“Madrid is a wild city,” said Eva, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “You’re lucky to have ended up in Puerta de Hierro.” She turned to me and tapped the table, ready for her food.
“I am lucky, Señora Eva.” I placed the meal in front of her. “Let me know if the meat is undercooked.”
“Thank you.” She stuck her fork into the steak and lifted it into the air, her hands trembling as she inspected it from all sides. “I’m serious, though. Did you see the news this morning? They’ve found drugs in the air, all around the centre. You inhale 31 grams of heroin every time you walk around Plaza España. That’s more than any European city. Even worse than Barcelona. Can you believe it?”
Shaking my head, I turned away to wash the dishes. I knew better than to question Eva. It had been almost a year since I had moved away from the centre, and every week she reminded me how much better off I was living in her basement in the suburbs.
“And I am lucky to have you too, Jimena.” Eva spoke with her mouth full, spitting out sauce as she shouted over the tap. “You Argentines do cook a good steak.” She gave herself time to swallow a heftier chunk of meat before going on. “Imagine – just imagine where you would be if you were still living in that zulo in Malasaña. All that debauchery… all those streetwalkers… who knows what you would be doing right now.”
“Ah, you know I’m not tempted by such things.”
“Oh but those women reel you in!” I fought a smile. “But it’s true, I know you’re a good girl.” She turned towards me and grinned, the layer of fat under her chin pulsating gently. “Anyway, the only whore in this neighbourhood is that Muñoz woman.” I looked up at the kitchen window, which faced the neighbour’s house.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised. I see you looking over at their house sometimes. You think that you end up living in a place like that off ‘artist’s money’?”
The lights were off in the Muñoz’s mansion, but it was gleaming under the sun. I told her I didn’t understand what she meant.
“That’s what she calls herself. An artist.” Eva picked up the final bite of her steak with her fork and wagged it towards the window. “But really all she does is design clothes for the children’s range at El Corte Inglés. When she feels like it. I never see her work.”
“And this troubles you, Señora?”
“Of course it does.” I stood wondering whether it was too early to collect her plate. “I’m tired of tramps like her calling themselves hard workers, then marrying rich men like Alfonso Muñoz so that they never have to bother showing any talent.”
“You don’t like him either?”
“Oh no. Alfonso is a respectable man. His family is from the neighbourhood. He founded his own company, and bought that house himself. A good man.” She pulled her knife and fork together, looking up at me expectantly. “I just wonder why he married that ‘artist’.”
I was working in the garden when Penélope Muñoz drove into her garage across the road. My eyes followed her as she stepped out of the car, carrying her groceries as she struggled towards her front door. At first I thought she was just weak; I would watch her through the window sometimes and her skinny frame seemed to wobble with each step she took, so her shopping seemed like an appropriate burden. On closer inspection, however, I noticed a metal brace hugging her chest, keeping her back rigid. She grimaced with each step, holding her head up awkwardly. I ran across the road.
“Señora Muñoz?” I feared she was even too fragile for my words. “Can I help you?”
“Thank you, cariño.” Penélope didn’t turn around as she spoke. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really move. Could you take this for me?” I walked around to face her and she handed me her shopping, before unlocking the front door and walking straight towards the kitchen. She shouted at me from the corridor. “Well, come in then! You’re not going to be of much help if you stay outside.”
I apologised and stepped in behind her. The Muñoz mansion was as large as the others in the area, all white stone and enormous windows, though I had never found it as ostentatious as the rest. Inside, however, the entrance hall was lined with paintings, and I could feel the influence of the luxury that surrounded me. Señora Eva had art too, but it didn’t look as grandiose when it was all cluttered. Penélope finally turned to me.
“You’re that Argentine girl who works for Evita, aren’t you?” I nodded. “I thought so, from your accent. It’s so sweet.” She smiled at me. Despite her worn-out face, she was beautiful, with the high cheekbones that you would expect of someone living in a mansion like hers.
“Thank you.” I tried not to stare at the brace that held her together as I spoke. “Can I unpack these for you as well?”
“That would be great, cariño. I’m not sure I can bend towards the shelves with this thing.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Well, I’ve broken my back, can you believe it?” She pointed to a wooden chest in the centre of the hallway. “I was trying to get some of my work supplies from in there, and one of my discs just snapped. Like an old woman!”
