Palma de Mallorca, 1998
It's not an eye-catching fountain. Quite the opposite. You'd walk by, giving a cursory glance at its unadorned yellowy-grey stone and the spindly flow of water rising up and trickling down into the polished basin. If you happened to wander into the small Venetian-style square where the fountain sits in its centre, you'd be more impressed by the buildings that overlook it. For you have come into what was once part of the sacred heart of the city. On one side looms the once thriving seminary, rather ominous and prison-like with its narrow windows giving onto the cobbled square. A couple of students can still be spotted diligently studying in their austere rooms. Opposite the seminary are old buildings converted into tiny apartments, too tightly packed together for lifts. The inhabitants of these modest dwellings seem to be imbued with the same monastic energy that still lingers on in the square; there are no families, no lively children, no one under forty. They are single and appear to have chosen the square as a kind of retreat. There are a couple of painters, a musician, a composer, an eighty-four-year-old woman who holds the keys to the church, and others who need to be by themselves for a time, the lonely wanderers and observers of life. The shutters or billowing curtains at their windows are at the same time disturbing and comforting in the quiet. The far end of the square is almost entirely taken up by the back wall of St Jerome's church, seventeenth century baroque style, now in disuse and crumbling. The other end is open and leads to shady little streets near the ancient Jewish quarter, and further on, deep into the dark entrails of the city.
Alice has recently rented one of the little apartments. Hers is one of billowing curtains as she likes to spend time watching the fountain and observing the only lit-up room in the seminary in front of her. She imagines how it must have been in more pious times: the feverish activity of eager students crossing the square and poring over their books into the small hours; when the whole area was a place of erudition, mysticism and multicultural exchange, with Jewish cartographers and luliano philosophers vying for space and time. Now the most numerous inhabitants are the doves that wait on the rooftop of the seminary for the water to be turned on in the fountain. This happens punctually at nine in the morning, and just as punctually it is turned off at nine at night. Fifteen minutes before the water rises in the fountain, they swoop down and wait patiently in the basin to drink the cool morning water and refresh their feathers. When the clocks are put forward in the autumn, they come and wait at quarter to eight and won't move for an hour until the water comes, as if their day can't begin without their bath.
But they are not the only users of the fountain. Alice has spent hours watching the visitors. She is still waiting for the new term to begin at the institute and likes to while away her time observing her new whereabouts. Leaning over her tiny balcony to catch the breeze at the end of an extremely hot Mediterranean summer, she watches and waits. There is nothing dignified, sanctimonious or wise about the few visitors. Some are curious, sweating tourists wandering into this relic of long gone solemnity on their way to visiting the Jewish quarter and the magnificent, lightless churches further on. At weekends, sometimes children come and fill their water pistols; the shrill cries of their joyous battles pierce the drowsy square and rudely awaken it. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, they disappear, leaving a trail of water on the cobbles and an empty silence broken now and then by the cooing of the doves. In the early morning a few drug addicts and homeless come. They use the fountain to wash their hands and faces before stumbling off to secluded corners in which to sleep or collapse. The unwanted ones, the dregs, sit at the same fountain where the most holy and the wisest of society conversed about morality and God. Now, in the late afternoon at the main entrance to the square, a discreetly parked van belonging to the Red Cross offers methadone to the less hopeless.
Alice has noticed a girl in her twenties. She is the first to arrive in the morning when nobody is yet about. She washes her underwear in the fountain with a small piece of soap and puts the wet clothes into a plastic bag. She uses the same soap to wash her gaunt face and splashes water on her hair. Then she goes to the nearest car parked at the entrance to the square and combs her hair, looking into the side mirror. When she is satisfied, she takes a bottle of baby cologne from her rucksack and rubs some into her hair and neck. She puts it away with care, her treasured possession, and sits down on a bench. She has the look of the wolf about her, the eyes furtive and distrustful, used to abuse and misuse, always ready for flight. She has the hunger of the wolf about her, too, and the cunning of the survivor. Her clothes are grubby and stained, but her clean face and sweet-smelling hair give her the right to sit on the bench and watch, Alice likes to think. In her romantic musings, Alice imagines she is almost beyond hope but she won't give up the freedom of the streets. Her loneliness is absolute, and sitting on the bench, she has a Zen-like detachment which no master could ever teach her. She lives each day as it comes, no future and an erased past; nothing to clutch onto, just what the here and now bring her.
