Joan Aiguader wasn't religious. Quite the opposite, in fact; he left town when the Easter processions with their black-robed Catholics invaded the Rambla, and he was also someone who collected irreverent statues of popes and the three wise men defecating. But despite this blasphemous tendency, he had nevertheless crossed himself numerous times over the last few days, because if God did exist after all, then he had to be absolutely sure to be in his good books due to the unfortunate turn things had taken.
When the morning mail finally arrived with the long-awaited envelope, Joan crossed himself again, because the contents would come to shape his destiny. He was sure of it.
Now, three hours after reading the letter, he was sitting at a cafŽ in the Barceloneta district, shivering in the heat, devastated and devoid of his spark. For thirty-three years he had lived with the ridiculous hope that luck would favor him at some point or other; after this, however, he didn't have the energy to wait any longer. Eight years ago, his father had tied an electric cable around his neck and hanged himself from a water pipe in the building where he worked as the administrator. His small family was devastated, and even though his father had never been a carefree man, they didn't understand why. From one second to the next, Joan and his sister, who was five years younger, were suddenly left alone with a mother who was never quite herself again. Joan tried his best to be there for them. Back then, he was just twenty-five and working himself to death studying journalism and holding down numerous small jobs to try to make ends meet. But the following year was the final turning point in his life, when his mother took an overdose of sleeping pills, followed by his sister a few days later.
It was only now, in hindsight, that it made sense that he couldn't deal with any more. Somewhere along the way, the Aiguador family had slowly lost its perspective on life. Darkness had claimed them all. It would soon be his turn. So apart from short-lived moments of happiness and minor victories, it was a life of damnation. And in the space of just a month, his girlfriend had left him and his career had been flushed down the toilet.
Fuck it. Why torment yourself when everything was so meaningless?
Joan put his hand in his pocket and glanced over at the waiter behind the bar.
Would it be too much to ask to end my life with an iota of self-respect intact and pay for my coffee? he thought, staring at the dregs. But his pocket was empty, and the failed projects and ambitions of his life came back to him in an endless loop. All his bad relationships and constantly dwindling low standards had suddenly become too difficult to ignore.
He had reached rock bottom.
Two years ago, when another deep depression had taken root, a fortune-teller from Tarragona had told him that he would shortly find himself with one foot in the grave but that a light in the middle of the day would save him. She had seemed very convincing, and Joan had clung to her prediction-but where the hell was the light? He couldn't even leave the cafŽ with dignity. He couldn't even pay the couple of euros for his cortado. Even the filthy beggars sitting on the pavement with outstretched hands at El Corte InglŽs could scrape together the cash for an espresso; hell, even the homeless dressed in rags and sleeping rough in bank doorways accompanied by a dog could manage that.
So even though the fortune-teller's intense gaze had seduced him and given him hope for the future, she had been terribly wrong. And now the day of reckoning had arrived. That was a certainty.
He sighed as he looked down at the cafŽ table and the pile of envelopes lying there-testimony to the corner in which he irrevocably found himself. He could, of course, ignore the reminder letters at home, because while he hadn't paid his rent in months, the insane Catalonian tenancy laws meant he couldn't be thrown onto the street. And why should he worry about the gas bill when he hadn't cooked a warm meal since Christmas? No, it was the four envelopes in front of him that had pushed him over the edge.
As far as his relationship with his ex was concerned, Joan had repeatedly repented, promised stability and improvement, but his earnings had never materialized, and in the end, she had had enough of supporting him and told him to take a hike. In the weeks that followed, he had kept the aggressive creditors at bay with assurances that when he had received payment for his four latest essays, he could easily pay them all. Wasn't he in the process of writing a collection of brilliant texts? Why shouldn't he believe it?
And here on the table were the rejections, which weren't hesitant, vague, elusive, or indirect but heartless and to the point, like when the matador in "Tercio de Muerte" thrusts his estoc into the bull's heart.
Joan raised his cup to his face to enjoy the faded aroma of his coffee while looking out over the beach with its palms and the throng of colors exhibited by the bathers. It wasn't long ago that Barcelona had been paralyzed by a madman's crazy driving on the Rambla and the central government's slaughter of normal citizens in front of the voting stations, but this all seemed to have been pushed to one side now, because the sight that greeted him through the shimmering heat was a throng of happy people. Their heads were filled with their own chatter and shouts, sweaty skin and sensuous looks. For the moment, the city seemed to be reborn-almost scornful-while he sat in vain looking for the fortune-teller's glowing star.
The distance from the cafŽ where Joan was sitting to where the children were playing on the edge of the beach was tantalizingly short. In less than a minute, he would be able to run past the sunbathers and into the water, dive under the foamy waves, and inhale quickly and definitively. With the buzz of activity on the beach, no one would take notice of a crazy guy throwing himself fully clothed into the water. And in less than one hundred seconds from now, he would be able to leave his life behind him.
Despite his heart beating ten to the dozen, Joan laughed bittersweetly at the thought. Those who knew him would find it unfathomable. A weakling like Joan Aiguader committing suicide? The dull, anemic journalist who didn't have the balls to speak up during a discussion?
Joan weighed the envelopes in his hand. Just a few hundred grams' extra humiliation added to the rest of the shit life had thrown at him, so why cry about it; he had made his decision. In a second, he would tell the waiter that he couldn't pay and make a run for it toward the beach, ignoring the protests behind him, and execute his plan.
He had tensed his calf muscles and was preparing to make his move when a couple of guests dressed in swimwear stood up so abruptly that they toppled their barstools. Joan turned to face them. One of them was staring blankly at the TV screen hanging on the wall while the other one scanned the beach.
