Barcelona in the sunshine. Annette and I stroll down the Ramblas, admiring everything. The weather is benign, the street theatre brilliant, the shops alluring, the cafes innumerable. Everything is old and quaint or new and gaudy. Or Gaudi.
The Rambla is famous among tourists for all of the things I´ve mentioned, all the things that seize our attention, and while our attention is seized, our wallets, handbags and purses are also seized, by pickpockets and by bobby dazzlers. The bobby dazzler operates by doing something unexpected or outrageous that grabs your attention at just the moment that his accomplice jostles you and relieves you of your wallet and runs.
The Rambla has played host to many, many shoppers, but none the equal of Annette. Annette has a plan with which she will foil the pickpockets: she´ll spend all her money before they can catch up with her.
And so it is that Annette hits the Rambla running. Single-handedly she rescues the Spanish economy. Her targets are shoe shops, jewellers, children´s outfitters, leather clothiers, and dress shops and dress shops and dress shops.
I am dizzy with admiration. Spain is in surplus. Only the pickpockets have a bad day.
I take my vertigo to the Zurich Café, where I will drink coffee in the sun and read my book, until Annette, the Goddess of Commerce, exhausts her resources.
Of the lavatory arrangements at Café Zurich, I will say little, beyond noting how cosy it is to squeeze past a line of ladies waiting in the basement, then, upon reaching the immediately adjacent gentlemen´s Lavabos, to note how the charm of proximity is enhanced by the absence of a front door to either the Ladies´ or the Gents´.
I ascend and emerge into the sunlight and take a table on the cobblestoned forecourt. Here a street clown is entertaining the hundred or more loungers, coffee drinkers and beer quaffers seated in the square at the tables of the Zurich Cafe. He is hilarious. His specialty is in accosting the unsuspecting bypasser for the entertainment of those who are staying put. Time and time again, he mimics the gait of this person, or makes an outrageous pass at that person (irrespective of gender and age.) Somehow his ´victims´ laugh too.
Now he plants himself squarely in the path of a young lady, hurrying across the square. She stops at a breath´s distance. The clown takes her hands in his, miming extravagantly his lascivious admiration for her. She smiles, then laughs. He raises her right hand and places it on his left breast; now he takes her left hand and applies it to his right breast. Then he shimmies and shivers in pleasure. The lady laughs, helplessly.
Now the clown makes to place his own hands in the reciprocal locations on the lady´s body, looking up interrogatively. She shakes her head emphatically. The clown is heartbroken. We roar and the lady makes her escape.
It does not occur to me until much later that the clown is just another bobby dazzler.
I take out my book and start to read. A voice penetrates my pleasure: Excuse. I can sit here?
I look up into the blaze of the sun. A young woman leans forward across my table, her face a question mark. As she leans, her chest is an exclamation mark. Her inadequate bodice has given up the fight. In the course of the next thirty minutes I will find that my visitor consistently favours this leaning posture.
This seat. Is free?
The seat is, at this moment, quite free. I had secured it and reserved it for Annette. My visitor looks hot, she is heavily laden with bags and a suitcase, and she leans on a walking stick. Her backpack is torn. Against the sunlight she looks youngish but not brand new, perhaps thirty five. She has fair skin, fair hair and an accent. The skin at the corners of her lips is split slightly, angular stomatitis. Is she anaemic? Or has she some other, worse disease?
I assure her that she is welcome to sit.
I find another chair and put it next to mine for Annette.
You spik English? I Russia. Also I speaking French and Espanish and Italian and German. Ukraine also. I six, seven languages. What language you?
With fluency in only two, and rash flair in another couple, I don’t compete. We make do in her chosen English and in the Espanish of our hosts.
I hail a waiter and order milk coffee. The new arrival orders beer.
When the drinks arrive, mine is undrinkable: the milk is the long life stuff, and it tastes as if the beast was milked some time after its long life had ended. My companion´s beer comes in an over-sized stein and it disappears with easy and impressive alacrity.
I name, Asia. In that case am I Australia? Not so. My companion elaborates: Asia, really Anastasia.
A big smile:You name?
I am a very married man and Anastasia is a very friendly young lady, with a leaning tendency and a smiling manner, and a touching way about her. She touches my hand frequently, now shaking it, now trying an unrequited high five, settling finally for resting her warm hand on my own, which I have carelessly left on the table to hold open my book.
I like mans, I like girls. You like girls?
Anastasia leans forward even more emphatically, searching my face. She finds it necessary to remove a couple of layers of clothing from her upper body. I avert my eyes.
It occurs to me to be coy rather than candid. It seems to me that my name should be Umberto.
You England, yes?
A shake of my head.
No, you not England, maybe Sweden, no, must be you coming from Holland.
As a matter of fact, I have recently been in Amsterdam so I am willing to go along with Holland.
You like Girls? You like red light in Amsterdam, many girls, yes?
I confess to Anastasia a partiality for girls. I tell her of my particular partiality for Annette.
I nod. Anastasia´s smile is brighter, I am more delightful , more interesting than ever.
You wife like girls? Sometimes she like be with girl and with you, all together?
It is time to move the conversation onto less interesting things. I tell Anastasia that I am old, old like maybe her father´s father.
Not old. Not like father. When you wife coming, you asking her if she like girl. Anastasia takes a final, efficient glug of her beer. She smiles: I think maybe I dronk. I dronk many beer today.
Anastasia asks for a light. I tell her: Prohibito Fumar, aqui.
When wife will coming?
Anastasia starts to remove her bags and her bits of discarded clothing and her suitcase towards the next table. She leans on her stick and makes as if to rise.
You helping me, please? I moving now, so I not making smoke, not make bad for wife.
Maybe you not want girl today, maybe another day? Maybe you, maybe wife too.
As she speaks I study Anastasia . She gets to her feet with some difficulty.
Presently, Annette arrives and I describe Anastasia´s visit and her offers. Annette doesn´t seem seem inclined to take Anastasia up on her propositions; perhaps she´s tired, perhaps she´s spent all her money.