1. A Postcard
One evening in May as I was walking home, I witnessed a mugging, and did nothing to prevent it. I could see what was going to happen. It was in the Gothic quarter of the city, just off the Ramblas. Ornate lamps lined the street, reminders of a more grandiose era, and narrow lanes led off into labyrinths unvisited by daylight. As I passed the entrance to one such lane, I noticed a pale young man standing there, reptile eyes scanning the human traffic. I slowed my pace.
I had gone barely ten strides when I heard a woman’s voice, shouting a single word in shrill English. The man had pounced, and was trying to wrest the shoulder bag from an ash- blonde, sunburned woman who wore a short pink dress. The bag’s strap had become twisted around the woman’s arm. The thief kept pulling, the woman stumbled, and as she fell into the road, the bag slipped free. The thief ran back across the street and up the alley, clutching his prize tight against his chest.
This all happened in an instant. I couldn’t move.
The woman stayed in the gutter for a few seconds, the pink dress up around her hips. Lying there, half on the sidewalk, half in the road, she looked sad and vulnerable. She was heavily built and her legs were red. Clumsily, she got to her feet, shouting: “Stop the bastard!”
She was looking straight at me.
Fortunately, there was a helpful citizen nearby, quite close to the alleyway. He was youngish, dressed in a lightweight blue suit. He turned and gave chase, disappearing into the darkness, before returning a few seconds later, his arms spread in the Latin gesture of hopeless endeavour. He commiserated briefly with the woman, who understood nothing he said, then shrugged and went on his way.
The woman dusted off her dress with a few angry brushes of the hand. She looked as though she were about to cry. I still hadn’t moved. Several other people, who had stopped briefly at the time of the theft in the hope of some excitement, had begun to move on. I was wondering, among other things, what might have been in the bag.
“You could have stopped him. Bastard!”
She spewed out the first vowel of that word, as though gagging on a lump of gristle.
It was clear that she was addressing me, but I was unwilling to look up and face her, to respond to this accusation. She was probably right. Had I been able to move, I was the person best placed to detain the thief. I was bigger than he was. I could have tackled him as he sped into the alleyway. Alternately, I could have tripped him, sent him flying, then strode up and placed my boot on his neck, spat insults in his ear, pummelled him with feet and fists. I could have humiliated and thrashed him, and come away a hero, to be blessed with the gratitude of the sunburnt tourist, the applause of passers-by. The pink woman would have invited me to dinner in her hotel, confiding in me the squalid details of an unhappy marriage, an unsatisfactory job, her decision to strike out on her own, her now-thriving little business in the south-east of England, her trips to what she would call ‘The Continent’. As the evening wore on, the prospect of some drunken sex would have arisen, or worse, become reality. The calm of my life would have been shattered. And for what? A few American Express cheques, a passport, a ticket, a hotel key, a powder puff, a lipstick. Sun tan lotion of an overoptimistic factor. Besides, the junkie needed the money more than she did. You just had to look into his eyes.
I stared at the woman in front of me, and to my relief was unable to summon a trace of compassion. My feet came to life and I continued on my way. I did not look back. I continued up Carrer Ferran, past the City Hall with its ornamental pots of greenery and its air of abandoned colonial glory. Over the cobblestones and past the solitary policeman, and a huddle of beggars. Across Via Laietana and the noisy traffic.
Choosing a familiar bar near Santa Caterina Square, I sat down at the counter, next to the espresso machine. I ordered a beer and a brandy, sank the beer, and nursed the brandy. A pimp was arguing with one of his girls further down the bar. They left soon after I came in. The place was quiet. I was shaken up by my experience on Ferran. And yet I saw such things almost daily. Why, this time, had it affected me? Because the woman looked at me and spoke, in English. “Bastard,” she had said, three times. The final one was definitely for me. I hadn’t lifted a finger to help.
I told the barman, Enrique, about the mugging. I glorified my own inaction and exaggerated the awfulness of the victim. Enrique laughed, unamused, and in retaliation told me about a knifing that had taken place in the bar the month before. I had heard the story twice already, and I wasn’t listening. I drained the brandy and left.
