She takes the corner of my eye and pulls me in over Pedro’s shoulder.
For a brief moment, I think I’ve glimpsed Mathilde from uni, an instance of mistaken identity more common here than back home. But in seconds I realise this girl is like nobody I’ve seen before. The lightness in my legs, filling up and overflowing across the surface of my skin, tells me that without question. Her black ringlets cascade wildly around a bright Mediterranean face. Her mouth is a bold, red fruit, shining with speech. Then, with eyes as dark as a forest, she looks at me. We connect.
‘Hey!’ Pedro snaps his fingers in my face, laughing. ‘You still here?’
‘Sorry. What did you say?’
‘What are you looking at?’ Pedro turns to gaze through the smoke across the crowded roof terrace, awash with the evening sun and the fiery cheer of Sant Joan coming off Barcelona in waves.
‘Who’s she?’ I ask him. ‘There. Talking to the guys in blue shirts?’ He’s starting to stare so I yank him back round by the arm. ‘Stop looking!’
‘I dunno,’ he shrugs, adding with a smirk, ‘You mean the clubbing princess?’
I’m confused until I realise her navy top spells the words in silver glitter. Pedro thinks it’s hilarious.
‘Come on, let’s top up,’ he says, heading into the apartment. ‘And Joan and Biel want to meet you.
I take my eyes off the girl to follow him. He’s never really mentioned his Barcelona friends in Sheffield, but his bedroom here’s full of photos of them. I’m intrigued.
We meander through the visitors. Pedro’s mother gives me a little wave and goes to change Rihanna on the iPod. The barbecue’s heating up. It deepens the humidity as we pass it and the skin on the back of my neck prickles.
In the shady entrance to the apartment, I’m introduced to Joan and Biel.
They’re not what I expected. Turns out Pedro had been setting unrealistic expectations this whole time with his bronzed swimmer looks – as if all Barcelona teens spend their time playing football on the beach.
Joan and Biel, though broad and tall, have the awkward grey gangliness to fit right in back home. Their wide frames are sheer and bony, brittle-looking like injured birds. They haven’t grown into themselves yet and shuffle uncomfortably as they say hello, cigarettes hanging from yellow-grey lips, colourless hands and arms like scuffed up boots you never get round to polishing. You can tell they’re night owls and video-game lovers, with their bouffant, over-styled quiffs and their leather jackets. I warm to them at once.
Joan is chatty; his English is incredibly impressive.
‘Tonight,’ he says, ‘tonight it’s not just the fire that’s gonna be hot. When we’ve finished here, we’ll take you to the beach and see if the honeys have got the party started.’
I laugh. He has Pedro’s blokey manner, worn uneasily.
Biel is quiet, venturing the odd question about England, about my journey, about my classes. At one point, he goes and hovers behind a circle of three blonde-haired girls. He opens his mouth, closes it; raises a hand, lowers it; clears his throat like something in him is bursting to get out. Then he’s back with us lot, chomping through a bag of tortilla chips.
Pedro goes to grab more beers. I crane my neck to look for the clubbing princess.
‘So give me some examples, then?’ says Joan, who can’t believe that English people really use words like ‘furthermore’ and ‘nevertheless.’
‘Ohh, err,’ I grimace, trying to think. ‘I dunno. The team was short by one player. Moreover, three of the players had the flu. It’s just if you want to add something.’
‘I never hear that.’
‘People do say it. But maybe they write it more than use it in conversations.’
‘Huh,’ says Joan, probing his scalp with long fingers. ‘For instance, then, you might say, Joan was out for one night, moreover two nights.’
‘Err, yeah,’ I agree, giving up.
Pedro hands out bottles of beer and we wander back out into the sun. It’s sweltering and I gladly clutch my icy beer until my hands go numb.
A few minutes later, Joan checks his phone. He lets out a triumphant hoot, punching the air. It’s his exam results. They’ve been moved into the ‘Excellent’ band. Biel slips away without a word.
‘Hey, Joan,’ says Pedro. ‘I’m pleased and all, but you’ve got to be careful. Biel. You know.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘Biel’s been failing recently,’ Joan shrugs. ‘Too much WoW.’ He means the online multiplayer fantasy game.
Pedro’s mother, Nieves, comes to find him. She frames her cropped hair with triangular amber earrings which, from afar, look almost like tribal extensions of her earlobes. She puts her hands on Pedro and Joan’s shoulders, and says something I can’t make out. Her voice is deep and steady, her movements languid.
‘Biel’s locked himself in the bathroom,’ Pedro translates. ‘He’s upset.’
‘I’m not apologising,’ says Joan. ‘He’s being a child.’
Nieves drops a few clipped sentences like prophecies. Joan scowls into the distance. Then, with a puff of indignation, he heads inside, Pedro on his heels.
Nieves takes my arm and leads me to the barbeque and the table in the shade. It’s covered with food, hues and scents fighting for prominence.
‘This was meant to be a day of barbeques, not exams, so Biel is sad,’ she explains.
She takes a couple of cakes, handing one to me and popping the other in her mouth.
‘No,’ she scolds. ‘Don’t use these polite words. When you stay here, you are like family. We don’t say these polite things.’
‘Sorry.’ I can’t stop myself in time. I screw up my face and Nieves laughs. Then she points to the cake she gave me.
‘Coca de Sant Joan,’ says Nieves. ‘This is a great tradition.’
I take a bite. It’s delicious: bready and aniseedy, melting with cream.
When the guys return, having coaxed Biel out of his self-pitying exile, I enlist their help in finding the clubbing princess. I try to describe her, but words like ‘beautiful’ sound embarrassing between my lips.
‘She’s probably gone to another revelte,’ shrugs Pedro. ‘There are parties like this all over the city.’