Alice watches her every day. Sometimes the girl comes across a few colleagues. There is solidarity among them and playfulness. They joke and stumble about, arms around each other, then each one is off, alone. She always does her ablutions when no one is around, in her one moment of privacy, her one moment of intimate dignity. She has turned and looked up at Alice, who likes to think she has felt her gentle gaze upon her and seen the compassion in her eyes, that she is waiting for the moment to help her. But underneath that fantasy, Alice senses the girl has smelt her fear and perceived the shame she battles with, how horror overcomes her goodwill, and that, above all, she is a challenge to all the lofty ideals Alice has nurtured and defended.
But one evening Alice decides that the next morning she will invite her into her apartment. She'll say: 'Come upstairs and take a shower in my bathroom.' She'll smile at her, all light and confidence, and the girl will smile back and humbly take up her offer. Then maybe she'll offer her some breakfast. At first she'll be timid, but then gradually she'll open up and will start talking about her life and how she got into such dire times. Alice imagines how each morning there will be the ritual of the shower, breakfast and conversation. A strange friendship will grow between them, and Alice will even persuade her to get help to overcome her addiction ...
Alice is up early next morning. She has slept in fits and starts and is stiff with unease. The girl arrives at the fountain at her usual time and begins to take out her soap and the plastic bag with the underwear. Alice is watching her from the window, her mouth dry and speechless with fear. She is plucking up courage to call out to her when the girl looks up at her defiantly, the wolf ready to snarl. And Alice perceives that the sixth sense of the wolf knows what she would like to say, can smell her fear. Instead of help, she senses a trap. 'Another of those bloody do-gooders trying to get me into an institution over a cup of coffee,' Alice is certain she is thinking. Under the force of the girl's stare Alice feels despised and suddenly inferior. She lowers her eyes. The girl picks up her soap and clothes, stuffs them quickly into her rucksack and, with a glare at Alice, leaves the square. No ablutions for her today.
Although Alice is ashamed, she is also secretly relieved. She moves away from the window and slumps into the chair. She has tried to suppress her own instinct, which was screaming: 'Don't let her into your house. You don't know what she's capable of. She may rob you with a knife at your throat. She may bring all the other druggies with her another day. And you only wanted to help her, didn't you? Because she's a young girl and you felt sorrier for her than the others. But she's no different to the rest. She's crossed over into a different territory and you don't have the map.'
Alice admits she is not ready to cross those boundaries yet. However hard she has worked on herself, however 'enlightened' she thought she was, she has to accept defeat. Her instinctual sense of self-preservation, that primordial fear, has risen out of the same dark pit as everyone else's. Miss Altruism is at bottom no better than the despised self-seeking rest, she realises, not without a lingering self-pity.
* * *
The school year has begun and there is less time for gazing from the window. She hardly looks at the girl now, who still comes every morning. Her pupils are her main concern. And soon she will be moving from the square. The apartment has served its purpose. Now it is too small and cramped and she has an imperious need to get away. She has already found a bigger, more modern apartment away from the city centre, with good sea views. Her time is taken up with teaching, thinking about her students and their difficulties. She likes her job as assistant English language teacher. She makes sure her self-esteem is kept buoyant by becoming popular with her pupils, although that isn't difficult -- a young, blonde, foreign newcomer who makes the classes fun is the dream of every baccalaureate student, especially the male ones.
