A short story by the winner of the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize 2016by Fiona Marshall / January 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
NUMBER 5, The Street of Baths, is the abode of a refugee who never left home. Tucked away in the heart of the Gothic quarter, it’s one of those vast old tenement blocks into which all Barcelona seems smelted: green blinds over balconies, plangent Catalan voices, canaries singing, the smell of wine-soaked wood, prawns and pimento frying. Stairwell haunted by the slap-slap of espadrilles as Jaume in his cream linen suit beats his way up and up, with the steady persistence of a man going home, who cannot deviate. The fact that he is dead makes no difference. Our typical family member is an insistent apartment-dweller; bounded by a balcony view, at home in two or three shuttered rooms. Whose garden is a few red geraniums on a red terrace, whose forest is the pine tree, that grows out of black soil grains mixed with sand, cigarette butts and bottle tops. To this he will always return.
I, also, am a revenant. The place I revisit can never change. I speak not of Barcelona but of some city that is her shadow, her doppelgänger, her central avenue made up of walls of flowers and caged birds singing, her sombre, strolling widows, her gun-smoke and cruelty. Just off this central artery, the Gothic quarter is a perfect psychogeography of escape, the sinuous little streets slipping away into an anonymous warren, the big, blind old entries and stairwells offering refuge.
I slip in from the street, as I have always done, less reluctantly than in years gone by, when visiting my uncle was a duty imposed by my mother, who would not come herself; but still with trepidation. Tiptoeing past the empty pigeon-holes and janitor’s desk, I can hear Jaume ahead of me, somewhere up the five floors of marble stairs; there is no lift. His espadrilles sound weary.
Our footsteps continue up, past landings of closed silence, past the pension on the third floor with its brown leather armchairs like squat meninas, shoulders framed by coarse lace. And up to the atico, to the nicotined sun through the skylight, and the little, peeling green door that might give onto the broom cupboard or the rooftop. In fact it is the small door of…