In many of the neighbourhoods in the centre of Barcelona, the buildings are clustered together to form long, wide blocks. A stroke of urban planning genius that results in half of the flats not gazing out to the boulevard but internally, to the courtyards. My first flat in Barcelona, a rear facing ground floor apartment, gave out directly onto the bottom of one of these seven story concrete wells. There wasn’t much light in the flat, but I had my own private patio
It didn’t take me long to realize that a courtyard is a world unto itself. A world inhabited by fleeting ghosts more than by neighbours. Despite hardly ever coming face to face with them, these ghosts would come to affect my life deeply. (And I suppose, I affected theirs.) The first time I noticed their presence was through the smoke that would periodically waft down from somewhere up above, with all certainty belonging to someone whose grasp of the physics of smoke was fundamentally challenged. And so it was that I would lie in bed, feeling like someone was blowing smoke rings in my face.
There wasn’t much to do in the courtyard — a nondescript grey patio that smelt of tobacco or like a basement. In the summer I’d hang my clothes, and in the winter I’d run around in my boxer shorts, occasionally not even bothering to put them on. The reason for this odd behaviour, aside from any desire I had to appear in a Facebook group called ‘My batshit Russian neighbour’, was that the radiator was, somewhat inexplicably, positioned in the patio, and I’d go turning it up or down in accordance with how cold it was outside, or how much my body temperature had adapted to Catalonia.
Things would always fall into the courtyard: clothes pegs. I’ve never had to buy a single clothes peg in Barcelona. I was even thinking about opening a shop for second hand clothes pegs, or writing a book about their owners, based solely on what I could glean from the colour, shape and material, or their trajectory as they fell into the patio. But pegs weren’t the only things that my neighbours would discard. Once I found a G-String in a perfect shade of lettuce green, whose owner, sad to say, never dropped by to reclaim it.
Oh and once it was an entire pane of glass. It was early in the morning when I heard something shattering on concrete, and it scared me half out of my skin. I jumped up and looked around for my cat Uma, who in that moment came through the door, looking for me too. Together we looked out to the patio, which was covered in shattered glass. Five minutes later the upstairs neighbour turned up, effusively sorry and stinking of booze. Apparently she’d been cleaning windows and had pushed too hard. She was as mortified as I was, looking at her and thinking she’d have been a good model for those Soviet era posters with slogans like “Join the fight against drunkenness”.
But the ghosts didn’t just live in my imagination. Once, I had some friends staying; Shurik and Masha. The first night they weren’t so lucky. One of the ‘ghosts’ was suffering a coughing fit, “harrumph harrumph” all night long. Too polite to say anything Masha lay awake in bed, staring out onto the patio. The next night, it was the same again, a heroic symphony of coughing, that they supported stoically. On the third night, silence… until the early hours of the morning, when the afflicted party opened the window, and again, a cacophony of “harrumphs”. Shurik couldn’t take it any longer, and ran out into the patio shushing pointedly. From above came a thunderclap of shouted insults in Spanish, but at long last the window was closed and all was silent. From that day on I never heard a peep out of the invisible old lady.
Unlike me, Uma loved to be in the patio with its ghosts. For her, the courtyard was her street and her city, where she could see the sky and the stars, and an entire universe of smells; chicken, ham, sausages and fish soup. Going out into the courtyard for her was like stepping into a detective novel, where she could investigate the ghosts.
One day she was doing her normal catty stuff in the patio, soaking up the smells. I was in my room, writing when I heard an almighty rip, and then a splash. Uma raced into the room like a bullet, ricocheting off the doorframe on her way in. Her hair was on end, she was soaking wet and her eyes were like saucers. She hid under the bed, and when I leaned down to see how she was I found her shaking in a corner. Outside was a huge puddle of water. One of the canopies that the ghosts had used to protect their clothes from the rain had collapsed. Uma, for her part, never went outside again.
Occasionally, the denizens of the courtyard would laugh like hyenas, listen to music at top volume, heatedly discuss their family problems or sing the recent British or American hits in Spanglish. Perhaps if I’d stayed, I’d have got used to it, and life in the courtyard would lose its air of mystery. But before that happened, and desperate for daylight, I moved. The new flat was higher up and the window onto the courtyard was bigger; turning me into another ghost to haunt the newcomers to Barcelona.