Those first days

Slumped, his head a heavy weight resting in his palm, he woke for a moment but then returned to the dread of his television screen

The oddest things can reassure us. Every evening, I’d look out at Carrer Calaf from our fifth-floor window. I’d balance my bowl of steaming soup as I walked the ten metres from the kitchen to the living room. I viewed the street below; the predictability of an occasional vehicle or a lone dog-walker provided some element of calm. Garatge Galvany shone neon-green. The reassuring sign, Lliure, pointed to something permanent: available parking spaces.

I consumed the news, enveloping myself in my smartphone. The doors to the small terrace were tricky to close, so a draft meant I cocooned myself under multiple blankets. My partner was away, on business. My eyes widened every time I saw new figures, new multiples of rising infections. I advised my sisters something ‘radical’ would occur, that we had to prepare. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I took the recycling downstairs, carefully using my shirt sleeve to turn the door-handle exiting to the street. Mercat de Galvany remained open, but the vendor serving coffee was surprised when I ordered an Americano. Slumped, his head a heavy weight resting in his palm, he woke for a moment but then returned to the dread of his television screen.

The charming Italian women at the ravioli stall continued to roll and knead dough. The Nonna promised me they’d have tiramisu ready for us to pick up on the weekend. I nodded enthusiastically but doubted I’d be able to return. She took the change in my hand direct from my palm, but I’d been blowing my nose only hours earlier. She looked like she was in her eighties.

Beyond the hanging turkey legs, broccoli stalks and gaping mouths of angler and turbot, all I could see were the market traders, some of them leaning forward to capture the attention of passers-by; others already looked resigned.

When I reached the landing, the poodle from the apartment opposite yelped. Irritating, but nevertheless a sign of life from other inhabitants. The only person resident I’d seen for any amount of time was a man nervously consulting his mobile on the top terrace, who edged away the moment I arrived. Conchita, the cleaner, hummed as she scrubbed.

By Thursday evening, the hum had a new edge; Morocco was closing its borders to Spain. We quickly booked tickets for my partner’s mother to catch a plane to Lisbon, but mid-air, we learnt Morocco was shutting its doors to anyone arriving from Portugal as well.

Catalonia was announcing new restrictions. My partner needed to return from Malaga, but the Generalitat wanted airports to shut. I faced an instant decision, whether to fly out the next morning and abandon our new apartment. I could walk away from the crisis and disappear into the sea, the very semblance of salvation. Even if I wanted to return to my father in London, or my family in Paris or Los Angeles, suddenly I learnt I couldn’t. Our geographical distance felt inappropriate, unwise, uncomfortable.

My partner was able to return, our cuddles and thick woolly jumpers warm to our skin. His mother was able to return, her temperature checked on arriving back in North Africa.

We deliberated, could we move to the mountains for a period. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, announced a lockdown and restrictions on travel. We had one morning left to venture outside. Walking through the Jewish Call, the remaining tourists carried their wheeled-bags along the cobbled streets, presumably heading for any remaining planes. Walking past tiled reliefs of medieval city life, I saw the stoicism in older Barcelonins’ faces. They’d experienced Franco, the Fascist planes sent by Mussolini to bomb Felipe Neri in 1938.

In Barceloneta, the few skateboarders were advised to return, the police informed us the beach wasn’t open. We bought our last supplies. Gloves were handed out at the doors, only thirty of us could enter at any one time.

We welcomed any positive news, the Metropolitan Opera had decided to stream Carmen for free! Pornhub in Italy has likewise made its videos available for free.

Friends from the UK asked how we were. We doubted we were the ones who needed help. I tuned into new voices, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance with their whiteboards and frayed shirt collars. BBC presenters sounded ever s0-jolly, announcing ‘social distancing’ in dulcet tones. Family telephone calls were hastily arranged, my advice to my father not successfully absorbed or acted on for all my gentle pleas.

The curfew began, the angry skies opened. Monday 16th March was a dirge of dolphin greys. I organised my English lesson to my two young students via Skype. I played Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’, which jarred slightly. I wondered what it would be like to play The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ without it sounding ironic.

When it was my turn to do the washing up, the sound of the water running from the faucet had never sounded quite so loud, even against the raindrops pattering outside. Every sound has its new timbres, which echo, echo with a new permanence.

And I cuddle, but see the faces of my father and sisters, the friends and relatives, the traders, the people who stand to lose out, the homeless, the hairdressers, the buskers, the actors, the musicians.

I try to keep myself busy. Can I go to the park? No.

I looked out from our fifth-floor window. The neon-green sign had been extinguished.


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