My apartment was on Santa Caterina Square. It was the atico, the top floor, up eight flights of steep steps. The place was small, and draughty in winter. The best thing about it was the rooftop veranda. Sitting on the veranda I was slightly higher than most of the neighbouring rooftops. I could sit and watch the lights of Tibidabo, a spectral funfair in the night sky. Or I could look down on the dirty glass roof of the old Santa Caterina market, sprawling beneath me like an empty railway station. Mostly though, I could lie back on my hammock and look at the stars, while listening to the sounds of the city below.
When I opened the door of the flat there was a picture postcard lying in the hallway. It showed a reproduction of a painting by Joan Miró. I turned the card over. Neatly written, in green ink, was what appeared to be a date and a time: 20 May – 11.00. There was no explanatory message, no indication of who had written the card. The printed details told me that the reproduction was entitled Dona en la Nit in Catalan, or Woman in the Night. The painting could be found at the Miró Foundation. May 20 was the next day.
Mail delivered to my flat never came upstairs. It stayed down in the letter box by the front door for me to collect. Whoever slid this under my door had let themselves into the building, or else was a resident. Quickly discounting all the occupants as possible authors, I decided to call on Manu, my Andalucian neighbour, to see if he could supply a clue. Manu lived on the third floor with his wife and teenage daughter. He kept rabbits on the flat roof, behind my kitchen. In the evenings he would sit on the roof near the rabbit hutches and drink white Córdoba wine. I sometimes joined him on the rooftop patio. Our friendship manifested itself in this undemonstrative evening ritual. We enjoyed each other’s company. From our vantage point on the roof we sustained a laconic commentary on the neighbourhood and world affairs. If Manu was lonely he would knock at my door, or tap on my kitchen window (which looked out onto our shared rooftop with the rabbit hutches, a table and some chairs) and ask me out for a glass or two. He worked as a warehouseman at the docks.
Manu came to the door, eating. We greeted each other. “Oy, Manu, did I have a visitor this evening?”
He wiped his mouth with a dirty napkin. “Coño, how would I know?”
“I’ve been out. Someone’s put a card under my door.” “I haven’t heard anyone. Wait.”
He shouted to his wife and daughter. They both called back in the negative.
Manu was wearing a white vest, and had a round belly. He smelled of wine. “Come in. Have a drink. Something to eat.”
“As you wish. Hey, don’t worry.” “What?”
“Maybe they’ll come back.”
“Whoever called. Your visitor.”
“You seem preoccupied.”
“I can’t understand it. What I can’t understand preoccupies me.”
Manu thought about this, visibly.
“You know what preoccupies me? My rabbits. Rabbits should screw. Those rabbits don’t do any screwing.”
This was contrary to the truth. Manu’s rabbits fornicated and reproduced at a formidable rate.
“Perhaps your bunnies are consumed by higher thoughts. The life of the spirit. Barcelona Football Club. The local elections. Or they have a different sexual orientation.”
“You think this hadn’t occurred to me also?”
“Of course. See you tomorrow.”
I went back upstairs and looked at the card again, unable to think of where to begin.
An unsigned note with no message, only an instruction, or an invitation, or both. I walked onto the rooftop veranda, with the card in my hand, and smoked a cigarette, the red tiles still warm under my bare feet. Lights were on all over the city. A warm breeze blew in from the sea, carrying the smell of salt and the promise of summer. I stood there a long time, leaning on the parapet, listening to the night sounds start up: taxis, dogs, a couple screaming at each other through the open shutters across the way. I decided to take a shower and have an early night.
At five o’ clock the next morning the sound of trucks woke me, as they began unloading at the market. This happened most days, and it suited me: I liked rising early. The bedroom adjoined the veranda, and I slept with the window wide open. The fresh fruit and vegetables were piled steeply in boxes on the cobblestones below, along with flowers and other indoor plants that were sold at the market. The air smelled good on a morning in May.
I was thirty-three years old. I suffered occasional liver pains and vague yearnings for domesticity, a steady income, children greeting me on my return home. The yearnings often came along with the pains. Three years before, after a bout of prolonged drinking and vindictive liver pains, I had gone to see an acupuncturist in Maragall, a district in the north of the city. The acupuncturist was a young woman called Fina Mendes. She attended to her craft enthusiastically while I suffered multiple impalations with a grinning masochism. My liver pains got better and I started seeing Fina in a non-professional capacity. She followed a macrobiotic diet and smoked Winston cigarettes. She encouraged me to eat quantities of brown rice and fresh green vegetables. She had jet black hair, surprising blue eyes; and drove a sporty Volkswagen Golf at dangerous speeds. She had graduated in biochemistry at the Autónoma University, enjoyed loud rock music, and believed in an impending invasion by extraterrestials. We became lovers and I moved into her apartment.
