As I paint, strange shadowy figures emerge, trapped in the central box positioned slightly off centre on the canvas. Leaving analysis until the muse has deserted me, colour is piled on in thick waves until I realise that I am painting Merche, my neighbour. We both live in central Barcelona on Carrer Sant Pau, number 38 and we met simply because our flats share an adjoining “interior” balcony. This is an estate agents’ embroidered description of a tall, concrete, square-shaped hollow in the middle of an urban high rise, around which flats are built in this Mediterranean city. Those who have money would not dream of renting an interior but pay for the marvellous exterior balconies with vistas of skies and Gaudí masterpieces. We are not in this category. However, Merche and I do have the best of both worlds – our kitchens share window views of concrete but our bedrooms overlook the lush palms in private gardens at the back of the building, hidden from prying, tourist eyes from the street view.
She has lived here forever it seems, in our struggling attempts to communicate on the stairwell, as we both struggle up from the sunshine down there, laden with bags of shopping freshly bought from La Boquería market on the Ramblas. There is no lift. We are not the rich tourists: we are the Irish tenant, teacher of English by day, artist by night, and she the Spanish wife of Catalan husband Josep, who works as a waiter in one of the tourist bars.
Merche, eternally with a fag hanging out of the side of her mouth, stares nonchalantly as I paint. This can be quite unnerving but I’m sociable and learning Spanish so when I take a break, we chat across the concrete divide. One of us is always in shade, the other brightly outlined in the 36° sun that never fails us in Barcelona. Cigarette puffs upward, painting delicate spirals in the air and Merche’s look of complete satisfaction must surely mirror my own, as we inhale the cheap, smuggled brands and exhale the smoke into intense Mediterranean sunshine.
I arrive after my early shift, crack-of-dawn classes for business suited Catalans, desperate to improve their English. It is the early morning light as I set off to work that is joyous; the routine is always the same in whichever bar I grab my sustenance. Café con leche y un cruasán. White milky coffee and a croissant please, served up with a smile for me the guiri the English teacher who is not quite the BBC, rather the Irlandesa. How they love the Irish!
I used to be good in the mornings then – loved rising with the sun and a quick brisk walk to the Gran Vía, or whichever bank or multinational needed my company that day. The return home a few hours later proved the perfect time to paint. Fuelled by café con leche and the patterns of the palm trees playing on the crowded Las Ramblas main street, or the multi-coloured adventure of identifying the fruit, vegetables and mushrooms in the market, admiring the kiosks laden with books, newspapers and magazines in a time where everybody read from paper not mobiles….
Looking back, these were optimistic, joyous days starting very early and finishing really late but filled with the delight that Spanish and Catalans have to be alive, waiting for the weekend to go to the country house or the mountains. The rich ones, that is. My path was also filled to bursting with my landlord, working two jobs to keep afloat, the workers who filled the cafes at lunchtime and tenants like Merche and I, sharing a cigarette and a chat via an internal patio.
What’s going on there? Merche questions, pointing at my recent canvas from a distance of 10 metres in her own flat, seemingly inside my studio, inner art critic escaping. Living close, neighbours become almost intimate while retaining their own locked front door. Who is it? Merche wants to know. It’s not finished I protest weakly, generalising about windows, people and flowers in sunshine. Nothing like ours then! she retorts. I smile, guarding my secrets well, knowing she cannot view my exterior balcony, a green secret oasis a street away from the hustle and bustle.
I need my herbs, geraniums and floral abundance in order to create. My plants inhabit hand-painted ceramic pots, or yogurt pots and furniture was rescued from the street, over many nights on my way home from work. The Spanish are natural recyclers! Once a month if you have large items you no longer need, everybody dumps them in the street to be collected by the lorries, they get chosen by passers-by or rejected for a classier piece up the road. For the foreigners renting unfurnished flats, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Wardrobes, armchairs, fridges, tables; Merche even found a mattress at one stage. She was so excited to have found a decent mattress, hammering on my door, A bit stained but you can clean it…. Next morning the mayhem of scurrying foreigners is gone, the street is swept, water whooshing everywhere and a new day dawns.
It was on one of these visits that I realised that Merche was lonely. She was curious, lively, intrigued by the Irish renter who drove her insane with music blaring on return from work. She met me daily in the market, bargaining like everybody else. She saw me knocking back one or two carajillos, an expresso with a shot of brandy, with friends in Paco’s bar while paying the rent. It was she who informed me about recycling banks for my bottles of vino de la mesa dumped every bin day. She commiserated with the experience of nocturnal return to our flats when the lights on the stairs revealed the cucarachas fleeing into shadows to escape sandaled feet or being trod underfoot by boots in winter. Cockroaches. Crunchy, purple-mounded indestructible insects that can survive nuclear holocaust, never mind Carrer Sant Pau, 38. Strange what you remember, I always think.
So I invited her in: art critic, scourge of the non-smokers, curious neighbour, my Spanish pal. She stared at the canvas open eyed. It was weeks later and it had developed in my usual way of covering up any part that didn’t emulate my feeling. Paint over it. Layer after layer piled one on top of another, until complete. Merche squinted at the windows, two of them at the same angle as mine to hers. She could see how one side of my canvas flourished, flowers in bloom, sunshine focused on the figure whose back was turned to the observer. Through her eyes, the figure on the other side was older, greyer with skeleton eyes, cigarette hanging out contrasting with dismal, concrete walls in monochrome shadow. Through her eyes: youth and middle age, sunshine and shade, abundant and shrivelled, a very black and white message to anybody. Actually, I wanted to explain, it isn’t that simple. The light and dark are within one person, the chances given, the opportunities lost, the simple pleasure of a shared cigarette with somebody who is not hostile.
It was only then she saw the balcony. Forever that moment that is the essence of Merche. Our flats were similar but my Irish inheritance had given me an aversion to grey cloud and an inbuilt desire to grab every ray of sunshine whenever it appeared. The need to be outdoors, the craving for a haven of lush, verdant, tropical garden situated on a 10 metre by 5 metre concrete rectangle next door to Merche, separated by a brick wall.
Now she understood my broken attempts at conversation with Paco in the bar, while paying my rent. Mirrors, paint, watering system, climbers – who could imagine the story Merche had invented when she listened to me struggle through these stuttering conversations with my landlord? The result was avocado planted from seed, ginger spiking upwards, Busy Lizzie from my mother’s garden, Passion flowers’ circled hearts with miraculous blue petals painted heaven to Merche’s eyes. Then treasures gathered locally; the Wild Mignonette and Bee Orchid, seeds liberated by wind from wild green spaces. Bright blue Borage flowers and Marigolds, saved from holidays in the south, cuttings from Laurel from a student in my class for bay leaves.
My tour-de-force: my own plants housed in an upside down, recovered table bursting with pots of frilly green and wine-coloured lettuce, curly bright green parsley – and my mother’s fennel, planted lovingly from seeds collected in a Greystones garden. It is true that the 27 m palm tree in the distance would probably not survive a Greystones winter and that many of the plants would shrivel and die, but for Merche and I, a little bit of Ireland in Barcelona would forever be Merche’s secret garden.
(c) Tina Lawlor Mottram