The Street of Baths

A short story by the winner of the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize 2016

January 27, 2017
The Gothic quarter in Barcelona ©  Davidlohr Bueso on Flickr
The Gothic quarter in Barcelona © Davidlohr Bueso on Flickr

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 the unlikely, that opens only at the precise moment of need. Flung wide, it casts the oblong blackness of war, whose long shade you cannot see until you are inside. Who but a refugee would cover his walls with brown hessian, as if escaping to the strange land of the fashionable? Go in, down the two steps, and there is the portrait of Jaume himself on the left wall, navy overalls and mocking moustache, his ironic, blue eyes following you round the living room. It’s an uncanny likeness, sitting on his stool there: truly what they call a speaking portrait. In the dusty silence, with its faint hum of camphor and sun-dried tomato, it speaks to me, anyway.

“Eh, me-edemoiselle,” in exactly the old Jaume style, speaking French in his Marseilleise drawl, as if spitting tobacco between clenched teeth. “Long time no see. What’s been keeping you?”

So lifelike, I could almost swear it’s possible to lean into the portrait and brush cheeks with Jaume; surely he exudes eau de cologne and tobacco, the old smells of home. “I came as soon as I could…” “You’re kidding! It’s been 20 years!” I’m shocked. “Has it really been that long?” “Time enough for you to forget all your Catalan, eh? Your mother should have brought you up here, instead of London. Then we would not have had to converse in French. My French is so rusty. Why don’t you speak any Catalan these days? You used to be so fluent as a child.” This always was a chagrin to the family; French was the language of exile and war. Spanish was, of course, hissed upon. “Not much call for it in London—” “How well I remember you, a little thing of five, chatting away with your cousins in Catalan on the old farm. Very wrong of your mother not to keep you up in it. Tell her I said so. Ah, Montserrat! My naughty little sister! Always so obstinate! So easy as it would have been, too. Even just to have the odd chat in the mother tongue.” I draw breath to explain that it was because my father spoke no Catalan, that its guttural gobble, beyond a few bits of slang and the odd endearment, eluded and finally enraged him. But Jaume is himself gabbling on. “Ah, it’s wonderful to see you. It’s a shame you couldn’t come earlier, but…. Tant pis, tant pis… there was no real hurry. Nothing has changed…”

It’s true. It’s all the same, all the things from home. The box living room, that opens out onto the terrace and the long, comfortable murmur of the barrio below. The brown, hairy walls like a sailor’s arms, covered with naïf art, suns coiled like yellow snakes, improbable, big-shouldered cows, merry houses digging their heels into blue hillsides; shelves of siurells, the Majorcan clay whistles painted white and roughly spotted with red and green; perky, primitive little shepherds, devils, lamas. Jaume hasn’t yet collected as many as Miro, who filled his studio and house with them, but the instinct is the same, to preserve a pinch of earth from the country of childhood. It’s the refugee instinct, to preserve it all as it was; home never changes.

Here, to this tiny hideaway, Jaume escaped. Here he created the homeland as it should have been, a melange of Catalan art and culture that was impervious to the outside world. The bedroom is as ever, just fitting a double bed and a great mothy wardrobe ranged along its foot, and the ventilator that gives onto the bedroom next door, of the aged couple Doña Filomena and her husband Josep, relaying their endless banter. Jaume regarded them with tolerant affection, as young lovers who have grown old without noticing: “Ils se rouspétent comme des jeunes”—making them into characters, domesticating them, my mother scornfully said. She had the Catalan gift of cutting things down to size.

I look again at the portrait. It was done, I remember, by one of those great bearded Catalan artists who were Jaume’s friends— Jordi, Emili, Rosende. They all had blonde, Scandinavian wives who used to spend Sundays sitting on the beach and complaining; bledas, my mother called them, Catalan slang for passive souls, wimps. But the portrait is robust enough, with its twinkling blue eyes, although it has fallen silent again and I realise that, in the manner of ghosts, it will only speak if spoken to.

