This work has been published with the support of Panorama’s Emerging Writers Fund.
At twilight, Johnny roams the narrow streets. He passes the central square, the old church and the launderette. He walks on searching for something. When he walks, he is happy. He feels free. In tune with the rhythm of the world, his life is a melody. Recently he has come to the conclusion that he has no free will; he will be carried by this world, led along by the black strand of fate. He walks with no destination, following only his sense of psycho-geography, drawn to certain areas like a moth. Right now, all he wants is a place to sit, to have a sip of water. He has been walking for a while now. He settles into a wooden bench, spreading his long arms across its wooden back.
The Spanish girls are beautiful, with long legs and olive skin. He wishes he could be with one of them, but it is unlikely because he does not speak the language. He is looking for that girl who also walks alone. He might impress her with his charm and banter. In English. But the locals are seldom by themselves. Indeed, when he was in America, neither was he. He was either at work, at home, stoned, hanging out at his friend’s house, equally stoned, or somewhere on the commute between them.
He has fallen in love with Barcelona. It wasn’t a conscious decision, merely a result of his wandering with nothing but his own babbling thoughts for company. He notices the stone arches, the rows of benches, and the balconies, linens draped over their ornate metal rails through which Spanish dramas unfold over long, hot nights as friends, lovers, and the dejected toss wind across the streets.
Still, it takes more than geography to fall in love with a city. He has fallen for the soul, the spirit, the vibe – whatever you like to call it: the film screenings in the parks, the popup music festivals in the midst of the summer heat, the locals drinking late on the streets, the skaters shredding them apart. An elderly gentleman once told him that there was more behind his life than before him. He thinks he can empathise, but the truth is that he cannot relate. The perspective that age brings cannot be gained until it has already come. Such is the tragedy of adulthood. He does not want to grow up.
An old man scurries across the road. A girl sits down on the bench beside his, about ten feet away. That distance feels like an ocean. He feels compelled to approach her. Perhaps he could ask her for a smoke. Or a lighter, though he carries one in his back pocket.
In this world, when somebody approaches you, it is usually because they want something from you. The lamb is afraid of the wolf because he will devour her; the pack is afraid because he will threaten the structure of power; the fox is afraid because he will demand information.
Why is she here? How long will he stay? Is she waiting for someone? She’s mesmerised by her phone, and he’s mesmerised by her. Does she speak English? He turns his head away, so as not to stare. What would he say? ‘Ola?’ What about ‘I like your shoes?’ It’s not an empty compliment, he actually does: black sandals, gold straps, they complement her toes. But he can’t tell her he likes her toes.
He wants nothing from her. Just someone to talk to. To share these thoughts bombarding his brain. That would be nice.
Is it even worth it? What will come out of it? What’s the worst that can happen? He decides he will ask her if she will share a smoke. He has been saving the last joint in his pocket for a rainy day, but this moment seems as good as any other. She stands up and crosses the street into the arms of a Spanish boy walking his bicycle. Of course. Tonight, the black thread of fate will not intertwine with the silver thread of serendipity, nor the red thread of love.
He takes out his phone. There’s a message from an American girl he’d met. Claire Sheehan. Two days ago, he had found the girl in a hip café and they had smoked a joint in a nearby park. The flowers were in full bloom, and vines crawled along arches of canvas. They had discussed the city in earnest for a while and she had given him her phone number before she left. Hey there! I am using Whatsapp. No. That would be a bad idea.
He stands. Must keep moving. There is the cathedral, aglow in the distance. The full moon balances on its spire. There is the old church, not as grand as the cathedral but unique all the same. Which would he choose?
He hears it coming from far away. Whenever an ambulance rushes past it is because someone is dying. Its sirens shriek through the streets. He stops to let it pass. Then he notices the cherries packed in the Styrofoam boxes of Pakistani fruit vendors. It is late, and they are probably no longer fresh. He picks one for a taste—not overpoweringly sweet. He buys a bag.
Now when he walks he is no longer alone. The bag bounces against his thighs with the spring in his walk. He pops cherries into his mouth and drops the pits onto the street like droplets of ink. They leave a trail. Maybe someone will follow it to his heart. Maybe they will be eaten by rats.