Most weekends we didn’t work, and made breakneck trips into the Pyrenees, taking just a couple of blankets, plenty of fruit and nuts, a pan for making tea. Parking the car on an unmarked dirt-track, we climbed to a suitable vantage point and I would make a fire, cook some herb tea. Fina would sit and scan the sky for likely spacecraft movements. She could do this for hours at a time, without losing faith. Sometimes she lay on her back, with her head on my belly. I looked at the sky too, wondering at the vastness of the constellations.
“Look,” she said, one night, after we had been lying there for an hour and a half. “There’s one.”
“That’s an aeroplane,” I said, without really looking. “It’s probably going to land at Girona.”
“Aeroplanes don’t flash like that. It’s a different colour light. A different sort of flash. Besides, this one’s not moving.”
The light in question was a silvery blue, and it was impossible to tell how high the craft was flying. It was either stationary, or else moving very slowly. “It’s hovering.” Fina said.
I had no idea what the blue light was, but I was never going to agree to it being a UFO. I reached over for one of Fina’s cigarettes, lit it, and stared at the tiny light. The sky was definitely nearer, up there in the mountains, and the great celestial curtain appeared fuller than usual, millions of stars exploding through seams of blackness.
“Why here, Fina? Why do you think they come here particularly?”
“The Pyrenees have the highest rate of UFO sightings in Europe. Especially the triangle between Montserrat, the Cap de Creus peninsular and Andorra. There are indications of some kind of cosmic receptivity. The number of stone circles in the area. Important religious centres in the Middle Ages. These things all point to special energy levels.”
Sometimes she sounded like a New Age tour guide.
“But what are they doing?”
“They’re waiting, I suppose.”
“Until we need them, of course.”
“So they’re kind of inter-galactic social workers?”
Fina generally ignored remarks of this kind.
“There will come a stage when humans push things too far. War, plague, devastation. Destruction of the environment. At that point, something extraordinary will take place.”
“How long before that happens, do you reckon?”
“Oh, five or six years.”
I sat up to add some wood to the fire. Fina’s theories fascinated me, but I did not share her beliefs in flying saucers. She had even voiced the opinion, early in our relationship, that I was an extraterrestial, but that I didn’t realise it. This had been on a previous nocturnal excursion, and thankfully she hadn’t returned to that theme, perhaps sensing my hostility to the idea. Now she sat up as well, agitated, leaned over and pulled spiky seed pods off my sweater, tossing them away as though they I were infested with giant lice. I continued to poke the fire with a long stick.
“You think I’m deluded.”
“No, it’s not that.” I replied, quickly. “But how can you be so definite about something so, well, so unproven.”
“It’s just a feeling, that ultimately, we’re protected by a force out there.”
“Like a faith in God.”
“No, not like a faith in God. Just an inner certainty.”
“Fina. You’ve been trained as a scientist. In other circumstances you believe in rational explanations, testable theories, all that stuff. But, without a jot of evidence, you insist on this idea of alien invasion. You’re too many contradictions.”
At times I needed to provoke her, because her belief in UFOs irritated me. It seemed to be a caving in to groundless silliness, whereas her practice of acupuncture and her faith in herbs and essential oils and shiatsu were at least founded in some kind of organic evidence and proven practice.
But it was not her contradictions that caused a rift between us. Rather, there was a growing sense that we wanted different things from each other. Within a year of moving in with her, I allowed my job to become more demanding, and began to work late in the evenings. Often I would come home at eleven o’ clock and Fina was already in bed, pretending to be asleep. She started to become unreasonably demanding. When she wasn’t pretending to ignore me she instigated sustained and energetic sex. I didn’t object to this, far from it; it was the increasingly stressful periods in between that got to me first, and then the disparity between these two aspects of our relationship; the silence and the sex. There was no middle ground, no fertile patch that might provide a place for getting to know each other well. Perhaps we shared less in common than we had wanted to believe at the outset.