The day arrives for the removal of her few boxes. It's a bright October morning, a luminous autumn day, the early sunlight squinting into the square. The doves are waiting at the fountain, undisturbed by passers-by on this quiet Saturday morning. The water is turned on, and as usual they refresh their wings and drink. Then suddenly there is a flap and they are up again on the seminary rooftop. Alice looks out to see what has frightened them. Coming up to the fountain is the girl. She is with two men, one in a wheelchair. They position the wheelchair in front of the fountain. Then she takes out an old can of shaving foam and a razor from her rucksack. She begins to shave the man in the wheelchair, tapping and rinsing the razor in the fountain. She takes her time, shaving with care until she is satisfied with the result. Then she gives the razor and the can to the other man, who starts to shave himself. The man in the wheelchair wipes his face with his shirt. They don't talk to each other. Everything is done slowly and with great calm. When they are finished they go off together. Half an hour later the girl is back by herself. She carries out her routine, washing her underwear and then her face and hair. She looks into the side mirror of the nearest car and applies the cologne. Tired from so much effort, she rests her frail body on the bench and closes her eyes. After fifteen minutes she is off again, wandering into the dark alleys.
Alice closes the shutters and the windows. There is a dull heaviness in her heart that she struggles to ignore. She sits on one of the boxes and waits for a long while before phoning a friend to come and take her to her new apartment. The initial excitement she felt when she climbed the narrow stairway for the first time has now become a dull monotony. Alice hasn't conversed with the old lady for a while although she knows how she looked forward to her small quota of attention, to the tea and biscuits she would prepare for Alice in her tiny kitchen. She has been her main source of information about the history of the square and for little snippets of gossip about the locals. Alice sensed that nobody had asked her before she arrived. And her guilty conscience tells her that she has retired into her poky ground-floor flat and church duties, into the lonely routine she nearly dared to think belonged to the past.
Neither has Alice got to know the other inhabitants of the square, who at first she imagined the jealous guardians of an almost mystical knowledge, of a secret enlightenment only revealed to a chosen few. All she got out of them was a perfunctory 'Bon dia'. Most days they just scuttle past one another, hoping they won't have to greet anyone. 'Don't come into my world, I don't want to go into yours, either,' says the half-smile on the stairway. Their self-imposed retreat might have improved their painting or composing, but it has had a dire effect on their humanity. They have sallow, papery skins and a drabness which comes from sitting inside four walls for hours and hours. Their blood has pooled at their feet, the brains devoid of vitality and nourishment. A good slap on the back of the neck is what's needed there. Get that sluggish circulation back into their heads, Alice imagines with some spite. They no longer watch the morning and evening spectacle of the doves, nor wonder about each other. The drug addicts and homeless of the square could teach them a lesson in companionship, Alice has thought many a time. What is it about this place? she wonders, sitting hunched up on the biggest box. Do all the inhabitants end up having the life sucked out of them, as if they were the ghosts of their medieval ancestors? She could see parts of them falling away day by day; these poor ossified beings, gradually disintegrating into the ancient walls.
A few days ago a new guy moved into the apartment above hers. He is about her age, twenty-five, tall, thin and black-haired. Another painter, she thought, as she saw him struggling up the narrow stairway with an easel. Alice was surprised when he greeted her in Mallorcan. From the whiteness of his skin she assumed he was somewhere from the north. Well, he'll soon fit in with the rest of them, she thought, and dismissed him.
Alice remembers when she first arrived on the island from England. It was August; the humidity and heat was at its highest, and getting off the plane was like walking into a bowl of warm soup. But the smell of pine resin pervading the air, the unique light spangling the sea, bouncing off concrete and harshly revealing ugly corners and spectacular bougainvillea on white buildings, soon penetrated every blood cell. Nothing escaped that hard sun. Like a giant torch beam in the high Mediterranean sky, it searched out and captured all flaws in minute detail but also enhanced every form of beauty till the overwhelmed beholder could take in no more and had to turn away. Houses and apartments were shuttered against it, particularly in the old quarters of the city whose dark, narrow streets seemed to defend themselves against the assailant. The mountain range to the north-west of the island offered some respite to the villages scattered through its valleys. The air was fresher there and temperatures two or three degrees lower, as Alice discovered on her hikes. Soon she felt privileged to be in this one-time paradise where everything was close at hand: the sea, mountains, unspoilt villages and stretches of yellowy-green countryside spattered mostly with carob, olive and almond trees and the red, tilled earth that yielded excellent potatoes. The exploited coastal areas were forgotten when you found the paths leading into a physical heaven just half an hour from Babel's Tower and the modern tourist machinery. And the city itself: ancient, suspicious and wily, used to waves of invaders over the centuries, forced to accommodate all and trusting none. It had been and, in a sense, still was a Phoenician port of importance where money was god, although the abundance of imposing churches would have you thinking otherwise.
