Somewhere behind the noise of the city there was a beat.
Somewhere there was a beat floating through the hum of the warm spring evening: the traffic, the bars with their music blaring, the people on the street shouting, laughing. Visitors from out of town—not tourists as such, but visitors from the convention centers, kicking loose on the limit of their expenses after a day spent at conferences with titles like Global Strategic Sourcing and Procurement Summit, or WiFi and Small Cells World Summit, or my favorite, LightSheet Fluorescence Microscopy International Conference, whatever that meant. Somewhere beyond that noise of the city, there was the rhythm of a drummer.
No. Not a drummer: two drummers.
Two drummers, outside.
“So now you’re saying I should behave like a tourist?” I asked.
It wasn’t so much a question as an attempt to take an innocent comment Curtis had made and provoke.
He turned to face me. His head did that strange rocking thing it did when he tried to keep walking straight. When most people turn to face you and keep walking, their head moves at a consistent speed. Not so with Curtis—with his limp, his head would move quickly when he took a step with his good leg, but slower as he limped with his other leg.
Against his dark skin the two white orbs, each with a black iris making contact, suggested he was acknowledging me.
“I’m not a tourist, but you take me to one of the main tourist traps in Barcelona.”
Without saying anything, he turned back to face the direction we were walking. Not that my question required a response—he knew I was trying to needle him, but he also knew that he had won: I was here, and the Sagrada Família was within a few minutes. I was fully committed to the mission or whatever it was Curtis liked to say when he did his soldier-boy-speak.
And now that I had the time to think about it, I actually quite liked the idea of a evening visit to the Sagrada Família—the cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudí, where construction began in 1882 but has still not been completed today, some 130 years later. But I wasn’t going to tell Curtis that, since I was still committed to my mission of trying to get a rise out of him.
After all, this was meant to be my night off. My first night in nearly two weeks that I wasn’t working at the bar.
I was going to do some washing—maybe I could get two loads done—and perhaps watch a movie. Someone had piggybacked a cable onto the satellite from the apartment on the top floor, and sometimes there were decent movies in English. And sometimes the signal just got scrambled.
“You do know I’ve been here before, Curtis,“ I said, exaggerating the “urrrrrrr” in Curtis because I knew that bugged him. “Several times.“ Still no response. “When I go and see my sister in London I don’t go to Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey every time.“
His face softened. When he talked, his voice was calm, conciliatory, with a slight hint of wonder. “But when did you last come here at night…after dark…just to sit and watch?“ He carried on before I could reply. “It’s different at night. Better. You haven’t got the blazing sky to blind you. You can look up at the towers and see the detail. It really looks like it’s melting. Take some photos—it’s something to write about on your blog.“
He was trying to appeal to my emotional side, but all he had done was give me ammunition. “You say take photos? Now? Now, after I’ve left my camera in the apartment?“ He didn’t react. “You didn’t think to mention that before we left?“
There was a tightening in his jaw. I took that as regret. Even if it wasn’t, I was happy to give him the benefit of my doubt.
Like me, he probably didn’t think about it because we had left the apartment quickly. Curtis got a call. He didn’t say who had called, but he was suddenly really keen for me to join him. And as soon as I gave way and agreed to come, we left. No pause. No hesitation. We were heading for the door.
Well, there was a pause. “Put your…you know…zip purse thing under your blouse.“ That delayed us by thirty seconds at most as I stepped into my room, unbuttoned my blouse, got one arm out of the sleeve to get the purse strapped across my chest, and started to re-button. As we left the apartment—before I had fastened all the buttons and as I tried to untangle the lanyard around my neck holding my phone, which was caught in the buttons—he said, “Slip that in the purse,“ and passed me a small envelope, little bigger than a credit card and feeling as if it contained a credit card.
Curtis made no attempt at explanation.
As we left the apartment, Curtis picked up my jacket. We got to the street and started to walk through the residential backstreets, the apartment blocks looming over both sides. It was warm enough that I didn’t need my jacket at that moment. However, I did want it with me for when the temperature fell, so I was happy for Curtis to carry it.
After a few minutes, Curtis flipped my jacket over his shoulder. “I’m Montbretia,“ he said, his voice high and squeaky, “but you can call me Monty. Look at my hair, it’s so shiny.“
I didn’t react, but I did remember. And as the sound of drumming got louder I thought about payback.
This kind of rhythm wasn’t indigenous to Barcelona. Or Europe. This wasn’t the rhythm of snare drums played by soldiers—this wasn’t any kind of drum played with sticks. It wasn’t the kind of drums I had heard in the South American carnivals. This was the sound of Africa. But in Barcelona, on a spring evening.
