Thursday 15 December 2016
Since they pedestrianised Alfonso Street a few years ago, people in the city are more willing to walk through the old town. They stop at leisure in the old shopping centre. They walk down to the river and then end up at the Basilica. Whenever I look down the street from where I’m standing, I always want to go down to the end. I love buying those sweets that are so typical of Zaragoza to end up afterwards chasing the pigeons through the Plaza del Pilar. I’m sure that there would be many of them competing to eat seeds the children scatter on the ground. When you see them, they’re all wanting to catch a pigeon in their hands to take a photo.
I remember doing this with my father and little brother when I was little. I wouldn’t even consider doing that now at my age. My father is no longer with us and at 16, I’m not going to run after those birds. What would people think if they saw me?!
It’s a long wait at the top of the street, but I’m aware that I’ve arrived ten minutes early. Moreover, the coach’s fainting spell has left me nervous. He’s the second person, close to me, that I’ve seen suffer in recent days.
Behind me, there’s Coso Street, where they’ve closed off traffic to build two tramways, without leaving space for vehicles and pedestrians to circulate without danger at the same time. It’s better, I think. I prefer it this way, compared to what it was before.
I’m surrounded by buildings which make me feel that I’m at the end of the 19th century. As mentioned in class, after the War of Independence the city invested in the restoration of the Old Town and Alfonso Street is the area with the greatest transformation. Rich people from that period had to follow certain building standards, which has continued for the most part to this present day, allowing us to enjoy their symmetry, the same heights, with viewing points built out of iron and crystal in the chamfers of the buildings. It’s a quiet journey back into the past with a single glance.
From here, the landscape never ceases to amaze me, not so much for its architectural surroundings, but for its people. The mix is incredible. Although it’s winter, and despite the strong cold cierzo wind blowing, the street is full. People of different age groups are converging on the same road – groups, lone individuals, couples, families, different cultures and races, some stopping at shops, others just having a stroll, but all going in the same direction: towards Coso Street or El Pilar, with very few dipping into the little side alleyways.
What surprises me most is the perceived balance in the city, so much diversity… in harmony. This is one of the places where it’s most evident. So, I’ve come before to see it.
“Have you been waiting long?”
I jump. I’m so lost in my thoughts that I’ve not heard them coming up behind me.
“Sorry.” I see Elsa’s face as she apologises. My expression must have betrayed me. “We have startled you.”
“No, don’t worry about it,” I answer, turning quickly around to face the Basilica. “I was looking at the landscape from here.”
Sofia steps forward to stand next to me to look down towards the end of the street.
“I’ve always wondered,” she starts saying as the others also turn to look down, “why this geometry was off-centred. It is as if the logical balance in the alignment have been distorted.”
Balance! I haven’t heard anything else but this word lately, and I don’t know what she means by it at this moment.
“Do you see the central dome?” Sofia continues, looking fixedly at it. “It is out of place in this view and the image of the Virgin on the wall of the Basilica is not aligned with the centre of the street.”
I’ve never seen it that way. I move towards the centre to get a better look. She’s right! It looks strange and somewhat distorted. The architecture does not geometrically coincide with the position of the street. I look again. This time, something else distracts me and breaks the balance. It’s the person who’s walking towards us.
If the majority of people walk in either of the two directions, there will always be someone cutting across them, coming from one of the alleyways on the left. He will obviously bump into any pedestrians crossing his path.
If neither my friends nor I are wearing attention grabbing clothes, this one certainly is.
It is all that he says. He remains standing next to us in silence. He turns around to look down the street as we have been doing. I’m sure that we’ll not get any more words out of him for the rest of the afternoon. In the end, it’s what we have to put up with.
The day the tutor read out the names of the members for each team organised by the History teacher, he began reading the names of the four of us sitting in the first two rows. That is not what pleased me the most that week. Ever since Sofia started going out with Erik, I’ve tried to hide my feelings towards her with behaviour that, at times, bordered on being rude, and she’s noticed it. But when the tutor read out Samuel’s name as part of our group, I had a start. I saw shock registered all over Elsa’s face, sitting next to me. I couldn’t see Sofia’s face, only her back. But from Erik’s expression as he turned to look at Sofia, I saw that my Swedish friend was also surprised by it. I was sure that they did not have anyone quite so weird at school in his country
To describe it in another way, Samuel is different from the rest of the class. He dresses only in black T-shirts. He always wears his hair long and dishevelled. He’s short and never seems to take care of himself. For most of the year, but less frequently in summer, he wears a black coat that reaches down to his knees. It makes him look fat because his pockets are stuffed with things. What stands out from his dark and somewhat slovenly clothes are his shoes: he wears absolutely white trainers. This year, I notice that they are always spotless and always the same brand.
