Last week Em partook in a strange dinner with Edouardo and some of his associates, and wasn’t quite sure of what to make of it. Upon Edouardo’s recommendation, Em agrees to meet with Agnes, one of the people who joined them for dinner, and they take a trip just outside Madrid.
I did as the old man asked, and met Agnes at Sol. The morning made her seem more agreeable, and she displayed none of the odd aggression she’d shown last night in the toilets. I didn’t like it, and as the morning progressed I wondered if this perceived altercation was merely the hissy fit of a capricious artist, or whether we were, in our collective silence, breeding an elephant in the room of our company. If she felt any awkwardness, she didn’t show it.
We took the train to Tres Cantos, a town just north of Madrid made from giant Lego blocks and ennui. The very antithesis of the great city.
The train rumbled through the scrubby northern suburbs of the capital as the Sun slowly bleached the land. We sat across from one another, me looking out of the window, Agnes looking at me. She looked tired, but energetic. Wired. Her hair was scraped back into a functional ponytail, and had applied only minimal makeup. Still, compared to me she was a holy angel. I stared at my cracked fingernails and dehydrated skin. Was I always this ugly, Em? Or can one be ugly on the inside while remaining beautiful on the outside?
“What’s your line, then?” I idly asked.
“Your speciality. In art, I mean.”
Another bloody sculptor. “Right. Where did you study art?”
“I didn’t,” she said. “I’m an engineer by trade. But engineering helps me find the balance between form and function.”
“Art doesn’t need to be functional. It’s not a car, or a telephone. It just needs to be.”
She scrunched up her eyebrows. “Everything needs to be usable.” We sank back into silence. The seats were tightly packed together, and our legs kept touching. Perhaps it was she who felt the awkwardness this time, for she broke the silence next. “I met Edouardo at university. He was giving a talk.”
She made a sarcastic face. “No. On art, fool. I went because I love art. His talk was about alchemy.”
“Is that your engineering specialty?”
“Do you always sneer at everyone else?”
“I sneer at the fallacies we tell each other, and more to the point, the fallacies we tell ourselves.” I waited for a response, but none came. “One can only see them when one realises one’s own. I came here to drink myself into an early grave. It takes one a great degree of self-awareness to arrive at that conclusion, you know.”
Agnes glanced daggers at me. “You are not just one, though, are you?”
I sat back. Realised I’d been leaning forwards a bit too much. Was rather close to her in the heat of the exchange. “Are any of us?”
The day in Trés Cantos was one of the most utterly wasted set of hours I can recall. There is literally nothing in this dead-end town except the means of escape via the train station, which taunted me with its intermittent rumble of exodus. There is not even a town centre. Just an unending stretch of identikit housing blocks built to store worker bees between the hours of 6pm and 6am.
An horrific, plastic café served as a wine bar when I could no longer face trudging along the main thoroughfare of this place, and we drank away a few hours if not merrily, then with some forced civility.
“Who were you?” she asked as we made it onto another bottle of cheap Rioja.
I stiffened up. Don’t like it when people ask about you, Em. Still highly protective of you. And Great Aunty Baby, truth be known. I shrugged. “I still haven’t figured that out, yet,” I mumbled.
“Yet you know enough to say you want to drink yourself to death.”
“And, like all my other endeavours, so far that has also ended in failure.”
She looked at me for a few more moments. Not so much in contempt as with a glimmer of understanding, perhaps even sympathy, God forbid. “Let me tell you about me, then,” she said at last. “I am a systems engineer for a company that creates machines. But that is not important. I married a man called José. But that is not important. We had a child called Jení. But that is not important. What is important is that Jení died from drowning, and José ran away with grief.”
Thought about expressing some pathos. What is it the paintywaist French politicians call it? Solidarité. Don’t think she’d have appreciated it, though. Kept my counsel and stared at my glass, studying the ripples of movement on the surface.
“I felt lost without my family. I kept trying to fill the emptiness of my house with the things that José and Jení used to do. I was so determined not to let them be forgotten that, after a while, every second of my own existence became about ensuring that they lived on. Each waking thought was what they would be thinking, what they would be saying, instead of what I should be thinking, and what I should be saying. After some time, I stopped being simply Agnes. Now I am José, and I am Jení, and I am Agnes. Do you not see? We are not only ourselves. We are who we meet, and who we leave behind, and those who abandon us. We are never truly ourselves, except if we live in perfect isolation. Art and engineering are not so different. When I see a machine, I think of all the components and systems that make it so, even though they may not be visible. When I look at The Garden Of Earthly Delights, I think not of all the things in the image, but all the things behind it, all the things in Bosch’s mind, all the things that made him him. All the people he met; all the people he left behind. So I ask again. Who were you?”
I don’t like being questioned at the best of times, Em. Agnes’s face was so rigid, so impermeable that I imagined her as a photograph, a glossy sheet that I could just puncture with a pencil, right in the middle of her face. And what would pour out, then? Her? José? Jení? Me?
