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28/01/2014

An Extract from ‘Barcelona’

Philip Langeskov

For their tenth wedding anniversary Daniel had arranged for them to spend a weekend in Barcelona, hoping to surprise Isla both with the fact that he had remembered at all and with a reminder of their honeymoon, which had also been spent in Barcelona. The idea struck him a few weeks before the actual date and it immediately felt like an important thing to do. In order to arrange accommodation at such short notice – it was the weekend of a crucial Barça v Real derby game and the hotels were full – it had been necessary to contact an old friend of Isla’s, Josep, who lived in the city, and who Daniel had met once or twice in London, and who had, on those one or two occasions, said that if they ever wanted to visit they should let him know and they could stay in his apartment, which was near the centre, while he would vacate and stay with friends for the duration of their trip. Daniel would rather not have done this – Josep and Isla had had a fling once, years ago, when they were students, long before he and Isla had met – but he could think of no alternative if the trip was to come off as he had imagined it.

Planning everything out in his head brought Daniel a great deal of satisfaction. He could not wait to see Isla’s reaction, both to the whole event and to the little things he had lined up for when they were there: small things mostly, like coming upon a certain view at a certain time of day, or appearing to end up by accident at a bar they had got drunk in on their last visit. It would be such a surprise for her, all of it. And such a boost for them, as a couple. They hadn’t done anything like this for years. Of course, Daniel swore Josep to secrecy and had no reason to suspect anything until, when he told Isla, one evening after work, the two of them drinking in the kitchen, that he had booked a trip for the coming weekend, the weekend of their wedding anniversary, she reacted not with shock or delight, but with calm assurance.

‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean I can’t. I have something on. I’m sorry. You should have said.’

‘What do you have on? There’s nothing on the calendar.’ As he said this, Daniel gestured to the back of the kitchen door. He was sure he had checked, sure he had looked closely; he remembered doing it, as if it were yesterday.

‘Yes there is,’ she said. ‘Look.’

Sure enough, when he looked again, there was something – the scrawl of Isla’s tiny handwriting – in one of the little boxes. He had to peer closely to make out the words: Conference (Warwick).

‘When did you put this in?’ he said.

‘Weeks ago,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I mentioned it.’

‘Weeks ago? But I checked.’

‘You can’t have done, honey,’ she said.

Daniel didn’t quite know what to make of it, this apparent blindness on his part, and could only blurt out: ‘But it’s our wedding anniversary.’

‘I know. I know. And it’s important.’ Isla spoke slowly, in what Daniel recognised as her serious voice. She really wanted him to know that this was as important to her as it was to him. She ran her hand along his sleeve. ‘Love,’ she said.

He didn’t respond.

‘Love,’ she said again, looking directly into his eyes. ‘We could do something another time, couldn’t we?’

Daniel was conscious that he was on the verge of sulking. It was a struggle to decide whether it could be justified or not, whether a case could be made. The importance of the weekend, the value that he had attached to it in his mind, swirled around him. From his perspective, he knew, its significance had become outlandishly inflated. It was, after all, only a couple of days, but to Daniel those days had come to seem possessed of a precipitous, life-altering power. And all that thinking he had done, all that imagining: places to go, restaurants, moments to remember. It was, now he came to think of it, a reaffirmation of his commitment to Isla and he wanted it to be recognised as such. He hadn’t even considered that it might go wrong, or, if he had, he had done so in a minor key: a bad meal in a supposedly good restaurant, being ripped off by a taxi driver, losing something. In the end, he decided not to speak. He just folded his arms and looked at his feet.

‘Love,’ Isla said again. She had moved round to stand in front of him. ‘We can talk about it later, but I have to get ready. I’m meeting Grace, remember?’

This might be the limit, he thought, not for the fact, but for the timing, the moment when sulking becomes inevitable. ‘Where are you going?’

‘Just for a drink.’