A bedraggled man follows him into an alley. “Japon, hey, Japon.” Hong Kong, not Japan, dammit.
When someone approaches you in this world, it is usually because they want something from you. Growing up, his mother told him be wary of people like this man. What did he want? Then a thought occurs to him: if he wants others to trust him, should he not start by trusting others first? He stops.
“You are from Japon?”
“I’m from China,” he begins with a smile. He chooses China because he thinks there is a better chance the man will know where it is. “Not Japan.” He considers whether or not to give this stranger the whole pep talk about Asians not looking the same. “Where are you from?” he asks instead.
The man slides up to him. He is wearing a faded black cap and smoking weed rolled into a cigarette. “You smoke weed?” He says, offering the spliff.
“I am from Syria,” the man wraps his arm around his shoulder. He can smell the tobacco heavy on his breath. “You like football? Messi?” The man demonstrates with his legs, fancy footwork on the spot.
“No, I prefer badminton, and I like to ski. I skate too.”
“Oohh.” The man pulls him tight, feet still a blur. Their legs become a tangle. “Look, the ball. It is Messi.” He points at a tile just ahead of their toes.
He instinctively jerks his leg back. Feels his phone in his pocket. When he walks, in his black skinny jeans, his phone is like a brick against his thigh, and his wallet a sponge.
The man starts playing rougher. Perhaps now would be the time where he fakes an injury. He tries to push the man off, but his right leg is locked in place. He no longer feels comfortable. Then the brick is gone. His right pocket, without a doubt, is empty.
It’s almost too classic: thief follows lone tourist into an alley. When two wolves meet they must, invariably, fight. Fuck, what will he do without a phone? He can’t travel without one. Well he could, but it would be much harder. He has no money to buy another. He would have to ask his parents. The shame. How would he explain? He had told them he was going to be self-sufficient. To prove this, he worked for six months in restaurants, 40 hour weeks, just so he could travel. Is this how it was going to end?
Bastard fucking stole my phone.
He grips the man’s wrists and holds on tight, and he won’t let go. The man tries to trip him. Now they are completely entwined. Their bodies stutter close to the wall. He only clenches tighter. The man’s wrists are not thick and so warm. Now the man can’t run away. If he does, he’ll have to drag his limp body with him.
As they stagger, he yanks his leg free of the leg lock with a swift upward motion. Now he finally has his balance and they are face to face. He sees straight into the other man. His heavy umber eyes, wrinkled around the edges, are laced with a muted sadness.
He spots his phone in the man’s hands. He tries to pry it out of his grasp. The man removes the phone from its case. It lands in a puddle.
The man brings his hands behind his back. He lets go of the man and shoves him against the metal door. He is surprised at his own strength. The man reveals something shiny and silver.
He hopes to God it is not a knife. His stomach clenches. He can already imagine the pain. The man returns his phone, right into his hands. The man backs away. “Your case,” he points.
He stares in disbelief. That’s it?
He does not want to retrieve his case because he does not want to turn his back on the man. He watches him exit the alley. The few pedestrians who stopped in vague interest move along. He taps his pockets. Right, left, back, back. Brick, sponge, earphones, lighter. Adrenaline still coursing, he walks the opposite way.
Two days later, after his mind has settled, he will feel gracious, to have his phone, to be alive, to continue his walks. He will feel anger. But more than that, he will feel betrayed. They could have been friends in another time. He begins to understand the culture of fear. Life is easier, safer at the very least, if you can place people into boxes. We are all cocoons, he will think, hardened with silk, tangled in a vast and complex web of threads.
He walks home. Hadn’t he passed by this bench earlier? It looks awfully familiar. He is missing something. He double checks his pockets. He has forgotten the cherries.
Freedom is in the air he breathes. Like a tumbleweed, he has no intention of stopping. What is it he is looking for? Is he running away, afraid of what he might find? In the never-ending search his ideals cannot die.
The benches all look the same, no doubt about it. He had been walking in circles. There is the old church and beyond that will be the central square. That old man had told him that when we are lost, we tend to walk in circles.