“I think, you know, it has changed a little,” I venture. “The real city, you know. Barcelona. I think they’ve done their best to tackle street crime, for a start.” “Quand même… Do not go down to the port at night.” “But it’s quite touristy now… lots of new restaurants, a shopping mall…”

Jaume shakes his head; to him it’s the same old ghetto of squalid alleys, druggies with knives hiding in doorways. He wouldn’t know the place now; the big, clean open spaces, the skateboard parks. That’s what happens to refugees; their memory doesn’t develop. Caught within his portrait of himself, in his own nostalgia for the ideal Catalonia, Jaume is behind the times. I realise we’re both living in the past. How to tell him, how to convince myself, the place has been sanitised and touristified since our day. The purse-snatchers no longer stream by on mopeds, nor the sinister, angular demoiselles preen at a balcony in the Carrer d'Avinyó, the next street. The stevedores and prostitutes no longer huddle in the vast doorways; those entrance halls have all been sealed off now, by big glass doors or iron portcullises. I have returned to a gated city. Now, self-conscious artisans with grey ponytails work far into the night in their lamp-lit shop windows, and the only motorbikes are those of the Guardia Civil, sedately cruising in twos down the labyrinthine streets.

“Haven’t you seen the market lately?” The market, the market has become gentrified, I tell him. El mercat, el mercat de la boqueria! It used to be our local, where you popped over the road to buy a kilo of tomatoes, where fishwives in gumboots and plastic aprons and beige perms hissed at you from behind their larger than life produce, that seemed all eyes on the broken ice. It was a place of shadows and tentacles, that squatted on your basket like a Goya horror and accompanied you home, swarming on the walls in the hot depths of the night, bringing nausea unto death. Death was its main product, it sold it in chunks and dark shades and slices, in purple intestines whose damage dripped and trailed, each one a personal disembowelment. Now it sells two euro pots of hard strawberries with beige bottoms; coconut shavings and dried pineapple; wiggly pink and turquoise sour and sugar sweets. That sort of thing. The sinister butchers, with their vast porcine hind-thighs and massive working trotters, have gone, or been relegated to a few back stalls, packing up along with the fish stalls around midday. By then you can barely move in the place. It’s thronged with foreign students, all chattering and gobbing sweets.

“Young life, eh… Nothing lasts for ever,” agrees Jaume, a shade stiffly, and I guess I have offended his nationalism. Either that or he’s uncomfortable, shifting on his stool in his overalls and sighing, wiping his forehead. “So where’s Montserrat, did you say? Why didn’t she come with you? My favourite little sister, how is she? Still in love with London? Ah, London, a miraculous place of lilacs and rain and freedom… but when is she coming back to Barcelona?”

How to answer, where to start? Her ashes were scattered in Penge 20 years ago, in a small garden of remembrance, by a cemetery official. We didn’t attend; no one in the family could bear to acknowledge her death. How come he doesn’t know this? Where has he been? “Or is she at the farm, at Vulpellac?” He’s plainly guessing; sweat stands out a little on the forehead in the picture; he looks unwell. “Mother, Montserrat’—now I’m self-conscious, not knowing what to call her—“didn’t like the farm much, I think.” If she could spend a day there, smelling the fields, the earth, the sun, the tomatoes, had been the height of her nostalgia. She had had no time for the jeering farmhand cousins and their rustic pranks, a limp black chicken swung in the air and flung into a field of cabbages; the barn with the dangerous plough propped against the wall, the spike left turned upward; old, acrid sweat sealing further smells into the skin; the black buzz of dried excrement behind the cane fence, the only servicio of the place. A shower was a bucket of water and to do the washing up you had first to go to the pump. “You don’t say! Why do you think she left? Or I moved to Barcelona, for that matter?” Oh, he’s so out of touch. Again I don’t know where to start. Why can’t he be honest about the real reason for their leaving? “The war, perhaps?”

