flaking paint. Enrique’s balcony door was ajar as usual. Wasn’t he freezing? A smoker, like her, he probably liked to air the place. Good idea. She got up, opened her balcony doors, took a deep breath, and prepared to clean. She was already humming a tune which promised to snowball into one of her auntie’s favourite ballads and drive out the killing memory of the previous night. --- Jackie was waiting at Barajas Airport. She was wearing a long grey cloth coat, a long dark skirt, low heels that could have used an extra polish, and her hair was pulled back in a clip that kept slipping down her neck. She wore glasses, and just a touch of lipstick, the most of which she had licked off while biting the dry skin off her lips. She was craning her neck, standing on tiptoe, squinting at the arrivals gate, stepping back and forth with nervous bounces. Every young, dark-haired woman was a possible Michi. From Michelle Reeves’ Facebook profile, she looked like the typical, happy college girl. Stunningly pretty, voluminous jet-black hair, white freckled skin, and the open direct smile of someone who has no struggle with herself; twenty-seven years old, graduate student in Spanish. Photos showed her playing tennis, swimming, hiking, all the sporty, healthy activities Jackie detested. She had mentioned her upcoming arrival in Spain on the page, and Jackie had read the giddy responses from her friends. Finally, she saw her. The tall young woman stood out among the other passengers with their trollies of cargo, tired faces, and crying children. She was like an island of fresh air. Smiling confidently, she cast her eyes to the left and right, looking for the woman she had not seen since childhood. Jackie inched her way through the crowd, took her hand away from her hair clip, and waved it. Michi’s eyes passed right over her, unconsciously dismissing Jackie as her possible host. Jackie felt that old familiar flicker pass through her, that distant cousin of rejection. But she tried again, this time with more energy. “Michelle!” Michelles’s eyes leapt toward the sound of Jackie’s voice. Her smile wavered momentarily as her eyes settled on Jackie’s anxious face, glanced down, taking in Jackie’s coat and bag. The smile returned, but a different kind. The kind that seemed to say, “Oh. I see.” But Jackie tried, “It's grand to see you again! How long has it been? The last time I saw you, you were a little girl in a school uniform." Jackie found herself running to catch up with this tall Amazon as they headed toward the metro entrance. Michelle’s high-heeled boots clicked against the linoleum. Jackie always chose soft heeled shoes so she wouldn’t attract attention. At the metro turnstiles Michelle accepted the ticket Jackie offered her, and passed regally through to the other side. “I hope it’s not too noisy at your place. And I hope my room is big, because I’ll have to study and sleep in there too.” They were now on the metro platform waiting for the train to pull in. More and more people and suitcases were filling up the space around them. Jackie felt embers of anger glow inside, and she had to admit, a bit of fear. How could she tell this girl/woman that she was supposed to sleep in Jackie’s sitting room on an uncomfortable second-hand sofa-bed? Forty minutes later they were walking down calle Toledo where Jackie lived. She started feeling excited and younger. So many years running to work, seeing the same surroundings had made her forget her first impressions of this great city. She imagined how Michi must be seeing it now. Tears wet her eyes as she pointed. “That is the Puerta de Toledo. It is a bit smaller than the Alcala Gate, but I’m fond of it. And that …” she said turning, “is the Plaza Mayor…” her voice trailed off as she caught sight of the girl’s expression. Michelle had spent the whole subway ride texting, “Oh sorry, you must be tired. I’ll show you around later.” “Puta!” They had reached Jackie’s building. “Doesn’t like you much, does she?” Michelle tittered. “Oh, don’t mind her. She screams at everybody.” But Jackie couldn’t help but notice the old woman was looking directly at her. “Well, this is home.” She stood leaning back, smiling, and spreading her arms out at the view of the old pre-Civil War building. Michelle didn’t look up, “Well, we don’t want to stand out here all day. Why don’t you open the door, Jackie?” She then marched across the marble floor and past the arrestingly beautiful Spanish tiled walls with total indifference. “The lift?” Jackie felt a stab go through her. She recalled that Michelle was from a wealthy family. She tried to keep the apology out of her voice. “It’s a fourth-floor walk-up.” “Fantastic. Just what I needed.” And Michelle, cases and all, charged up the stairs two at a time. --- That evening, after showing Michi around the barrio, Jackie and her guest were drinking tea on the sofa. Jackie was getting accustomed to Michelle’s direct manner and had even shared her sad Tim story with her. "Is that why you don't sing anymore?" "No, no. I was never very good. Sometimes when you're young, you have all these dreams. You think you can do anything. And then you get out there, and you realize that there are a whole hell of a lot of people who can do it just as well as you, or better. And they've usually got a lot of other things going for them too." "Like what?" "Looks, money, connections, a more outgoing