This beat was two people who since birth had known rhythm as a part of their culture. Two who knew the joy of rhythm and could communicate through beats. This was rhythm being played with hands—palms, fingers, knuckles making contact with animal skins drawn tight over a hollow tube.
This wasn’t the four-on-the-floor that you heard in the bars and clubs around Barcelona, especially down by the docks—the kind of electronic dance music that numbs you into hypnosis through its repetition. This was something with a life of its own. It breathed, in and out. One part subtly faster while the counter-rhythm slowed. Each delicate change shifting the beat, and yet making it impossible not to move your body to the rhythm.
As we walked, I became aware of people being affected by the rhythm. Some walked to the beat. Others swayed or half-danced. I could feel my ass as if it had a life of its own, submitting to the involuntary instruction to sway as my feet matched their pace to follow the pulse.
And there was singing—or more accurately, chanting. A male voice leading, with others following like a rhythmic echo: a choir and drums.
But one person didn’t seem to be affected by the rhythm. One person seemed to be oblivious to even the presence of drummers. One person: Curtis.
I started to plot how I could bug him next. He deserved it: He had ruined my evening of doing nothing apart from my laundry and chilling in front of the TV, and he had asked me to carry an envelope.
Asked me to carry an envelope…and yet, he was happy to carry my jacket, his own wallet, which I presumed had far more valuable contents, and also his door key. Now sure, he could’ve asked me to put his wallet in my purse, but the bulge would have given me a third boob.
Third boob or not, it would have been petty of me not to carry the envelope. As someone who had taken action to mitigate the effect of crime. After all, I was the girl without a smartphone. I was the girl who made her sister buy a smartphone, but for myself, I had a plain old candy-bar phone that wouldn’t have looked out of place twenty years ago. It was great for making calls and a bit of a fiddle for sending texts, but it worked, and it would happily hang from a lanyard around my neck.
If the phone got stolen—not that anyone would steal one of these old phones—then I didn’t care. I still had a stack of them that I had collected from friends when they got smartphones. In the last two years, I’ve gone through about three phones, and none of them has cost me anything.
The drums were getting closer—two drums from two players. There were different—but interlocking—rhythms. The deeper-pitched drum was playing more of a rhythmic beat. The higher-pitched drum was playing the fills. Between the two a call and response mirrored by the chanting: one man calling, the group responding.
As we took the corner, near the five-way junction with a café on the apex, the musicians came into view. Two men with drums, three maybe four dancing and chanting. I say dancing, but it was more of a shuffle with movement from the torso and upward.
“Fucking beggars,“ spat Curtis under his breath as he looked up to see the group of musicians. “They’re just fucking beggars. Come on, this way.“ He pointed his head across the street away from the noisy group.
“Oh no,“ I said, trying to keep the grin off my face. “No, no, no. No, you don’t get to make that choice. You take me out for a bit of sightseeing—you’re not going to stop me from behaving like a tourist.“
“Monty, no. They’re criminals who just happen to have some musical talent.“ His voice started as a command, but there was a mixture of annoyance and frustration in his tone as he continued. I wasn’t sure whether that was because of his distaste for the musical street-hustlers or because he knew I was yanking his chain, and from the way the rhythm was moving my ass, he knew I was about to yank his chain harder.
He was right: These probably were criminal beggars masquerading as street entertainers. Instinctively, I put my hand to my chest to check the lanyard holding my phone and the purse under my blouse.
But I probably didn’t need to worry—for these so-called street entertainers, I guessed their main objective was the business crowd, and there’s always a conference in Barcelona. When you’re done with your day talking about white goods and accessories for a kitchen that have no real-world use or the latest electronic gizmos, what do you do in Barcelona? You go for tapas, then hit the bars and clubs, and find a whore near the docks. As long as you’re back at your conference by the time the boss speaks, no one really cares what you do on your own time.
The drummers seemed to be heading toward the docks to find the drunk businessmen and -women. The visitors were sure to be taken in by the apparent culture while their guard was dulled by alcohol and the need to make sure everyone with them knew that they were kicking loose and having a great time.
As we moved closer—the drums loud enough that all I could hear were the drums and the chanting…no sounds of the passing cars—my hand involuntarily went to again check my phone’s lanyard and the purse under my blouse, but this time I started to feel self-conscious. Was I just drawing attention to what I thought had value?
Curtis caught my eye. The annoyance and the disapproval were clear. I had hit my target. He took me sightseeing, and now I was going to behave like a tourist and allow myself to be subsumed into the world of African street entertainers.
The leader was standing Christ-like, arms outstretched, head back, chanting to the night sky. His only movement—apart from his lower jaw—was his shoulders lifting, then dropping as if expelling extra air to add emphasis to the beats. Under the streetlight, his white robe glistened. This was more than plain cotton, although the design of the garment, along with the simple hat perched on his head and the sandals on his feet, implied a humility that didn’t accord with his performance.