The red wine suddenly tasted sour. She sure knew how to ram home a point. “Why me?” I said. The wine had made my voice a little dry. She looked at me with some confusion. “In the restaurant toilet you asked me, why did Bosques choose me? To be honest, I don’t know. Why do you think he chose me?”
“I can’t answer that,” she replied. “Only he can. All I can say for sure is why I chose you.”
The fool in me almost asked again, por qué, but when the touch of her hand upon mine made me flinch, even I was not stupid enough to ask that.
Hoary old cliché that we are, we ended up back at her apartment, at the top of one of the Lego bricks somewhere in this town. Agnes kept the lights off in her bedroom – rather larger than I expected – keeping the shadows at bay in the corners.
She kissed me, and at first I did not resist. She was warm, and eager, and human – and I realised at her touch how long ago physical connection with another had been for me – and I devoured the kiss hungrily. In that moment, I wanted her body, I confess, but her mouth’s words gnawed at me more than its kisses. Agnes, who slowly revealed her nakedness, and my own, raw and hard, would soon disappear, too. For she was right: they all disappear, in the end.
Even as she touched me between the thighs and grabbed hold of me, I pulled away, and turned my head from her.
She nuzzled into my neck. Warm breath that smelt faintly of the cherry-red Rioja we’d enjoyed all afternoon. “What is it?”
“I mustn’t,” I said. “Afterwards, there will be nothing left. I’m not destined to be of this world for long. I came here to die.”
“And so far you have failed.” She grabbed me firmly between the legs. “You are alive, Manu.”
“And if I did die, I’d be like the others.”
“What others?” Tension in her voice.
“Like… your family.”
She snorted. “I’m not looking for family. I’m looking to fuck you.”
But I pulled away again. The moment had been punctured. What happened, Em?
This time, Agnes pulled away and turned towards the corner. She spoke up, but this time her voice was flat and functional. “What do I do with him now?”
Before I could ask what she meant by that, the very breath was taken from me as a large, black, shapeless mass rose from the shadows by the window and walked towards us. My erection, previously so proud and ready, fled in terror at the sight and hid.
I managed only a cursory utterance of confusion before the mass threw back its black cowl, and revealed itself to be Katarina. She looked at me with intense, black eyes, and pulled off the cloak to reveal her own nakedness. I felt my jaw sag, in disbelief as much as anything – what’s a man to do in such circumstances, Em? – and before I could say anything, Katarina handed the cloak to Agnes, and said, “leave him to me. Watch.”
She stood by the bedside table, lit a match and set light to a small candle, providing just the slightest illumination to the room.
“What’s all this? Qué está?” I said, but Katarina was upon me, shushing me with a finger upon my lips. In the dark light she took my hand, put it to her swelling breast and then, as I smelt her own breath, leant in for a long kiss.
The assault had caught me unawares, and I reeled with the new participant in this game, yet Katarina’s touches were more exquisite, more beckoning, more irresistible, and her soft and warm embrace was as uncrackable as any jail cell. My penis, so craven at her first apparition, suddenly sprang back to feverish anticipation.
Upon Agnes’s bed – was it even her bed? I found myself wondering whether this was even her apartment or some rented squalor cube – Katarina pushed me onto my back and fellated me until I was a creature bound by the strict chains of imminent pleasure, and when I was wholly hers she swallowed me whole, and straddled me, and made love to me like a possessed thing. When Katarina and I were halfway between somewhere and some other point in space and time I craned my neck over to the corner, where Agnes now crouched, the black cloak covering her completely. I almost cried out when two ugly, knobbled horns, deep and indigo in colour, sprouted slowly from the top of Agnes’s head, through the cloak, the candlelight making demonic shadows upon the wall. She started to make the most awful sounds, like an animal having parts of it cut off: grunting, growling, squealing. The urgent, muddy, animal need to escape punched through me, Em; I wanted to get away, but the exquisite, horrible imminence of orgasm prevented me from moving, until suddenly I came and it was like an explosion that flew to every part of my body and pinned it down with ecstasy. And the Agnes creature roared in sympathetic bliss, its horns scratching the floorboards, before breathing deeply with the effort. Even with Katarina still upon me, hot and wet and panting, I could barely feel her. Could barely feel anything, as though she’d bitten the ends off me.
After rolling off me she went to Agnes. The horny protruberances had disappeared, and I could make out the blonde waves of her hair covering a sweaty, lank brow and a pair of glowering eyes, as if she had indeed been the one who had had sex, and not Katarina, who had sufficiently recovered from her exertions to pad around the room with not a drop of sweat upon her.
“What just happened?” I asked.
Katarina looked over her shoulder at me. “Do you not think Edouardo’s creations talk to one another? I do wonder.”
I tried to stand, but my head was giddy and my knees betrayed me, so I fell backwards upon the pillow, and let the remnants of Rioja and post-coital hormones work their inexorable spell of dreams upon me.
And then, after a sleep in which I thought I was going to be sick, I woke up.