Karen Zelas


Familiar Strains

You push open the long windows and voices leap into the room. You are astonished at how clear they are and how close: ‘Ola!’ and ‘Como estas?How are you? As if you were sharing your room with strangers. You wish you could reply, be drawn into their ambit, hugged and kissed on both cheeks. You’d link arms and stroll, perhaps, to a café … No, that’s not why you’ve come.

The night air is warm, heavy. What is that perfume? A spicy, heady mix. You step onto the miniscule balcony and peer down into Las Ramblas: the cobbled promenade, the avenue of trees, the restaurants and stalls. People cluster, then part. Like waves hitting a cliff and folding back.

It is 10pm and Barcelona is awakening.

Lights are strung from tree to tree, creating shadowy patterns. Pools of light spill from the marquee-style restaurants and the book stalls; your eyes seek out these patches of light, scan them, examine the people sauntering, lingering, laughing. Is he among them? You can’t distinguish faces, but maybe the posture, the languid lope, the shrug of shoulder will mark him.

You are so fatigued you can hardly think, running on sheer adrenaline. It is more than thirty hours since you have slept; the few hours dozing in the aeroplane don’t count. You had to come; you have to find him. But he has merged with the city and you have no idea where to begin. You had imagined you’d come across him strolling along Las Ramblas, that you’d say, ‘Marcus. There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.’ And you’d hold him to you, bury your face in his neck. ‘Don’t frighten me like that again,’ you would say. You’ve seen the reunion so many times when you close your eyes; you’ve rehearsed it until it is word perfect, the only flaw being that Marcus doesn’t reply; his lips remain pressed together in a small smile, that annoying smile he used when he disapproved, yet refrained from saying so.

Probably you should sleep, but your limbs feel jerky and, although your temples are pressing in, your mind is coiled. A horn honks and another retorts; the cars must be over there, sweeping by the Monument a Colomb. As they take the curve, their headlights illuminate the plinth of the statue of Christopher Columbus and flash up Las Ramblas towards your pensione. A dog yaps; another replies — an invitation? Everyone seems to be moving in pairs or in packs, even cars and dogs, and you feel alone, so alone. Perhaps coming here was a mistake. Sarah had cautioned against it and then, when she saw that you were intent on making the journey, offered to come with you. But you shrugged her off. It felt as if you would be able to find him only on your own. After all, there had been just the two of you the first time.

Someone is whistling; you don’t recognise the tune; it is fast, syncopated, definitely Latin, and you become aware of your heart racing. The melody swells, then passes you by and fades into the night, taking the remnants of your certainty with it.

It is still dark when you wake to the chirruping in the bushy canopy level with your window. The room is warm and close, in spite of the open windows, and you’ve thrown off your bed covers. You have vague memories of threshing about, of dreaming, feeling bound up and unable to move forward.

Marcus. He is your first thought of the day, as every day for the past six months. Marcus: rangy body, cultured mind; shoulder-length wheaten hair, intense pale-grey eyes; wicked sense of humour. Guitarist. He had thought Barcelona ‘heaven on earth’. He had said one day he’d come back, maybe even stay, and your heart had sunk. You met up here and you parted here.

At lunch you shared bread and cheese, olives and tomatoes, washed down with agua minerale. At night a pan of paella in a narrow lane squeezed between flaking buff walls; a lanky red-flowered geranium in a pot on a high window ledge, net curtains fluttering in the breeze behind an iron grill. And you quaffed a carafe of vino tincto, the rough red house wine.

On the last night, the two of you sat long into the night in the Plaça Reial, toying with the last of your vino, listening to Flamenco guitar. The surge and swirl of notes punctuated by the slap of a hand against the belly of the guitar, mellow, resonating. The bending, swooping body of the player, eyes closed in ecstasy. The delicate plucking of a long thumbnail. The smoky voice. The crescendo. The dying. And knowing tomorrow you would go your separate ways.

The night would have gone on forever, if you’d had your way. Never mind responsibilities — this was being alive: sitting in the Mediterranean night with your son, watching his excitement, enjoyment, enthusiasm. Talking as friends. You fell in love with him all over again, this new young man, and opened yourself to him. Talked of your hopes, your unrealised ambitions. The things you had forsaken. The things you had lost. And he listened, encouraged, told you it was not too late, and there and then you believed him. You leant in towards him in the half-light, noticed the sensuousness of his lips, the glow in his eyes. He was tanned, hair tied at the nape. How had you and Leonard created someone so beautiful? He didn’t look like Leonard, nor like you, but a superior blend.