As the Christ-like leader chanted to the heavens, his acolytes followed. One with a poorly fitting green-and -orange-checkered robe that was too short and showed his jeans and sneakers, echoed the leader—his chants harmonizing. A third man in a flowing red robe, with a plunging V-shaped ornate green collar with gold stitching, made a series of rhythmic grunts, a rainbow of nuanced sounds, each with its own rhythm and forming part of the orchestration.
A fourth man in a royal-blue jacket and pants combination started to circle the group as it subsumed me and Curtis in the middle. While we became the center of their focus, the man in blue continued with a range of animal-like screeches and howls, all perfectly in time and rhythm with the drums.
By now my ass was moving like it had a mind of its own. The drummers pounded out the rhythm, my ass moved, and my head and shoulders bobbed—within the circle the evening had become ten degrees warmer, and any notion of a slight chill from the early spring breeze coming off the Mediterranean was gone.
The guy in the red robe moved closer—of the four without drums, he was the one closest to dancing, although his movements seemed more intended to mirror mine. He smiled broadly, a row of ivory across his near-black skin. As he moved closer, he exaggerated the sway of his hips, pushing his ass farther toward me with each beat as he turned his body to stand by my side, seemingly cautious not to invade my personal space.
The drummers were playing louder, faster. Everywhere I looked I was seeing colors and textures I had never seen before as I swirled into this new world. There was a bump against my ass. I turned, slightly surprised. The ivory grin told me it was intended, and our eyes met momentarily. I bumped back and looked to Curtis.
With his injured leg that led to his limp, his movement was restricted. This didn’t worry me—it wasn’t as if I ever wanted to go out clubbing—but it did limit how well he could pretend that he wasn’t fussed by the attention we were getting. If you can jig in some sort of fashion, it’s far less noticeable than if you just stand still and scowl, which was what Curtis was doing. He could get away without nimble footwork, but he wasn’t even moving his shoulders.
My ass was bumped again, gently. And again—this time, the contact lingered. I turned to the man in the red robe and saw the ivory smile from the polished ebony face. I looked down to his shoulder, which was rolling forward. When he saw he had my attention, he rolled his left shoulder forward once, then his right, and back to his left, continuing with an almost hypnotic regularity that synchronized with the beat of the drums.
Seeing my attention was focused, he held his hands in front of him, rolling them forward and shrugging his nearest shoulder to encourage me to follow. As I hesitatingly shadowed, he slowed to mirror my rhythm, pushing me gradually to pick up the pace—his smiling mouth hanging open as he added to the chorus of chants.
Slowly he started to lift his rolling hands. I matched. As my hands got higher, they separated until I had one hand rolling forward in front of each shoulder. A huge grin spread across his face, and he bumped my ass again.
Sheepishly, I looked away to see Curtis remaining angry and motionless. The guy in the green-and-orange-checkered robe had placed himself between us, standing to my side but directly behind Curtis, gently nudging him as if encouraging him to join in. Up close he was shorter, with dull charcoal skin that seemed to have aged. He nudged Curtis, then turned and smiled at me, revealing yellowed teeth with gaps.
The encouragement had no effect on Curtis, who was slowly radiating anger. That ire was likely to combust if the Christ-like guy in white, who was moving toward him, took him in hand to try to force him to dance.
There was damp perspiration on my brow as my hands continued to roll forward at my shoulders. I wasn’t sure whether this was physical exertion or nervous energy, but in either case, my newfound attendants seemed ready to deal with my every dance-rel ated need.
I looked back to Curtis. The white robe was in front of him. He looked to Curtis, to me, then back to Curtis, “She is beautiful. High five!“ He held up his hand to high five Curtis. Curtis left him hanging.
It felt like a hand touching my ass.
My head shot to the right. The guy in red had his hands in front of him. To the right—the guy in green and orange was jostling up behind Curtis.
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. High five!“ The black Christ-like figure in white spoke with the accent of someone brought up in a former British colonial country. Proper English, but somehow a learned precision against a heavy accent—there was nothing natural, nothing suggesting this was how he spoke. And this was nothing like the stick-up-the-ass of the English Received Pronunciation.
“High five, my friend, high five,“ said the man in white in his obsequious English-miming accent, holding his hand up to take Curtis’s high five.
Both of Curtis’s arms remained resolutely by his side. The guy in the green and orange robe leaned over Curtis, jostling him forward, before he took the high five and then pulled at Curtis’s arm, trying to get him to join in.