personality, luck, self-confidence …" she shrugged, took a last sip of her tea, and got up. "And that's when you decide it's time you look reality in the face, and stop dreaming." “Oh, I don’t know. I think you should chase your dreams. Look at my sister. She sings in the opera now. Here, let me show you some of her latest photos in my phone. Here she is with her husband, and their little girl, Jackie.” She looked up. “She would love for you to go and meet your namesake.” Jackie winced at the reminder. “Your sister had a better voice than me. She was better at everything.” Not to mention your father’s money and connections. “Are those your photo albums?” Michi jumped up and headed toward the book case. “Do you have photos of you and Barbie in school?” She was already flipping through the pages of one of them. “There’s Barbie! And … is that you?” she was pointing to a tiny, pretty brunette with a mop of curls that cascaded down her shoulders. “Wow Jackie! Look at you! Just look at you!” For the next hour Jackie reminisced about the days when she, Barbara and a few other friends had their own pop group. “Candy Apple, it was called. It was when we were in boarding school together. You were just a little tyke then. Seventeen, I guess we were. So, you were about six.” She sighed and shook her head, “Four silly girls, all studying music. It all started one Christmas when we went around town carolling. People actually came out of their houses to hear us. Look, here’s a picture of us dressed up as elves, see? Then, Miss Anderson, our music teacher, decided to start up a little ensemble. We sang at old age homes, schools, that sort of thing. We sang everything from operetta to the Andrews Sisters. That was a real hit! Look, there’s Angela, and Molly. God, we had such fun.” “And the pop group?” “Oh well, you know, we were seventeen. And so, we thought that some of the stuff Miss Anderson made us sing was a bit old-fashioned. You know, the girls were all listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson then. We wrote a few songs. Terrible songs! We didn’t get any further than the yearly school assembly in the gym.” “But you all got scholarships, didn’t you?” “Yes, well, poor Molly didn’t. But the rest of us went on to study music at university. Last I heard, Angela is teaching music, and well, your sister is singing in an opera company.” Jackie’s voice had a sudden edge to it as she slammed the book shut. “And you gave up, just like that?” “I applied for places, but it was just so competitive. So, I’d just as well forget the whole thing and concentrate on something else.” Jackie got up from the couch. Her tone had changed. “Sorry I didn’t take you out tonight. I have to get up at four a.m. tomorrow to renew my residency permit. I tried all last week, but there’s always some document that’s missing. I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked me for my great-grandparents’ marriage certificate!” --- “Sorry about yesterday, Elaine.” “Oh, hi Jackie. Come in. Sit down. No problem. Are you feeling better?” “Pretty much. Thanks.” Jackie was steeling herself for a lecture. “Jackie, I must say, I’m a bit worried about you. I say that as a friend.” Friend. That word again. Why did everyone use it just before telling you off? Jackie thought she would be brave and get to the point. “Have there been complaints?” “Complaints? No! Well, no more than the usual …” Elaine tittered, “You know how students are. But that’s not why I called you.” “No?” “No. Well, you see, the comments we have been getting is that you seem very stressed. A bit burnt out even. Jackie, are you happy?” Happy? Her director of studies was asking if she was happy? Since when did they ever care about anything other than the money she could generate? Or was this a new requirement? Fun, dynamic and happy. “I know what you’re thinking, Jackie. I’ve been there. If Adam knew I was talking to you about this he’d kill me. Don’t get me wrong, he is a wonderful person, but for him, business is business. He would say ‘Hay que cortar por lo sano’.” Jackie raised her eyebrows. “You know, cut off the dead leaves, cut our losses …” Elaine’s voice trailed off as she saw Jackie’s eyes widen. “What I mean is … maybe you shouldn’t work so hard. Have you tried yoga? I love it.” “Once, but all the relaxing stressed me out.” “Herbal teas, massage, meditation?” “I tried cutting out stimulants once, but when I go to the shops I somehow always come out with coffee, beer and cigarettes.” She chuckled, kicking herself for confiding so much, “Besides, who wants to talk to a teetotaler in a bar?” “Right, well … what about a hobby? You like to sing, don’t you? I remember at the staff party last Christmas …” Jackie’s reaction told Elaine she had hit a nerve. “What about Silvia’s choir? That is actually another thing I wanted to mention. Tomorrow night she is giving a Christmas concert in the Almudena Cathedral. We thought it would be nice if we all went to give her moral support, and maybe even sing a few carols with them at the end. Also, you know we will be saying good-bye to our colleague, Virgina.” Jackie was silent. Silvia had tried to coax her into joining her choir. Jackie always told her she was too busy. And it was true. She had made sure of that. “Of course, I’ll go. I think what Silvia is doing is great.” --- Jackie walked into La Madera. Tim gave her a warning look, but Jackie