‘Or she’s gone to the beach,’ Biel offers.
‘You won’t find her, man,’ says Joan, patting me on the back. ‘Moreover, there’ll be thousands of people down at Barceloneta.’
I don’t give up. As we eat, I keep checking the groups passing in and out of the apartment. Once or twice, a glittery t-shirt slogan is dangled fruitlessly before me.
The evening draws on. Over the terrace walls, the city is spread out like a cinematic battlefield, an unbelievable sight, lighting up with great, cracking eruptions of colour and smoke. Gazing over the roofs and streets, I feel a surge of power and possibilities. The shadows grow longer but the sun persists. On this sprawling day, I have a sense of the world growing, of unexplored territories blossoming with little capillaries of detail.
I take my urges to the others and they shrug, lazily suggesting we head for the sea.
We drink on the way, and they smoke hungrily. The streets are bustling still. People laugh and shout. Kids hunt each other in alleys and round corners. A tall woman dressed like a fairy does a cartwheel for her friends. Every now and then, we stumble upon a blazing bonfire, popping and hissing in a square. I snap pictures on my phone.
‘So much fire,’ I comment.
‘They’re feeding the sun,’ says Pedro.
‘Yeah. Because Sant Joan is the Summer Solstice, the shortest night of the year. It’s the time when the sun reaches its highest point before it starts to sink lower and lower for the rest of the year.’
‘Basically,’ Joan pipes up, ‘the sun was a pagan symbol of wealth and fertility, so at this time of year, people celebrated by building bonfires to feed the sun for the future. You know, in order that it had the strength to make all their dreams come true.’
‘It’s a night of promise,’ Biel says.
‘A night when things are destined to happen.’
‘Like you and your clubbing princess,’ mocks Pedro.
‘Shut up!’ I scoff. ‘Yeah, right. Anyway, I thought Sant Joan was just some Catholic thing?’
‘It’s all Catholic now,’ Pedro says. ‘Doesn’t mean it wasn’t once something else.’
‘John the Baptist,’ Biel explains. ‘The fires symbolise his healing powers, and… It’s a celebration of healing.’
We’re not satisfied by this explanation. The sun beats down on us; its pagan breath is hard to deny.
We find a chiringuito, a beach-front bar at Barceloneta, and buy a bottle of cava. All around, people picnic and dance. Couples kiss in the sand. Teenagers traipse from one end of the beach to the other, weaving through the tents and towels and fires, cutting across the meandering trickles of people heading out to the sea. The carnival noises of people and activity and laughter are drowned out by drums. There are musicians along the seafront, not quite spread out enough to stop their musics bleeding into something thickly textured, something ritualistic and hypnotic.
Biel is brightening, illuminated from within by golden drinks. He leaves his cava, goes to the bar to fill up on long draughts of beer and red cocktails. Pedro and Joan laugh and chant a strange song at him. It’s so poorly synchronised that there could be a whole crowd of them. Nobody bats an eyelid.
‘You normally come here?’ I ask. ‘Every year?’
‘We used to come as kids,’ Pedro tells me. ‘Only we’d probably pack up to go home about now.’
‘It gets kinda crazy, if you know what I mean,’ Joan winks.
‘Yeah, of course, I’m sure. Like a Bacchanal?’ I laugh – to blank faces. ‘The Secret History?’
When Biel returns we head into the crowds. At points, we’re so surrounded by fire that the heat beats on us from all angles. The sand creeps into my sandals. Lost in the masses, the guys still manage to find familiar faces. There’s a whole group from the local university, complete with matching hoodies; two girls from high school who’ve definitely had a thing with Pedro, though he doesn’t admit it; and there are older family friends who watch our pretences of calm sobriety with smiling eyes.
I look for the clubbing princess, but out here only chance encounters feel possible. The moments when you’re surprised to find yourself face to face with someone from the past, someone you’re not expecting. On every side, my vision is fringed by darkness and smoke, and beyond, the people I do see are like inhuman spirits dancing among flames. When they appear between the thick red plumes, it’s as if by magic.
We sit for a while with Joan and Biel’s uni friends. I try to make out what they’re saying, but as hard as I try, the conversation is garbled noise. I drink and watch. Fireworks clatter overhead.
One of the girls hands Joan a huge devil mask, a red rubber glove that swallows your whole head. Biel snatches it off him and yanks it on. Then he turns and looks straight at me. I grin back at him, but when he doesn’t move for a moment too long, I shiver. With his dark, hanging mouth, rows of viperous teeth and sneering, bottomless eyes, I feel like he’s cutting into me, punching some unholy pronouncement into my skull.
I stumble back to the chiringuito and get some water. Then I turn back, start heading for the others.
I’m so disorientated. They were by the fire. But which? Ahead blaze a hundred – more, an uncountable number of flames licking the dark skies and slipping into one another as faces burn past me. I call Pedro but he doesn’t pick up.
I press on into the chaos.
Pedro, Joan and Biel: they’re fixed in my minds. I try in vain to match their faces to the nameless.
I’m lost but I’m smiling. A soft night breeze ruffles my shirt and cools my neck, and I’m reminded of the frozen rituals of Guy Fawkes’ Night back home. I’m a child again, I’m lost, and an older kid—a girl called Jenny—finds me and helps reunite me with my parents.
Pedro, Joan and Biel: I keep searching.
Then a red cocktail, like Biel was drinking.
And unravelling like a journey in the smoke, I find the precious secret of glitter in the dark, words hidden behind dark hands, dark eyes and black ringlets and a bold, red mouth, smiling, smiling.
In an instant, I know—as the fires inside flare up and fill me to the brim—that I can stop searching.