It was absurd. Like wax running down a mask covering the face of the sky.
Sean Radlett had been looking forward to this experience; Barcelona was one of the essential places for an architect to take a holiday, and his colleagues had often asked why he hadn’t been before. When he’d suggested Barcelona for a short post-New Year trip, his wife Alison had agreed, intrigued by the city’s history. “My anarchist roots are showing,” she said with that smile of hers. Their children Jenny and Michael had shown an interest too, once they’d seen photos of the more outrageous of Gaudi’s designs.
“But there’s nothing here at all,” Sean now muttered to Alison, once they passed through the entrance of the Nativity Façade into the interior of the Sagrada Familia. They stared around at the blank slabs of porphyry, scaffolding arranged like massive grids of tic-tac-toe, with items of currently unused construction equipment undisturbed beneath them.
“Well, I’d have thought they would have got around to putting a roof on,” she said with mild surprise. “Did you see that cement mixer back there? First thing you spot when you come in.”
“Don’t tell me that they’re trying to finish this thing off with concrete.”
Later on, he thought, he could ask Alison about all this, headaches permitting. He could ask her whether her blessed feng shui was in harmony with a dog’s dinner such as Sagrada Familia had turned out to be. We should have brought some of those spare Christmas lights over, the kids would be happy stringing those up between the scaffolds.
But for heaven’s sake – was this actually meant to be a cathedral? Were those humanoid figures carved out of the clay-coloured stone meant to be prophets? Why did they remind Sean so much of corpses being pulled out of mud?
And then there were the bloody stairs. Alison knew he suffered from fear of heights – after all, how many years had they been married? But it was Alison who wanted to go up in the elevator and have a look around, even though he pointed out that the elevator didn’t make return trips and the stairs were the only way down. The stairs; the blasted spiral passage that corkscrewed down into the earth. They looked so fascinating in pictures, with the dimensions coiling into themselves like the layers of a snail’s shell; but when you’re holding the camera over the drop and everyone can notice how much your hand is shaking, that’s different.
As they stood on the bridge between two spires, walking slowly from one dark maw of an entrance to another, little Michael was perhaps the most mature member of the group. Alison picked Jenny up, holding her near – dangerously near, in Sean’s opinion – the lip of the wall, to peer over the drab cityscape and slate-grey skies that surrounded them, suspended artificially between Earth and a rather dubious Heaven. Sean himself tried to nudge his family step by uncertain step towards the doorway at the end of the bridge, gently easing them past the mob of retired Japanese couples that chattered and guffawed amongst each other in the midst of the desolation. It had been Michael who spun his video camera around the spires nearby and the trees and the Gothic-looking buildings below them, delivering a steady commentary to his father on how the machine actually worked, with the fierce concentration of youth. Thank you Michael, Sean had thought. That’s it, you keep trying to keep my mind off things, like thinking of how high up where we are.
A gleam of silver in the sky to the west; a plane was on its way to Aeroport del Prat. Sean couldn’t stop himself shivering. A new year, a new vacation, he thought, but we can’t get away from the ghosts of last September. Even if we stay away from the TV and radio and the constant discussions of 9/11, there was always something to jog the memory and trigger the images of the twin towers collapsing.
After leaving the perplexing structure, slowly walking past the queue of expectant visitors outside the front entrance on the Casa Marina, Sean noted that the children didn’t seem to be disappointed. In fact, it seemed that they’d got more out of it than their parents had. Michael, whose job it was to film the holiday proceedings, was playing back scenes from the dark, vaulted interior in the camera’s viewfinder, while Jenny shuffled through the garish souvenirs she’d bought with her pocket money.
“Jenny, how much was that bookmark? Eleven euros must be over five pounds, dear . . .”
“But Leah said she wanted something with stained glass on it, Mummy.”
Alison looked back at Radlett and gave an exasperated sigh. Jenny, when she’d been scolded, had the sort of pout that made her look just like her mother, accentuated by the long, straight blond hair and the spectacles that made her look older than her eight years. A few years from now, and that hair might turn the same shade of auburn as her mother, as if with the changing seasons. The same dimples might also come through, tweaking her mouth into impish smiles.
