Wednesday, February 26, 2014

El hombre de la lluvia

The first time I heard the name el hombre de la lluvia was on a bright February morning.

I was sitting on a bench alongside Barcelona harbour, drinking water from a bottle and watching the way the sunlight reflected off the water; I was talking to a girl I’d only just met and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. Looking back, it seems a very different time in my life; a time when I felt that I was a good judge of character, a time when I didn’t find myself endlessly looking over my shoulder, a time when life made at least a cruel kind of sense.

                “El hombre de la lluvia” she had said, pronouncing it slowly so that I could grasp the nuances of the language and smiling as she did so. “My abuela, my grandmother, she used to scare me with the story of him when I was little to make me go to sleep. Go to sleep Reina, she would say, go to sleep before el hombre de la lluvia comes out to play.”

                “El hombre de la lluvia,” I echoed back to her, “The man of the rain.”

                “In English, I think the Rainy Man sounds better.” she said.

                “And he steals children?”

                “Not just children. He steals the lost.”

                “But only when it rains.”

                “Yes,” she smiled again and I found myself unable to resist smiling in return. The wind whipped her black hair and I held her gaze for long seconds, realising that there was just some instant connection between us.

                A seagull had initiated our conversation, it had come wheeling in off the sea and scooped up half my sandwich, which I’d briefly put down on the bench beside me while I had opened my bottle of water. As the seagull had lifted off with my lunch in its beak, I had sworn rather rudely and the girl, who had been sitting at the other end of the long bench, had laughed at me as I shook my fist and threatened it – and its immediate family – with all manners of revenge.

                Conversation came easily after that; she told me that her name was Reina and that she had lived here for her whole life; I told her about the lecture I had done the day before in Girona and how, afterwards, I had been given a delightful tour of the city by some of the University staff who had talked about some of Girona’s legends. They’d told me about Tarla, who had supposedly brought cheer to the sick in times of plague, and about the witch of the cathedral; and they had shown me the statue of the lioness – whose bottom one is supposed to kiss for good fortune – but I’d passed on the opportunity.

                And that, of course, had led to a discussion on the legends of Barcelona. I’d done my homework on Barcelona the night before, so I already knew the story about the Alchemist (and the house that remained empty for centuries), and about the legend of Saint Eulalia (who, we’re led to believe, was tortured by the Romans for defending Christians) and so I challenged Reina to tell me a legend of the city that I wouldn’t know.

                She had stared out to sea for a few seconds and then turned back to me with the hint of a smile.

                “El hombre de la lluvia.” she had said.

                “I’ve never heard of him.”

                “Be glad. Be glad and hope he hasn’t heard of you.”

                “Say the name again,” I’d asked, and so she’d repeated it and then told me how her grandmother had used the Rainy Man as a threat before bed time. It was a new story to me, not one of the legends listed on any of the web pages I’d browsed the night before in my hotel room, and there was something about the sound of the name that appealed to me.

                “Not many people know his name,” she said, as the seagulls cartwheeled in the blue sky above us, “Most people who meet him never get a chance to talk about it again.”

                But then the conversation had moved on and we instead got to talking about music and literature, finding a common ground in Hendrix and Stephen King respectively and arguing Purple Haze against Hey Joe, It against The Shining. And as the sun had slowly arced across the sky above us, she told me about the degree in fine art she’d earned and yet never found a use for, and I told her how I’d eventually stumbled into the world of education. It was one of those conversations where everything comes so easily and it’s obvious that you are both on exactly the same wavelength.  And it had been a long time since I’d felt that, indeed I’d have probably told you beforehand that I wasn’t in the right place in my life to be capable of that kind of instant connection. But there it was.

By the time we had paused for breath it was already late afternoon and so when Reina offered to show me to her favourite tapas place where we could enjoy a few glasses of vermut I didn’t take an awful lot of persuading. It had been a long time since I’d enjoyed someone’s company like this.

We ended up somewhere in the heart of the Gothic quarter - exactly where, I have no idea; I don’t remember the name of the place and she threaded us through such a maze of tiny cobbled streets and archways, into small alleys illuminated by slabs of dimming sunlight and flanked by high stone walls and shuttered windows, that I would never be able to find it again even if I wanted to. I sometimes play that scene through my head and wonder how life would have gone if I had turned her down, if I had gone on my way. But of course, there are no replays in life. We make our choices and we live with them.