One night I got drunk and crashed my car on the city ring road in the company of a one-armed Colombian poet and a transvestite Flamenco singer. I couldn’t remember anything about the accident, and spent a week in hospital. To make things worse there was another car involved, and a big insurance claim in consequence. I was in danger of losing my licence, but couldn’t recall being breathalysed or spending time in a police cell. On leaving the hospital, things became difficult with Fina. We started throwing things at each other, and dragging up past grievances, always a bad sign. I went to stay with Carlos, the Colombian poet, who lived in the Gothic quarter, and by the end of the week I had found the apartment on Santa Caterina. Now Fina and I hadn’t seen each other for two years. I found myself thinking about her as I lay in bed. Thinking about her both aroused and disturbed me.
I pulled on shorts and padded to the kitchen, brewed some coffee, and went to sit on the veranda. The sun was appearing above the distant cranes of the docks. It was going to be a warm day. Without making a conscious decision, I knew I would be going to the Miró Foundation that morning, and that at eleven o’ clock I would be standing by the painting Woman in the Night, wondering who or what I was supposed to be looking for.
I belonged to a health club off Maragall, a remnant from my clean-living days there. I decided to go for a work-out, to occupy a couple of hours before turning up at the Miró Foundation. The metro station was busy, but most people were travelling in the opposite direction, on their way to work. At the gym I warmed up with a stint on the treadmill, moving in ghastly synchrony with the office workers around me, each of us enclosed in a private project of dutiful self-improvement. I had to be careful not to overdo things, having been absent from the gym for two weeks. Nevertheless, I turned to the weights and pumped iron, flexing arms and sinews in a succession of increasingly painful movements. Finally I went for a sauna and a long swim. Most of the clientele were gone by now and I had the pool and the sauna to myself. I enjoyed the calm of the hot-room. It was a quiet haven after my exertions, and sweet with the smell of eucalyptus and new pine. I tried some breathing exercises. My mind was as empty as it ever got and I watched the rivulets of sweat as they coursed down my chest and stomach.
The door opened and, to my surprise, one of my oldest friends came in. Eugenia Fabre was a Catalan sculptor and painter who lived in the Gràcia district of the city. We had known each other since before I moved to Spain, having met in Athens some fifteen years earlier. There was an ascetic strain to Eugenia: she was a person accustomed to carrying out arduous and self-imposed tasks. She was dark, restrained, and serious, although possessing the quietly subversive humour of a subtle trickster. Her face carried a mark of animal kinship: if she had not been born a human, she would have been a fox.
“Eugenia. I didn’t know you were a member.”
She kissed me lightly on both cheeks.
“A friend gave me an invitation. So here I am. And what are you up to?”
“I’m pursuing an invitation as well, after a fashion,” I said, and told her about my postcard.
“That’s very mysterious. You know of course that Miró did more than one painting with this title?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes. Also, Woman with birds; Woman in the night with birds; Woman surrounded by a flight of birds. And so on.”
“Bird in the night surrounded by a flight of women?”
“I think not.”
“But, it’s odd. You see, first the postcard shouldn’t have been there at all; and second, it seemed to arrive at a significant moment.”
“It was just after I saw someone getting mugged. I could have helped, but I froze. As though it was happening on a television screen. I was more interested in watching than in doing anything.”
She took a while responding.
“It sounds bad. But actually it’s normal. It’s in the air. We live inside bubbles. Everything outside is treated like a malignancy, or an unwanted incursion. Drop around to my apartment. You make me feel sane.”
“Is that a compliment? I suspect not. But thanks, anyway. I will.”
“It’s been too long. Lethargy. Inertia. You need to take a trip. Walk in some mountains.”
A second, younger woman with short blonde hair entered the sauna and took a seat very close to Eugenia. She glanced at me suspiciously until Eugenia made a hurried introduction. I didn’t catch the woman’s name. My mind was elsewhere. It was becoming too hot for comfort in the sauna so I took my leave, enjoyed a long cool shower, and dressed, my limbs saturated with a luxurious sense of weightlessness.