“Dios, how does that even happen?” I felt my face turn hot as soon as I spoke; I had forgotten who I was speaking to.
“They said I have weak bones,” she laughed. “But what can you do.”
“I’m sorry, Señora.”
I imagine she would have shrugged if she weren’t bound by her brace, but instead she smiled.
“It happens,” she said, as she turned to leave the room. I followed her back into the entrance hall where she stood, looking small amongst the columns of art. My eyes landed on one of the paintings that lined the wall behind her.
“This is beautiful.” I walked towards the piece, trying to make out what its abstract lines depicted. “Is it one of yours?”
She reached a stiff arm towards it. Her fingers found their way to the corner of the painting, and she moved them up and around the canvas several times.
“I wish.” She looked at it intently. “I would love to be able to paint like this.” The random streaks of beige and brown on the canvas merged under her fingers, and I began to make out the figure of a woman, elegant and naked, dancing below Penélope’s lingering hand. “It’s such a powerful piece, isn’t it? So intimate.”
It was. I nodded in agreement.
“This is one of my favourites; I love the female form. But I guess I’m more of a realist. My portraits look nothing like this.”
She moved her hands away from the painting, but the woman on the canvas continued to dance before me. I could see her spinning in the purple background, unaware that she was being observed. Penélope startled me when she spoke again.
“You know, cariño, you really remind me of someone.” She walked towards me as she spoke, reaching a hand towards my face. “Maybe you can do me a favour.”
“Of course. What can I do to help?”
She held back from touching my face, instead using her hand to adjust her brace, pulling it up like a pair of tights.
“Well, do you think you can come over again tomorrow? Whenever Evita gives you some time off.” She paused, her hands resting awkwardly on the frame that surrounded her. “I haven’t painted in a long time. Alfonso has been so busy with work.”
I pointed over at the wooden chest in the entrance hall, offering to carry her supplies for her, but she laughed.
“Cariño, I’d like to paint you.” Her arms fell to her side once more. I hesitated, unable to avoid her gaze. “We don’t get many people like you around here.”
I looked up at the dancing woman in the painting, but she was still again.
“Will you pose for me?” she asked. “Please?”
I never really understood why I agreed to be her subject. I knew that it would make Eva uncomfortable if I spent time at the Muñoz’s, but something drew me to their mansion. I wanted to see what hid behind the white walls, beyond the living room that I looked into every day. I would have also felt guilty if I had said no, refusing a broken woman.
Over the weeks Penélope and I had developed a routine; I would go over in the mornings and she would paint for hours with no break, knowing that her talking would distract me from the numb pain of sitting still. And yet, even as the time passed, she refused to show me what was on the other side of the easel. I sometimes wondered if there was anything there at all.
“Jimena, this is fantastic.” Today, Penélope had changed her arrangement for the first time. She was sitting where I usually did, on a chair in front of the window. The light on her face made her look paler than usual, bringing out the wrinkles under her eyes. She looked as if she had been up all night. “I think I’m almost done with it.”
I smiled and told her I was looking forward to seeing the final result.
“You know, I’m not sure I want you to stay silent today. There is so much I want to know about you. Did I ever tell you that you remind me of someone?”
“You might have mentioned it, Señora.”
“Oh, and that accent. It kills me. Why did you move to Spain? Everything we say here sounds so boring compared to the Argentinians.”
I moved warily towards the artist’s chair and sat down. “I’m not sure, Señora. I guess because of the language. I would have gone to the States if I hadn’t failed all of my English classes.” She began to paint again.
“Ah, I get it. I failed English too. For everyone else it was maths, you know? But for me it was English, I just couldn’t do it. And now everyone speaks it.”
She went silent for a while as she concentrated on the movements of her paintbrush. I tried to imagine what she could be drawing, but still only a blank canvas came to mind.