Isn’t he going even to mention the Spanish Civil War? How they left one evening, to walk over the Pyrenees into France, he and his father? So many times as they had left before, for secret political meetings in people’s homes, returning nervioso and wild-eyed, and now came the final departure, at 9pm, in the dark. The smell of coffee and anise had long gone and now there was just the smell of lentils and of fear, and nights were black waiting, for the knock at the door and gunshots up the road. You just bled to death in the friendly dust of home, shot by people you’d known all your life. I found all this out on the internet, from a few pages of local history that detailed the lives of my grandfather and uncle. Before that, I didn’t even know my grandfather’s name. My mother never mentioned her parents, or her past. She kept to the pact of silence that ruled her memory of Spain. History was re-written as she lived. Her eldest brother’s shooting by Franco’s men was explained to the family as death from tuberculosis, her other brother’s suicide was passed off as a heart attack. Always the little lies, my father said; always the little lies, but they were big ones, whoppers. For all her outspokenness, she was a liar by default.

But Jaume too grins with the bland charm of the champion liar, who presents misrepresentation of memory as if it were fact. He survived, tucked away here in this flat; my mother survived, on hold in England. “And you, you’re married, I suppose? And with children! How many? Two? Three! Why don’t you ever bring them to see me, eh?” “Well, I… I will do…” “Yes, you should be ashamed of yourself, neglecting the homeland like that!—Have you eaten? Do you want a drink? You will find something in the kitchen.” The slip of kitchen is like a dried up swimming pool, with the same hard tang of missing water. It’s what haunts all my holidays, the smell of water: the heavy, saline slap of the Med, the green-mud scent of rivers in the Pyrenees, the petrichor of rain on landing back in England, walking back into a moist wall of grey summer air. On the sideboard is a baton of bread, the end broken off, the crumb greyed and petrified, a stone tribute to all the loaves queued for during the war. Still, faintly, it seems to give out the almost viciously-sweet scent of baking bread that used to curl up to that little flat from the panaderia below in the hollow darkness of 4am. The baker’s is still there, buns drifted with icing sugar and scattered with browned pine nuts, like another artistic emblem of hunger. Squashed together in the bottom drawer of the fridge are four or five over-ripe peaches. I remember my mother scolding Jaume for his over-compensatory food buying. “I too went through the Civil War,” she said, “and I don’t feel obliged to buy fruit I know I’ll never eat.” And Jaume had said eagerly, “The children can eat it.” We being the children, my brother, sister and I; a confirmed bachelor, Jaume had none of his own.

I look round more closely. “You’ve let the place get rather dusty.” “Well, dust it, then! You see I can do nothing.” Under the sink I find a hard, dry rag; I go to moisten the duster but I can’t get a drop out of the tap. “The water was cut off,” comes the voice of Jaume from the wall. His breathing is a touch laboured, his eyes sad at the lack of facilities. I realise now that he must be humoured. “Don’t worry, I have a bottle in my bag.” The duster moistened, I tackle the living room. The duster blackens quickly; there really are an awful lot of nicknacks for a man, I realise now. I’m not sure I have the patience to lift each figurine, each lama, each shepherd. The usual pile of 33 records lies next to the formica record player: Bach harpsichord concertoes; Telemann solo flute pieces; a grim beige record of Pablo Cassals, grim and beige, playing Couperin, the fag-end of a collection snatched up at random as the owner fled from home, and held on to with refugee obstinacy long after their life has passed. He would never have listened to them at home. “Take them,” says Jaume eagerly, seeing me wipe and stack them gingerly. “I’ve been saving them for you.” “It’s very kind of you.” “Not at all. I knew you would appreciate them. I tell my friends, at least I have one musical niece.”

But now it’s my turn; I round on Jaume, and his enigmatic twinkle. His foot is tapping, giving the usual impression of the dead, that they are so busy, they can barely give you a minute of their time. “Why did you never come to see us in England?” “Me? Go to London?” “Well, why not? It’s not impossible.” “Mais, moi qui ne parle ni un mot d’Anglais…” “So what if you don’t speak English? Why didn’t you come to my mother’s funeral?” “Wasn’t I dead myself by then” He gives up. “Pauvre Montserrat…” He draws breath, thinking what to say, maybe confabulating some tale, that he can never go 10 miles from the heart of Barcelona due to some ancient enchantment or curse, that he has drunk of the fountain in the old cathedral and must always return; charmed people who cannot exist outside Barcelona. Then I realise my gross lack of tact; of course, he has no passport. It was taken from him in the Civil War, or in prison. “Montserrat… your mother… eh bien… Your father didn’t tell us she had died.”

