According to Tak, the best strategy to avoid the conductor on the night train to Valencia was to stand with your bags in the carriage with no seats, wait till the guy got close then go and hide in the toilet.
‘It’ll work as long as we don’t move, long as we’re confident.’
‘In the carriage or the toilet?’ asked Sila, half his head still with the horse statue.
‘Come on, action time.’
‘I feel tired,’ said Joanna, looking at a platform bench with an old man pinned to it.
Five minutes before the train was due to leave, as the three stowaways stood with bags at their feet, blank, drained and Delon, a door opened half a metre in front and the conductor stepped out.
There was a moustache, a grey uniform, an ossified sense of fatigue and when Tak tried to pre-emptively explain things in Spanish, the man simply pointed to the platform and said, ‘out’
not in Spanish
which was the real blow cos Tak had reeled off at least eight distinct sentences.
‘Can I sit down now?’ asked Joanna, dropping her bag on the platform as soon as they were off the train.
‘Fucking pedant,’ said Tak, eyes still on the space residue of the conductor.
Back in the main chamber of Barcelona-Sants Station, all the benches were taken and even if they did get one, they couldn’t sleep there or lie down as the guards would come and swat their legs with night sticks
which could’ve been worse
if they were in the US
Detroit or Chicago
though he’d never been to either city and, to be fair, in the US they’d probably be able to at least find a shelter somewhere, a place they could get a bible, sleeping bag, hand-job, maybe soup
to be honest he didn’t know
he really had never been there
just guesswork from a Danny Glover film he’d seen.
‘The next train isn’t until 7am,’ said Sila, reading the timetable off his phone.
‘We should get out of here.’
‘And go where?’
Tak leaned against the wall, next to a poster for cheapest ever train tickets, and made no attempt at a thinking face. He just rubbed his head a little and scanned the benches, or the puma tracksuits and bubble jackets stretched out on them.
‘Well?’ prompted Sila, putting his phone away.
‘Is there a hotel or something nearby?’
‘I assume you’ve been here before…’
Tak left the wall and walked over to one of the benches, crouching down and whispering something into the Barcelona F.C. jacket acting as the homeless guy’s blanket.
The jacket moved, slurred something then jabbed Tak repeatedly until he lost his footing and fell backwards onto the [un-padded] floor.
Sila looked around for the guards, but they were busy hitting someone else on the far side of the hall, and Joanna seemed to be studying the patterns on the floor tiles, following one white swirl from end to end with her finger then jumping to another and going the other way and
it didn’t matter, everything was okay
Tak was already back up and walking to his original position and before Sila could say
what was that all about, more Hungarian,
he pointed to the exit and said,
Out of the three of them, Tak was the only one who’d ever slept on a beach before.
Joanna had been camping in Sai Kung once, so she said, but there was a tent at that time and a moderate temperature of twenty-four degrees, not the middle of winter, and the beach in Sai Kung wasn’t really a beach, it was more like a patch of sand cut out lonely next to an army of rock and concrete.
It turned into quite a long speech, bordering on nostalgic, but was ultimately negated by the fact that neither Tak nor Sila knew what Sai Kung was, or why she’d called it a beach if it wasn’t one.
And it didn’t help take their minds off the wind coming down from the Pyrenees.
‘Fuck, we’re walking and I’m still cold,’ said Sila, looking ahead at the dark segment of sand that Tak was leading them to. ‘How is this Barcelona?’
‘Winter’s winter, mate.’
‘And how are we gonna sleep in this? With no body movement?’
‘Put on another layer, under your jacket.’
‘Yeah, my Celta Vigo training top.’
‘Sure, big difference. What about you?’
‘Don’t need one.’
‘How many layers you got on?’
Sila glanced down at Tak’s Ellesse jacket, a scrap of t-shirt poking out at the bottom. ‘Are you a Viking?’
‘It’s freezing. How can you not be cold?’
‘Trust me,’ Tak said, stretching his body out across the sand and lining up his bag as a pillow. ‘Just lie down, it’s good.’
Joanna hung back a bit and waited until Sila went down then followed.
The three of them lay there, coffin-like, separated by an inch on each side. Behind them was empty road, the docks, a row of hostels and hotels with no vacancies, a sign that Tak translated as BEWARE: SAND DUNES. And the devil wind that was so pervasive, so specifically focused that it almost felt personal.