When Alice found the flat in St Jerome's square she thought herself very fortunate. It was situated just behind the old city walls and the sea, and near a motorway to drive to the institute where she was to become a new member of staff. It satisfied her curiosity for historical detail and had a subdued beauty which revealed itself after constant observation. The fountain was its focal point, and the doves with their rhythms gave it a subtle, peaceful harmony. Here I can start afresh, maybe meet some interesting people and have my own space, she thought. She didn't mind how cramped that space was, nor how much she was paying for forty square metres. The peace and quiet, the view of the fountain and the doves from her front and only window were worth it. Barely two months later she was moving out. The hollow feeling inside was threatening to take over her whole being. She didn't quite know when it had started but she had a sneaky suspicion that she wasn't the person she had carefully constructed over the years; in fact, she was struggling not to see a rather useless, well-intentioned and obsessive weirdo who had to have her own way, not so different from the solitary dwellers of the square she was leaving.
The chiming of the church clock tower brings her back to the bare, dusty room and she stifles a pang of regret. She gets up slowly and rings a friend she has made at the institute.
'Hola Juan, I've finished packing. Can you pick me up?'
* * *
The 1980s fifth floor apartment Alice now lives in is square, box-like and functional. It is three streets back from the beach which she can see from her balcony. There are no doves, just the occasional squawking sea birds, and in front of her are tall blocks of flats just like hers; the same black iron railings guarding identical balconies in grubby white buildings that are beginning to flake. In the street below, the cars are so tightly parked that you could hardly poke a finger between them. And even with the windows shut there is a constant hum of traffic and occasional irate hooting. Noise invades all. The shouts and screams of young families in her block penetrate the thin walls of Alice's apartment, and she can often hear the conversations and arguments of her next-door neighbours. This new world seems flimsy, weightless, its inhabitants rapidly skimming the surface of their lives like the sea birds skim the sea and then are off swirling high on the next current. The neighbours are curious and gossipy. They want to know where she is from, what she does, does she have a boyfriend? Why is she there on her own? Alice finds herself recoiling from this invasive nosiness. She is the one who now gives a curt 'Bon dia' on the stairs and hurriedly escapes. She goes from room to room in the practical but soulless apartment, wondering where to settle. She has too much space for her few belongings and the overall bareness is felt like an oppressive presence, so much so that she often feels her back is unguarded and must turn quickly to see what or who is there.
Tourists still sunbathe on the long beach and swim in the cooling sea. The warm October sun and softer light attracts many late holidaymakers and third-age Spaniards who walk in throngs along the promenade. Arm in arm they stroll, chattering loudly and looking forward to the next meal in one of the hotels that loom all around the bay. Alice envies their capacity for living in the moment and enjoying small pleasures. They are not wasting their precious time with useless soul-searching, nor wondering how they made so many mistakes, she thinks. There's the sea, the sun is shining, get out and savour it. But she cannot help being irritated by their hearty cheeriness and by their loud, grating voices. They are an older version of the young hordes that take over the resorts in the summer and convert them into Bierstrassen, thus named because of the predominance of German tourists in that area, where alcohol is drunk with straws from plastic buckets and the surviving parts of La Isla de la Calma retreat into dark caves and pray for protection. Fortunately, most of them sleep in a stupor all day on the beach and so leave the rest of the island unscathed. Here money flows in bars and restaurants and endless partying fills the streets every night. There are no homeless, no unpleasant sights to upset the clients, apart from their own vomit.
Alice enjoys the fresh sea air as she takes her strolls along the promenade, imagining there is no concrete, just sand dunes and palms as it was sixty years ago. She can see the gothic cathedral in the distance and below it the ancient walls enclosing the original city. A little way back from the walls lies La Plaça de Sant Jeroni, hidden from view by the façade of St Jerome's church, enshrouded in scaffolding, and the battered stone buildings that face the sea front. On a good day I could walk there in an hour, Alice muses.
