Favourite Albums

Favourite Albums: Buena Vista Social Club

Megan and I met in our second term of university. I’d seen her around campus often in first term—wandering through by herself, her painfully bright blonde hair hanging down below her breasts over that thick shirt she always used to wear. It was cold in Cardiff in autumn, and she always had a scarf on which she’d drape over her shoulder. I remember jokingly referring to her as ‘The Angel’ to my flatmates. They didn’t find it funny.

January rolled around, and two of my best friends at university and I, Rich and Leader, decided to go out to what might well be the third-worst nightclub in the city. We sat in my bedroom in halls of residence, listening to Nas, Nirvana and Arctic Monkeys, drinking £1.99 White Lightning cider mixed with blackcurrant squash. Then we jumped in the cab and headed to Glam.

We’d not been in there long when I spotted her across the dance floor. She was with a group of friends, all of whom were standing awkwardly to one side, semi-dancing in the pulsating light to Avicii, or Tiësto, or Martin Garrix, such was the music playing in that god-awful nightclub. She, though, was by herself on the dance floor, ironically dancing with—or at, perhaps—anybody who ventured too close to her, grinding up against men and women alike, annoying them with jazz hands to the face and generally annoying as many people as she could. I remember laughing and thinking that she was my kind of girl. I yelled in Rich’s ear that I’d spotted the girl I’d been talking about for the last few weeks, that she was just across the dance floor. I pointed her out. He then convinced me to do something I only very rarely do—go up and start dancing with a girl I’d never met.

I went up to her and started dancing like a total fool, and she didn’t back off or eye me warily. Instead, she requited. We didn’t talk for those short five minutes we danced—just looked at each other and pretended like we were having the best time in the world, which of course, I was. One of us—it may have been her—suggested we head outside for a cigarette. The other concurred and I left Rich (we’d lost Leader long before) by himself and went upstairs with her, the hypothetical girl of my platitudinous dreams, to hastily roll up two cigarettes.

I don’t remember any of the rest of the night in the club, but I assume we exchanged names and stayed together for the rest of the evening, for my next recollection is alighting from the taxicab with her at our halls of residence. She lived in one of the juxtaposed blocks to my own, and rather than go upstairs with Rich and Leader (we’d found him) I followed her up to her room and we sat, smoking out of her window and talking, for perhaps only fifteen minutes. I was so drunk it’s safe to assume I wouldn’t have been able to perform if anything had happened, but fortunately it didn’t. She gave me her phone number and that was that—I left with a feeling of elation buried somewhere in my gut.

Over the next few weeks, we texted intermittently and didn’t see each other again, until one evening she told me that her ‘friend’ Jake was coming to stay with her from home. I took this as a bad sign, and indeed, a few days later she confirmed that he was her boyfriend, and she apologised for not referring to him as such earlier—she couldn’t explain to me what it was that had made her lie, but something had. I fell apart somewhat after this (at least internally) and it seemed that it was all over.

But it wasn’t. We met up for sporadic cigarettes over the next couple of weeks, and one evening when everybody else had decided they couldn’t make it out, we decided to head to Buffalo Bar, our favourite local watering hole, just the two of us, a couple of bottles of aforementioned dry cider deep, a pack each of Amber Leaf in the pockets of our matching black skinny jeans, and me with a horrible sense that I was getting in over my head.

Again, I can recall little of that night; I remember Buffalo Bar, which had a dance floor upstairs which usually hosted some decent house and dubstep nights, being entirely void of people, and the two of us danced by ourselves for some time. Then Ninja, Cardiff’s local eccentric—a man who used to busk with steel drums in the street but seemed to have the money to afford designer clothing; who had long black dreadlocks and a soothing Caribbean voice—came up to us and tried to teach us, to no avail, to dance well. The next I remember we were back at halls, this time in my bedroom, embracing on the bed.

Everything of my first year at university seems to be coated in a dense fog—indeed, I was at perhaps my unhappiest during this time, and after I met Megan things became simultaneously better and worse—and so I fail to remember the exact details of that evening. Nothing too awful happened, but we did kiss, for a long while in my bedroom; and perhaps it was the fact that we only kissed which made the whole situation so insidious.

