"Is it you?"
Since she was unable to move her head or her eyes, Serena couldn't see whoever had spoken. He was just a blurred shape at the edge of her vision until he moved closer, holding up a sheet of paper. It put her in mind of a wanted poster or a leaflet about somebody lost, because it bore a photograph. It was a page from an Internet site called Things To Look Out For In Barcelona. "Did you know you were famous?" the man said.
She was disconcerted to find that she couldn't recall ever having seen a picture of herself, however often she'd been aware of tourists taking them. The photograph was captioned The secret statue, and showed her very much as she imagined she was now, her large eyes and faintly tanned thin face intent on the view straight ahead, one finger miming pensiveness as it rested against her nearly invisible lips to indicate the tip of her snub nose. While the image didn't take up much of the page, she couldn't read the text without shifting her eyes. She'd resisted many determined attempts to trick her into abandoning her stance, but it took an effort to hold her vision still as the man took the page out of sight. "Penny for them," he said.
Though she must have heard the phrase a dozen times or more, just now it sounded like an unwelcome reminder. It made her aware of all the newspaper kiosks around her on the boulevard. She was trying to recapture the peace that the shade of the plane trees and the clamour of caged birds usually gave her--the sense of standing in the depths of a forest even though she was surrounded by an ever-changing crowd on a pavement that divided four lanes of traffic--when he said "How much do you want to talk?"
What made him think she wanted to at all? She was happiest when she was quiet. She didn't understand his question until he showed her a twenty-euro note. Instead of adding it to the coins on her supine rucksack he doubled the amount. "Say when you want me to stop," he said.
Serena was reminded of the night several English football fans had mistaken her for one of the prostitutes who loitered at the seaward end of the boulevard. She'd never been so glad to have a bicycle. She didn't need memories like that; she didn't need many at all. The man beside her was showing her another twenty; another, another... "That's one for each day of the week," he eventually said.
It was enough to buy space in a camp by the beach for a month. However safe she found pitching her tent in a cove so secluded that nobody else seemed to suspect its existence, she might like to feel safer just now. All the same, she'd seen ten notes before she let go of the bicycle that was propped against a lamp-standard. "What exactly do you think you're buying?"
"Whatever you can give me."
The sun was in Serena's eyes now that she was facing him, and she couldn't make out his expression. His features were almost as blurred as her picture, a featureless silhouette the sun was projecting through the page in his hand. "Is that you?" she said, pointing at the blank side of the page.
"Is this my site, do you mean? I'm from another one entirely, and I'd like to do an interview."
"Wherever you prefer. Right here if it's where you're most comfortable."
"We could sit down at least." As he looked around for seats she said "Will you be showing me where you're from?"
"I've printed nothing else out if that's what you mean. Don't talk if you think it could harm you somehow," he said and glanced past her at the human statues stationed all the way along the Ramblas to Placa de la Catalunya. "I expect some of your competitors would welcome a fee for a chat."
Serena didn't know why she was hesitating. Where was the risk in the midst of the evening crowds? "Never mind them," she said and took the notes out of his hand.
She slipped them inside her jacket and stooped to gather up the coins scattered on her rucksack. As she made to rest it on the handlebars of the bicycle he said "Allow me. We don't want you thinking I'm no gentleman."
He mimed surprise at the weight of the bag. "Is this all there is to you?"
Serena laughed at least as much for her own benefit as his. "I've got a locker at the station."
"It still doesn't seem much to show for a life." As though the question followed he said "Do you drink?"
"When I'm thirsty."
"Everything a person's meant to do, is that the trick?" By the time Serena deduced that he had in mind statues that came to life, he was saying "Let me buy you one."
"I wouldn't mind a coffee," Serena said.
She wheeled the bicycle to an outpost of a cafe, where she chained the bicycle to a lamp-standard. Her host sat beside it and planted the rucksack on the chair next to him. Once a waitress had dodged across the road to take his order for two coffees, he inched his chair out of the shade of a plane tree. "So tell me your story," he said.