There was a small café next door. I bought a Spanish newspaper and had breakfast, an omelette and bread washed down with a San Miguel. By the time I had read the paper it was past ten o’ clock. I left the café and caught the metro.
When I got onto the train, an incident was in progress. Four teenage gypsies were terrorising a red-eyed drunk at my end of the carriage. The drunk slurred back at them: ¡déjame en paz! – “leave me in peace!” They didn’t. They seemed to be goading him, trying to get him to reveal something to them. The vagrant shuffled towards the door at Drassanes station and I noticed that he was carrying a little dog under his coat. The gitanos jostled him. As he prepared to step out, a jet of piss issued from the puppy, squirting the nearest boy and soaking his shirt in the stream. The kid stepped back with a shout of disgust, and then lunged forward at the drunk, precisely as the doors closed. There was a glint of metal, and just as quickly, the knife was withdrawn. For an instant I was taken in by the dramatic quality of the performance, and expected to see the victim crumple to the platform floor. But it was simply playacting on the boy’s part. As the train pulled away the drunk turned angrily, talking to himself and re-arranging his coat around the little dog. Inside the carriage one of the gypsies re-enacted the scene with the knife, taking on the role of the vagrant, who in this version tottered cinematically in the aisle, falling in a slow pirouette. The one with the wet shirt didn’t smile. The others laughed, and then wandered down the carriage, looking for further entertainment.
2. Woman in the Night
I got off the metro at Poble Sec. The Miró Foundation is on Montjuíc, quite a walk from the station. A long stone stairway leads up the hill, then you follow the road a little way, and there it is, perched on the edge, overlooking the city. An understated, concrete building. I bought a ticket and went in. The exhibition space was bright and cheerful, a place that exuded sunshine, like its creator’s work. It was five minutes to eleven. There was a tightness in the pit of my stomach. Partly because of the picture’s title I had convinced myself that the postcard foretold an erotic encounter of some kind. Perhaps its very anonymity, and its appearance during a long bout of sexual abstinence impelled me to expect that, and yet there were many other possible outcomes to my visit.
I identified the correct painting, Woman in the Night, from the postcard. She hung in one of the upper rooms, but there was nobody standing near her. A few people milled around, mostly tourists, many of them Japanese. One young woman stood apart from all the other visitors. She didn’t appear to belong to any group, and had an air of knowing precisely what she was doing. She was dressed in black jeans and a brightly-patterned silk shirt, and moved with the proprietorial elegance of Barcelona women. I realised I was staring at her, and without thinking about it, had begun to follow her as she moved to the next room. I was conscious, too, that if my postcard indicated an appointment of some sort, then my appointee might well be watching me, even as I watched this girl in the silk shirt. Whoever they were, I didn’t want to be observed, observing. I attempted to be nonchalant, pretended to inspect a painting, then glanced around the room before leaving. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the girl. I followed her into the large central gallery. She was taking her time. She didn’t need to try and look knowledgeable: it was apparent that she knew the art works by the way she approached them with a relaxed familiarity. She in turn was easy to watch. There was a poise about her, a lack of self-consciousness.
I looked at my watch. It was eleven o’clock. My palms were sweating. It felt as though something crucial were happening, or about to happen, but that it would pass me by if I did not recognise the clues. This was a test I could not afford to fail. But I could not focus on what I was supposed to do next. I thought maybe I should be next to the painting, waiting, but also felt compelled to follow this girl as she moved from room to room.
I was confused. I never followed women in public places. I was convinced she was a part of the set-up, whatever it might be. But she didn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry so I left her standing next to a huge embroidery and walked quickly back to the room that displayed Woman in the Night.
It was two minutes past eleven. I stood in front of the painting, but didn’t see it. Instead, I had a sensation of indistinct but thorough desperation. There was a white leather sofa in the room. I sat down and looked around. A middle-aged English couple hovered nearby. I ruled them out. Likewise a gaggle of blonde Nordics, clutching sketch pads. Then a dark and intense-looking woman of fortyish came in, looked around carefully, and eased herself on the sofa next to me, offering a thin smile as she did so.
I was certainly not going to make the first move. I was thinking wildly now. Why had this woman sat down next to me? Why did she smile? Could it be that I knew her, but had forgotten her, or was she simply making an insignificant gesture? Perhaps some unknown person held a grudge against me: perhaps I had been misidentified to some local mafioso during one of my nights out with local lowlife, and this woman was a decoy, or bait, intended to lead me to a dockland execution.