He has no friends at school. As classes finished, he goes home. Nobody knows where he lives. No one sees his parents at school. But Samuel has two noteworthy qualities: he get the best marks in class and he has the strongest local accent I’ve ever heard. He’s a guy of few words, but when he speaks, he makes you feel a certain sympathy for him. The problem is that I think that he’s not shaved since he began to grow a beard two years before. His unwashed and untidy appearance generate a certain repudiation. If you try to strike up a conversation with him, you won’t get many words strung together in a sentence.
So, it isn’t pleasant having him in our team as he doesn’t like working in a group. I therefore feel that the rest of us will end up having to do all the work ourselves. If at least he said something…
“Hi,” Sofia greets him. “How are you? Have you analysed all that I told you about what had happened in the museum? I am sure that you have written everything in detail.”
“Yes.” He answers briefly, at no point looking at her directly.
It’s true. This is the second time that we go into the city after they set us this work. He couldn’t come the first time because, as he had said, he was in bed with fever. Sofia told us that she had called him afterwards to tell him what had happened to us. What a story to tell on the phone!
I observe how she looks it at him. I can’t work out if it is with gentleness or collusion. However, ever since I’ve known her from the time we were small, she has always been the one who treated everyone very well. I realise that they are the first words that they exchanged in public since we started this project.
As he doesn’t say anything more, I break silence:
“Shall we start on what we have planned for today?” I then begin to walk down the street towards El Pilar.
We have only just started walking when Erik points at an ice cream shop in the first block, in the building on our left. As it’s not the first time that this Nordic boy has insisted on the goodness of eating ice cream in the middle of winter, on this occasion I choose not to argue and follow him. The others do likewise, even Samuel on my left hurries ahead of Erik himself and reaches the door first. We all have a small bag or a backpack with us. He, on the other hand, is not carrying anything, except his coat, and I guess, with stuffed pockets.
As we reach the glass door, it opens automatically. We look inside. It’s all painted in white. A few pink decorations make it look as if you are at the North Pole… for girls, because everything is pink. However, I like this ice cream shop, where they sell yoghourt ice cream. You choose the flavour you want and then on the ice cream base, they add the other ingredients to ‘dress’ it as you want.
The shop assistant must have been two or three years older than us. She’s of average height, slim, with black hair in a low ponytail. By the uncertain way she serves us, it appears that she’s only been working there for a few days. However, with those green eyes and that beautiful smile, I’m sure that she will get on fast and soon. I see her attending to a group of four girls who are around my age. In spite of the cold, they have on short miniskirts, but from the clothes they’re wearing, it was obvious that colour combination isn’t their strong point.
The atmosphere turns bizarre because the other group of people in the shop are a couple with two small children. The baby’s been crying from the moment we enter. The mother tries in vain to soothe him. The father is shouting at the older girl who must have been no more than four years.
I couldn’t understand why he’s scolding her, but he’s creating a very tense atmosphere in the ice cream parlour. As he shouts, the baby cries more. The mother is growing nervous and it’s becoming harder to calm the infant. They must have been there a long time, trying to eat ice cream, as they sit on the armchairs located on the right in the little shop.
I notice that the little girl has soiled her clothes with the ice cream. From their appearance, I can describe them as being different. The man is quite a good few years older than the woman. They all have dark hair. The only contrast is the pale white skin of the baby, compared to the very dark complexion of the child and her parents. My friends are probably drawing their own conclusions.
We look at each other, observing the scene without knowing what to say. I see the shop assistant glancing nervously at them. The girls in the miniskirts keep arguing among themselves about the suitability of a different ingredient or other on the yoghourt ice cream they have chosen. It seems to be the most important decision they have to make all day. They’re making me nervous. One is as good as the other if in the end you are going to eat it, I would tell them.
“Please, could you lower your voice?” the young assistant dares to ask the man who’s shouting.
She’s not as uncertain as she appears.
The impact is enormous. As the girl speaks to the man, there’s absolute silence. Even the baby is quiet. The assistant’s South American accent resounds through the shop. We all remain even quieter, waiting to see what’s going to happen afterwards. The girls ordering their ice creams are startled. One of them holding the first ice cream ends up without it as she drops it on the ground. The angry man stands up and glares in fury at the assistant. Instinctively, she steps back behind the counter.
“How dare you?” He shouts as he strides towards her. “Who do you think you are?” He shouts even louder.
Sofia and Elsa become alarmed. I glance at Erik. Without saying a word, we take advantage of our height as we are more than a foot taller than him. In a single step, the two of us stand in front of him, creating a barrier between this savage and the counter.
“But, what is this?” He bellows again, looking up at us.
I feel the force of his fury in his step and clenched fists. Erik and I flex our muscles and fold our arms in front of us. The girls in the miniskirts look at us and giggle among themselves. Sofia is soothing the little girl who, still frightened and crying, runs to the person closest to her.
“What a shitty ice cream parlour!” He shouts, as he grabs the little girl’s hand. With one tug, he yanks the child away from Sofia and strides towards the exit. “I will never come back here again!” He yells again, now close to the street.
At that moment, something happens that none of us had expected.