‘This does not feel like Barcelona,’ said Sila, folding his arms and, after two minutes of holding it in, shivering.
‘Feels like December,’ added Joanna, lifting up her arm diagonally and doing a spot-check of the creases in the sleeves.
‘December in Aberdeen.’
‘You’re still cold?’ asked Tak, shifting on his side.
Sila tried to think of a clever line, but the cold had got to his brain and the only thing coming up was the Viking line again, so he just said, ‘yeah.’
‘Put your Celta training top on.’
‘I’m too cold to get it out.’
‘Lazy fucker.’ Tak looked at Joanna, her mysterious elevated arm. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m thinking of the desert.’
‘Uh-huh. Is it working?’
‘The Red Flower Heroes in the lost city between the mountains, chased by the wolf pack.’
‘She’s still cold,’ answered her Slovene manager, staring up at the only four stars in the Barcelona night sky. ‘Always is.’
‘Okay, the body heat thing then. Budge up a bit.’
Tak turned fully onto his side and reached all the way over to Joanna’s arm. He pulled her closer in towards Sila until they were touching then shifted his own position, changing them from three to one.
No one said a word
not because it was weird, but because it was comfortable and Sila was glad he’d put himself in the middle as it gave him warmth on both sides, and Tak’s larger body blocked the wind that was blowing in from the north, or the west, whatever direction it was.
Ah, maybe the guy wasn’t so bad.
Maybe he’d just been rattled by the Pakistani Dahli, who now that he thought about it, could potentially walk out from the sea any second, covered in seaweed and galleon rust, spitting out panicked crabs, and the rattling part, the Dahli encounter, everything since that spat had been down to the slow unravel of PTSD.
The Burger King incident, the train fuck up, the threatening behaviour towards the Algerian guy on the boat
it was all justifiable, or forgivable, if you gave it enough thought
just like Chairman Mao,
he was a good guy before 1949
according to all the hagiographies he’d read.
Meanwhile, bored of Sila’s upper arm, Joanna rotated forty-five degrees and tried the sky, somehow managing to keep her fingertips right at the edge of Tak’s waist.
She wasn’t tired at all so she kept her eyes open and aimed at the clouds drifting past the moon. After eleven clouds had gone by at normal-yet-unbearably slow cloud speed, she edged away from the human sandwich and told them it was too cold, she couldn’t sleep, and the best thing to do was walk around the city until the train at 7am the next morning, or this morning as it was already half midnight.
‘You’re going alone?’ asked Sila, putting a hand on Tak’s sleeve to pull himself up a bit.
‘You can join if you want.’
‘I think it’s better if we stay here, keep together.’
‘Move about a bit then. Do some push ups, or get another jacket.’
‘I want to walk.’
‘Or…okay, walk. But don’t go too far. Just along the beach, four hundred metres either way. Don’t go out of sight.’
‘I want to walk on the streets.’
‘Will you come?’
Tak opened one eye and said it was way too dangerous for her to go alone and Sila should go too, which Sila objected to three times before Tak pushed him away and told him to stop being a twat.
‘I’m not saying I won’t go, I’m just worried she’s gonna get stuck again.’
‘What you talking about?’
‘Aren’t you worried?’ said Sila, looking directly at Joanna, who stared down at her cushioned legs and said, ‘no, I feel better now.’
‘You sure about that?’
This one got Cantonese in response and then a Chinese silhouette as she put her bag back on her shoulders and started walking.
Tak picked up a handful of sand, threw it at Sila’s waist. ‘Go with her, mate, stop wasting time.’
‘She just blanked me.’
‘Before she gets over that sand dune and accidentally wanders into El Raval. Come on, get up, move.’
‘You’re not my leader…mate.’
‘No, I’m your fucking conscience. You let her walk around on her own, she’s gonna get hurt, guaranteed.’
Sila pulled down his jacket, shaking off the sand Tak had just thrown. ‘Like the guy in Burger King?’
‘Ah, you’ve forgotten already.’
‘The guy who called me a black cunt? Mate, he deserved what he got. Threw the first punch too, so, fuck him.’
‘He punched you?’