The food was great but the vermut wasn’t really for me and so I switched to beer instead; but not many. The longer this story goes on, the more you’re probably going to question that part, but you have to believe me when I tell you that the closest I got to drunk was a pleasant underlying buzz, that smoothing of the thought processes that enables you to better tap into your intuition. We talked more over a plate of pinxtos and she asked me if I was single and I guess I must have hesitated for a second too long before answering, or there was something in my eyes that betrayed me.

“What is it?” she asked, “You have a girlfriend?”

My gaze instinctively slid away from her and to the window, where the sun had edged behind thick clouds and the day was darkening noticeably. But I wasn’t paying attention to the view; I was gazing off in the middle distance, lost in thoughts and memories.

“No,” I said finally, my voice sounding like someone else’s. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Are you ok?” she asked, leaning forward and reaching out to touch me on the arm. Her fingers were soft, her touch delicate.

“Yeah,” I said, lying through my teeth. “It’s nothing.”

“Look, forget I even asked,” she said, “It’s really none of my business.”

“No,” I said, hesitantly and felt my chest tighten. “There was someone.”

“But you’re no longer together?”

“She,” I started and looked away again, blowing out my breath as I felt tears gathering unbidden at the corners of my eyes. When I continued, my voice was shaking a little in a way it hadn’t done for months. “She died last summer.”

The sentence hung in the air for a few seconds. It was only in moments like this that it felt tangible; the rest of the time I had dulled myself against it, kept my grief locked away in a little box deep in my head.

“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I’m really sorry.”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry for spoiling the mood; it’s just not something I ever talk about.”

“I understand how that feels,” she said, a compassion shining in her eyes. “I’ve lost people as well.”

I had lost Ellie; I lost her one weekend and I never got her back. All it took was a weekend away with friends in Amsterdam for a hen’s night, a collision with a bike - a bicycle, for fuck’s sake – and an awkward fall. And then a call in the middle of the night and my world fell apart. I wanted to be angry at someone. For a time I was angry at the guy on the bike, even though I know it was Ellie who was drunk and looking the wrong way. Then I was angry at Ellie for not being more careful. And finally I became angry at myself for not being there and, even though that made no sense, that kind of inner guilt – varnished over and dulled with time – was what I lived with, even as I pretended to get on with my life nearly a year later.

A solitary tear slipped from my eye and began to trickle a hot path down my cheek and I wiped it away angrily with the back of my hand, annoyed with my body for betraying me like that.

“We can get out of here,” she said, “Just go take a walk.”

I nodded in silence, fighting hard against the surge of suddenly raw emotion that was pulsing inside of me, and she waved the waiter over and got him to bring the bill. I fished money out of my pocket, left it on the table and slid through the crowd until I stood outside. The sky had grown thick with roiling black clouds and I felt the splash of a raindrop on the tip of my nose.

Reina followed and took my arm. “Let’s walk,” she said. And so we did.

We walked in silence for a few minutes, me trying my best to lock away all the feelings that I’d managed to keep so successfully under lock and key in these last six months and her just watching me and leading me through a series of left and right turns until we ended up in a small enclosed square with a well.

She turned to face me and took both of my hands in hers.

“I felt your pain,” she said, looking into my eyes. “Even as we sat by the harbour, I could sense the pain that lay hidden under the surface.”

I said nothing, just fought to hold onto control.

“You miss her, and that’s so natural.”

Another tear rolled its way down my cheek but she held my hands tight and so I felt it trace a slow arc. I felt more rain splash against my face, fat drops as the rain began to get heavier around us.

“I’m sure Ellie misses you, too.”

I started, snatching my hands away from her. “What did you say?”

“I said that I’m sure she misses you, too.”

“No,” I protested, loudly. “You said you’re sure Ellie misses me. How do you know her name?”

“It has been hard, hasn’t it?” she asked, ignoring my question. “You’ve felt like she was the one thing that you could depend on, that she was the anchor holding you in place and that without her there’s nothing to give you traction.”

It was like she was pulling thoughts from my head and giving them voice and that was the first moment that I was overcome with the sensation that something was very wrong here. It was like something fell from my eyes, like some glamour was lifted from me, and for a second a glimpsed something cold and dark in Reina’s eyes.

“I’ve got to go,” I said, and took a step back from her.

“Go?” she said, and stretched her arms out wide with her palms upturned. “Just as it’s starting to rain?”

I took another step back from her, my stomach lurching and shifting like I’d just stepped off a violent roller coaster.

“I saw your pain,” she said. “I saw how lost you are. Wouldn’t you like all that to just go away? He can make it all go away.”