"Turn it up!" the first guy shouted at the screen.
"Hey, look! They're right down there on the promenade," the other one shouted, pointing at a mass of people gathering outside.
Joan followed his gaze and spotted the TV crew that had positioned themselves in front of the three-meter-high pillar the municipality had erected a few years ago. The lower part of the pillar was metal but at the top, four numbers were lit up on a digital counter. Joan had long since read the text on the pillar that explained that its purpose was to keep count of the refugees who had drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.
People from the beach in swim trunks and bathing suits were drawn like magnets to the TV crew, and a few local lads strode out from Carrer del Baluard toward the scene. Maybe they had seen it on TV.
Joan turned his attention to the waiter, who was polishing glasses like a robot while staring at the TV. Text on the screen declared, breaking news, so Joan took his chance and slowly made his getaway down to the promenade.
He was still alive in spite of everything-and he was still a journalist, after all.
Hell could wait a little longer.
Unaffected by the runners, roller skaters, and general commotion all around her, the female reporter stood in front of the large pillar fully aware of the effect she was having. She tossed her hair, licked her lips, and brought the microphone up to them while the men and boys from earlier stood openmouthed staring at her breasts. It wasn't exactly what she had to say that had attracted them.
"We don't know exactly how many have drowned escaping to Europe, which represents paradise and freedom for these unfortunate souls," she said. "But the number in recent years has reached the thousands, with more than two thousand casualties this year alone."
She turned slightly while pointing up at the digital counter on top of the pillar.
"Here we can see the number that tells us how many refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year right up until this very moment. This time last year, the number was even higher, and we can expect next year to be just as bad. It's thought-provoking that even though it's an unfathomable and terrifying number, the world-you and I-can look the other way without a second thought as long as these dead people remain anonymous."
She looked directly into the camera with dramatic painted eyes. "Isn't that what we-and the rest of the world in particular-do? We simply ignore it. As a counterreaction to this-you could even call it a protest-TV11 has decided to focus our upcoming reports on one of the deceased, more precisely the man whose body very recently washed ashore on a beach in Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. We will show that this refugee was a real man of flesh and blood."
She glanced down at her flashy watch. "Less than an hour ago, this poor man's body was splashing around in the surf toward the beach among contented summer beachgoers, not unlike those here at Platja de Sant Miquel." She gestured with her arm at the sun worshippers to illustrate to whom she was referring.
"Dear viewers, this young man I'm talking about was the first whose body was washed up on the popular beach Ayia Napa in Cyprus this morning, and he brings the number on our counter on the beach here to two thousand and eighty. That's how many have died this year alone." She paused for dramatic effect and looked up at the counter. "It's just a matter of time before the number increases. But the first victim this morning was a dark-skinned boyish man wearing an Adidas sweater and worn-out shoes. Why should he have lost his life in the Mediterranean? When we look out over the tranquil azure waves here in Barcelona, is it possible to imagine that at this very moment the same sea thousands of miles from here is crushing hopeful refugees' dreams of a better life?"
She took a pause from her speech as her producer cut to images from Cyprus. The beachgoers were able to follow on the monitor erected next to the cameraman. The sight put an immediate end to the buzz. Frightful images of the body of a young man on his stomach in the swash and then a couple of Good Samaritans dragging him onto the shore and flipping him on his back. Cut, and the monitor once again showed the reporter in Barcelona. She was standing a few meters away, ready to wrap up the report.
"We will know more about this man in a few hours. Who he was, where he came from, and what his story is. We will return after the break. In the meantime, the number behind me continues to rise." She ended by pointing at the counter while looking earnestly into the camera until the cameraman said, "Cut."
Joan looked around and smiled. This could be big! But could there really be no other representatives from the media among the hundreds of people gathered here except himself and the TV crew? Was he in the right place for once? Did he really have a big scoop?
He had never had such a strong gut feeling before.
Who could let an opportunity like this pass them by?
Joan looked up at the digital counter.
Moments ago, the death toll had been 2080, and now it stood at 2081. And like the boys staring at the reporter's breasts while she lit a cigarette and spoke with the cameraman, Joan also hung around.
Ten minutes ago, he had been determined to contribute to the statistic of people who had drowned in the Mediterranean, but now he was glued to the counter instead. The devastating number was so present and real that it made him feel faint and uneasy. He had been standing here with a childish focus on himself, filled with self-pity and defeat, while at the same time people were fighting for their lives out at sea. Fighting! The word hit him, and suddenly he understood what he had experienced and repressed. The relief brought him almost to tears. He had been so close to death and then the light had come that had saved him. Just like the fortune-teller had predicted. The light that would give him his raison d'tre; the light from the digital counter in front of him bearing witness to the misfortune of others and that now offered an unwritten and fantastic story. He saw it all clearly now.
As predicted, his foot had been pulled from the grave at the very last minute.
The next few hours were hectic for Joan now that he had hatched a plan to save his career and thereby his very livelihood and future.
He checked departures for Cyprus and ascertained that if he took the 16:46 flight to Athens, he could catch a connecting flight to Larnaca airport in Cyprus and be on Ayia Napa beach around midnight.
He stared at the ticket price. Almost five hundred euros each way, which was money he didn't have. So, half an hour after making his decision, he was forcing entry into his ex-girlfriend's grocery store. He opened the back door with the key she had been begging him to return for the last few weeks and walked determinedly behind the counter where she hid the cash in a small box under a couple of vegetable boxes.