Clocks Lie

By Wade Bell

(Calgary, Alberta)

For Abbey Bowie

Spring, 1975. For two years he had been living in a village in the Ampurdan countryside. But then, a weekend with her. Almost perfect. They hadn’t left her apartment from eight Friday evening to nine Monday morning except to eat in a restaurant late Saturday night. He thought they were becoming serious. He was pleased.

Monday morning, however, perfection ended in what seemed a deliberate metaphor that he hadn’t quite defined. Sunday there had been gunfire not far from her place, and at 5 am Monday they shot awake to the roar of a cannon or a building exploding as a cannon’s huge shot tore it asunder.

They pulled up the shutter, opened the window and heard a volley of shots but saw nothing. He must leave, she told him. “Go immediately. Not to the village but out of the country. To France. I have friends in Perpignan, French Catalans. Tell me when you’re leaving. I’ll let them know you’re coming.”

Wide awake, listening, listening, listening. Rain began to fall. No more gunshots or cannon fire. They went back to sleep and woke again at seven-thirty, still too early an end to a too short night, so they stole some minutes more.

Finally waking in a rush, they washed and dressed and left the apartment without breakfast. They took the stairs seven flights to the foyer because the elevator was out of order again, then hurried in the rain to the foot of the street. The unrest in her peaceful barrio of Gracia (Gracia meaning Grace, as in a state of grace) did not keep people off the streets when it came time to catch the Metro and buses.

Barcelona, at the turn of the twentieth century, was the most turbulent city in Europe, the city of bombs, with the bourgeoisie panic stricken. There had been an attempt to assassinate a man of wealth and power. The would-be assassin was executed. A friend of his took revenge by bombing a theatre, killing twenty people. The assassin as well as several innocent people were executed in reprisal. Then another bomb attack killed a dozen people. With no evidence that they were involved, five anarchists were executed. Many more were kept imprisoned in Montjuich Castle where some died of neglect. As a result of the international scandal, an Italian anarchist murdered the prime minister. A thousand people died for political reasons in Barcelona between 1917 and 1923. Eventually a civil war brought the fascists to power. The fascists promised peace. Peace was brutal, peace at any cost. Repression bred rebellion.

Two weeks before, on his last visit to the city, he had walked past a hole in the ground where until the previous week there had been a nightclub frequented by fascists and the Opus Dei. Bricks, bodies, bottles and billiards tables had been blown to smithereens.

They hurried in the rain to the Metro station at the foot of Calle General Sanjuro. He noticed that in each small shop, just seconds apart as they rushed by, the clock was a minute or two ahead of the previous one. This cut into the time he had to catch the train and amused him. He thought that if this phenomenon of the advancing clocks continued, by late afternoon it would be midnight, and in six months he would have aged a year and in ten years twenty and in twenty he would be an old man recalling the lost times when hours were fully hours and days were days, a time long before the cannons set clocks galloping like startled horses.

They descended the steps to the Metro, rode in silence, strap hanging, then kissed goodbye at Urquinaona Station. He continued on to Barceloneta, setting his watch at the clock in each station, each time losing another minute or two, until at Circania, where he got off, he had lost almost all the time he had to catch the fast train at Estaciόn de Francia, still a five minute walk away. He half-walked, half-ran through the narrow, crowded streets hoping he’d have time for a sweet roll and a coffee at the station bar or at least to pick up something to eat on the train.

Then he arrived and bounded up the five steps and into the high-ceilinged 19th century station where the big clock high up on the wall had been set by the same fingers that toyed with all the other clocks. Now he had three minutes and there was a lineup for tickets. If he joined the line, he would get no food but the line was long so he let his dream of breakfast go.

Just six people from the wicket, he heard the woman’s voice over the loudspeaker declare that the train for Flassá, Cadaques, La Junquera, Perpignan and Paris, was leaving from track such and such. His train. He was going to Flassá.