And even as she said it, I could feel a presence behind me. I remember the moment distinctly; the hairs on my forearms were standing up and I swear I could see the vapour of my breath in the air. And then I was turning and looking at the figure standing no more than ten feet from me.

He wore a long coat, stained with mud, and hob nailed boots. A wide brimmed hat cast a shadow across his face but his eyes shone like shards of jade and, when he smiled, his mouth seemed impossibly wide, impossibly wide and filled with tiny, white sharp teeth. Trust me, I know how crazy this sounds but I swear to you that he was there. And he reached out to me and it was as if his arms warped and stretched to close the distance, strong hands closing around my arms and dirty nails digging tightly into my skin. And the touch burned cold and he smiled this wicked smile and, at the same time, I didn’t feel afraid. Everything seemed right in that moment, even as his black tongue forked between his teeth and he moved closer to me, even as his hands squeezed my arms tight and held me in a grip like iron. The rain coming down around us in thick sheets now.

“You will be free,” said Reina from behind me and it seemed such a good idea.  I wanted to be free in that moment; there was no fear, just this terrible calmness as he came closer and closer. Even as I smelt the stench of carrion on his breath, there was a calmness and acceptance of my fate. I would be free.

And then the voice of Ellie exploded in my head like a siren. “Fight it!”

It was as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me. Alertness suddenly returned and, even as the world tilted madly and the thing shaped like a man lunged towards me, I somehow found the strength to break free from his grasp. Reina reached out to stop me but, fuelled on adrenaline, I swatted her aside effortlessly and charged out of the square through an archway. My feet hammering the cobbles, sending a spray of water with every step as I charged forwards blindly.

I remember very little of what happened next. I ran madly through the streets and alleys until my lungs burned and my heart felt close to bursting; I fell at least twice and tore my jeans and bloodied my knuckles, but I always got up and I never stopped running. I only stopped when I tumbled out from an alley into an actual road with traffic and then I just flung myself across the bonnet of a passing car and clung to it even as the driver started cursing at me.

The police came fairly soon and I tried to tell them what happened but they didn’t listen or didn’t understand and they just assumed that I had been mugged. They put me in the back of their car, took me to the station and tried to make me write a report and, after a few hours, even I began to think it all sounded crazy. The mind is like that, I guess. It tries to file away the rough edges, make sure we don’t have to live with those kinds of things in our head. And a day later, I was on a plane back to London and the details were all fading away like a bad dream.

                That was three months ago and I told everyone that someone tried to mug me and I fought them off. That’s the revised history now. People seem to fall into two camps, they either tell me that I was a hero or they tell me how stupid I am – what if he’d had a knife or a gun? And I’ve told the story enough times that I even started to believe it myself. The other stuff, the weird stuff, I figured that was probably just something my mind cooked up in the heat of the moment. I was upset, I rationalised; that girl managed to get me to open up to her so I was vulnerable. And maybe, I theorised, maybe she’d even slipped something in my drink to make me more emotional; some kind of drug. It all made sense.

                At least, it all made sense until two weeks ago when I was walking home from University on the evening as it started to drizzle and I saw him again near Tufnell Park Road; standing beneath a bus shelter, waiting for me. I quickly turned and walked away in the opposite direction and I tried to pretend that I’d imagined it, that it was just my mind playing tricks on me. And that worked until three days later. It was raining again and this time he was standing in the park at the end of my road when I got off the bus. There was a teenager getting off the bus at the same time as me and I pointed and asked him if he knew the guy in the park. The teenager looked at me like I was mad “What guy?” he said and then walked off, plugging his headphones in as he went. But I could see the Rainy Man as he stood in the light rain and slowly tipped his hat to me.

                I saw him again yesterday. He was standing at the end of my driveway as a thin rain fell around him.  I had come to the window to shut the curtains for the night and there he was, green eyes shining as he smiled that wicked smile at me. I shut the curtains instinctively and counted to ten and, sure enough, he was gone when I opened them. But I know he’ll be back. It’s just a matter of time.

                The weather forecast says there’s going to be heavy rain tomorrow and so I’ve decided I’m going to wait for him. I’m not going to run anymore, I’m going to face him again. Maybe Ellie can help me, and maybe she can’t. Maybe I am too lost. I’m leaving this on my kitchen table now so, if you’re reading it, then I’m guessing I am…     


Anonymous said...

Another great story. I just want to say that you're one of my favorite authors, and thank you for sharing stuff like this with us.

Oliver Davies said...

Thank you a lot anonymous poster. You just made my afternoon... :-)