held up her hand. "It's okay Tim. I won't make any trouble. I swear. I'm meeting a friend’s little sister, so I have to be good." At that moment Michi walked in. Jackie's face fell, "It's only ten o'clock. I thought we'd arranged to meet at half past." Michele glanced at Tim. "Sorry. Thought it would take me longer to find the place." They took their drinks over to a table. A group of musicians were playing Celtic music. Some of them waved to Jackie. "I see you're quite a regular around here. Have you had a thing with one of those blokes?" “With some of them, yes.” “Ah.” “And your day?” Michelle told her about the people she’d met at the university she was planning to attend. “Oh, and I’ve met some of your neighbours.” “Really?” “Yes, Pili from next door. Aurora from downstairs. Lovely. And Enrique from across the courtyard.” “Oh? What’s he all about, anyway? Seems like an interesting sort but …" "Oh, he is! He used to be a war correspondent and photographer. You should see his flat! It's full of photos, and sculptures and stuff from all over the world! He speaks five languages." "So, what's wrong with his leg?" "It got hurt by a landmine. So now he dedicates his time to drawing. He has portraits of all the famous politicians he's met. And he knows loads about computers. He works at home inventing computer games!" "Really?" "Yeah. Isn't that wild? He draws all the little cartoon figures. He showed me some of the stuff he's done. He takes ideas from everyday life." --- Despite her promises to be good, Jackie found herself stumbling home on the arm of one of her acquaintances from the bar. "Puta. Puta.” A sleepy voice mumbled as they arrived at her building. Jackie whirled around, "¿Qué has dicho, vieja bruja?" The young man pulled Jackie away, "¿Qué haces? ¿Estás loca? Deja a la vieja en paz." Michi tried to calm her, “He’s right, Jackie. Let her be. Poor thing is not right in the head?” But neither Jackie nor the bag lady would give in. “Puta! Puta!” the woman, now wide awake, snarled and spat. “!Vieja bruja! ¡Estoy harta de ti!” Jackie, having always avoided the woman’s gaze, now bent over her fetid nest of cardboard and rags with a new courage that frightened everyone, including herself. The bag lady recoiled and hissed like a trapped animal. But as Jackie took a close look at the terrified, demented face, she leapt back, and covered her own face with her hands, trembling and sobbing, “My God! My God!” “What’s the matter?” Michi put her arm around Jackie’s shoulder’s. “She’s me!” “What?” “Look at her! Just look at her! Her face! She’s me! Oh, my God, she’s me.” Michi turned to look, and the bloke from the bar, clearing his throat, stepped back.

“Bueno, yo … yo me largo. No me necesitas ya, ¿verdad?” “Sure, go. We don’t need you anymore. Gracias.” Michi said without looking at him. “¿Que le pasa?” asked a familiar male voice from the door. Jackie, still cowering, recognized her neighbour’s walking cane. “She got a scare is all. Un susto, nada más.” And Michi helped her up to her flat. --- That night Jackie dreamt she was in a computer game. Lights flashed and bells rang every time she won points by catching trains, reaching green lights, and arriving to class with her lesson intact. --- The next morning greeted them with rain. "I feel like a coat rack." Jackie said, finally ready to leave. She stood at the door, handbag strapped over one shoulder, book-bag hanging over the other, umbrella in hand, glasses hanging on her chest, "Everything's dangling off me!" “Or one of those old wind-up dolls with a big key in its back. I’ll wind you up and away you go running all over the city!" As Jackie rushed through the foyer of her building, she spied a white envelope peeking through the window of her post box. It had been so long since she had received anything but junk. It was a Christmas card featuring a group of carollers. Me encanta escuchar tu voz. The card was unsigned and the envelope blank. Suddenly she knew. Tim! He was the only one she had ever really sung for. He had delivered it personally, and written it in Spanish so she wouldn’t suspect! What a sweetheart! Pressing the card to her chest, she ran through the rain toward the metro, which she caught the moment she arrived on the platform. This was going to be a great day! And Jackie’s day continued to go well, as she smiled her way through class after class, until the last one just before the concert. --- Jackie had written some sentences with spaces on the board. Jackie__from Ireland.. Manuela__from Murcia. I__from Madrid You__from Spain. Manuela and Antonio, two middle-aged beginner students, had been struggling with conjugating the verb to be. Today, after eliciting the correct answers, Jackie decided to turn it into a song. "I know you can do it! Let’s stand up. Drum roll!" Jackie drummed her fingers on the table. “Manuela, you start!” "Jackie is from Ireland!" “Yes, she is!” Jackie cried, maintaining the beat with her hands. Then it was Antonio’s turn, “Pepe is from Murcia.” “Yes, he is!” Manuela had joined her in the chorus this time. Then, Jackie pointed at Manuela. “I am from Madrid!” she sang, confidently smiling and clapping the beat. “Yes, you are!” Jackie and Antonio had now added rudimentary dance steps. Then the students pointed at each other, and chanted in unison, “And you are from Spain!” “Yes, you are!” Jackie finished with a whoop. “Once more for good