The sun was in Serena's eyes again, and she might have fancied he was gazing at her out of a jungle that teemed with all the birds she could hear in the cages behind him. "Where would you like me to start?" she said.
"Where you come from."
It sounded like the simplest of questions, but it reminded her of far too much. She was attempting to take refuge in the present when he said "I'm not prying, am I?"
"I expect that's your job."
"There's a lot more to me than that." Less forcefully he said "Tell me how you started doing what you do."
"It was someone else's idea really." This seemed to threaten her with memories too, and so she tried saying "I suppose I just showed up in the right place at the right time."
"Which were those?"
"I was watching someone else stay still." She couldn't help feeling grateful that this memory was vivid--the figure painted as white as his toga and the pillar he was leaning on. "People thought I was being a statue as well," she said, "and threw money where they do."
It had felt like being accepted for herself and becoming her own inner stillness. "At your feet, you mean," he said. "How long have been people been paying their tributes?"
Serena was distracted by the coffees the waitress brought. The tiny cups reminded her of a dolls' tea party--a game in a garden swimming with shadows of foliage, just like the table on the Ramblas--though she'd never been invited to one. The thought led somewhere she was anxious to avoid, and she tried to find an answer that would keep it distant. "Ever since," she said.
"You haven't made yourself up. You don't want to be like the rest, is that the plan?"
"I wasn't made up the first time. I've never felt I needed to be since."
"You aren't trying not to be noticed."
"I'm happy if people do but I won't be upset if they don't. I'm happy to be alive, that's all."
"Sounds like a fairy tale."
"It's real, though."
As her companion gazed at her, a caged bird uttered a chattering scream that she could easily have taken for laughter. "When did you realise you were being looked for?" the man said.
For a moment the question made Serena feel as trapped as the bird, and she tried to sound careless. "Who's looking?"
"Some of the people who've seen this, do you think?" He held up the printout and read "Keep an eye out for the pensive lady of the Ramblas, the subtlest of the living sculptures. You'll know her by her bike and rucksack. She'll move if you pay her, but try asking her to speak. Good luck with finding out her name."
"And I'm Dias."
"That's a good Portuguese name." When the sunlight through the foliage jittered in her eyes she said "Do you mind if we sit somewhere else? I'd like to be able to see."
"Let's move on by all means. Do you know what I'd like to see you doing?"
So that was why he'd paid so much, she thought, and all his talk was only a preamble. "I've no idea," she said and wished it were the truth.
"No need to think I'm whatever you're thinking I am. I'd just like to watch you work. I didn't have much time before."
"Where are you asking me to go?"
"Wherever you feel at home," Dias said and raised a lazy fist to point behind him with his thumb. "Along here?"
Beyond the cages were the flower market and the jewellery stalls and finally the whores, if it wasn't too early for them. A parrot uttered some remark as though Dias had given it a cue, and Serena pointed in the opposite direction. "That's more me."
"Your choice absolutely," Dias said and stood up.
Serena took a last sip of inky coffee before rising to her feet. "Have we finished talking, then?"
"I'd like more of a word when I've finished watching. You won't be too aware of me, will you?"
"I'll forget you even exist."
"No need to try to do that. I wouldn't want anyone to."
"I'll be forgetting everything," Serena said. "That's how I work."
Had she offended him? Her remark was capable of making her feel worse than that. He didn't offer to carry her rucksack as she propped it between the handlebars while she unchained the bicycle. When she wheeled the bicycle away he lifted the cup to his lips and held it there as if relishing a taste. As she leaned the bicycle against a lamp-standard she caught sight of a headline in a newspaper on a rack beside a kiosk.
She turned away and trapped the rucksack between her feet, holding on to the bicycle with her left hand. She was facing an alley that led into the urban labyrinth of the Raval, between a cambio and the Hotel Balaguero. Almost opposite her on the central pavement, just within her view, was another human statue, a juggler in a harlequin's baggy costume. Not just his outfit but his face and the skittles in his hands were spotted red on white. As she put a finger to her lips Serena might have been contemplating him or the tourists crowding into the Raval. In fact she was trying to purge herself of thoughts, especially about the headline. MURDER DOUBLES PLAYWRIGHT'S BOX OFFICE, it had said.
