#3 “Well? And so what?” I thought when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the feet of a man.
Like me, he too had halted in front of one of the prints hung upon the wall, no frame, just glazed. There would have been nothing out of the ordinary about it if the feet had not been in such large sizes. It wasn’t just any ordinary sneakers tapping, rather the kind that basketball players are forced to buy. I raised my glance and … he really was tall.
Huge all way round. He wore on old grey tracksuit that had gone baggy at the rear and knees, and a lined leather jacket over it. On his head he had a jazzy skiing cap with a bobble. He wasn’t concerned about me. Not about anyone. He was lost in the scene that I had already left for the next. This was the scene of the woman condemned to death by strangulation, riding through Madrid on a mule turned to the curious mob, accompanied by two guards on horseback. Who knows what it was that kept him in front of this scene? If I felt like joking, I would say that he fancied the pointed cap with the tassel on the woman’s head. I mean, the darkies are always keen on bright colours aren’t they? He stuck out his chest, raised his chin. He went three steps backward, as if measuring up the work of ort. He took a deep breath and then loudly and peremptorily let the air out through his mouth like a player who was getting ready to do a throw in. A few more times, he shifted the weight from toe to heel, with an only just audible muttering before he jumped the first lime. I was taken aback. He gave a quiet whoop. Putting his right leg out to one side, the man started rocking. A throaty sound like groaning tautened the veins on his neck and descended towards his stomach. Bringing his feet together, he jumped at first slowly, and then faster and faster, very adroitly, as if he had long been exercising this frenzy in a special hidden place set aside for it, as if he had been preparing for a public outburst in the National Gallery.
I was riveted. I had never seen such a thing in my life. This vast, powerful black man in his skiing cap jumping up and down. It was no longer hopping. He was jumping as if he were on a springboard. I caught his glance, Up to then, I had not been afraid. In eyes that were vainly looking for some focus the strength of some concrete mixer ready to obliterate the walls and me with them, crush me, stamp me into dust were gathering. It occurred to me he had noticed me, and I was at last gripped by fear. And he kept on leaping. He did it measuredly, more slowly, each time increasingly close the ceiling. The initially fairly quiet whoops were becoming louder. In the pauses between the strenuous leaps upwards, his two-metre body would shudder on the spot, muscles flickering, while a muttering more and more like some snarling in rhythmic phrases would emerge from this throat. Every part would end with a gulping of air, after which two intelligible words would follow. He would utter them as he breathed out, sending their sound back into the abdominal cavity: Papa Legba. When the deepest baaa reached the bottom of the man’s diaphragm, then came the jump, and after it the final liberation of power in a yell that was this time so piercing and powerful that my legs fled down the stairs all by themselves. Even several floors lower, right in front of the exit, I could still hear the shrieks that the security men were running towards.
* * *
I left this majestic edifice of British national shrine of art in which this discipline of some unknown cultural policy had gone wild. Outside, a cold violet dusk was falling, the kind that wraps some cities at the transition of autumn into winter. It was only at the crossing of two very busy streets that lay a whole block off that I felt my jaws slowly losing their cramp, and my limbs being slowly left by that uncomfortable feeling of high tension that had made me run, although at no time was it real fear, rather some primordial spiritual and physical shock al the encounter with on inexplicable phenomenon. I pressed the button al the traffic light, waiting for it to go green. #4 Everything went on its own way again: passers-by, cars. A stretch of pricey shops had already closed their doors to customers. In the shallow entrance in front of a lighted shop-window defended by bars a London street-person was making his bed. He was just getting ready for rest while I was crossing the road. I could see him sitting on his blanket and yawning, and then unscrewing his wooden leg. He lay on his side, covered himself with a coat, and put a bag underneath his head. He drew his artificial limb up to himself, so as to have it at hand, just in case it occurred to anyone to attempt to nick it. The old man with the wooden leg was calm, And he had reason to be, after all he had found a covered spot like a box before the other street-people. And peace came back to me too. I was overcome by a melancholy calm, a feeling close to apathy that overcomes the inhabitants of the great cities, even the most sensitive, the most spiritual, people like us, whom we wouldn’t dream of calling insensitive. Still, fear must have been lurking in me since my encounter with the dark-skinned jumper and just been waiting for some reason to come out on the surface, however slight. This occasion bore the shape of a man. He had a woollen cap on his head, jeans and a leather jacket, and was not particularly tall, but he was young and black, and looked dangerous. I was walking down a street that did, it is true, belong to a quiet neighbourhood, but in the evening it seemed deserted, particularly on a stretch with a few chestnut trees that kept out the lighting. When I realised that this young man was coming towards me, with the swaggering walk typical of street thugs, it was already too late to run. It would only have spurred his hunting instinct. I paced evenly towards trouble, my look downwards, not raising it even when he stood in from of me. I put my arm down by my body, and he had nothing else to do but push the leaflet in the pocket of my coat. For he was handing out advertising materials, which I realised only at this close encounter. I was ashamed. He went on, yelling back: “Read it, and you won’t have to walk the street with your head down any more!”
The flier said:
“It’s not important that you are weak. Not important that you are a woman. Don’t be afraid. Take things into your own hands. Call, or just show up for the night training. Rope Yard Rails 47”.
Alongside the address, in the south east of London, were two telephone numbers, and the name of the Grand Master of some skill that I heard of for the first time was written. He was called Papa Legba.
* * *
Several years have passed since that event. I don’t find things easy. Vincencio warns me from the grave:
“An educated person is unwilling to follow instructions, finds it hard to walk in the column of the asses. He likes the harder route, and is keener on jumping like a chamoix along the crocked paths of the spirit.”
Am I too walking in the parade of the greys? Have I betrayed my forebear? The Caprichos will come to my town sooner or later and when they do, by the lord, I shall ring those two numbers. Perhaps it is not too late for some night training.
Translated by: Graham Mc Master