It isn’t a lie. The truth falls between us, softly, like the lengthening shadows of afternoon. Its soft breezes blow from another country, of blue skies and liberation. You can almost reach it, stepping out onto the terrace, the flags warm beneath your feet. Here on this rooftop terrace the sky is king, above the huddle of old Barcelona, the Picasso spread of flat rooftops and TV aerials. Jaume’s voice continues behind me from within the flat, muffled by the faint babble from the bars below, the traffic lullaby carried on the afternoon breeze, the occasional, far-off hoot of a ferry. “No one even sent flowers.” It’s not clear whether he’s talking about his own funeral or that of Montserrat. I remember my mother’s, and the solitary bunch of white lilies on the coffin. On the English side I come from a family of liars as well, who practise the withholding of information. My father would not inform anyone that his wife had died.

The first waft of evening comes from the port, ruffling the faded sun umbrella. The same old oilskin tablecloth is ringed with marks and the geraniums are parched, spiky points. “You have neglected your plants, Jaume.” Again his voice comes from within the flat, with difficulty, a little husky. “Is there water? Is the tap working?” “Oh yes,” I call back. “Don’t worry.”

Watering the geraniums had been our nightly ritual when I stayed with Jaumes those summer holidays, and then we sat out on the terrace under the orange-darkening sky and the gathering lights on the hill of Montjuic opposite. There is water here, outside. The old smell of holiday rises again as I fill the watering can at the tap, the overflow coiling away, dark dust-snakes into the corner. I pull off the dried geranium leaves with their pleasant dead scent, crumbling them away to make room for the new, grey-furred growth. The corners of the terrace are lined with fluff and black dust and thin, dried stalks. In our family no one tells anyone anything, not even the important things; especially the important things. The letter bearing the news always gets lost. We learned of Jaume’s own death, two or three years after my mother’s, in the usual way, by accident, finding the telegram shoved in a drawer, or a slip of the tongue on the phone, or the casual revelation by another family member as of something long since known to all: Oh, sorry, he died ages ago: didn’t you know?

I sit in the doorframe, feet into the flat, and tell Jaume all this, slowly, bit by bit; he listens, shakes his head, clicks his tongue.

“Ah, when will we have a culture of truth? It was so simple, just to say I had died.”

Nothing indeed could have been more simple. He had been in the middle of redecorating his flat, in a blaze of yellows and oranges; he had bought, he said, or more likely rented, the adjoining flat from old Doña Filomena after her husband too died and she went to live with her daughter, it had been swept clear of all the sepia photos and the little sofas and tables and he had been aiming to fill the place with light, there being nothing now between him and the Catalan sky.

Jaume did not leave me this flat, which, from his parade of ownership, was probably not his; he died, I would guess, intestate and penniless, behind on the rent. I don’t know what happened to it, I don’t know what happened to all his trinkets, the portrait; the family probably disposed of them to pay his debts, and never bothered to contact us, to see if we wanted any mementoes. We were too far away, in London.

“Finished dusting? Have you chosen what you are going to take, before you go?” The voice, peremptory still in the Catalan manner, is hoarse now; the blue eyes are going glazed and glaring. “Oh yes, I’ve got loads, thanks…” “Très bien, très bien…” From the way Jaume’s eyes are gazing, inward and over my shoulder, I see time is running out and I search frantically for last words. “Thank you… thank you…” “De rien… mais prends ce que tu veux…” The portrait stiffens, his merry, abiding grin sets and there is silence.

The truth is, I don’t want anything. I’ve noted it before, how people’s possessions turn to ashes the minute they die, as if they’ve been waiting for this moment. All I want is the tender blue sky, the evening breeze, and the seagull cry of the blind lottery woman on the street corner below, her dumpy back to the wall, her face uplifted: Loteria! Loteria! I replace the duster under the sink where it belongs. I’m sorry to have disturbed anything, even the dust. The little door closes behind me for the last time, and I go down the stairwell, down all five flights and out into the early evening air.