She wanted to think it made no sense. There were many things you couldn't double, and surely they included a box office. She did her best to lose herself in the view, but she could see an Internet sign in the alley. She oughtn't to have been tempted back online; it had felt too close to reviving a threat she'd spent years leaving behind. Letting her vision drift out of focus took a while to extend to her thoughts. At least her body was at rest, and eventually the peace reached deeper, although the stillness at the core of her felt oddly hollow, like a symptom of some kind of incompleteness. Nevertheless the emptiness within her was peaceful enough that she didn't notice when the evening grew dark.
How long did Dias plan to watch her? She thought she could sense him over by the cafe tables, unless the impression was lingering where he'd been. Her forward vision was clear now. A couple had just finished arguing with the woman at the glassed-in counter of the cambio, no doubt over the exchange rate or the commission she'd extracted. As they stumped back to the Hotel Balaguero the man was almost knocked into the road by several children who dashed out of the alley and darted between the traffic. They clustered around the paralysed juggler, and an open-topped tour bus paused beyond them as if to give the passengers a chance to watch the children attempt to enliven the performer. They pranced around him and stuck out their tongues at him and jumped up to snatch at the skittles without quite touching them. By the time the bus coasted onwards, more of a crowd was watching the children than the juggler had attracted, and Serena wondered if they were trying to shift him at all. Perhaps they were up to one of the tricks you should watch out for in Barcelona--distracting people on someone else's behalf.
You could always identify thieves if you knew how to look for them. They would be the bystanders watching the audience instead of the performers. While Serena couldn't see anyone like that, could the juggler? Shouldn't he intervene before they picked someone's pocket or grabbed a bag? The possibility of a crime felt like a presence at the edge of her awareness. It was close to forcing her to look around when Dias moved between her and the juggler. The jacket of his dark suit swung open, exposing a wallet that protruded an inch from his hip pocket. Serena's hand sank away from her face, and she was parting her lips when an undernourished youth ran past her. Seizing the wallet, he fled across the road.
Several members of the crowd shouted delayed warnings or raised alarms in various languages before Serena could speak. As Dias whirled around to stare at them, the pickpocket dodged two cars and sprinted into the Raval. Dias frowned at the people who were pointing at him and calling out to him, and then he glanced down at his pocket. His eyes and mouth gaped, and he clutched at his hip as if that could somehow restore the contents of the pocket. "My photographs. My family," he cried.
Serena had wondered if he'd deliberately left the wallet visible, but now she felt ashamed of her suspicion. None of the people crowding around him appeared to have noticed where the thief had made his escape. She grabbed her rucksack and shrugged her arms into it and gripped the handlebars to mount the bicycle. The next moment she was pedalling with all her energy past the stubbornly immobile juggler.
Cars screeched to a halt in both lanes as she sped across the road. She was already ringing her bell before the front wheel bumped over the kerb. A couple strolling out of the hotel retreated up the steps. The alley beside it curved towards the Plaza Paco and the harbour, and the black-clad figure had disappeared around the bend. As Serena pedalled faster into the lane, people backed against walls or recoiled into shops. A string of dangling souvenirs rattled like castanets or bones. Someone shouted after her, but it wasn't encouragement or any help with locating the thief. She sped around the bend, braking hard as she came face to face with a family of tourists. When they stepped aside to let her through she saw a narrow crossing a few hundred yards ahead.
She raced to the junction and peered about, to see people in every direction. The gloom was only intermittently lit by shops, so that it took her some moments to notice a figure in black hurrying away along the lane to her left and another just as thin beyond the crowd ahead. Surely the thief would have turned aside as soon as he could, and Serena pedalled left. She had almost overtaken the fugitive when she saw it was a woman with cropped hair.
There was scarcely room to turn the bicycle. Serena had to dismount and twist the handlebars virtually back to front, not helped by a party of large men with cameras who offered a variety of comments on her steering and suggestions about how to handle the machine. Once they gave way, none too readily, she pedalled back to the junction as fast as a scattering of pedestrians would let her. She was expecting to see Dias, but he must still not know which way the thief had gone. Serena thought she did, and only hoped she hadn't given him time to escape.
