ONLINE FICTION: ‘The Thief’ by Mark Blayney
Palaces are the best places for thieving. People are off their guard. Jaws drop, bags swing. Today, however, all the palaces were closed and I was at a loss as to how to spend my time. It was the day of the strike and it seemed somehow immoral to take advantage of the crowds that formed as a result. Especially when they all had smiles on their faces. It was a fiesta, a day off, and I decided (as thieves don’t have unions) to have the day off too.
Instead I went to the gardens. Past the statue of Maria Luisa and her strange alabaster dress and fan. As 11.30 approached I found a shady spot to avoid that flare of day when the sun switches on fully. By the fountain, a beautiful girl hunched over her phone. She looked cross, her body folded into a cedilla. She was so intent on messaging I had plenty of time to watch her idly. Eventually she looked up and studied me as if judging a specimen, then went back to her phone.
I must have dozed because I was woken by the sound of bells and marching. A few stragglers from the procession walked past; perhaps they had lost their way, or just felt like having their particular version of the strike march past statues. The gardens are nowhere near the route, but it’s a strike; sticking to the rules isn’t the prime concern.
When they saw us – the girl was still there, and still on her phone – they shouted, huelga, huelga! She raised her arm to her heart, then high in the air. Huelga!
‘What’s the strike for?’ I asked.
She looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘It’s a general strike,’ she explained patiently. ‘No one is working today.’
I nodded. ‘I mean, what’s it for? More money?’
She paused, crossed her legs, went back to her phone. I dozed again. A fly buzzed me awake. Now she had crossed her legs in the opposite direction so that she faced me. ‘You can ask my dad,’ she said sourly. She stood and her bag swung across her dress. ‘I’m going to try to find him.’
She looked at me, with a slight lift in her head that said, ‘Coming?’ I got up and followed her. ‘Marina,’ she said. I nodded. ‘Nico,’ I replied.
‘What does your dad do?’ I asked as we walked along the dust and onto the street alongside the university.
She didn’t answer. We were swept up by energetic strikers pushing and pulling us towards the plaza, the red and white t-shirts and flags making it seem like match day. Two children, distraught because they had no flags to wave. Their father climbed up on the railings outside one of the embassies and pulled down plastic banners. The children laughed and waved their makeshift flags as the man jumped down and the cordons of police affected not to notice.
‘I don’t think he’s here.’ Marina pulled me through the crowd and we pressed on towards the cathedral. The day got hotter and the noise got louder. Someone slapped a sticker on my back; it felt like a punch, and I wanted to punch back. We wriggled through the mass of bodies, occasionally pushed by someone’s sweat or an intruding back, and she smiled, if briefly, for the first time. ‘He’s not here either. He can be a bit – difficult to pin down.’
I kissed her arm as she dragged me through the streets. She smelled of sun cream and her dress, see-through in parts, gave tantalising glimpses of stomach and thigh, and the line of her figure showed in silhouette when we crossed from the shadows and into the fierce light. There was nothing to steal from her, the dress would not have concealed anything; and I was glad at least that that particular temptation was denied me.
The sticker on my back made me belong, and we found more banners that had been dropped, that we held proudly. Not only were all the main tourist sites closed but, to the distress of many, even the Starbucks were all shut. These are my main hunting grounds. I only steal from tourists; a thief needs to have principles.
Surprisingly however, an occasional bus still made its way through the crowd. No one tried to stop the bus’s progress or make signs to the driver; it was just ignored, and rumbled slowly along on its route. Also working were the bright yellow carriages, the horses plodding on indifferently, not letting the joy of the fiesta affect their outlook on life. The drivers are freelancers, I supposed. Wouldn’t they come out in support?
She shrugged. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m still at school,’ I said.
She didn’t look like she believed me. At a street corner where lines of the march crossed, jostling each other in mock annoyance, she pretended to bump into me and put her tongue briefly in my mouth. She still looked cross though.
‘Let’s go this way.’ People pointed at a post box; its mouth steamed from a firework that someone had dropped inside. We waited and eventually heard a muffled bang. Smoke billowed from the blackened mouth and we sensed a low rumble, as of bad indigestion.
