(a short story)
The plane was landing in the Amsterdam airport. It was dark and rainy outside. Almost Christmas. A line of wet trees surrounded by the yellow lights grinned somewhere below. Rain was falling in solid glistering lines, creating an unnecessary link between the clouds and the lights of the airport.
Lara sat with her husband and their two kids in the last row. Lightly pressing her forehead against the small oval window she watched the nonchalant love dialog between the rain and the trees. The flight attendant was saying something in Dutch, which sounded sharp and fresh like the night itself. Lara could not understand a word. A string of unknown sounds flowed joyfully from the young and elegant woman, dressed all in blue and with a professional welcoming smile. Resting on this pillow of foreign words, Lara drifted in her own thoughts when she was surprised by the phrase “Walnut trees for Christmas” and then after some more Dutch, “darling”. The flight attendant continued speaking Dutch, and Lara realized that the English words she heard were just a string of similarly sounding Dutch words. And that most probably those words meant something completely different.
“Walnut trees for Christmas, darling,” Lara repeated to herself. “It sounds beautiful”. The plane landed. Lara and her family proceeded to the airport building crossing a small triangle of wet asphalt. They still had almost an hour to catch their connecting flight to Barcelona. And while they walked, the cold Amsterdam air, the rain and those five magical words engaged into an obscure and passionate dance, startling to strangers and at the same time so akin to the festive Christmas spirit.
On the New Year’s Eve it was well after midnight when Lara and John got to the downtown. They started walking from the top of Passeig de Gracia and down towards Las Ramblas. They were almost silent. People around were celebrating, dancing, shouting and drinking wine on the streets. People walking. And more people sitting on the benches, on the steps of the buildings, on the terrazza’s, all happy and ecstatic. A man passed by with a cardboard box full of freshly baked croissants. His party was waiting him around the corner, waving, laughing and making faces. Lara remembered how with her friends, while still in college, they used to get those boxes of croissants on Saturday nights, after all dancing places closed at 5am and there was nothing else to do on the recently cleaned streets. On those mornings Barcelona was about the smell of flowers from the street vendors who were opening their booths. It was about the smell of the wet pavements, the cool breeze from the sea and the box of freshly baked croissants. They would sit on the steps of some old building and laugh and eat them before the first coffee places would open at 6am. This was many years ago.
And now she was walking with John through this festive city. Both, her husband and her very silent. Sometimes making remarks of people they saw, of what people said or how they looked. People talking French around them. Lara had never seen so many French people in Barcelona. “This year must be unique, it was never like that before”, she thought. She was already asked twice to give directions in French and she manage it decently with the help of gestures, maps and smiles. She loved France and French, however, at that moment so many French people around the downtown annoyed her. She was feeling tense. Almost like walking through an unknown city. “Besame, besame mucho, como si fuera aquella la ultima vez”. Somebody was singing. Clearly. Wonderfully. Each word perfect and transparent and full of strength of a passionate voice. The group of three people, one of whom was singing, passed by and walked in front of them for some time. Lara and John, without noticing it, followed the trio, wanting to hear more of the song. And there was no end to it, the man started singing the same song again. Passionately, purposefully, wonderfully. And then they lost the trio in the crowd in front of the opera house and kept on wandering through the streets of the city. Celebrating. Walking.
It was around 2am and the mass was going on in one of the churches, and John wanted to enter the church. So they did. A choir of monks were singing the mass. Lara and John stood at the entrance for some minutes and then John impulsively took Lara’s hand and pulled her out of the church. “Those people really do it because they believe in God, we should not spoil their service by our presence,” he said abruptly and they proceeded through the crowded street. Lara knew what he meant, but she would have preferred to stay in the church for couple of more minutes. May be for the whole mass. Just to stay there and listen. She did not understood the majority of the songs, but the sounds of the chant cleaned some inner routes in her chest and made her feel fresh and unbroken. But they were already on the street and John was making his way to the plaza.
“What do you want to do?” he asked
“Dance. Do you think we can find any of the old dancing places?”
“Well, you have seen it yourself. Whatever we knew is closed. The new places are crowded with French. Do you want to go there?”
“No. Let’s have a coffee somewhere,” said Lara
“Coffee? It is almost 3am. Oh well. Let’s have a coffee. Cafe de La Opera must be open”.