She has a few visitors from the institute.
'Nice apartment, Alice, nice apartment. Are you okay here?' are the only comments she receives.
'Yes, I suppose so. It'll take a while to settle in, but at least I have space,' she says dully.
They don't return, and she doesn't really care at all.
* * *
The school term is well underway and Alice is in a cocoon of feverish schoolwork. Her pupils are her refuge and she champions them in all their causes. But her colleagues' initial enthusiasm for her pretty face and long legs is waning; she isn't keeping the place allocated to foreign assistants. Which is: entertain the kids but don't bring any of your liberal foreign ideas into the classroom. Alice is no longer an object of desire; she is a threat and must put up with whispered comments in the staff room: 'I wish that bloody woman would stop trying to reform the educational system. Who does she think she is? Little English upstart. We all know nothing works. Have you heard the latest idea she's gone to the Head with? She wants the kids to have the right to assess our teaching and make complaints if they think we're failing or not treating them as well as they'd like. As if we don't have enough trouble already controlling the little buggers.'
'Well, she won't last long here. That type never does,' is the usual end to the conversation.
Alice thinks about applying for teaching posts in institutes on the mainland and abroad, maybe the States? But she is growing tired of wandering, of suspicious blank faces and empty nights.
And now the nightmares. They started a week ago and are punctually insistent. Just before the break of dawn they rise up relentlessly through the darkness and invade. The whitewashed walls of her apartment are slowly closing in on her until she can hardly turn in her bed. When she is on the point of being bricked in, a reminiscence of medieval torture, she wakes covered in sweat and gasping for breath. No amount of candles, incense and not very successful meditation before bedtime can dispel her anxiety and fear. Sometimes the homeless girl appears just before the walls start falling in on her. The girl has a quizzical expression on her little rat-like face. She is holding an empty bottle of baby cologne and her hair is lank and greasy. 'What do you want?' Alice mouths in her sleep. There is never an answer.
One night the dream is so physically intense that Alice jumps out of bed at five a.m. She knows what she must do. She packs her rucksack with sandwiches and a flask of coffee and sets out. The fresh, silent morning clears her pounding headache as she walks along the sea front towards the city. It is still dark but she is not afraid. She moves quickly, propelled by a sense of urgency and resolution. Soon the sun begins to rise lazily behind her. It stretches its rosy gold limbs on the sea and slowly illuminates the path before her. She doesn't turn to watch the spectacle but feels the growing light at her back affirming who she is and what she is about to do.
When she is near the square, Alice stops at an all-night chemist. As she comes out the church clock is striking seven. She enters the square and settles down to wait on the damp stone bench. The doves are silent on the dew-drenched seminar rooftop, heads tucked under their wings. A stray dog approaches, sniffs at her ankles and is off searching for scraps. Some lights are on in the flats of her old block, but not in her shuttered window. She tries to suppress the tears that are welling but then gives up and lets them flow freely down her tanned cheeks.
Then an hour later Alice sees the girl shuffle up to the fountain and splash her face with the remaining water in the basin. She is even thinner and her gaunt face has a greyish-yellow tinge; the bloodshot eyes have lost the territorial glint of the wolf. There is no little plastic bag with underwear. She hasn't seen Alice and looks startled when she approaches her.
'Hello, I've got some breakfast and coffee, would you like some?'
The girl, suddenly remembering, gives her a hostile stare.
Alice kneels down and opens her rucksack.
'Look, I've brought this for you.' Alice hands her the bag from the chemist.
The girl hesitates but then snatches the bag and takes out a bottle of baby cologne. She holds it to her for a moment, then, without looking at Alice, slowly applies the cologne to her hair and neck.
'I'll come back tomorrow morning,' Alice says, and leaves the coffee and sandwiches on a bench.
'Dónde está Gabriel?' the girl asks. 'I want Gabriel, not you. Why have you come?'
She turns her back on Alice, who looks on speechless and dithering. Then hurried steps ring out on the cobbled stones.