The palace bells rang – who’s ringing the bells, I wondered – and the surge of people thickened and became riotous. Someone had a drum and the beat became faster until it was hypnotic and dizzying. The cathedral loomed above us bearishly. We sat at the side of the road, its dustiness drugging us, wondering where we would get something to drink.
I lost her at the edge of the old town. For the rest of the day I looked for her floaty dress, the dirty pink band in her hair, and for her angry green eyes. The procession fizzled out not long into the afternoon and again was reminiscent of a football match; the anti-climax of it being over, the sense of disappointment even if the game had been won. People dropped the banners which were soon trodden into the dust. A flag fluttered diagonally from an abandoned beer bottle.
As the last stragglers went home I crossed the bridge to Triana. More bright red lines of whistling, shouting, bell-ringing strikers marched alongside the river bars and down to the old fisherman’s houses. I sat at the tapas bar in Eduardo’s.
Several times I thought I saw her come in. Several times I thought I saw her walk past. Eduardo, noting my expression, put more beers on the counter and chalked the prices up in front of me, and after a while the blue dress fluttering in front of my vision became orange and blurry. More beer, and I day-dreamed she was sending me texts, one after another, the messages getting impatient as she waited for my reply. I looked up at the posters and tried to find her face in one of them.
The next day everything was open again and life returned to normal. Marina and the strike had been a dream, and people carried on as if the day had never happened.
In the north palace I had a purse and a phone and it wasn’t even ten o’clock. I sat in the courtyard and closed my eyes and listened to the fountain trickle. A buzz in the air as the day warmed, pale light on stone yellowed, shadows moved rapidly downwards.
‘Please make sure you stay on the green carpet,’ the guide said. ‘Here we are in the long gallery.’
Those at the end of the narrow room shuffled up together as if on an overloaded bus. The strip of ragged carpet held us pinned between its invisible walls.
‘Here we have a very special painting, because this is by Goya.’ We all craned forward to see the tiny picture at the far end of the room. I could make out a rock and some sky. More urgent than Goya’s special painting was the sweaty smell of the man in front of me. His wallet made my pocket sag.
Next room. ‘This is the main bedroom, and here you can see a wash basin that was first used in the seventeenth century.’
We tried to look impressed. I studied a painting above it; a woman dressed in silks, with a gigantic oval hat and a faraway, distant smile. Glossy hair fell in ringlets and despite being young she held a long stick, as if suffering with consumption or some other antique condition. One hand on her hip, she looked at me sardonically from long-dead centuries.
‘Here we have a writing cabinet believed to have been used by Ferdinand and Isabella.’
One of us trod accidentally on the exquisite tiles, and stepped back in alarm as though they might be mined. Her friend’s watch was in my shirt pocket, and I could feel it ticking.
I don’t think it can have been the same woman in the portrait in the next room, because she wore clothes of a different period; but perhaps she was a descendant as she had exactly the same expression in her eyes. She wore high-necked frills of lace and riding gloves, ready and waiting for a film.
Or maybe it was the same person, dressed up in historical fancy dress? And now it’s all historical, and we can’t tell the difference. Will future generations think we look dressed up for something, as our photos parade through streets in dark suits with lime ties, flouncy white dresses, baggy jeans and caps turned back to front?
For a moment I drowned in her huge blue eyes. It was 11.30 and getting hotter; my neck burned when we stood in a diagonal blade of light. The windows had lead frames and diamond-shaped panels. There was a squeak, and the guide was on the case. ‘Please, remain on the green carpet. The floor is very precious.’
The last room was too small for us all to get in and we squashed ourselves near an antique clock that, as the guide spoke, chimed sonorously to ask him to stop droning on and let an old clock get some rest.
Something clutched my legs. The fear, the heart-burning sensation that I had been discovered. It had to happen one day. I had the watch, the purse and the phone. I felt like a bomb that might go off at any moment.
I stayed calm and looked down. A child of two or three, dark curly hair, clung to my knees. A woman gently tugged him away and apologised. The boy looked up sleepily; caught in another blade of light he closed his eyes, bored. He turned and held the legs of the man next to me. ‘Sorry,’ said the woman again.
Down the ornate staircase, covered from ceiling to floor in tiles. Three hundred years ago I suppose it was the latest in chic, but today it bears an uncanny resemblance to a fried fish shop. The tiles were badly cracked and damaged; the impact, we were told, of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 whose shockwaves were felt across the continent and for which Seville gave thanks for being spared.