They both knew this cafe very well. They have went there numerous times after the opera or ballet performances. From what they could recall it was always open. It was right in front of the opera house. Sometimes Lara wondered if it ever closed at all.
Now they were walking back. Through the crowd, passed the church, right turn into Las Ramblas and right into the cafe. They sat at their usual spot, not in the big baroque room deep inside, but closer to the bar. All the tables around were empty. Lara wondered why the place was so unusually silent. “Well, it is passed 3am,” said John, “Besides, people are drinking and dancing now. Or may be going home already.”
He ordered coffee and wine and some olives. They sat next to each other looking at the street through the decorated cafe windows and at their own reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. Then, before they knew it another couple was sitting at the table in front of them. They were having some coffee and cake. Sitting silently next to each other and looking at the street and around them.
The woman, Lara could tell she was Spanish, looked beautiful. In her forties, dressed in an expensive black suit, with some elegant jewelry and a nice watch. Her hair was black and smooth, her makeup was almost invisible, her pose relaxed and contemplative. The intangible sadness of her eyes only added an exquisite touch to her beauty. A faint smile did not curve her lips, but sparkled in the pupils of her eyes. A moment later Lara thought that this was one of the most beautiful women she ever saw. The woman looked at Lara. She did not smile, she did not acknowledge Lara’s presence. She simply did not notice her. She was drinking her coffee and contemplating the life around the cafe. Life where Lara and John did not exist. The counter. The walls. The mirror. Lara could not take her eyes off that woman. “This is what I will be like in ten years from now,” it suddenly occurred to her. The thought was not appealing. With all the beauty that woman possessed, there was something awkward about her. “Her pupils reflected no spirit. No purpose. You could not hear laughs inside this woman’s eyes,” Lara thought. “This woman would not be able to sing that Besame Mucho song, she had no voice, no rhythm, no passion.”
Then Lara looked at the man who was accompanying the woman. Her husband. They both had wedding rings on their fingers. The man was elegant. Also dressed in a dark suit, with a nice gabardine spread across an empty chair. In his mid forties. Some grey hair added nobleness to his forehead. His hands were delicate and polished. “The hands of a highly sensitive man. An artist, maybe,” Lara thought. He is stunningly beautiful too. Very polite and gentlemanlike. “They are a beautiful couple.”
The man was eating the cake and drinking the coffee. He was mostly silent. Sometimes making some inaudible remarks to his wife. To the beautiful woman with the black hair sitting next to him. And then silence again. You could hear voices of the people on the street, and the ringing sounds of the cash register and the steps of the waiters going up the stairs. Empty coffee cups and wine glasses made noise when the waiter placed them on the counter. Somebody was serving a drink. The door upstairs closed and a woman with a large umbrella walked through the door. And the decorative Christmas bells on the walls danced and clicked every time somebody rushed down the stairs. Click, click, click. Almost like a heartbeat. People were always going up and down the stairs. And the coffee was burnt and it left a bitter taste under the tongue after you swallowed it. “Why do the people always go up and down the stairs”, Lara wondered. Click. She placed her cup back on the saucer and touched the dried coffee foam with her finger. The foam had a beautiful walnut color. “Walnut trees,” Lara thought, “where did I hear this lately?” And a faint smile spread on her lips.
“Have you noticed this couple sitting in front of us all this time. Very beautiful couple,” John said to Lara once they were back on the street. “I think they were like us,” John continued. “I was thinking this all the time we were there. Have not you noticed it?”
“What?” Lara said. She did not hear the exact words, but she knew what he was asking. “Well. May be. I do not know.”
“You are so beautiful. Hundred times more beautiful than the woman at the cafe. You know you are. You just were dressed very similarly to her, this is why I thought you were like her,” and John stopped in the middle of the street, put his arm around her waist and kissed her. “All will be just fine, darling.”
And they walked silently side by side on the busy street of this Mediterranean city. The festivities were still going on, but the first cleaning trucks had already arrived. Wet pavements and the cool sea breeze. The fresh smell of the cold water on the first morning of the year.
“I guess I just do not understand something. And John is right, everything will be just fine,” Lara thought to herself when they were getting into a taxi cab. And she thought of the walnut trees and what could it mean “Walnut trees for Christmas,” that is, if it meant anything at all.
Barcelona, August 17th 2012