Lying in bed now, gazing out at the trees, just a few doors along from the pensione you shared with Marcus, you think of Leonard. You’d been good together for many years, had thought you still were, until you returned from a conference to find he was moving out, moving in with another woman. Again the disbelief threatens to render you helpless. You struggle to push the memories away, determined not to let him triumph.

You start to plan your day. The market a few doors along will probably be open by now. You’ll go and buy supplies, and — who knows? — you might find Marcus there. Both of you loved the market, the sounds, the colours, the smells. It makes your stomach weak to think of it and you realise you had no dinner last night.

The street lights still burn, a weak aura in the growing light, as you let yourself out and gently pull the door to. The air is fresh, salty, and you are glad to have slipped on a sweatshirt. Unlike last night, the promenade is almost empty. The newspaper stand is open, and the cigarette stall. It is the quietness that strikes you most, makes you feel you should walk on tip-toe. Left to the market, you remember, and you walk briskly. It’s not only hunger that drives you. It feels urgent to get there, as if you might miss him. You remember your first foray into the market. Marcus hadn’t seen anything like it before, not on such a grand scale: the huge purpose-built hall with the arched roof and semicircle of wrought ironwork above the wide opening. Dark green. The interior milling with people.

‘This is amazing, Meg!’ He had taken to calling you by name; it felt wrong to call you Mum, he’d said, that first night, when your eyebrows shot up. ‘Where do we start?’ He clutched his stomach, as if trying to quell an inner revolt. Laughing, you told him he could lead; you’d follow.

‘All these different breads. The smell.’ He closed his eyes and inhaled till it seemed his lungs would burst.

‘Which do you want?’ you asked.

Marcus pressed the heels of his hands against his temples. People jostled either side of him, chattering, reaching across him, while the yeasty woman behind the counter took the money, slipped loaves into their open bread-bags, asked after their husbands, their children, perhaps, chuckled and dusted floury hands on her apron.

Si, señor?’ she asked Marcus during a lull.

‘Ah, cuánto, por favor?’ Marcus stammered. How much does it cost, please? He’d been sitting on his bed that morning studying a phrase book when you came out of the shower. It was a relief to know your son would be able to make the necessary transactions. You had trusted that everyone would speak your language.

The woman behind the counter said something fast to a woman standing by Marcus, laughed, then told him more slowly how many pesetas for a long bread stick. Marcus fumbled a handful of notes and coins, tucked the bread under his arm and backed away from the counter. ‘Muchas gracias.’ He was sweating. You took his arm, squeezed it.

‘Now what shall we have with it?’ You steered him along the aisles. ‘Look, olives, cooked meats. Fruit and salads over there.’ He may have been flatting for a while, but he didn’t seem too familiar with food shopping.

Today you retrace your steps. The colours are less bright, the smells less pungent, less appetizing than you remember. You make your purchases, sit on a seat in Las Ramblas and fashion a sandwich; a sharp twinge in your parotid and a squirt of saliva remind you that your hunger is physical as well.

Barcelona: Gaudi’s city, and yours — Marcus’s and yours. You buy a day pass for the tourist bus, get on and off as you please. La Sagrida Familia. How it impressed you both. Its crazy towers and arches defying gravity. Marcus was enthralled by the model in the basement of the unfinished cathedral, an inverted model made of string and weights, demonstrating how Gaudi had calculated the forces inherent in his extraordinary design.

‘It’s like building the hull of a boat upside-down,’ Marcus said, ducking and twisting this way and that to view it from all perspectives.

The two of you roamed through the central nave, still roofless. The air was dusty, part of the interior walled off with clear plastic as construction continued. The August sun beat down without remorse. It was strange to see a group of Japanese huddled around their tour guide, umbrellas spread inside a cathedral. But nothing could diminish the spectacle of the fantastical towers soaring above all else.

‘Imagine being able to make this pile of stones stand up without modern instruments and computers,’ said Marcus. It was his awe that fascinated you as much as Gaudi’s genius.

Now as you stand before the entrance, you feel your son’s absence like cold stone.