My ass was bumped again. I went to smile at the guy in red, but he seemed to be paying attention to whatever was going on with Curtis. My head continued to turn until I noticed the drummer who was playing the smaller drum. He had moved up close behind me and was hunched over his drum, jigging on the spot: two steps left, two steps right, right-knee lifted as he ducked his head, two steps back, seemingly lost in his own world and clearly unaware that he had bumped me.
Back toward Curtis; his eyes were flashing, trying to take in the situation as he was being crowded from his last free side by the other drummer—this one playing the large drum—his face humorless.
There was a hand on my ass again. As I turned, I saw the guy in the blue suit continuing his path around our gathering, clucking and barking as he went.
There was a tapping on my shoulder: The drummer behind me was playing one rhythm on his drum and another on my back. It was a gentle beat, soft, the lightest of tapping on my back. Each new tap in a different position, as if intended to ensure no pain.
And on my shoulder, another beat began. The guy in the red robe smiled and looked me straight in the eye, his head cocked slightly, questioning…asking permission. My laugh was all he needed.
I could feel a hand sliding around my waist from the other side. I tried to wiggle it away—I don’t know why, but I felt less comfortable about being touched, and touched in that way, by the guy in the green-and-orange-checkered robe. There was something about the decaying teeth that turned me off.
The hand was withdrawn, but the beats on my back continued and spread. The drummer was now using both hands, gently beating on my back, my shoulders, and occasionally bending over to beat on my thighs before righting himself.
The hand was back. It was around my waist with the attached hand holding me around the side. Not tightly—but the hand was there. Not on my hip, but more around my waist. I knew what would happen: If I pulled away, the hand would slip and slip upward. My right boob would get groped, and he would say it was my fault.
And unfortunately, basic mechanics would support his contention even if the law wouldn’t. With an arm fixed at the shoulder and being a finite length, if I moved away, the arm would get pulled tighter, and his reaction would be to grip tighter. The arm would then slide up. Couple an arm moving up with a tighter grip, and there would be a lingering few seconds when he’d get a handful. Clearly this guy was a breast man, not a bum man or a leg man.
I reached, sliding my thumb down my chest, and unpeeled his fingers one by one, letting the hand drop to then brush past my ass.
But now the drummer was getting frisky—the rhythm included the occasional beat on my ass, and Mister Green and Orange was joining in with the drumming too…but only with one hand as his other slipped around my waist at the front.
“Hey!“ I said. “Careful.“
Curtis looked across. I knew that look—it wasn’t anger anymore, it was concern.
The drummer had a new pattern; he seemed to be drumming a pattern that followed my bra. I hoped he wasn’t one of those guys who thought it was funny to unhook bras. And the hand had returned, this time over my stomach, snagging my blouse where the purse lay under the cloth. Between them they could see what I was wearing and they had felt what I was wearing underneath, and there was a hand on my ass again. Not playing a rhythm—this was resting. Feeling. Evaluating. Enjoying.
I wasn’t sure who I was talking to, but my voice had an ugly tone: “I’m going to make this very clear. Get your hands off my ass or I’m gonna break your fingers. One by one.“
The man in white threw back his head, laughing—his yellowing teeth gleaming against his black skin—as he faced Curtis. “She is a spirited girl you have there, sir. High five!“ He confidently thrust his hand forward. Curtis again refused, a look of deepening concern having taken up residence on his face.
A hand landed on my ass again—a low-pitched slap. I let out a yelp as I became aware that an arm had snaked around my waist again. I grabbed a finger and pulled it back. Although that hand was moving, it felt like there were other hands over my body—on my ass, on my breasts, slipping into my pockets, slipping between the buttons on my blouse. I twisted the finger and felt the hand leave my waist.
“She is a fighter, sir. High five!“ Curtis ignored the man—his gaze was fixed on me.
There was a hand in the front pocket of my jeans. “Hey!“
Curtis heard the tension in my voice. Tension, or was it panic?
For the first time since we had been subsumed within the group, Curtis lifted his arms and pushed the man in the green-and-orange-checked robe out of the way and threw his arms around me. He was jostled from behind…and then there were these kids.
There were probably only four or five kids—all short, no more than eight or ten years old, and all with dark skins like the musicians—but all moving quickly, making it impossible to count their numbers as they weaved. One went in and out, one up and down, and a third circled us before trying to push between Curtis and me.
“Are you okay?“ asked Curtis, pulling me tighter.
I didn’t know what the answer was. All I knew was that I had started to cry. Curtis lowered his embrace and bear-hugged me, lifting me and using me as a battering ram to push outside of the circle. There were hands over me, and we were jostled. It felt like we were moving through a crowd of hundreds, not a group of seven adults and five kids.
There was a chill, and I could hear the musicians’ noise becoming softer as Curtis lowered me, quietly whispering: “It’s okay, you’re safe now. It’s alright, they’re gone, and you’re safe.“