Barcelona, Spain 2001
The alarm rings. It wrestles me from sleep, harasses me into consciousness, inflicts the most dreadful pain. My eyes are sore, my mouth is dry, my head beats like a forge’s hammer. I feel bad.
My hand searches for the phone on the bedside cabinet and turns the alarm off.
“Oh, dear God,” I sigh, my voice an octave lower than it usually is. “Not again.”
I sit up in bed with my hand over my eyes. The shards of sunlight, shining through the open window and the scream of a scooter from the street below make me wince. Through my fingers the black and white poster of the singer Morrissey looks down on me with pity from the bedroom wall. I return the look with remorse and regret.
Oh, why do I never learn?
For the first time ever I consider calling in sick. But today of all days, I have to go to school. Not because it’ll be obvious I have a hangover. And not because I have to invigilate the end-of-course test. But because I told my teenage students the speaking test would be in a café.
It seemed a good idea at the time. I didn’t see the point in stressing them out with a formal interview when I could assess their speaking skills during the course. Besides, it would have been a nice way to finish off the term. But now, if I don’t come in, it’ll be so unfair on them. And who knows what they’ll say to the cover teacher.
I get up and shuffle along the wooden floor to the bathroom, my head pounding with every footstep.
“Ahhh!” I swear in a whisper.
I crouch down in pain and grab my big toe, having stubbed it on the IKEA coffee table; one of the prized pieces of furniture acquired from the street.
“Who put that there?” I curse.
On the table is my Irish flatmate’s favourite video–101 Greatest Liverpool Goals.
I wonder whether he has a hangover too. At least he doesn’t have to work on a Saturday. Then I remember Shay’s incredulous expression when I arrived at the apartment the night before. With his open mouth, deep set eyes and furrowed brow he said: “Jesus, where did you get to? You left the bar half an hour before I did!”
I hobble to the bathroom and turn the light on and immediately wish I hadn’t. The mirror reflects the pain I’m in. My eyes are heavy, my face is pale, my lips downturned. It’s like looking at my own death mask.
I fill the washbasin and pat some water on my face.
“Oh God,” I murmur. “This isn’t looking good.”
There’s only one way to find out whether I’m fit for work–the toothpaste test.
Although not clinically proven, I’ve always believed that if you’re physically able to clean your teeth, you’re well enough to leave the house. Twenty minutes later and I’m still perched on the side of the bath tub, struggling to move my toothbrush back and forth. My arm so heavy I have to hold it up with the other. After one last rinse of my mouth, I reluctantly give myself the green light. I get dressed, take my shoulder bag and leave the apartment.
The broad tree-lined street of Carrer de Balmes is deserted. The tall majestic buildings offer shade from the sun, and the cool morning air gives some light relief. I walk to the end of the block, turn left into Avenida Diagonal, then right into Passeig de Gràcia. Near the school is a café. One of the few I haven’t tried before. Inside, there’s only one other customer: an old man, reading La Vanguardia. He looks up, licks his lower lip and continues reading the newspaper. The barista is cleaning the glass counter. On the wall behind him hang three large blackboards, displaying the drinks, sandwiches and cakes.
“Que desea?” he asks.
“Un café con leche, por favor,” I reply. “Y una madalena.”
I immediately regret ordering the little sponge cake.
“Enseguida,” he says.
As the barista makes the coffee, I slump down at one of the yellow linoleum tables. I can still taste the condensed milk from the night before, reminding me of the dimly-lit bar in Barri Gòtic with its low ceiling, red brick arches and the unlabelled wine bottles of leche de pantera (panther milk). That’s all I remember apart from raising my glass with my friends round a long wooden table saying: Cheers! Salud! Sláinte!
“Un café con leche y una madalena,” the barista says, breaking me from my spell.
He puts the coffee and the cake on the table.
“Gracias,” I reply and start to pick at my breakfast.
Outside the street is coming to life, with people going for walks, going to the shops, taking it easy. How I wish to be one of them! Round the corner is the school. The building normally looks impressive with its light-grey facade, bay windows and Corinthian columns. But today it looks dull and heavy.