The nave has been roofed since Marcus and you were here and you step into the welcome shade. You look about for him, scanning the dim interior. You want to reach out, tap his shoulder, take his arm as you climb over loose stones scattered carelessly. But he is not beside you, and you shrink inwardly, feel you must hurry on, taking little note of the arching columns and curved cupola. If Marcus is not in the nave, then he must be in one of the spires, no longer visible from inside now the roof is in place.

You cross to a stone staircase which spirals upwards inside one tower. It is a hard hot climb, the tightness of the circles giddying. You hear the ring of footsteps ahead; you must catch up. Emerging onto one of the many tiny balconies, you pause for breath. The footsteps have stopped and nobody is in sight. Disappointment squeezes the air from your lungs. You lean on the stone balustrade high above the city, watch miniature people gliding across the paving stones like weevils. You pull back, fearful you might tip over — climb over — and fall fall fall …

Ceramic mosaic balls glint atop another spire. Looking across, you catch a glimpse of Marcus on a balcony — right hair, right height — and set off running: up, down, across the interconnecting passages within the system of spires, willing him to wait, to stay where he is until you can reach him. Then you are standing on the exact spot where he had been. And he is gone. You slide down the stone until you are in a squat against the wall, face in your hands.

You revisit Plaça Reial and Gaudi’s Casa Milà with its sweeping curves, mosaics and the switchback roof-walk between twisted chimneys that Marcus loved so much. You stop at the Olympic Stadium, too, walk out into the arena. But everywhere you find yourself alone among the crowd.

The final destination of the day is Parc Guéll. It is late afternoon and the sun edges towards the horizon. Below, the city lies in haze. Siesta is over and people stroll along the mosaic pathways arm in arm, hand in hand. Despondent, you climb the steps to the colonnaded loggia. A string quartet plays in the depths, the instruments enriched and the melody amplified by the acoustics of the space. You pause to listen, remembering how you had listened with Marcus. It had been a classical guitarist then; he had made the instrument sing. You had been close enough to hear the squeak of his fingers as they slid on the steel strings.

As you listen now to the quartet, you feel yourself starting to relax, as if a violinist were detensioning your strings. You climb the zigzag to the roof of the loggia, sit on one of Gaudi’s mosaic couches, looking out over the city while music flows around you.

The squeals and laughter of children draw your attention. They are splashing each other from a fountain bowl, and you think of Sarah and Marcus, and the rivalry you did your best to quell. These days it seems to have gone, so perhaps you were successful, and you are comforted.

The plaintive notes of a violin float upwards, a new piece has begun.

There had been strings that other day, back home: Bach’s ‘Requiem’, and Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ — you chose them yourself. But you scarcely noticed on the day. The music was eclipsed by the sound of screaming metal in your head: a bicycle being dragged by an articulated truck, and the scrape of steel strings on bitumen. It had not been a close, slow day like this, but bone-cold and you were stuck in disbelief. Any moment, you thought, Marcus would walk in laughing and declare it all a joke.

You waited for his reappearance. But after a while a space developed and became a gaping hole; even in your dreams his face blurred and you couldn’t quite reach him. Panic took hold. You were losing your Marcus. You had to find him again.

A breeze begins to stir and soon the sky will fill with fiery Renaissance tones. A solo guitar plays and the strains envelope you. You close your eyes against the sun and sense a change in your being: a loosening of brow, an upward pull at the corners of your mouth. Marcus is beside you. You see his fingers pick out the guitar rhythm on his thigh, his profile cut into the sky. You would swear you can smell him.

You burrow in your bag, pull out the cell-phone. It will still be early morning in New Zealand, but that doesn’t deter you.

‘Hello, Sarah. It’s me.’

‘Mum! Thank goodness. Are you all right?’

‘I’m fine.’

You smile through space to your daughter.

‘I’ve found him,’ you whisper.



A former psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Karen has been Fiction Editor of Takahe for the last five years. Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published within New Zealand, including in Landfall, Poetry New Zealand, Takahe, pending in JAAM and broadcast on radio; also Australian ezines Snorkel and Eclecticism and Interlitq (UK). Several anthologies contain her work. She is editor of the anthology Crest to Crest: Impressions of Canterbury, prose and poetry (Wily Publications, 2009) and her historical novel Past Perfect, published by Wily in 2010, has now been republished as an ebook by Interactive Publications, Brisbane (ipoz.biz/Titles/PastP.htm). Her book of poetry Night’s Glass Table was named the winner of the 2012 IP Picks Best First Book competition by Interactive Publications, Brisbane (ipoz.biz/Titles/NGT.htm)