Photo: agsaz / Shutterstock.com
After my visit to the Royal Alcazar, I stopped at a café and sat outside, relishing the almost-warmth in that last day of December, sipping the thick hot chocolate and dipping fat fingers of churros into it, telling myself it was my lunch, before I remembered that I no longer had to excuse my life to someone else. I could eat when I was hungry, I could visit the museums I wanted, and I could leave my fractured marriage behind and spend Christmas and New Year alone in the south of Spain, without having to apologise or excuse or explain anything to anyone.
The Alcazar had failed to move me in the way I had expected, and I flicked through the photos I’d taken on my phone, to see if I could find the flaw. I was distracted, though, by the bright oranges growing just over my head – growing everywhere in the city, as sycamores grow in Dublin – and the blue sky and honeyed light that only appear at a certain latitude. A tight knot deep inside me started to loosen and uncoil, and I let my thoughts slacken, watching the people all around me as they enjoyed the holidays leading up to their big festival – The Three Kings – celebrated on 6th January with Christmas gifts, a delicious looking cream-filled pastry cake and, according to my online research, a huge parade through the streets of the city the night before, when sweets would be scattered to the waiting families. I relished the unfamiliarity of it.
When I eventually moved on, I noticed that so many of the tapas places I had been frequenting were closing for the day or were otherwise offering special menus for New Year’s Eve, with eye-popping prices. It didn’t appeal, in these places where eating by myself had been comfortable up to now. I decided to buy groceries, and all roads in Seville lead to El Corte Ingles, I had found, rounding corners and coming out of narrow streets to find myself shaded by the mushroom domes of Las Setas, and facing the department store occupying one side of the square.
In the grocery section, deep in the basement, while loading up my basket with anything I fancied, I found tiny plastic punnets of grapes, and remembered some connection with New Year’s Eve. I took a box and promised myself to look up the tradition when I got back to the apartment. I had one more stop planned, before then.
The Palacio de Las Duenas was just across from where I was staying, and its palms, fronding up into the lavender haze of sunset, had been a restful sight in my evenings as I relaxed after a day of walking the city, enjoying a glass of wine and a book with no claims on my time. I had not visited until now, but as I strolled around the gardens, the fountains, the cloistered courtyards, I realised what had been, ironically, missing from the busy Alcazar: the people. Not visitors, of which the Alcazar had so many, and Las Duenas, so many fewer, but the life of the people who had lived in these places. The Alcazar was a monument, bare and awe-inducing in its splendour, but Las Duenas was a home, with books and posters and art and flamenco dresses and all around, evidence of a life well-enjoyed. I crossed the road to the apartment I had rented, feeling restored to myself – something off-balance had been put right walking around this lovely place.
I cooked for myself, eating what I wanted and making no concession to it being a special day warranting celebratory foods and exhausting preparation. As midnight approached, I climbed the stairs and came out onto the balcony at the top of the building, carrying my container of grapes and a bottle of cava. The tradition with the grapes, I had learned, was to eat the twelve grapes on the twelve strokes of midnight, promising luck and prosperity for the year ahead.
The air was chill, up so high, but I sat looking out over the street as people made their way out of restaurants and bars to begin the celebrations, and the noise began to grow, cheerful and raucous and hopeful. As the church bells all across the city started to toll, time folded in on itself and it was every New Year’s Eve we had ever spent together, every trip we had taken, every time we had watched the fireworks together; that time we crossed over London on our way home to a party, our delayed flight meaning New Year rang in below us as we flew, the city bursting into myriad lilliputian clusters of fireworks, so tiny when seen from above. I ate the grapes, pushing in each next one as the bells rang and the city exploded into light and colour and sparkle and squeals all around me, and tears finally ran down my face, my wet eyelashes refracting the colours so the whole world was red and blue and green and gold. Everything was ending and everything was beginning – it was a new decade and a new start. I wished for myself all the things I had lost, promising myself travel to places I hadn’t been, had wanted to visit, places I would now see alone. I hoped for love and for luck and a happy new year.
Fiona McKay lives beside the sea in Dublin, Ireland. She writes Flash fiction and is also querying a novel. Words in various places, including: Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Scrawl Place, The Birdseed, Twin Pies, SL Bath Flash. Nominated for Best Microfiction 2021. Tweets at @fionaemckayryan