Over the next ten minutes, several people passed through the room. My neighbour had begun to read a book, Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death, in Spanish. I considered this to be a bad sign. I still had not discounted her. But nobody appeared to be looking for me. I wondered whether my appointee had been and gone, because I had not been on the spot at precisely eleven o’ clock. Perhaps they had left behind some kind of clue, a further message.
I got up and approached the painting, looking at the floor for scraps of paper. Nothing. I ran my fingers down the side of the frame. I even knelt and inspected the join between the floor and wall. Returning to the painting I thought I spotted something, a different configuration of light at the edge of the frame, on the bottom right corner. It could have been a slip of paper. I touched it, hunched over, trying to work a fingernail under the frame.
There was a tap on my shoulder.
“You can’t do that.”
The security guard placed himself squarely in front of me, having worked his way between me and the painting. I began to mutter excuses, using English in order to convey maximum incompetence, and feeling myself blush as I did so. I could sense the eyes of people turned on us. I heard myself say, ludicrously, that I had lost something, that I thought it had fallen down the back of the painting.
The guard stared at me, as if deciding whether I was unsafe or merely an imbecile. The woman who had been reading Kierkegaard was looking up from her book with undisguised interest.
Slowly, mouthing inanities, I backed out of the room. The attendant had one hand on his walkie-talkie. He didn’t take his eyes off me. Once I had left, I returned to the space where the embroideries hung. The girl in black jeans wasn’t there. I walked back the way I had come, making a circuit of the galleries. The room with Woman in the Night was empty. I didn’t see the attendant, or the girl. I went to the entrance foyer, and searched for her in the souvenir shop. She had gone. I wanted a cigarette, and remembered that there was a roof garden. I climbed the stairs and out into the warm sunshine.
I didn’t realise she was there at first. The terrace appeared to be deserted. I lit a cigarette and surveyed the view. The city stretched out below – an expanse of tower blocks, whitewashed houses and terracotta roofs, enclosed by hills and the sea. When I turned, she was standing by the railing, at the edge of the roof. She wore dark glasses, and was looking towards the harbour. I went straight over to her. I had no idea what I was going to say.
She flinched as I spoke:
“I thought you had gone.”
Silence. She turned to look at me.
“Do I know you?”
I ignored this.
“I thought you’d gone. I was looking for you.”
Her face was impassive. I wanted to detect a hint of curiosity, but there was none.
“Yes, I thought…”
“Do you know me?”
The question had been somehow inverted, turning it into a request for information. She wasn’t angry. She meant it quite literally.
“No. But I noticed you earlier and I thought perhaps we had an appointment.”
She paused, assessing me. “You’ve been following me.”
She spoke Spanish with the trace of a Catalan accent.
“I thought you’d gone. I thought you were someone…”
“Yes. That is, I thought we were supposed to meet.”
“You and me?”
“Me and somebody. It might have been you.”
She laughed. Some kind of understanding broke through:
“You arranged to meet an unknown person in the Miró Foundation? And you thought I was she?”
“I didn’t arrange to. They arranged it. But I don’t know who they are.” She laughed openly, quite unfazed. I managed to ease up a little.
“Let me explain. I received a message, to meet by a particular painting. There was no one there.”
This was not strictly true, of course.
“So you thought the person you were looking for was me. Incredible!”
“You could say that.”
“Are you saying that?”
“Look, I don’t know the answer to your question because I don’t know the reason for my being here, other than what I’ve told you. All I know is that somebody was expecting me to come here at eleven o’ clock but I don’t know who, and I came. I saw you, and thought, better to say I hoped, that you were that person. You obviously aren’t, but what the hell, here we are anyway.”
She took off her dark glasses and looked at me. Her face had a rare, dangerous quality, and a kind of self-possession that left me feeling quite inadequate. Doubly inadequate now that my floundering speech had been met by this lengthening silence. I needed to extract a semblance of control from the situation. But she rescued me.
“I’m going for a drink. Would you like to join me? Tell me some more?”
Of course, I agreed to that.
From The Colour of a Dog Running Away © Richard Gwyn, 2005