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, sunburnt 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. Alternatively, 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. Suntan 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 had looked at me and spoken, 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 Miro. 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 Miro 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 Andalusian 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 Cordoba 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.
"Cono, 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."
"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 Autonoma University, enjoyed loud rock music, and believed in an impending invasion by extraterrestrials. 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 peninsula and Andorra. There are indications of some kind of cosmic receptivity. The number of standing stones 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 extraterrestrial, 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 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 study 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.
Excerpted from The Color of a Dog Running Away by Richard Gwyn. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Gwyn. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.