She swung left and picked up speed along the lane, which was virtually deserted. There were almost no shops to attract tourists, and the apartments closing in on both sides did less to alleviate the gloom. A cat sprang out of a waste-bin, dislodging a dead fish, and vanished up a flight of stone steps in a dim hallway illuminated by a single bleary yellowish bulb. Serena smelled cannabis smoke and heard a baby crying and a radio snatching at fragments of broadcasts, but saw nobody at all. She'd ridden for at least a minute between walls full of windows, either curtained or unlit, when the alley came to an end.
At first Serena thought it led to a square she had never seen before, and then she realised that the unlit open space was a building site. The apartments around it barely relieved the darkness, and she had to wait in the alley while her eyes adjusted. The foundations of a demolished block had been dug out, making a hole like a chunk of the night sky several hundred yards square. A wire mesh fence boxed it in, leaving a narrow strip of pavement alongside the apartments. Someone had wrenched two sections of fence apart, opening a gap about a yard wide straight ahead.
Could the thief have hidden down there? Serena pedalled to the gap and eased the bicycle forward. Even by gripping the brakes and raising herself on the pedals she couldn't see over the edge. She was making to dismount when she realised that she'd cycled past an alley almost opposite the gap. It was little better than unlit, but the glow from an open vestibule just managed to silhouette a figure standing in the mouth of the alley. As Serena caught sight of it, the figure sprang at her like a beast out of a lair.
It was Dias, and Serena could only think he intended to pull her away from the opening. Nevertheless the shock loosened her grip on the brakes, and her weight pushed a pedal down. The front wheel blundered through the gap in the fence and found nothing to support it. The bicycle tilted forward and toppled sideways. Before Serena could regain control, it carried her over the edge.
Weren't people supposed to see their entire lives at such a moment? Serena saw only darkness all around her and rushing like a gale past her face. It was inside her too, an emptiness that felt like far too much of herself. She just had time to grasp that the blackness filling much of her vision was the sky before she hit the bottom of the excavation. She was hoping the rucksack would at least cushion her fall, but her spine struck a chunk of rubble. She heard and felt herself snap like a branch.
The bicycle fell on top of her, a handlebar bruising her forehead. She tried to heave it away from her, but she couldn't move--not her arms, not her legs, not a finger. She couldn't even call out to Dias, who was standing in the gap twenty feet or more above her. The best her mouth seemed able to produce was a halting feeble breath. Perhaps she didn't need to speak, because he had located her. As she struggled to make some kind of sound, a light blazed in his hand.
It was the screen of a mobile phone. She thought he meant to call an ambulance until he shone the light into the excavation and found a ladder against the wall. He sidled along the edge inside the fence and clambered down one-handed. By straining her eyes sideways Serena was able to watch the light jerk downwards rung by rung. It lingered on a patch of exposed rock, and then it turned in her direction. As it came at her she heard rubble shift under his feet, and a pebble that he must have kicked struck her thigh a blow she barely felt. The next moment he was standing over her.
He lifted the bicycle and flung it away. If she'd had the strength to speak she might have asked him to be more careful--it would have felt like hoping that she would someday return to her everyday life. He leaned towards her and aimed the light at her, running it over her body before shining it into her face. In a few seconds he spoke, but she didn't think he cared whether she heard. "Not real enough," he said.
He lifted his free hand to his ear and mimed listening for a response. When he heard none he stooped closer. The glow of the mobile glinted on his teeth as his mouth stayed open in some kind of anticipation. He squatted to watch her, putting a finger to his lips as Serena no longer could to hers. The light glared into her face and lit up his eyes, but she could see nothing within them, just an absence where a person ought to be. Soon he stood up, and Serena thought he was going to abandon her until he lingered over making a decision. Apparently he was considering whether to kick her first or stamp on her, and in either case where to begin. In due course--almost casually, for quite a while--he set about testing his preference, and when he tired of that he produced a knife.