He phones her at work but of course she can’t speak and even if she could, what could he tell her? Or she him? He could, he supposes, tell her about the hotel room they’ve put him in, with the lorries from the depot rattling the windows all night and the woman on reception who speaks Spanish too fast for him to understand. He could tell her about the man who broke drunkenly into his room in the early hours, guffawed anecdotally, then stage-whispered loudly with his mates outside for hours.
He could tell her about the woman he exchanged long, unsmiling glances with on the plane over, or the busking guitarist in the Cathedral Square who never gets to the end of his song. But he cannot tell that he still goes on wanting what he cannot have, or that every woman’s face here begins as an image of hers. He cannot tell her that this trumped-up trip to her birthplace was really only an excuse to get her to meet him again. Or that now she isn’t returning his calls, he doesn’t even know what he is for any more.
* * *
Once, back in the early days, we met a well-dressed vagrant in the High Street who kissed your hand and sang in the street for you. But the twinkle of his well-rehearsed routine was cover for a great sadness. He had been jilted by his fiancée 20 years before, he told us, and still knew her letter of rejection by pedantic heart: “Though you are the kindest and gentlest of men” – hesitant comma, an “and” crossed out, long space – “I have to tell you that I do not love you…” semi-colon, open brackets, “(though I have tried and tried to deserve you)” …close brackets, three words crossed out, one of them probably “please”…
On and on he went, punctuating the text of his despair. We saw him another time in the street, you and I, but avoided him in the absorption of our infatuation – a happiness to be used with care, we gloated, since it was potent enough to make others miserable.
* * *
In the roads beyond the centre he watches the dusty pilgrims approach their final destination, weeks together yet still smiling, wholesome, expectant. In Santiago de Compostela, third holiest site in Christendom, faith seeps with the moss through the warm granite walls and swarms through the crowds with their staves decked with gourds and scallop shells.
‘SILENCE: SACRED GROUND’, says the sign outside the Cathedral in four languages. Shrunken grey old women in clothes of perpetual mourning push past him to place their hands into the fingermarks worn into the marble Rod of Jesse by centuries of supplicants, and to rest their heads against Maestro Mateo’s, wiping their hands over the architect’s stone face and smearing the residue of his unofficial sanctity on theirs.
He does not object to their queue-jumping. There is remission on time in Purgatory for those who believe, and again he shudders at the craven self-interest of his own pilgrimage. These people have walked hundreds of miles, from Le Puy and beyond, to venerate a fiction they have made real by their faith. He has flown in from Heathrow to stalk a real person who doesn’t even return his calls. ‘Tis grim, to be such a pill.
* * *
The worse time was at the airport. I’d been to a wedding of an old college friend, and was flying home via your new city. Though we’d been separated almost a year by then, I’d managed to convince you to meet me for an hour at Barajas. You were half an hour late; ordering coffees took another 10 minutes. We talked of mutual friends, you shared news of the family I’d never met. When you went to the loo – another 4 minutes lost! – I decided to scribble on a serviette: “I will always love you”.
A little later, as you got up to leave, I went to drop my secret message into your bag. In my mind the gesture would be romantic, seamless, powerful. But you put up a fierce arm; and there was a moment’s awkward tangle. After we parted, I doubled back and watched you pull out the note, glance unsmiling at the words, stuff it in a coat pocket.
I’d forgotten how protective you were about your handbag.
* * *
In spite of himself, he is drawn back again and again to wander the squares and passageways around the Cathedral. Stare oafishly at the twin towers of the legendary façade for long enough, he reasons, and even I may be able to seize his glory. (Another call goes to voicemail.) And besides, even if she is not with him there is one thing he really must do, and one thing he really does want to see.
He has read that you cannot say you have been to Santiago de Compostela until you have climbed the stairs at the back of the altar to hug the statue of St James and kiss his jewelled cape, collected your Compostela certificate, then file downstairs to inspect the saint’s remains. It takes 30 minutes just to find the end of the line.
The one thing he really wants to see, however, he has already given up on. Somewhere in his mental lumber-room there is a faint Catholic race memory of a vast smoking orb describing a spectacular arc, back and forth in a haze of silent holiness. He does not know why it does this, or where he first saw it, only that the sight holds something momentous, a glimpse of the forbidden.
Now he realises that the source of this vision is Santiago’s giant incense-burner, the botafumeiro. He has seen the pulley system on which it swings, and once even caught a glimpse of its pendular movement from the square outside, far off across the crowd through a side door. But the botafumeiro flies to its own mysterious schedule, bestowed with random grace on its privileged witnesses. It is indeed only right and fitting that he should miss out.
* * *
In the disappointment of waking (another voicemail), memory arches its back to a moment of warmth and trembling, of mouths chasing each other across a hectare of pure white bed. I remembered how your face above me had once been perfectly framed by the luminous circle of a full moon. So I’d said, anyway.
My hold on you always felt so precarious, I always needed the reassurance of sex. (‘Just hold me!’ you’d snap.) How you must have grown to hate the neediness of my lust. How… unsexy it must have been.
Just now I tried to write you a letter on the hotel’s grandly headed paper. In your own language I groped and griped, turning rejection into melodrama and hurt into blame. I never understood the bitter paranoia of these impulses, how my so-called love for you had so little to do with wishing you well.
* * *
He has been creeping with the crowd down the nave for a couple of hours just to get in sight of the altar, when suddenly there is a fidget of flashbulbs. Stuck behind a pillar, he cannot see what is happening until the crowd presses forward. Like bell-ringers, eight men are holding on to a rope that rises to the rood before descending over a wheel to an enormous, smoking, silver thurifer. The men count and heave. The botafumeiro is aloft.
With both hands, a man in a red cassock launches the censer into space. The men heave again and now the holy sputnik is hurtling through the air, its great mass lurching over the silent crowd. With each coordinated tug it climbs higher, until he is convinced it must collide with the ceiling. The flame flares as it swoops down the transept. How many would it take out if it fell? Panicked and exhilarated, he stares with everyone else.
Slowly now, the wonder subsides. The man in the red cassock looks at the eight men, timing his move, then grabs the side of the censer and spins with it in a disco flourish. The botafumeiro is still once more.
When a man at the microphone suggests we applaud, everyone waves their two hands in the air. He finds he is in the middle of a Mass for the deaf. He thinks: I should be weeping.
* * *
All things pass. In time, only the dreams will be left, anxious murkscapes in which I follow an exhausting trail of clues to your whereabouts across a city of labyrinthine grids and twittens, only to discover that you are in a city of the exact same name and layout… but on another continent.
* * *
Outside in the vast Plaza Obradorio, past the stolid maniac churning out endless hours of synthesised Bolero, a hot air balloon marking the visit of a deputation from Asturias is roaring to full tumescence. Behind him in the teeming cathedral, as Mass approaches its Elevation, the balloon of faith is swelling too, on its invisible supports.
He phones her one last time, but her sister says she is sleeping.
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