Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
ON MARCH 11, 2004, Fresneda walked down the street outside El Pozo station in Madrid. It was a beautiful spring day and Fresneda was feeling good. He had come to Madrid on holidays to stay with his sister and her husband and children, who lived near the station. He was glad to see them. He hadn't seen them in over fifteen years, since his sister had come back to Spain from Australia.
On his way to the station, he stopped at a small cafe for a strong, black coffee. He was aware of the workers going by around him, down to the station on their way to work. He watched them tramp by, all briefcases and stockings and ties, but he did not want them to be there; he did not want to recognise the mundane, not here in the city of his birth.
He wondered what he would do today. Yesterday, on the Calle de Bailen in Old Madrid, he had seen the King drive past on his way to the Palacio Real. Today, he thought he would stop in the Bourbon quarter and see the Prado. He wondered if he should come to live here.
His grandfather was a socialist who fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He had been imprisoned when Fresneda's father was a baby, and tortured and killed. Fresneda's grandmother died when she was 50. When this happened, Fresneda's father brought his family to Australia, where he thought they would be safe. Fresneda was just five years old.
When he was seven, Fresneda's mother died of cancer. Franco had died the year before.
Fresneda finished his coffee and walked along with the stream of workers down into the El Pozo metro station. He waited for five minutes for the metro that would take him to Atocha station. On his way there he noticed the people around him in the crowded train and again he was struck by the familiarity of the scene. "You cannot escape it," he thought.
It happened when he walked out on to the platform at Atocha. It was 7.30 in the morning. Fresneda died instantly with 200 others as a bomb went off in the train carriage behind him, disintegrating him into nothingness.
STRANGE WAS AWOKEN by a call from Fresneda's sister early on the morning of March 12. Strange hadn't been dreaming anything that he could remember but later, on reflection, he imagined that he'd dreamt about the ocean.
Fresneda had left some things with Strange; his sister was anxious to make sure Strange knew of the events of March 11. Strange's only memory of this call was waking suddenly from a deep slumber, and falling completely into a sense of shock. "Yes," Strange assured Fresneda's sister, he would help in any way he could.
When he hung up the phone, Strange wondered if he were going mad.
FRESNEDA HAD COME to stay with strange for a couple of weeks before he left for Madrid. There was an overlap between the end of his lease and the start of his long holiday to visit his sister, and he had asked Strange if he'd mind putting him up until he left. Fresneda was an old friend of Strange; they knew each other in high school and, through the various turns in their lives, had kept in contact. Strange liked Fresneda and was always glad to see him – and, as Strange lived by himself, he thought he'd be glad of the company for a while.
The first days of Fresneda's stay were good. Fresneda was a great cook and he made fine meals: paella,tortilla Espanola and sopa Castellana – a garlic soup that his mother had made. They would eat the food at the table together and, after dinner, sit on the balcony with a cold beer. Here, Fresneda talked of his hopes for his trip to Spain – the joy of seeing his sister again, of meeting his nephews, of walking in the city of his birth and speaking its language. Fresneda taught Strange how to swear in Spanish. "Me cago en Dios!" they would shout into the night. The nature of their talk and the situation itself led them both to pretend an intimacy between them that each knew, in reality, would not outlast the fortnight.
And, in fact, within a few days Strange began to tire of Fresneda's company, and increasingly to regard it as an intrusion on his privacy. Strange would come home from work to find Fresneda lying on the couch, reading a book or watching television, and would feel annoyed and put upon. His small unit suddenly seemed too small and his personal space almost non-existent. But a good dinner would always follow, though the conversation on the balcony would wind down ever more quickly, or be drawn over similar, well-trodden ground.
On the Saturday before Fresneda's plane was scheduled to leave, Strange and Fresneda caught a bus to the ocean. They had a beer and lunch at the Verandah Bar and walked the few kilometres out on to the cliffs overlooking the bay. The day was clear and the view from the top of the cliffs stretched away far into the distance, out across the murky green sea.
After standing there for some time, Fresneda suddenly confessed to Strange that he was afraid of dying. Even though he was only in his mid-thirties, he was approaching the age at which his mother had died. This age, he confessed, was a number that had haunted him for years.
Strange could only look at his friend and tell him that it was only natural that these things should bother him, but that in all likelihood he would live a long time and that he should not worry. He was going to Spain soon, to see his sister, and everything would be fine. Fresneda seemed to take heart from this and he thanked Strange for understanding. But, as they walked back, he turned and said: "If something does happen to me, you must come back to that place overlooking the ocean and remember me."
The next day Strange took Fresneda to the airport and wished him luck. Fresneda thanked him and promised to send a postcard.
Strange thought, as he saw Fresneda walk down to the departure lounge, that his friend looked happy, like the world had finally converged with his dreams.
Strange walked away from the airport feeling a sense of sadness that he suspected was the mask of his overwhelming relief.
AFTER THE MADRID bombing, strange goes about his normal life while taking care of the business of arranging Fresneda's affairs under the direction of his sister. Often, the whole business seems unreal: he has to check himself to see whether he really exists.
He follows the news of the bombing assiduously on the television and in print. He becomes frightened by the nature of the attack and fascinated by the genius of it. As more news comes to hand about the attacks, he explores the internet for details of terrorist operations, for bomb-making techniques. He buys a map of Madrid, to pinpoint the location of the bombing. He puts the map on his kitchen wall, with a black circle around Atocha station. He feels that he can protect himself with facts.
At night he often dreams of Fresneda, exploding into pieces on the platform of a railway station, following each piece of his body as it makes its way through the air.
Increasingly, in his waking life, Strange imagines that he is being followed, that his phone calls are being listened to. He begins to vary his routine on a daily basis, to carefully inspect his mail before opening it. On the street, he is cautious of people looking him in the face. He takes to noting down his movements for the day in a notebook.
Strange has dreams of blood, of being locked in a room and of being tortured – of torturing Fresneda, of following him down the streets of Madrid or, because he has never been to Madrid, down what he imagines to be the streets of Madrid. In his dreams he follows Fresneda, watching his every move and noting it down.
Strange takes time off work.
On his kitchen wall now is not only the map of Madrid, but diagrams of explosive devices, and a map of his own city with red lines indicating the various routes he has walked in the preceding days and weeks.
And then there is the notebook: slowly filling up with the carefully compiled details of his day.
He feels himself in a cocoon of information. He has grown a beard. His skin is pale. He has a lingering sense that anything could happen now.
While sitting in his kitchen one day, Strange considers all these things and it dawns on him what he must do.
STRANGE BEGINS TO write a story – a document of his friend in these dangerous times. He feels strongly that this story must be told. As he writes the story in his notebook, he realises that it will be more than that. For the story becomes in a sense a list of facts, the facts of his own life, the facts that have turned into the story that, in turn, has dissolved the facts. It will be a purging of all that has burdened him.
He writes for one week, and each word releases him. His horrific dreams recede into nothingness. He tears down the maps from the kitchen wall and burns them. As he fills his notebook, he feels that he is at last doing something, even if only for himself.
On the final night, he dreams of the ocean and when he wakes in the morning, he realises he must do as his friend asked him. He must go to the high cliff overlooking the ocean. He will take his notebook and read it there. He will board the bus to go to the ocean to do as he has been asked.