There are stout lilac towerblocks and parades of tobacco shops and butchers with six storeys of flats above. Suckered onto the chemist is a neon green medical cross. It winks away, defiant in the afternoon sun. Every fourth or fifth premises seems to be a bar with a lone man sitting outside and a television on top of a fridge inside.
Washing dries on balconies and old ladies slowly die on street corner benches. They still have time to smile and wink at children. The Spanish always do. Here, niños are forever seen and heard, and never apologised for. They are treated as eternal flowers, there to blow a sparkle into a stranger’s eyes. Even the blind man selling lotto tickets feels it, waving his white stick in a mock shepherd manoeuvre towards a dark and gorgeous little girl with a monobrow and a pink silk dress. She convulses with laughter.
The pavements are slick and waxy as if made from the soles of bowling shoes. Your nose detects sweet fried things and bad drains in equal measure. It is intoxicating because it is alien and familiar. It doesn’t smell like home, but it reminds you of the last time you were here. All at once, Barcelona’s edges, its residues, tickle me under the arms and punch me in the face.
Beyond the taxis and the Tabac stand is our station. The clock tip-taps like a cathedral roof drip falling on a stone floor. It is the kind of clock made to remind the waiting and arriving hoards that time owns us all. The train skates in, an elegant block of lard, and we board. To our right, more towerblocks and happy little lives. To our left, sea and sky merging into a joyous wall of blue.
My daughter is five and there is only one thing better than television: peering through the gaps in-between seats at strangers on trains. Usually, they respond with stuck-out tongues and “hello beautifuls”. It is interesting when they ignore her – a difficult concept when the only people you know in the world have made you its centre.
When the train pauses – perhaps to check over its shoulder that it has definitely shaken off Barcelona – she tunes in to the clicking noises of knitting needles and moves to find out more, a cat aware of mousey scratches behind the skirting board. She finds a Peruvian woman who could be any age between 70 and 108. Though her eyes do not waver from the yarn, she tips her head gently sideways to beckon my daughter into the empty seat next to her. My daughter, and this surprises me, takes up the offer.
At first I mourn the passing of the years when she hid behind my legs. Then I look at the lady. Her crow’s feet have feet of their own, her cheeks are a spindly vine of crevices and pocks. She wears the very faintest of smiles and probably has done for a thousand years. She is restful, content. Her eyes, mahogany brown, can see through time. This lady is a story. I sit back down, elated by my daughter’s character judgement.
A couple of days on, all sated and settled and Spanish as undone shirt buttons, we walk to a beach. Sea laps, sun laughs, and African men with Mums somewhere desperately seek sales of watches and sunglasses. There is an open café towards the end of the beach, next to the promenade where British thighs pump away at the pedals of hired bikes. It is the kind of place you sit down in and decide to move abroad and become a poet or an old man. It has thin serviettes in metal holders and ketchup in plastic tomatoes.
We order chips, that pleaser of all the family. We have walked a long way and need guarantees. The proprietor, who takes our order, is deaf. Not hard of hearing. Deaf. I nominate my wife on the grounds that she speaks Spanish. “Aye, Spanish. Not Spanish sign language,” she replies. Somehow, our message is received. A plate the size of Wigan is brought to our table. When I imagine this moment again, there is a silver salver cover over it, and rays of light beam outwards as it is lifted to reveal a hillock of chips.
I don’t think I’ve eaten chips like them. I don’t think any of us have. They are crispy as winter by a lake to the bite, soothing as the sound of lemonade popping on the tongue. The sea moves in and there are two chips left. I give one each to my wife and daughter and feel as good as Jesus.
On the final day, it rains. Spain doesn’t wear rain well. It is a colour clash. Soon, we are back in Scotland, resplendent in its robe of drizzle. “Can we go for chips?” my daughter asks.