‘But.’ He was about to gesture once more towards the calendar, then realised that it would be ridiculous. He knew everything about this drink with Grace. Isla had told him, had invited him, even implored him to come. ‘We’ll talk about it later?’ He hadn’t intended to make it sound like a question, but that’s how it came out.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, taking her glass upstairs. ‘We will talk about it later. Promise.’

After Isla had gone out, Daniel spent the evening mooching round the flat. He couldn’t settle on a single spot. He lay on the couch, on the bed, he sprawled in the armchair in the study. As he did so, he mused over everything that had transpired. Josep must have told her, he thought. The dirty bastard. He had half a mind to ring him up and ask him, but decided against it. What did it matter, really? Josep was Isla’s friend, not his; there should be no surprise as to where his loyalty might lie. At the kitchen table, on his laptop, Daniel looked into the possibility of changing flights. There was a fee, but it could, as far as he understood the website, be accomplished. Fine, he thought. They could simply go another time. It wasn’t a big deal, nothing to get upset about. He opened a bottle of beer and congratulated himself on his equanimity. In fact, the more he thought about it the more he became convinced that another weekend would be better. They could stay in a proper hotel, for one thing.

When Isla returned, however, she was in a different mood. Daniel was already in bed, reading. When he heard the door go, he pretended to be asleep. He listened to the sound of Isla dropping her bag in the hall, easing off her shoes. When she entered the bedroom, she sat alongside him and began to stroke his hair. He could smell the wine on her breath.

‘You’re awake aren’t you?’ she said.

Daniel smiled, but kept his eyes closed.

‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ she said. ‘It was just a surprise. I didn’t react very well.’

‘It’s all right,’ he said, opening his eyes. ‘I should have asked. We can change the dates. I’ve looked into it.’

‘No. You were right. We should go at the weekend. It’s our wedding anniversary.’ She smiled.

‘Are you sure?’ Daniel wondered what role Grace might have played in getting Isla to change her mind, what level of sacrifice this whole new mood implied. ‘I mean, we could go another time. I really don’t mind.’

‘I’m quite sure,’ she said.

‘What about Warwick, the conference?’

‘Balls to Warwick. You’re my husband. It’s not as if I’m giving a paper or anything.’ Then she added, as what seemed an afterthought, but which could just as well have been a theatrical diversion to conceal the fact that she already knew the answer to her question: ‘Where are we going?’

‘Don’t you know?’ he said. ‘I thought you knew.’

‘What do you mean? Of course I don’t know. How would I know?’

‘Just wondered if a little bird had told you.’

‘No. No little bird. Where are we going?’

‘You’ll see.’

‘This is intriguing. Which little bird? Do you mean Grace? Does Grace know?’

Suddenly Daniel felt much better, as if a weight had been lifted. Perhaps Josep was reliable after all.

 

On the Friday, as they were leaving the apartment for the airport, Daniel grabbed, at the very last moment, on a whim, the copy of Graham Greene’s collected stories from the table in the hall. A colleague, Steve, had leant it to him months ago, after Daniel and Isla had watched The Third Man and liked it. Daniel hadn’t got round to looking at it and thought that maybe the flight would be an opportunity. Then he could give the book back to Steve, lifting another weight from his conscience.

Isla was in a chirpy mood as the taxi weaved through the streets around Paddington Station. She kept looking at Daniel, touching his arm, and asking: ‘Where are we going?’ To which he replied with a smile and by raising a finger to his lips: ‘It’s a secret.’ Of course, at the airport, he would have to reveal their destination, but he maintained the suspense for as long as he could, watching her as she tried to work it out, the expression on her face changing. When it finally dawned on her, as they neared the departure gate, she broke into a grin.

‘Barcelona!’ she said.

 

 

***

‘Barcelona’ is published in a special limited edition by Daunt Books.

 

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  • Nic Bouskill says:

    You must buy, must read this story. 1. The book is a gorgeous physical object. 2. It comes beautifully wrapped by Daunt. 3. The writing is great. 4. I want to discuss theories about what is going on with other people who have read it…