measure!” Some of their colleagues were looking in the door to see what the ruckus was about, the three of them laughing and wiping tears from their eyes. --- La Almudena Cathedral was situated next to the royal palace. It was not as old as many of the other churches, but every bit as grand. Silvia was excited and nervous. Although they were not singing in the main altar, for any choir to perform there for Christmas was a special honour. “You will join us to sing Adeste Fidelis at the end, won’t you?” Silvia urged Jackie. “Come on! I’ve heard you sing it loads of times. Remember at our last Christmas party? Oh, ha, maybe you don’t. We all had a lot to drink … but you were amazing.” “Got any whisky?” Silvia winked and squeezed her arm. Jackie took a seat in the front row with Adam, Elaine and some other colleagues. She looked around for Michelle, but she was really looking for Tim. How had he known she was going to sing with the choir tonight? And what a dear, coming just to see her sing with them! The pews were filling up. There must have been sixty or seventy people by now. The concert began and she couldn’t turn around to look anymore. The programme started with pieces by Tomás Luis de la Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, Spanish composers from the Middle Ages. Then, they moved on to more modern carols that Jackie knew by heart. She remembered Miss Anderson’s Girl’s Ensemble. At one point she caught herself singing along. Why hadn’t she listened to Silvia? Why hadn’t she joined her choir long ago and shared this joyous feeling? She vowed this would be her resolution for the new year. She would join this choir. She would jam with the Celtic group in La Madera. After all, she knew all the songs. Maybe even revive Candy Apple! At the last song, when Silvia stepped forward to call on her volunteer choristers, Jackie jumped up before she had even started speaking. Elaine and several others joined her. Jackie took her place with the sopranos and followed Silvia’s direction. They would sing one verse in Latin, one in Spanish and the last in English. Silvia, radiant with success and relief, sparkled like a Christmas angel. When the carol finished, the applause resounded, and the audience got to its feet. She looked for Tim among their colleagues and acquaintances, but it was impossible to see beyond the first few rows. Would he love her again? Her imagination took over and she failed to hear what Silvia was saying. Silvia had hushed the audience. They all took their seats again. “Muchisimas gracias por venir esta noche a escucharnos. At this moment we have a special request. It would be an honour if we could end this concert with an exceptionally beautiful Christmas carol from Ireland. Un villancico irlandés.” Jackie was suddenly listening. What was she talking about? “There is no one I know who could sing a better rendition of the hauntingly beautiful Wexford Carol than our talented colleague, Jackie Moyer. Would you do us the honour, Jackie?” Silvia turned around to face her. Everyone was looking at her, and clapping. Some of her colleagues called out her name. She felt her cheeks burn. What could she do? She was both angry and delighted. But then she remembered Tim’s letter, Me encanta escuchar tu voz. Had he been in on this? She winked at Silvia, “Not without that whisky you promised!” The audience chuckled, and Silvia took her place at the piano. The other choristers opened a path for Jackie to step forward. “I would like to dedicate this song to my Auntie Marlene, who taught it to me.” Jackie closed her eyes, leaned into the piano introduction and began, “Good people all this Christmas time, consider well and bear in mind”, and she didn’t stop until she had reached the end of the fifth verse, “Attending all, the Lord of Life, who came on Earth to end all strife.” The audience was so silent, she opened her eyes to be sure they were still there. A few people started clapping. Then, as the trance lifted, a few more joined them, until everyone was up on their feet. Stunned, Jackie froze, until Silvia put an arm around her and bowed with her. As the audience began gathering up their coats and bags, Jackie suddenly remembered Tim. She had completely forgotten about him! She looked around as colleagues came up to congratulate her. Then she saw Michi hurrying towards her from the back row. “Jackie! Look who’s here!” Jackie looked past Michi and saw Enrique limp towards her. Had he always had such a soft, gentle smile? Had his eyes always been so intelligent and warm? “Enhorabuena, Jackie!” he leaned over to give her a light hug and the typical Spanish two kisses on the cheek. “Me encanta escuchar tu voz.” And as she smiled back, Jackie knew what her next resolution would be.

Anita Haas is a differently-abled, award-winning Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. She has published books on film, two novelettes, a short story collection, and articles, poems and fiction in both English and Spanish. Some publications her fiction has appeared in include Falling Star Magazine, The Tulane Review, Literary Brushstrokes, The Zodiac Review, River Poets Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Terror House, Wink and Adelaide Magazine. She spends her free time watching films, and enjoying tapas and flamenco with her writer husband and two cats.

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