Tak picked up another batch of sand and this time let it run slowly off his palm. ‘Point is, you let her go alone, she’s gonna run into something bad. Guaranteed.’
‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t go, I’m just-…’
‘Don’t see you moving.’
‘Fuck off, you’re not moving either.’
‘She’s not my girlfriend.’
‘Yeah, she’s not…’
‘Or my friend.’
‘…mine.’ Sila brushed more sand off his jacket, throwing some leftover grains at Tak’s face and missing. ‘I didn’t even know her half a year ago. She just followed me around after…the thing, the castle in Ljubljana…and now we’re-…we just happen to be travelling together. Fuck, you don’t even care…this is collusion. Entrapment.’
‘Don’t make words for it, just go. She’s almost at the road already.’
‘Over the sand dune, look.’
Sila didn’t want to follow Tak’s direct commands, but he rationalised it as, nope, not a command, I was gonna look anyway.
He looked, instinctively calling her a Patakh in Slovene.
Tak was right, Joanna was already twenty metres away, walking diagonally towards the road curbing the beach.
‘If anything happens to her, it’s your fault, mate. And don’t call it blackmail, it’s not.’
‘Mauve mail,’ Sila muttered, eyes still on Joanna.
‘It’s fucking boring even saying that word, so don’t bother. Just get after her, hold her hand, make sure she doesn’t piss anyone off.’
‘I was going anyway.’
‘Course you were. What the fuck’s mauve mail?’
Sila stood up, dusted off some of the sand from his clothes and said, ‘nothing, forget it.’
He started walking, following the footprints until he caught up to Joanna by a car-less junction, getting a blank, almost bathetic ‘which way?’ instead of the not really expected but hoped for ‘thank you.’
When the moaning Slovene was out of sight, Tak turned on his side and stared at a little strip of gnarled plastic sticking out of the sand. It looked like it had been a fork once, but that could’ve been wrong, it could also have been a spoon.
The words mauve mail played a few times in his head. He tried to trace it back to its source, but there was too much inside, too much in the short term memory section. The two Croatian girls, Hungarian introductions, Szolnok racist slowly peeling the apple, Count Ortis, Jemba with his veins-…
Mauve mail mauve mail mauve mail mauve mail mauve mail
He knew it was from a film or a book, probably a book, but which one?
Drive Thru Zoo?
It sounded creative, so it probably wasn’t Flannery, but it didn’t make much sense either, not without its context. Why would anyone say mauve mail? Why mauve and not
wait a sec
the Russian guy
that’s what it was
the pervert in Lolita
or the romantic, whichever way you saw it
he used it once
before the censored parts
though, Tak thought, I still don’t know why it was mauve.
‘You sure you’re not gonna break down again?’ asked Sila, looking back towards the beach and estimating a rough distance of about 700 metres.
‘That doesn’t sound very reassuring. Maybe we should take a different route, stick closer to the beach.’
‘I feel okay now.’
‘But it happens suddenly, right?’
‘And you don’t know when?’
‘Aren’t you worried?’
‘You can go back if you like. I won’t stop you.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
They walked a little further, turning off the road they’d been on since the beach and heading past some houses that looked like they’d been built by the same guy who did the sets for The Haunted Palace.
That was Sila’s thought, and the houses were so similar, so gothic-looking for such a long stretch of street, or alley, that he said it out loud, including the name of the film, even though he knew she wouldn’t know it. He was right, she thought it was the thing in Disneyland, and when he said no, it’s a horror film from the 60’s, she nodded and said, ‘ah, Rosemary’s Baby,’ as if that was related in some way.
Another few houses down and Joanna felt confident enough to turn to Sila and say, ‘actually, I don’t think it’s that dangerous here.’
‘Don’t know. Seems like dark, deserted alleys are a pretty safe bet if you wanna mug someone.’
‘Barcelona’s not a dangerous city.’
‘You sure about that?’
‘We can check.’
She took the bag off her shoulder and pulled out the guide book she’d bought in the train station.
‘Ah, the old fashioned way,’ said Sila, leaning across but not in a blunt way, more like he was stretching his neck. ‘Try the index.’
‘Crime in Barcelona. Or Dangers of Barcelona. Anything with crime or danger in it.’