He stood in the queue for a minute or two, not sure what to do, then eased himself out of it and sauntered to the top of the station steps. With time to kill on a cold morning in Barcelona, the rain began to depress him.  Traffic hissed past on the wet street. He darted into the rain and hurried to a side street, slipping and almost falling on the slick, uneven cobbles, and into the nearest bar. Workers were eating their mid-morning bocadillo and drinking their mid-morning cognac or beer. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was half an hour slow.

He had a café con leche and a roll and wondered what to do for the rest of the morning until the slow local, the Tranvia, left. The mail train was excruciatingly slow and would stop at every station, some just a dozen kilometers apart. His sweater was wet. He wouldn’t be thoroughly warm and thoroughly dry until he was in his bed tonight and the bed seemed very far away.

Shifting his legs beneath the table he caught the knee of his trousers on something sharp and put a tear in them four inches long. Despite everything, the coffee and roll were making him feel somewhat happier. He had another coffee and paid his bill. Leaving the smoke-filled workmen’s bar, haunt, he supposed, of anarchists and communist unionists, he plunged into the maze of tiny streets and passageways of the Gothic Quarter.

His sweater was getting damper, heavier, and blood showed through the flap of fabric at his knee. He remembered that they had been in such a rush he had forgotten to comb his fairly long and disobedient hair before leaving the apartment. He remembered too that he had planned to trim his beard. He supposed he looked like a madman, all angles and long bones and eyes barely open to see in the wet. And his old, worn out hi-top running shoes were soaked from the puddles that occupied the ancient swales in the cobblestoned alleys like a flood of transient squatters.

Crowds hurried past. Shop windows had a Christmassy glow. At Plaza Real, an old man and woman offered chestnuts and roasted sweet potatoes for sale from their portable, three-sided hut. He couldn’t resist. It was warm standing by the charcoal brazier buying a sweet potato and the sweet potato was warm in his hand. The old woman’s smile was warm.

In the troubled times seventy years ago women were the most eloquent, daring and violent among strikers, church-burners and looters of nunneries. He’d heard of the radical fishwife, Carmen Alauch. The prostitute Maria Llopis. The radical madam, La Bilbaina. Also Trinidad de la Torre, Enriqueta Sabater, Rosa Estelrich and the other Damas Radicales who wore white bows to stand out and organized pacifist strikes and church burnings. (How the church was hated for its sins.) And the one known as Charity, Caridad Mercader, mother of the future assassin of Trotsky.

He walked aimlessly until it occurred to him to go to his bank and cash two small cheques, his reward from two small efforts at freelance journalism. They had been in his wallet for two weeks. With the money he would buy new trousers.

He slipped into a bar, into the washroom, dried his hair with paper towels and combed it. But a few seconds back in the rain he had the look of a soaked sheep dog. Conscious of looking feral, he reasoned that Barcelona was a big city, with people used to all sorts walking their streets. Also, he was obviously a foreigner. All foreigners were somewhat weird.

Of all the officious timepieces insisting on their inviolable truth, a bank’s should be trustworthy. But, high on the wall, it didn’t matter to him what it said since he had hours before his train would leave. No one batted an eye as he crossed the wide foyer and headed to a teller’s cage where the teller greeted him with a smile and a kind word. He reflected that Barcelonans were good at things like that.

Banking done, his heart lightened by the two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of pesetas freshly slipped into his pocket, he strode across the wet green tiles of Plaza Catalunya, the city’s main plaza, scattering beggarly pigeons, and into the Corte Ingles (was it true, as he’d been told, that this, the city’s largest department store, was owned by the wife of the Generalissimo, who took it as plunder from its original owners during the Civil War, and gave to her?).