For several months after this, Megan and I would meet up—often at hers, but sometimes at mine, too—and merely watch television, talk, smoke, and occasionally have a few drinks. The amount of television we watched during this period is a little shameful—all of Sherlock, the film Gladiator at least twice, the complete collection of Outnumbered and a fair few episodes of Bad Education came and went. I would always wonder, for the duration of our time together, whether anything would happen between us that particular evening; and over the course of the night, we would slowly move closer and closer towards one another, and without fail we would end up kissing, and nothing more.

One particularly fateful evening—if memory serves, it was during one watching of Gladiator—more did happen. Moments from making the beast with two backs, I said no, that I couldn’t, that I felt too guilty about her boyfriend—as though what we were doing wasn’t bad enough already—that it was wrong, and I should leave, and I’m really sorry and all that other shit. Just before, she had received a text. I asked her who it was from, and she responded, ‘Just my boyfriend, telling me he loves me.’ What’s a boy to do?

I left soon after. That was it—we didn’t talk for a while, and we remained on subtly bad terms for months. That is, until I received a message from her over Facebook while I was home over summer—a nonchalant message, I hasten to add—informing me that her boyfriend and she had split up. As it turned out, he had been cheating on her for several months also. When she had found out, she had ended it, without revealing the truth about me and her. I don’t believe she ever told him. I don’t particularly care. All I remember is a feeling of overwhelming euphoria, which was numbed heavily by the speedy realisation that it was several months until I was to see her again and she would probably have found some other lover by then. But she didn’t.

I texted her at some point in the first couple of weeks of the first term of my second year, and was honest about how I felt. I told her that I fancied her, but that it wouldn’t affect our friendship. Again, she got angry. She couldn’t understand why we couldn’t have a platonic relationship; she was angry that feelings had to be involved. I know now that her anger was false. She didn’t wish we were platonic; she just wasn’t ready to be in a relationship with me yet, and neither was I with her. I believe, had we given it a go during second year, everything would have fallen apart. If I were a cynic, I would say that, in hindsight, it would probably have been for the best, considering how things have turned out. As it is, I’m not ready to not fall out of love with her yet. Perhaps I never will be.

A few days after that momentous text message, her and I met up, and finally fucked. It felt like it had been decades in the making, but in reality it hadn’t even been a year. Even so, it didn’t fall short of the massive expectations which had been lingering around it since our first year midweek trysts in the early hours. While we were together that evening, we were extremely intimate—more intimate than a one night stand would ever be. But then we both knew that was never what we were, or would be.

Not long after, I began seeing another girl, Freddy. Our relationship went to the dogs relatively quickly—I often had problems in the bedroom, the cause of which I still haven’t pinpointed, and we were very different people, too different to be compatible—and after a month or two of seeing each other, she slept with somebody while she was away skiing over the Christmas break. We had always said that we weren’t exclusive, but still I felt a little betrayed, even though I knew that the two of us wouldn’t last. The evening she told me, we had the best sex of our short-lived relationship.

Short lived, indeed. For the final month of us seeing each other—around March—we barely saw each other (which was my doing, and for that, Freddy, I am sorry), and things were going extremely badly. I had decided that I was going to break up with her on Saturday, this Saturday, and my housemates concurred. It wasn’t going well, Alston, mate, was it? No, boys, it wasn’t. I’ll see her this week and see how it is. As it turns out, it wasn’t all that good. I was resolved. Saturday would be the day we would end.

Alas, I made another fatal error—but an error which I couldn’t not make, because it was Megan. The Friday night, Megan and I met up on a night out, and we ended up back in my bedroom again. I felt guilty, but at the same time, my relationship with Freddy had, for all intents and purposes, been over for the best part of a month, I’d resolved to end it the very next day, we’d never agreed that we were exclusive and for god’s sake, she’d slept with someone just a few months before.

That was that. My feelings for Megan were confirmed. The memorable summer in Brazil came and went, and life, all too quickly, thrust us into third year. I ran a half marathon and afterwards began to slide slowly back into my old, first-year ways. But I had a new perspective: I was going to be as honest as possible about how I felt with all the people with whom I could bear to be honest (this did not extend to my housemates, dear to me though they were) and hopefully that would help. It did, in some ways. What helped more, though, was Megan.