'Elisa, don't go!' says a thin young man who looks almost as vulnerable as the girl. He's carrying a flask of coffee and two paper cups. He barely notices Alice in his concern to reach the girl before she leaves the square.
'Sorry, I'm a bit late this morning,' he says and pushes a mass of black hair back from his forehead. 'Come and have some coffee with me.'
Then he notices Alice and the coffee and sandwiches on the bench. 'Oh, I see someone got here before me. Who's your friend?' he asks, looking mildly put out.
'No friend of mine,' says Elisa. 'She can fuck off.' Then, turning to Alice: 'I know who you are. You used to spy on me from that window over there, didn't you? I thought you'd gone. What are you doing here? Come to check up on me, have you? Well you can sod off now. But thanks for the cologne.' She sneers at Alice with greenish teeth.
Alice and Gabriel smile at each other in recognition. He is the ethereal-looking guy who moved into the apartment above hers.
'Come on, Elisa, don't be like that. Let's all have some coffee together. No one's spying on you. Look, I made this for you.' He pulls out a bracelet made from fine leather strips and set with small turquoise stones.
Elisa takes the bracelet and slips it on her skinny wrist. She gives Gabriel a half-smile.
'Thanks, Gabriel. But I'll have coffee with you tomorrow, just us two, right? I don't want her here,' she says, and leaves the square, cologne in her rucksack and a deadly sway in her step.
'How do you do it?' Alice asks Gabriel.
'Make friends with her. Gain her confidence. I'm Alice, by the way.'
'Alice. English?' he replies, switching from Spanish to English with a faint Irish accent. 'I don't know. I guess I don't feel pity for her; I just don't want her to feel alone. I want her to think she has a friend who isn't judging her. I never know if she'll come back.'
'So how did you make friends?'
'I painted a picture of the fountain. It was the first thing I painted when I came here. Every day I came down to the fountain in the early morning. The light was perfect then. She would turn up at around eight to have her wash, and she ended up in the painting. She didn't mind. I think it gave her some sense of permanence, of importance even. So I began to share my coffee with her; she's never hungry. We don't talk about her addiction -- she's beyond help -- or how it began; we talk about anything -- the painting, the colour of the sky, people passing by, some druggie friend of hers -- or nothing at all. I finished the painting but I still share coffee with her every morning. I only know that she's twenty-two and she's from Barcelona. She's going downhill fast so I'm grateful for every day that she turns up, for the hour we spend together.'
'Can I see the painting sometime?' By now Alice felt she could ask him anything.
'Sure! Come up now if you like. And you can tell me what you're doing here! I have to leave at ten to give a class at the art school.'
That was the first of their meetings in Gabriel's workshop apartment; leisurely conversations over coffee and the contemplation of the paintings that would later be on exhibition in one of Palma's main galleries. Alice loved the painting of the fountain: the old buildings leaning together and wreathed in early morning mist; the young girl splashing her face with water and bathed in the same luminosity as the fountain. It was as fresh and seductive as Alice's first glimpse of the square when she had opened the shutters and wanted to do nothing else but lean on the sill and observe. The painting was never for sale; it travelled with them over the years back and forth to England, Ireland, Mallorca.
There was another painting she loved: the final rendering of the hawthorn tree and the fairy ring at Lough Brin. Gabriel had painted many versions over the years, whenever he could get back to Ireland. He told Alice its story, about his Irish ascendency and about Granny Cliona, whose ashes he scattered around the tree. And through the paintings Alice fell in love with this man who had left his parent's comfortable Mallorcan house to be able to paint in the austere little apartment in St Jerome's square.
Gabriel continued to see Elisa every morning, but Alice stayed behind. Once she peeked at them through the half-open shutter but drew back as if she was intruding on a sacred space. One morning in March, Elisa didn't turn up. Gabriel continued to go down every morning for two months with his flask of coffee to wait for her frail figure to come shuffling into the square. She never came back. That summer they also left the square. Alice went back to England, and Gabriel soon followed her.
Article © Heather Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-09-28
Image(s) are public domain.