In the lobby is an old-fashioned lift, which must be over a hundred years old. It even has a concertina door. As it rattles through the floors, my head throbs, and I just hope the day will pass without embarrassment. The lift stops at the top with a jolt, unsettling me even more. I get out and enter the school.
At the reception is Dani. He looks busy sorting out files and papers. On the wall behind him hangs a large poster of two students laughing at something, with Brighton 15 Idiomas written at the top. Somehow it feels like they’re laughing at me.
“Hey Rob,” Dani says. “How’s it going?”
“Not so good,” I reply. “I had a bit too much to drink last night.”
“Too much Voll-Damm beer, eh?” He smiles.
“Actually, it was something called leche de pantera.”
“Ooh!” He pulls a face. “That gives you such a hangover!”
“Tell me about it.”
“Here are your tests,” he says, handing me a pile of papers. “Upper Intermediate, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“There should be ten of them.”
“What about the tape for the listening?”
“There isn’t one. You have to read a passage from a book. It’s in the teacher’s booklet with the answers and the register.”
“Oh, okay then,” I say. “Thanks, Dani.”
The classroom is just down the corridor. Inside, the students are chatting to each other. The desks are arranged in rows instead of the usual horseshoe shape, reminding me of secondary school.
“Morning,” I say, dumping the test papers on the teacher’s desk.
“Good morning,” they reply.
“What a great day for a test!” I smile.
Some of the students laugh.
Miguel raises his hand. He’s sitting at the front and looks a little nervous, his face paler than usual.
“What happens if we no pass the exam?” he asks.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, “I’m sure you’re all going to pass.”
“Are we still going to a café for the speaking test?” Monica asks.
She looks more relaxed with her head resting in her hand and her leg tucked under itself on the chair.
“Yes, that’s right. We’re going to have a ‘chat’ in a café,” I reply, making speech marks with my fingers.
“Che chulo!” She smiles.
I take the register and hand out the test papers.
“So, we’ve got one for you and one for you and one for you and one for you…”
After giving out the tests, I take one of them and open it up.
“If you open your tests, you can have a look at the questions,” I say, pointing to the first page. “So, in the first part of the test you have the listening, and you just have to write true or false for each of the sentences one to ten, okay?”
“How many times can we listen to it?” Camila asks, putting her hand through her long straight hair.
She’s wearing a white t-shirt with red lips all over it.
“Twice,” I reply. “I’ll just give you some time to read through the questions first, and then we’ll begin, okay?”
But when I begin reading, I start to feel hot and uneasy; an unsettling sensation snakes up from my stomach, and I become overwhelmed with nausea. Reading the passage becomes more and more difficult, and the pauses between the sentences become longer and longer as I try to suppress whatever is trying to come up.
“Okay,… I’m going to read it out again,… and you can… check your answers,” I gulp and burp, cursing the fact I can’t just play a tape recording.
After my second gurgling rendition, I go through the reading and writing part of the test. But by this time I’m at my limit, and can’t hold it down any longer.
“So, you have one hour… for the reading… and writing… from now,” I say, before dashing to the toilet.
Despite being only down the corridor, I have just enough time to close the cubicle door. As soon as I see porcelain, a green fountain arches from my mouth into the toilet bowl. I crouch down with my arms wrapped round my stomach, throwing up again and again and again, coughing and retching until there’s nothing left.
How many toilets have I been this close to? I know all the names: Armitage Shanks, Royal Dalton, Ideal Standard; I even know the foreign ones too. And here I am again, the same familiar story.
Will I ever learn?
I reappear in the classroom somewhat dishevelled. My eyes are watery, my nose blocked, my mouth tastes of bile. I only hope my students didn’t hear me surrender the remnants of my breakfast. They are diligently working away. I pretend to invigilate for a couple of minutes and then collapse onto my chair. I can’t go on any more. Resting my head on the desk with folded arms as a cushion, I close my eyes and feel myself slowly drifting away, up and up and up, and as I fall into unconsciousness there’s a click of a camera shutter and the titter of students.
Cover image courtesy of Jim Valentine via Flickr
Read more about teaching English here.