I had been on a date with another girl, Hannah, the night before. The night after the night before was my good friend Mike’s birthday. We went out to a pub, and the plan was to end up in a nightclub, and end up in a nightclub we did. Throughout the night, unaware of my fledgling relationship with Hannah, Megan had been with me as we always were with each other—flirty is the only crude word I can use to describe it. Overtly flirty. And at some point in the night, in Live Lounge—where all the bad/good stuff happens—Hannah was right next to us as she was doing it, and I pulled away. Megan, true always to herself, became angry. I caved and was honest about what was going on. She was rightly furious with me, for not being honest, for lying by omission. I wasn’t content with it ending like this, though, and as I worked through one of the worst panic attacks of my life by pulling as hard as I could on several cigarettes outside, I expressed, in the simplest terms, how I felt about her, and hoped that she would feel the same. It turned out she did.

So, happily ever after? Also, Alston, mate, where the fuck do a Cuban band, an outgrowth of a 1940s members’ club in Havana, come into this? Patience, my dear friends.

We were living reasonably happily ever after, with the obvious ups and downs a couple in love have. We knew that we had an expiry date, because we were both sure we didn’t want to try a long distance relationship when university came to an end in a short few months, and this made her (in her own words) ‘self-sabotage’ the relationship intermittently by laying into me over very little. At the same time, my own mental state and floundering maturity made me reclusive and cold, and often she would want to see me three, four, five times a week, and I could only handle once or twice. That, though, was not for lack of wanting to see herit was for lack of wanting to see anybody. With my particular emotional ailments, the desire to get back into bed at five o’clock in the afternoon and stay there until the following morning is somewhat overpowering, and during this time it was happening frequently.

She, however, was a cure. To begin with, it was hard for her, and I understood that then, and I understand it now. She couldn’t comprehend why I just wanted to go home and be by myself. Towards the end especially, though, she came to judge when the right times to let me go home and mope around were, and when the right moment to tell me to fuck off and announce that she was coming over would be. Often, when I would begin to back out of plans we had made because I felt like I curling up into the fetal positioning and staying there for a half-day, she would force me into going out with her, and without fail make me feel better. She simply knew.

Just before we graduated, the two of us travelled to Malta for a last hurrah. I wrote this just after we got back, in an attempt to recreate a memoir like that which I wrote for Brazil, to no avail:

The camera itself was meaningless – just a plastic box, some metal wires inside forming a circuit, and a memory card protected by a thick waterproof shell. On its own, the camera was a worthless object, something which could be bought and sold, relative to the grand scheme of things, for pittance, of no value to anybody, least of all me. But the camera, in its mechanical, digitised manner, held not only visual representations of bygone times, but sensation and visceral memories, and possessed the means to tender said primitive emotions into palatable, beautiful scenes, which could often express more than the raw footage – express, if you will, more than the sum of its parts. And when it sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, it wasn’t the camera, really, we lost; it was the opportunity.

I will return to this extract. We arrived in Malta in high spirits, despite knowing that it was a farewell holiday. The first few days we explored. I vaguely remember us becoming angry with one another often, not least because Megan often became irritable in the heat—but I remember very few specifics, and they are so meaningless that I care not to dwell on them. We saw beautiful gardens and we wandered around the ancient, decrepit capital, which seemed to be falling down all around us. We met both locals and travellers alike and spoke to as many people as we could. Several people asked us about Brexit and we forcibly announced that we both were a part of the minority.

Our daily routine would consist of waking up early and exploring wherever we fancied until the early afternoon. Then, we would head back to the Airbnb in which we were staying and make love, quietly at first as we were rarely alone in the apartment, and then recklessly. We were on holiday, and this was it. Fuck some strangers we were never going to see again, and fuck the man on the roof fixing the aerial, and fuck the host who has let us this space for such a criminally low price. (Lemon was our host, who, despite his preposterous name, was an exceedingly kind man who made us feel very welcome. But still, fuck him too.) The sex was some of the best we’d had, and it had always been good. Perhaps it was the heat, or the knowledge that these would be some of the last few times, or just that we’d been practising for the last few months and knew exactly how the other liked it.