He rode three floors on the escalator, found menswear, and yes, they did have a pair of trousers long enough for his un-Mediterranean frame. Then it was out into the rain and the voice of a man who looked stranger than he did, an English Jean Genet behind amber sunglasses saying, “Do you speak my language?” Hearing a yes, he launched into a story about a pig farm in France. He worked there, it seemed, and would never go back, never go back to France. “The French are cold, polite on the surface but mean and cold, soulless people (not like the English; God, no, not like the English”). Let the wolves eat their pigs, he was not going back to France, and could you spare a little change to help him get settled in Spain? And why was it so cold this far south? Weren’t they almost at the equator?

For fifty pesetas the man recited a few lines of hurried poetry written, he said, by someone on the road especially for other travelers. Finished, he turned to hit up another person on the wide apron of sidewalk, itself a small plaza, in front of the department store, someone who looked North American or English or Nordic, and began the same speech about pigs and wolves and the cold hearts of Frenchmen.

He wondered what she would have thought had she walked from her office, just a block away on Calle Caspe, to buy a scarf, because the day was cold and no doubt the office where she worked was too, central heating being a luxury not all buildings could afford; what she would have thought seeing him with the unwashed beggar and smiling like he was the guy’s best friend.

Were they a pair of crooks sharing tips? Were you hustling drugs? Because, though you were lovers now, she knew so little about you. Knew nothing, really, but your name, age, country of origin and the shape and texture of the body beneath the clothes.

He hadn’t thought of it before but he supposed she must worry about entering into a life with a man who had no history and who told her nothing but the bones of the skeleton all men had. It was just that his past hadn’t come up. The present was overwhelming. There was no space yet for histories. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about his life back in Canada. It just never wanted to come up.

If she was there among the passing crowd on the wide sidewalk at the Corte Ingles department store and saw him, he didn’t see her.

He walked back through the lovely labyrinth of the old quarter toward the Estaciόn de Francia. On Calle Santa Ana he stopped for another café con leche, this one served not in the usual bowl but in a tall glass. Then he wandered again, pausing like a seaman off a ship to look in the windows of charming little shops. In one, on Calle Petritxol, a poster advertised a novel, the tough, handsome face of the fortyish author superimposed on a background of oil derricks.

As he moved to open the door of the bookshop, because he wanted to buy the book set in the oilfields (to gauge the writer’s oilfields against his, back home in Alberta), to read on the slow train, a man inside the shop flicked off the lights with one hand while latching the door with the other. They faced each other, man to man, each with a hand on the doorknob.

The clerk’s action had been so deliberate, he could only register a moment’s bewilderment before walking away. Did he, despite the new trousers, look so much like a thief or beggar? He guessed he did. He walked on. The rain let up then beat down again. He became disorientated, maneuvering through twisting streets to twice arrive at the same small square, the Plaza del Pino.   Then he emerged from the Gothic Quarter onto Rambla Capuchinos and turned around, more in the mood to be in the back streets than to follow the Ramblas directly to the harbour and the railway station.

At last at the station, he dried his hair as best he could in the washroom. His sweater was sopping wet.

He began to feel unwell, as if the flu might be coming on, and discomfort brought thoughts of bombs and rifle fire.

Then he boarded the Tranvia and they made their slow way out of the city. Across the aisle three students chatted in Catalan. In the seat ahead a soldier snored.

He stared out the window as he always did on trains, absorbed in the landscape of factories and farms, green fields and trees with new spring leaves, for despite the cold spring had officially arrived.

Northeasterly toward Flassá the train crawled.

At Flassá he would have a long wait for a bus that would transport him to a town that was the regional hub. From there he would walk the kilometer over the hill to the village and eventually to the warmth of his bed. But before he left the town, he would have another hot café con leche then go to the Telefonica. There he would call her to say hello. That was all she needed to know of him for now, he thought. Just that he called to say hello.

Wade Bell's fiction has appeared in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies in Canada, Japan, Denmark, the U.S. and Spain. He is the author of three short story collections: A Destroyer of Compasses, No Place Fit for a Child, and Tracie's Revenge & Other Stories.

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