As they stood now on the edge of the pavement, watching out for the traffic approaching from the wrong direction, Sean absently drew Michael closer to him and tousled his hair. Michael frowned and glared straight ahead at the small park on the other side of the road. He’s ten years old, Sean reminded himself, he’s growing out of touchy-feely parents. Around them, the January drizzle threatened to materialize as fully formed rain. The air smelt of petrol and the faint tinge of woodsmoke.
“So what are we going to do about Edwin? He’s still not turned up. Maybe he didn’t want to come here after all.”
“Let’s have a sit down on that bench under the trees, and I’ll call his hotel again.”
A call on Sean’s rented mobile, to the hotel where their friend was staying – a coach trip of Spanish OAPs had put paid to Edwin’s last-minute plans to join them in the same hotel – awarded them, after some confusion, a message from their Stateside friend. Edwin had come down with some kind of stomach bug, and he would join them later. Go to the Cafe Torino, opposite Sagrada Familia, and he would meet them there.
“But we don’t know how long we have to wait. Why Edwin has got this thing about mobiles, I really don’t know,” Alison commented. “Isn’t it somehow un-American not to have a cell phone these days?”
“Look, I tell you what, I’ll wait here for Edwin. You take the kids off to the next port of call, and we’ll all meet up later. At least you and I can contact each other.”
“Excuses, darling. You’d take watching paint dry over going shopping any day, wouldn’t you?”
“We could always go back in that cathedral, and watch concrete dry.”
Sean entered the Cafe Torino, and was shown to a seat by an unsmiling mustached waiter. The small, square table was covered with a cheap blue tablecloth, almost rubbing legs with the other small, square tables that filled the ungainly, L-shaped cafe. Around him, the other customers conducted conversations that bordered on shouting while busily dispatching huge chunks of grilled steak or chicken, pausing now again to do that habitual Catalonian thing of rubbing slices of raw tomato into their helpings of toasted, salted baguette.
Radlett sipped a cafe latte, pondering an order of smoked ham, and pulled the Sagrada Familia brochures out of his pocket to stop them from getting too creased. He stared at them as he gingerly rubbed his palms. He had scraped his hands raw coming down that staircase, trying to calm his nerves by feeling the contact with something solid. He had gripped what laughably passed for a railing, and pressed the other hand against the stone wall all the way down, in fact barely taking his hand away from the surface, keeping his arms out straight like he was playing aeroplanes or something. His palms tingled continually now; his arms ached at the elbow.
“It never ends,” said a voice at his shoulder, in an obviously Spanish accent.
Radlett turned his head to the left to see that, yes, the comment had been aimed at him.
“People always come to see the Cathedral. Sagrada Familia. How many people would come, I think, if the Cathedral were finished. But the construction never ends.”
The speaker was a swarthy, bearded man in his late thirties or early forties, clad in a dark fisherman’s sweater beginning to fray at the turtleneck collar. His hair and beard, unlike Radlett’s, refused to let any hint of grey peep through and betray his advancing years. He peered at Radlett with thoughtful blue eyes in a full, round face, framed by the beard, returning his gaze after a few seconds to the dish he was spooning his way through. It looked like profiteroles smothered in steaming chocolate sauce.
“Well, they do seem to be taking rather a long time . . .” Radlett replied diplomatically.
“Of course Gaudi,” the stranger said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “was very Latin.”
“Sorry, I’m not quite with you.”
“He was typical Latin. A genius, they say, but he could never understand. Never understand that his wonderful creation couldn’t be finished. ”
“Well, now you say that…” Radlett thought of the model of the Cathedral’s original design on show in the Gaudi Museum, the towering edifices of mismatched, garish colours, its walls barnacled with bulging, multiform extrusions. “The task does seem a little bit difficult.”
“There is always the old danger, the Green Angel.” The stranger made a little circle with thumb and forefinger, and mimed sipping something bitter. “Absinthe, my friend.”
“Oh, surely . . . I thought Gaudi was a very religious person?”
“That is correct. But there are many different ways of expressing your belief. The brochures say that the Cathedral was Gaudi’s way of, eh, expressing his religion. But perhaps, in his last days, perhaps he realized that his true religion was simply architecture itself. You being an architect, you might see what I mean.”
“How did you know that I’m an architect?” Radlett blinked several times, feeling vaguely threatened. “Have we met before?”
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