And this is where the album makes its appearance. Before our flight, as we wandered around London looking for a place to stow our bags and commence drinking, I had been playing Buena Vista Social Club, especially the third track ‘El Cuarto de Tula’, relentlessly. I had discovered the album perhaps a week or two before in the interim between university and Malta, and hadn’t stopped listening to it (as seems to be the only way I can listen to albums—all or nothing). I distinctly remember wandering past Buckingham Palace and singing along to ‘El Cuarto de Tula’, though I had no idea what the lyrics meant. She made some facetious remark about me being a twelve-year-old, walking along the streets playing music out loud. I didn’t care. This was the soundtrack to the holiday, and I planned on using some of the songs on it for a film I wanted to make about our time away.

As we walked around Malta, I purposefully hung back to get shots of Megan walking against idyllic backdrops—a beautiful old church, luscious green gardens, the rolling seas with endless lines of moored boats, a view over the hills and down to the cliffs beyond. I planned on putting all these shots together in half-second cuts and making a montage, which would serve as a sort-of Megan In Malta documentary, for my own personal reminiscing. Alas, the film was never made. Take your mind back to the above extract from said never-made travel memoir.

The second to last day in Malta. Megan and I sit on the balcony of a nice restaurant which overlooks the harbour, eating pizza and pasta what may well be the fourth night running. (The pizza there was delicious.) As we come to the end of our meal, we discuss what our plans for the next day are. Our flight is in the late afternoon, which leaves us with two choices: we either get an early one, wake up early, and go and make the most of the next day, and still manage to catch our flight back; or we head to the strip tonight, get plastered, wake up late tomorrow and laze around, eat a late breakfast, fuck a little in the heat of the apartment and relax by the harbour and on the roof until we have to get our flight. We decide that we would regret it if we chose the latter.

As a result, the next day I find myself on a rocking fishing boat beyond the edges of the mouth of the bay, a look of intense glumness on my face, as a kind young Maltese man swims twenty metres away in the depths of the Mediterranean with a snorkel on, looking for my GoPro. We decided that we wanted to do something touristy, so we hired a jet ski and caned it around the mouth of the bay for twenty minutes before jumping on the back of a banana boat. Subsequently, we were both flung off, and the wrist strap for my camera broke, leaving my camera to sink ten metres to the rocky bottom below.

Back in the past tense, I was devastated by what happened to the GoPro. It felt like a cruel end to what had been such a fantastic trip. It wasn’t losing the camera which was the problem—it was losing the footage. The camera was meaningless, as I alluded to after the event as I sat both fuming and internally weeping in my bedroom in already-cold England.

We headed home later that day. Soon, the heaviness in my heart caused by losing my camera was gone. An even worse feeling had overcome my senses: the feeling of it all being over.

We arrived back in England and jumped on the shuttle which was to take us to Victoria. Megan fell asleep on my shoulder for some of the journey and I was pleased to have this last moment of intimacy with her, even if it brims with cliché here.

We arrived at Victoria and immediately headed over to the Travellers Tavern (no apostrophe) to drown our sorrows. The Germany-France game was on, and there were supporters of both nationalities in the pub cheering on their teams. The revelry didn’t lift our spirits.

As we drank, we each mulled over our options. I think I spoke first, asking if we were set on what we had decided. She said she thought we were. That really was it, then—long distance was off the cards.

Megan’s bus had nearly arrived. It was coming in late. We finished up our drinks and had one final cigarette outside the pub.

The two of us walked to the entrance to Victoria. She checked the bus time. I hung back with the suitcases.

She returned. We embraced and kissed. And then I simply left.

There was no intensely emotional goodbye; in fact, I felt strangely numb to the whole thing. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t fathom it. She didn’t cry either. There was no reverberating piano in the background, informing the nonexistent audience how they should feel. There were no wild declarations of love. I didn’t run back to the station and get on the bus with her. We didn’t make promises we knew we couldn’t keep for the future. There was just a solemn ‘I love you’, a swift kiss, and then we departed, and as I walked along the road which would eventually take me into Victoria station—wherein I could jump on the tube, make my way back to Waterloo, board the train for home and get back into my own bed to contemplate what had happened, and how I felt, and what was going to happen next, and whether I’d ever find someone like her again, and whether she’d still think about me in the coming weeks, and whether we’d see each other again at graduation, and how long it would take her to move on, and why we, I, had been too scared to just try to make it work long distance, and how it was things like this people regretted in the future, and how I knew that as much as I tried, I would never sleep, not after everything that had happened, and then I would have to wake up the next day and try and get on with my life as though everything hadn’t changed—’El Carretero’ played over and over in my head.

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