“Have you ever heard of Brighton?” Her accent made the name sound unrecognisable, but I knew I wouldn’t have heard of it anyway. “It’s a town in the south of England, by the beach. My mum sent me there as an au pair when I young, maybe a little older than you. Right before I met Alfonso, actually.” I didn’t reply, but I knew I didn’t have to. “I didn’t learn a word of English, but it was one of the greatest times of my life. I used to drop the kids off at school every day and sit on the pier in the afternoons, with my boyfriend.” Her hand began to tremble and she painted, shaking the brace around her chest. “We couldn’t really understand each other, but he was an artist, too, and when we painted together everything felt like it made sense. I didn’t even mind the weather when I was by the beach, with him.”
“That sounds lovely, Señora.”
“It was. I wish had stayed longer.” I was amazed that Penélope was still engaged in conversation. She seemed fully involved in her art now, her eyes not leaving the canvas. “You should learn English.”
“I’d love to. Maybe then I could travel, too.” She went still as I spoke. “How long were you there for?”
“Oh, about a month. It’s silly of me to bring it up, it was so long ago.” She was silent again as she mixed the colours on her palette. It was the first time I had ever felt peaceful around her. When she looked up, however, I realised that her eyes were brimming with tears. I left the artist’s chair to go to her, asking what was wrong. “It’s just my back, cariño. It hurts so much sometimes.”
The following day, Penélope barely spoke as she led me to her studio. She sat back in her usual place, the artist’s chair in front of the window. With the sun behind her, her features were blurry, but I could still see the fatigue in her face, the makeup caked under her eyes.
“How are you feeling today, Señora?” I asked, breaking her rule of silence.
“Oh, I’m better thank you.” She didn’t smile as she spoke. “Alfonso flew back last night.”
“It must be nice to have him here,” I said. She mentioned him often, but Alfonso was rarely around, always working late or travelling. And yet I could feel his presence around the house; the building had a sort of masculine monotone that could only have been designed by a wealthy businessman. It was white and minimalist, verging on boring. Even Penélope’s studio, ample and cold as the other rooms, had only an easel and her painting supplies in the centre of the room.
Penélope turned away, bending as far as her brace would allow her to collect some more paint. She mumbled in vague agreement before speaking again.
“I’ll be working with brighter colours today. I think it’s because you look different, Jimena.”
I asked her what she meant.
“I don’t know. Lively, for a Tuesday morning anyway.”
“I suppose I am, Señora.” I said, melting into my chair as I watched her mix the paint. “I had a good dream last night.”
“I love dreams. Tell me about it.” Penélope’s brace swelled as she lifted her chest in excitement.
“I guess nothing actually happened in it. I was just on the beach with my family. It wasn’t back home, but it was still home, if that makes sense?” She smiled in understanding. “I was sitting on a towel with my sister, watching my parents swimming in the distance. I don’t really remember the details, just that we were splitting an alfajor like we used to when we were kids.” I slumped further down, forgetting that I was posing.
“Do you ever get to go back to Argentina?”
“Not really,” I said. “My sister got ill right after I left school, and we needed money to cover the medical expenses. So my mother sent me abroad to find work. I still send some of my salary back every month, so it wouldn’t really make sense to spend it on flights home.”
“I suppose you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” Her words were blunt, but I could feel the sympathy in her voice when she asked me if I missed home.
“I do, but I’m used to it now. I miss my family more than anything else.” Penélope turned back to her canvas. “We grew up in a little flat together, so we were really close. I haven’t really found that kind of love here.”
Penélope opened her mouth to speak, but she was distracted by something on the canvas.
“I think I know now,” she said, “who you remind me of.”
As I began to ask who it was, the sound of an engine filled the studio, bouncing around the walls as it approached us. I almost thought the car would crash into the window, but it turned smoothly towards the driveway in the way that only expensive cars can. Penélope didn’t turn towards it, but the sound made her back stiffen, and she winced as the brace dug into her skin. I felt an urge to leave, but something in Penélope’s expression told me that I needed to stay with her. After a moment she put her paintbrush down, reaching a single finger out towards the canvas and poking it. She looked away only to observe the paint that had filled the cracks in her skin. When she gazed up at me for a brief moment, I felt as if she had forgotten I was there. Her eyes were rounded, guilty. She began to pick at her skin as the door slammed behind us.
Patricia Clarke is a Spanish-British writer and journalist. Formerly based between Madrid and Paris, she recently relocated to London, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction. Find her on Twitter: @paticlarke