Plaça de l’Arquebisbe, containing nothing of particular historical note, is a quiet little square except for the odd handful of lost tourists. The Archbishop’s grand mansion standing at the southern end governs the movement of the shadows, reminding the well-to-do apartments that form the east and west sides of their place, and intimidating the grand doorways and ironwork opposite into a solemn stillness. On a Sunday morning, when only the most pious or those unwilling to waste a moment of a weekend getaway are out, the square is normally empty and silent but for the noise from the little fountain that sat in its middle.
Early this morning, unable to sleep, I went outside to the little fountain. Its uneven fffshffffshshsh-ing soothed the anxiety caused by my ebbing drunkenness. The bright Valencian sunlight was already too strong for me to open my eyes fully, as if I were unworthy of the prettiness of the tiny sparkles on the water.
At the opposite end of the shallow pool was a man, bent over the edge like a scrawny cat, lapping up water. Suspecting the water to be less than healthy, I asked him, ‘quieres agua?’ ‘Si’ the ragged man answered, and I rushed up to my room to retrieve a bottle.
When I gave it to him, he asked me for some food. —Cheeky bugger, I thought. You could have at least asked before I went for the water. I declined, becoming impatient for my first cigarette of the day.
I sat on the plinth of the statue of a long-dead priest and lit up. A lady was emptying the bins. She was dressed in the luminous orange uniform, ostensibly so coloured for safety reasons, but actually serving to degrade her. Apparently oblivious to the judgements being cast, she sang gustily. Her tone was course and her pitching erratic at best, but she nonetheless sang as if she were making the most beautiful sound. The overall effect was the brave but final wailing of emphysema.
The scrawny cat man stopped swigging messily from the bottle of water I’d given him to listen. So entranced was he that he stepped slowly towards her. He stood close enough to her that his slight height advantage became clear, and still staring at her in a most direct way. It would have been awkward had either one of them had any awareness of social mores. But neither did. As her route around the bins took her to within whispering distance of him, he shouted in her face that she had the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard. Not wanting to break her performance, she continued with her song, but smiled a huge smile and nodded her thanks. The gustiness of her song increased, stretching evermore her already distended vocal control.
‘Sí, sí, ella canta muy muy bien’, said a man from the other side of the otherwise empty little square. It was the barefooted man who spends his whole day kneeling, muttering prayers of penitence and gratitude, whilst holding out his hands for any spare change. It was the first time I’d heard him saying anything remotely intelligible. The scrawny catlike man wandered over and the two had a conversation about the beauty of the bin-lady’s singing.
I leant back against the pedestal of the long-dead priest. Tears rolled down my cheeks. It’s difficult to say exactly why, but I was still drunk so it didn’t matter. The anxiety felt somehow relieved by the wonderful madness of these three, as if they had somehow relieved me from the battle to justify myself. Alcoholic bombast was rising in me again. The world of reason seemed so petty in that moment. My own peculiarities would be relished and I need not fear the coming slaughter of my ego. There was beauty in all things, even if it may not last. Especially because it may not last! It was the delicacy of the situation that made it so beautiful. The square was empty but for us four, and it would only have taken the briefest knowing glance between me and another observer to ground the situation in ‘sanity’ and shatter the pretty world they had created. But instead of being dropped into the weariness of reality, I shared this moment with these three angels.
I was not ashamed of my weeping, not ashamed at all; I was quite proud of it. I felt like a connoisseur of circumstance, of vignettes – a fine judge of delicacies, the aiguillettes of life. Yes, I thought to myself, ‘delicacy’ is such a beautiful idea. Even the word forces the slovenly English gob to tiptoe round the sounds. It makes a ballerina of a slob. And then delicacy as a thought, as a description… A petal is described as delicate, yet were evolution’s toss disrupted by even the faintest whiff, it would be the ungainly spine of a cactus. But delicate a petal is. Delicate makes a virtue of fragility; makes us venerate vulnerability. It places the improbable, the weak in the glass case of a museum, rather than on a shit-heap for the useless. When watching the strong, the observer, not the observed must be behind bars as they gawp. But the value, even of a prize-fighter, lies in the fact that he is vulnerable, irreplaceable, singular, delicate. No. Delicacy is value, I thought, and meekness inherits the earth.
The cat man and the kneeler walked towards me. I smiled, a big knowing smile, and quickly translated ‘Yes, she had a truly lovely voice’ to myself, in preparation for the conversation.
‘podemos tener un par de cigarillos?’ said the scrawny cat man.
I was a little disappointed, but handed him my pouch of tobacco, feeling that our shared moment was enough for me to trust him not to take the piss.
I proudly began my little prepared conversation starter: ‘ella realmente tenia una voz preciosa!’
The kneeling man ignored my comment and handed back my tobacco. ‘You give us money?’ he said.
‘No, I haven’t got anything’.
They walked away. My tobacco pouch was virtually empty.
The anxiety and the hangover returned. The bronze, long-dead priest had crouched down and was whispering in my ear: ‘ha ha wanker. You always want to take it too far, to own it. “…driven and derided by vanity!”’