My last night in Spain I went shopping for green jumpers. I was in Girona, it was Christmas Eve and I was due to fly out the next day on a half-empty plane owned by a Muslim airline. I would return to a hot fetid night in Australia and stories of a heat wave, the nasturtiums dead in the garden.
I wanted green because I knew European men weren’t as afraid of colour as Australian men are, and I would find more than black or grey or navy blue in the shops. It was cold but festive: Feliz Navidad was playing in the supermarkets, there were crowds on every street with shopping bags and children teetered on a mini ice-skating rink. Everywhere I saw men in bright down jackets; green and red and bright, bright blue. I bought a scarf, a great big long scarf, far too ostentatious for Australia, and felt people looked at me differently, as if I were one of them, as if I belonged.
I saw and bought a green zip-up jacket from a bored and disinterested salesman and a soft green-blue jumper, but I could not find the bright green I had seen so many Spanish men wearing, bright apple green jumpers that made me smile. A saleswoman at one store kept me talking in the hope, I suppose, that I would eventually buy something, but they had nothing that I liked.
The man I was with was bemused but patient. He walked with me for hours looking at different shops and waited while I tried things on. He didn’t roll his eyes or look at his watch. He seemed to genuinely care that I found something that I wanted, but he found it hard to believe Australia was the way that I described it.
He took me to a cheap shop whose name I don’t remember. He urged me to buy very bright clothes; bright reds and blues and greens. I was surprised because he was wearing a dull-coloured jacket himself. He had a shy smile and a nervous laugh. He was taller than me but I did not feel intimidated by him, younger than me but I couldn’t notice the age difference.
He took me across the historic bridge to the old part of the city. We walked along the top of the Roman wall. I asked him to take photographs of me. I wanted to kiss him but didn’t. I didn’t know if he liked me or if it was just Latin charm. He was very kind to me: giving me time to soak it in, letting me explore whatever I wanted, trying to find a restaurant that I would like. For lunch we had soft leeks and salmon mousse. At my farewell dinner in Australia my colleagues had given me 50 euros, telling me to spend it on a special meal. This, I decided, was the meal I would tell them about, if ever they asked. Outside the Roman wall in front of the red and yellow trees we kissed and held each other a moment.
Later we walked in the streets and he showed me a statue of a lion on the top of a pole.
“There is a legend,” he said, “that if you kiss this lion on the…how do you say it, the culo?”
“The arse,” I said.
“Yes, the arse,” he said, adopting my Australian pronunciation, “that if you do that, you will stay in Girona forever.”
We laughed and talked about how silly the idea was. He told me that when he first came to Girona a group of colleagues brought him here and made him kiss it. That was eight years ago and he has lived here ever since. And then standing looking at the statue he told me that I must kiss the arse of the lion too.
Now I sit here in Australia, writing. Six months later the grass is white with frost and ice sheaths the windscreen. In the shop on Christmas Eve, he convinced me to buy a hooded top of emerald green. I had thought it too much, too strange, too European. I had never seen anything like it. Now I wear it every night.
You can read an opinion piece from James about his experiences of reading this short story at the 2016 Emerging Writers Festival in Right Now’s opinion section.