‘I’m not, I’m helping.’
‘Nope. Stretching my neck, actually.’
‘Stretch it the other way.’
Joanna pulled the book away from Sila and ran through the index again, but for some reason it didn’t have a section on the dangers of Barcelona at night, so she gave up and checked her phone instead. That was also a blank, except for some blogs about pickpockets in El Raval and tourist hunters on the Metro.
‘Guess it goes without saying,’ said Sila, spotting a map board next to another alley with defiantly gothic buildings and walking over.
‘There’s no one around. Can’t be crime without people.’
‘They’re probably hiding.’
‘Behind those cars maybe.’ He looked at the line of parked cars on the road behind them, the widest road they’d come across so far and were now, for some reason, turning away from. ‘Train station is a two hour walk that way. But I left my bag on the beach, so…’
‘Let’s not make a plan.’
‘These alleys are quite beautiful. And the only people we’ve seen were those two drunk women in Bakunin beards, so…’ Almost on cue, a group of four locals came out of a building three doors down, young and drunk. They didn’t seem to notice the two tourists, they just zipped up their jackets, talked loudly in Spanish and kept walking. Joanna waited for them to reach the end of the alley then modified. ‘Let’s just walk and leave it to fate.’
‘I don’t believe in fate.’
‘If we get attacked, it was meant to be. If my legs seize up, it was meant to be. If we discover a magic portal to an alien planet, it was meant to be.’
‘Do you believe in it?’
Sila nodded, grunting a laugh at the who part.
‘Not really. I was just being poetic, sentimental…’
‘…actually, I believe in probability more.’
‘You mean odds?’
‘Don’t know what that means.’
‘Ha, another one for the list.’
‘You know seize up and portal, but you don’t know odds.’
‘Vocab is irrelevant. I know that if you rest in a field of pandas, it is not fate if you are bitten.’
‘Unless the pandas were very well-hidden.’
‘Hang on, I’m confused. The panda thing is fate or…’
‘Actually, I never thought of that. If you cannot see them, how can it be fate?’ She looked at him, scrutinised the old King face poking out through the sides of his unzipped jacket. ‘The panda thing is a proverb, about probability, not fate. These streets are mostly empty therefore it is unlikely we’ll be attacked.’
‘Okay, forget the pandas.’
‘If we are attacked, it means we chose the wrong time and the wrong street. And didn’t do enough research. Doesn’t mean fate, unless you’re writing poetry.’
‘Okay, okay, it’s probability. I surrender.’ Sila stopped at a side street, surprisingly well-lit, and not in a moody Bava sense. ‘Hey, what about here, this road? It’s another wide one, actually has lights too.’
Joanna followed his eyes and saw a street with ordinary houses and luxury cars parked outside. At least, they seemed like luxury cars, she couldn’t actually tell the difference cos she’d never driven a car before.
‘I want to go back.’
‘Back to the beach?’
‘My brain is tired too. Yes.’
‘But you just said you wanted to walk around.’
‘Goi bin ju yee.’
‘Changed my mind.’
Sila checked his phone, frowning. ‘It’s not even three yet, you really wanna go back?’
‘It will be three by the time we get there. Maybe even half past three. Or four. Or half past four if we walk slowly. Seven in the evening if my legs seize up.’
‘Besides, this wide road looks stuffy.’
‘Like nothing interesting has ever happened here. No haunted musicians, or weird poets living in dirty attics.’ She looked at the cars again and remembered that poets in Ancient China were usually quite wealthy, but didn’t correct her statement. ‘I’m going back to the beach.’
‘We could go down more of the alleys, see the gothic stuff.’
‘Of the gothic stuff?’
‘Going now. You stay if you want. Be gothic.’
She turned and walked back towards the alley they’d come from, the alley that led to the other wide road and more alleys beyond and then the long stretch of pseudo-highway that led back to the beach. Where the nut is waiting, Sila thought, letting his non-girlfriend walk a few metres ahead. Then getting a lightning cut of grubby Spanish men pushing legs akimbo, and quickly chasing her down.
‘Okay, fine,’ he said, taking her arctic hand. ‘We’ll go back. But we’re going the long route, not the way we came.’
‘… … … … … … …’
‘I was agreeing with you.’