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On All Souls Day, I descended the infinite well of marble steps, down and down, it was a bank holiday in Catalonia with businesses closed so the street gave off that dull, saturnine feeling of old Irish Sunday afternoons, though it was a Friday. On All Souls Day, I walked for eight hours, my thoughts difficult to evaluate as matters stood. Soon I was lost or rather hidden away, always very near, but near to what? I climbed out of the city and crossed over to the other side of the mountain, autumn trees lit up woods on distant hills, arriving at the Hotel of a retired cardiologist called Senor Frantini, a friendly man who told me how that part of town was in decline. Restaurants and nightclubs had closed as young people moved away to the other side of the city. Though the Hotel was officially closed for business, he remained open for old timers who had been guests of his for years. Senor Frantini coughed and spluttered as he set the antique coffee machine to work. I stayed in one of the quaint, cramped rooms on the second floor, where the corridors smelled of old hospital and insect spray. The bathroom was antiquated, the television barely worked like the world often depicted on its blinking screen. A thunderstorm from the mountain, the rain washed down the windows and the rain was liquid crystal on the road, hailstones hopping off the cobbles of the main street. Saturnine was the word of the day as just then I came upon it again in a newspaper column describing a French artist’s work as saturnine with a medicinal aftertaste. There on the edge of the city, there on the fringes of life in the Hotel Paramo, I tried for calm on the grounds that no-one knew where I was, no yellow, wavy-haired doyen, no beady-eyed hitman, they cannot touch me, my pinched features, fractured view of reality, it was as if I was already dead, already a ghost, looking out the hotel window, when there was a tap on the door, my neighbour, a friendly man from El Salvador had locked himself out of his Samsonite suitcase, could I help? What, what is that, your suitcase? The only solution we could think of was to go through every possible combination, starting at 000 and working all the way to 999. Later, he explained that having taken my advice he went through every combination from 000 to 999 and would you believe it, the lock popped on the very last one, the final possibility, 999. For some reason that weird anecdote worked on my mind with the power of a fable as I went through the deserted streets next morning to the empty station and took a seat in a carriage with only one other passenger, rolling back through desolate suburbs until all of a sudden in narrow streets beyond a station platform there was a commotion of life, a thunderous racket created by drumming bands and brass bands as dancers swirled and troupes of men and women in costumes paraded, going for broke, living on the earth, giving it holly, despite everything, life continues. A young boy helped an old man onto the train with his shopping bag on wheels and before I knew it, the carriage filled up with Saturday morning crowds headed for the city. Happy Birthday to you rang out, with a little cheeky girl called Lara the centre of attention, Happy Birthday sweetie pie, they sang. Then once more in the honeycomb of the city, in the beehive, the idea was to kickstart the novel as I wandered in the footsteps of writers born there, and worked there under a mountain of disconcerting feelings of their own.

Are you still writing those isolation stories, Lucinda asked, as I stepped back onto Carrer de Jalisco? Then she proceeded to tell me of a boss of hers who had tried to do the funny with her, as she said, you can imagine, he’s about seventy with a wife and eight children, twenty-four grandkids, he even had a go at my friend Laetitia, who is not straight at all, as everyone knows. Anyway, she gave him his answer, well able for that kind of nonsense. And you, I said, did you give him his answer? Oh, yes, she had sorted that horny old creep out. In the background of such conversations, I sense a dreadful silence, gaps filled with imaginary bravado when I pine for the self-contained, interior world of an artist friend such as Andrey, his canvases depicting landscapes devoid of people, coastal towns, empty of inhabitants, the sense of estrangement growing more and more evident the more you looked, the saturnine seeping out of every streak of paint, and the older he got, the less drive he had to be reconciled with mankind, which had been a factor in his younger days. No, the older he got the less he worried about pleasing people. It occurred to me back in the sanctity of my room, that living was like being on a time machine, one minute skidding down the streets in the deserted mountain village to the station, the next scudding off the mountain in the train through a deserted hinterland into the over-populated city, and finally pottering around these rooms as so many times before, from the kitchen to the blank canvas, a breeze that makes the shutters flap in and out, the bell tower counting every quarter as it has done for centuries, suffering a spontaneous desire to capitulate to Time without further play-acting, lie down and accept without comment, all of what the cute hoors of the world can hurl at me, as I know that it always rains on St. Patrick’s Day and the horse you were going to back always wins, lie down and agree with every word Annie Fannie speaks.

Edward Mc Whinney of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read our interview with him.