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FIVE

DIRTY OLD TOWN

FLASH FICTION BY ANNE SERRE TRANSLATED BY MARK HUTCHINSON

When the sky grew dark in the middle of the day and a squall of wind and rain came crashing down on Barcelona, I couldn’t help feeling our Spanish trip had got off to a very poor start. The moment we arrived our luggage was stolen. Hermann always maintained it was my fault, and there’s some truth to this because I was supposed to be watching our suitcases, which we had set down further back on the pavement while he talked to the taxi driver. Their conversation, however, lasted barely a few seconds, and when Hermann looked round, the suitcases were gone. They contained, among other things, our plane tickets, his box of watercolours and his notebooks. We were staying with Bridget, an English friend who had settled in Barcelona, before travelling on from there two days later to Minorca. We spent the first evening rummaging through rubbish bins in the streets surrounding the scene of the incident, hoping at least to find the watercolours and the notebooks. Alas, we found nothing. Hermann was livid with rage but above all grief-stricken at the loss of his notebooks, I was obviously dismayed but at the same time a bit mesmerised by Bridget, who was very pretty and had a shaved head, like a punk nun, and while we rummaged through the rubbish bins sang over and over again in a contralto voice a Pogues song with the haunting refrain: “I kiss my girl by the factory wall…”

When, many years later, I was so taken with the work of a novelist from Barcelona that I made a book out of it, at no time did I think of this story. It was as if the Barcelona of my Spanish novelist was not the Barcelona of our stolen luggage, the rubbish bins we had rummaged through and Bridget singing, but another city altogether, and when, after the publication of my novel, I was interviewed and asked if I had ever been to Barcelona, I said no, never. And I believed it.

The reason I believed it was that my writer’s Barcelona was the one I saw through his window. I can no longer recall if he describes the view from his window in his novels, but even if he doesn’t, I had imagined that view while reading him. So I had a fairly detailed picture of Barcelona 2, consisting of the neighbourhood where my writer lived fused together with views of Seville and Granada which I had visited, and a Barcelona 1 where I rummaged through rubbish bins with Hermann and Bridget looking for the lost notebooks in which Hermann, needless to say, had jotted down matters of great importance not only for him but for both of us.

And the two cities didn’t tally at all. There were two different cities, one imaginary but constructed in far greater detail and on more solid foundations than the other, and this other city, which had certainly existed but which, ever since, I have confused slightly with the opening of Bataille’s Le bleu du ciel, and which (forgive me, Hermann) sank without trace in the blue waters of the Mediterranean the moment we set sail for Minorca.

Sometimes I go online and listen to The Pogues singing “Dirty Old Town,” and it’s as if the film was playing backwards: our boat reverses across the blue waters, we step onto the quayside walking upside down and make our way like this to the apartment where Bridget still has a shaved head, is still pretty and singing in a croaky voice, then wind even further back and here we are in the street in Barcelona where Hermann is looking for a taxi.

And we recover our lost luggage.

First lines from Enrique Vila-Matas