The ghosts of that ancient disruption were still visible in the spidery lines across the walls. I thought about the paintings and wondered about the people in them. Ahead the couple with the small child held his hand. They formed a silhouette like a paper chain.
A sparrow landed in the fountain and drew a few short sips of water. I watched its gullet increase and decrease as it drank. It looked in both directions as if contemplating crossing a road, then flew up into the vines and leaves that wrapped the pillars.
Sometimes I sit here and imagine it’s my garden; the reverse loggias, that look like the outside of a Renaissance home, but here face the courtyard, like an inside-out house. Are you a happy sparrow, I called gently up to the leaves. There was an approving, shy rustle.
The boy ran across the courtyard, waving his arms, singing random notes to himself. Freed from the dusty inside, with its bloody carpet and boring objects, he was in heaven. He ran to a stop and looked at me curiously. For a moment I thought he was going to dart forward and hug me again. He wound a curl of hair in his finger, then trotted back to his parents. They smiled. ‘You have the same hair,’ his mother said. ‘He looks just like you.’
‘He looks like my baby brother,’ I said.
I don’t have a baby brother. I always wanted brothers and sisters, but the more I heard the continual refrain from my parents about how expensive I was to keep, the more I knew they would never come into being. The boy ran behind the fountain, pretending to hide.
There’s an old photo of me in a garden somewhere, looking just the same. Wavy hair, thoughtful, adult expression. If it wasn’t for me, they would have had the money to go on holidays and enjoy themselves. It was a good job there was only one of me to put up with. This doesn’t come across in the photo, where I smile, and stand where I was told to stand, and look happy.
Through the lanes a girl in black, urgently pretty, pushed a motorbike. A man with blue tattoos steered a bath on a trestle trolley, making his own ‘beep’ noises, sounding surprisingly car-like. A young man with long hair held a pig under his arm, stroking its ear affectionately. It oinked as I walked by. I tried not to think about where they were going. One of the beggars on the corner tried to put heather in my shirt, and to my surprise I let her. She chattered away and I gave her a euro.
Later I went to Eduardo’s. I sat on the far side of the bar under my favourite poster, the girl with the white horse, who’s dressed like a man, and Eduardo brought me amontillado. He stood square in front of me with his arms folded.
‘How are you?’
‘Busy day today,’ Eduardo said.
I nodded. And there she was, the girl from the strike. I had just about forgotten her. Marina saw me and hesitated, then when she realised I’d seen her, came over. Eduardo, discreet as a sliding door, held my gaze for a moment like an invisible wink, then disappeared.
‘I thought you said you were still at school?’ she said grumpily, sitting down.
‘I am,’ I said, glancing at my new watch. ‘What would you like to drink?’ I tried to work out where the catch on the wallet was, opened it and found a satisfying number of euros. Marina opened her eyes wide.
‘Did you find your dad?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes. He was where he said he’d be all along, actually. I just didn’t notice him the first time.’
I nodded, absorbing this. Eduardo, seeing the open wallet, came over and whistled when he saw what was inside. ‘Someone’s had a good day!’ he said.
I smiled modestly. At school my arse, Marina’s expression said. ‘I’ll have a very large glass of wine, please,’ her voice said.
Eduardo nodded. ‘And who’s this young man?’ he said, putting his hands on his knees and smiling.
‘This is my baby brother,’ I said. Beside me, the boy with curly hair sat swinging his legs. Eduardo nodded. Inside the wallet was a passport-sized photo of the boy.
He asked for lemonade and Eduardo nodded solemnly, backing away until he disappeared behind the bar. Marina, picking up my new camera, took a picture of us. ‘Keep smiling,’ she said. ‘That’s right. Keep smiling.’
‘The Thief’ is taken from Mark Blayney’s new collection, Dopplegangers, for more info go to www.markblayney.weebly.com
Mark Blayney has published two collections of stories, Two Kinds of Silence which won the Somerset Maugham Prize and Conversations with Magic Stones. A regular MC and performance poet, he’s a National Poetry Slam finalist and has been published in Agenda, The London Magazine and Poetry Wales. His third collection Doppelgangers will be published by Parthian in October.
Copyright © Mark Blayney 2015. Banner image copyright © Jo Mazelis 2015.