The matter would have been settled perfectly well if the man had simply left. But, the door does not open. As he propels himself forward, expecting the motion detector to open the two glass doors towards the sides, he collides against the door. He loses his balance and falls to the ground.
The incident in the ice cream shop is like a scene from a horror film. The young girls move against the wall for protection. They huddle tightly among themselves. The shop assistant stands petrified behind the counter. The baby begins to scream even more loudly. The little girl escapes from her father and runs back to Sofia, hiding her face in my friend’s coat. Elsa goes to the mother and gives the baby a small toy she has in her backpack to get him to be quiet. Erik and I make a gesture to help the man to his feet, but he rudely rejects our offer.
I have never heard such loud shouting coming out of a man’s mouth. I can’t distinguish between the children’s screams and the man’s yelling. He continues hurling abuse at the shop assistant with every humiliating and racist expletive he can think of.
“That’s enough!” I shout, standing in front of him. “You don’t have the right to mistreat anyone in this way! It is not her fault!”
“You have to calm down!” Erik joined me, shouting at the man.
The man continues shouting. He again heads for the door for it to open. But it doesn’t. He repeats the movement several times with the same result. Elsa leaves the mother and, very coolly, approaches the shop assistant. I hear her gentle words asking her to activate the mechanism to open the door. However, the shop assistant is frozen to the spot and begins to cry.
I don’t know where to turn – the group of frightened girls sobbing in the corner, the baby crying inconsolably at his mother’s breast or the little dark-haired girl in Sofia’s arms sobbing with her face hidden in her coat. The man has become even more agitated and begins breaking some of the few pieces of furniture in the shop. Erik and I look at each other with blank expressions. We too are frozen into inaction, not knowing what to do: whether to block the man, keep the people apart or call the police on the mobile.
But there’s someone else in the shop.
It’s some time before I begin to look around. I turn around in all directions trying to locate Samuel. What happens next makes my blood curdle. Samuel must have gone to the back of the shop. Suddenly, he strides towards the entrance. He grabs the chair from the man just as the man is about to break it against the wall near where the girls are cowering. Without a word, Samuel sets the chair next to him. Shocked by what has just happened, the man is stunned.
Except for the baby, everyone falls silent. We all watch as Samuel takes out a screwdriver from an inner pocket in his coat. Then, he mounts the chair. He raises himself up in order not to lose his balance. With a skill that I would never have imagined this freak could have, he opens the connection box controlling the sliding door and operates the mechanism.
In less than a minute the doors open again. With great satisfaction, we feel the icy wind entering from the street.
Samuel continues working on the device. He moves his left hand towards the detector. We watch the little light alternating from green to red, each time he makes the door open by his movement and waits some seconds until it closes again. When he is satisfied, he closes the box casing with his screwdriver, gets down from the chair, leaves it where it was and returns the screwdriver to his coat pocket. Then, he quietly stands in front of the man, and stares at him. They are the same height. The silence is intense. Even the baby is quiet. If it were possible, he might have recorded the whole scene in his little head.
For as long as I live, I don’t think that I will ever be able to understand the look that Samuel gave that man. What I will remember is how this raging lunatic suddenly calms down. He takes his little daughter’s hand, helps his wife carefully to stand up with the baby and leaves the ice cream shop in silence. This time, the glass doors open to allow the family to leave.
We all see Samuel in a new light. I believe that I speak not only for myself. I believe that this is the beginning of a new relationship with this guy. I’ve just discovered something that I was not expecting, and I really like it. In fact, I am proud that he’s part of our group.
Then, suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, he goes up to the counter and in his strong Zaragoza accent, he asks the assistant:
“Could I please have a tub of yoghourt ice cream with a topping of caramel and caramelised nuts?”
I don’t know who’s more surprised, the waitress or the rest of us looking on.
Just at that moment, Sofia grasps our arms and draws us to where she is:
“Did you see the pendant the little girl was wearing?” she asks, looking intently at each of us.
We are speechless.
“Yes,” Samuel breaks the silence. “It’s the same symbol they gave you in the museum.”
We all turn to look at Samuel. He’s full of surprises, especially when he’s not yet seen it. The description that Sofia had given him was enough.
“When did you realise it?” asked Sofia.
“As soon as we entered the shop.”
How observant! I’ve always considered myself very observant, but I had not even noticed it. Nor did the others, judging from their expressions. Sofia must have seen it when the child was sobbing against her.
“Now there’s no time to waste,” Sofia says nervously. “We have to follow them to find out how the little girl got the symbol.”
We all stare at her. Only Samuel breaks the silence.
“Sorry, I am having my ice cream,” he said as he approaches the counter, looking at the shop assistant.
“Me too.” Elsa, Erik and I respond eagerly all at the same time, exchanging conspiratorial looks between us and smiling in collusion.
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Writer: Glen Lapson © 2016
English translator: Rose Cartledge
Publisher: Fundacion ECUUP
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