After 9 hours on a bus our heads are numb. Only one stop along the way at a smoke-filled roadside cafeteria where Shelley sat and ate tortilla and white bread while I browsed the shelves to find chocolate crayons and chocolate sardines to send to Julia’s two wonderful daughters back home, and a chocolate cigar for myself while I’m at it.
I close the lid of my laptop as we pull into the Barcelona bus station. We stiffly climb off to collate our travel burden – various bags, guitars, banjo – careful to not to have any set down in the globs of spit that dot the footpath, shoulder them all according to our usual lugging system, and walk across the road to find the café at the central train station where we’ll meet Shelley’s friend Kate who’ll take us to her flat for a blissful sleep.
It’s late, there are not many people about and the taxi drivers are all standing around their cars chatting it up. The café is closing so we head inside the Station itself to find a conspicuous place to wait. That’s when I feel something poking at my shoulder. I turn to see a skinny hollow-cheeked man trying to get my attention and assuming he is pointing out the gaping hole where the arm is slowly peeling off my jacket I ignore him. How dare he criticize my sartorial defects! But then the poking again, a lot harder now. I turn and tell him to Wrack Off! which he promptly does though soon returns determinedly clutching tissues and now Shelley has stopped and says, “you’ve got something on your back… it looks like spit.”
The stranger spins me around and starts wiping at my shoulder and I instantly feel mortified I’d reacted so badly to his urgings, what a Good Samaritan! “Aw, thanks mate,” I tell him, “but seriously, we’ll be fine.” He’s working with the gentle resolve of a movie butler and only stops to point at the ceiling saying, “Pájaros! Pájaros!” and twists my arm to get a better cleaning angle, taking the small backpack out of my hand and placing it somewhere. Again he points to what we guess are imaginary birds, I can almost picture the offending pigeon circling, taking aim over me.
And then the man is gone. I look back and get a glimpse of him on his mobile phone walking back out of the station, eyeing me worriedly, and I idly think, “that’s strange, he was going the other way when I first saw him….” We take stock of our belongings and go to pick them up again and then Shelley is looking left and right and says, “Where’s your little backpack?”
For a highly evolved and complex mass of circuitry the human brain can be plain naïve. We’re programed to trust; we want to believe. Otherwise films wouldn’t exist. Rushing back to the bus station to see if I’ve left my bag there it still isn’t plainly obvious. By the time I get back to Shelley the moments of the past minutes in our own heads have played back slowly and we both know now that we’ve been robbed. “It was that creepy guy!” I growl in disbelief, and as tears start filling Shelley’s eyes the first thing she says to me is, “But your diary…”
Packing for a tour demands fine-tuned strategy. Fellow musician Nick Luca taught me that in rolling up your clothes you fit more in. And these you must choose wisely; at the end of every tour there’s always one superfluous unused item. Most importantly the bulk of the bag space must be reserved for merchandise, heavy boxes of CDs. I realize that in even dealing with CDs in this day and age is like swimming against a strong tide. Years ago it was blissful vindication to feel your bag get lighter as the tour wound on. But each day on this tour I’ve felt every goddamn mocking milligram of un-bought stock pulling at the muscles on my back. I feel like a Sherpa to obsolescence.
And then it’s good to carry a smaller bag for the important things, stuff you want on your lap with you on the buses and trains. A list starts forming in my head of what was in mine: iPod, phone, Saul Bellow novel, vintage camera, undeveloped rolls of film, laptop (with pages and pages of un-backed up stories and lyrics, and hours of song demos), two thousand dollars of varying currencies, and most important of all, my daily diary.
For the past 10 or so years I try to write every single day, just factual, not too much emotion. Most entries start with, “I woke up and made porridge.” It’s become a bit of a superstitious compulsion, if I miss a day it nags on me until I fill in its corresponding page. My feet have been so detached from the ground these past years that I feel these pages are little weights of proof, keeping me from floating away altogether. I always buy the same brand notebook and picture a future bookshelf holding the story of my life in neat yearly chapters, but now with a gap like a missing tooth: 2012.
I notice five security guards with a muzzled dog a few yards away; they might have been there when it happened! The men are idly talking in a circle as I run over and exclaim, “We’ve just been robbed!” One just shrugs and points to some magical place out past the automatic doors and mutters “Policía” while the others scuff their shoes and just look at the ground. The dog goes to chew a flea out of its crotch forgetting it can’t.
I feel a sickness and panic rising in my stomach. I walk back and look at my huge backpack lying there lumpen like a guilty survivor. Why couldn’t that one be gone instead? A sack of dirty laundry surrounding those damned useless CDs. Flat round shiny symbols of bad business; fossils of a bygone era. Okay you little lingerers, if there is one thing I know it is that I shan’t be carrying you no more. A foreign energy courses through me like black lightning. I unzip my bag, take out a couple of handfuls of clattering jewel cases, lift them above my head and bring them down on the hard tiles of the station floor.
Objects mean nothing. Money is an abstract concept. Words can be useful if placed in the right order but I know I mostly put too high a value on them. In hindsight I could’ve used words more effectively by hugging Shelley and telling her that it’s ok, we’re ok, we weren’t hurt or anything.
She just slumps to the floor in sad defeat and lets me do the maniacal panicking. I am full of electricity and need to discharge. The next hours are a blur: a mad scrambling through bins in the pouring rain, under cars, picturing the ink running off the pages into the teaming gutters, listen to a guy at the bus station saying it happens 5 times a night and I’ll never get it back, yelling abuse at some young drunks on the stairs, looking for a fight, everyone a suspect, turning in circles, doubling back.
In the early hours at the Police station another older American couple are in line shaking in shock, they’ve lost everything the same way, even passports. The man explains that the thieves work in pairs, one sprays something on you to soil your clothes and then the other moves in. It’s a very old trick, it’s sleight of hand, its emotional manipulation, these guys are magicians.
In a partitioned office Kate translates as the young policewoman takes my statement. I try to read Kate’s expression and pick out what she is saying back, looking for signs of hope, recognizing the word ‘lobo’ (wolf) from reading Cormac McCarthy books. The policewoman keeps raising her eyebrows as Kate lists more and more items that were in my bag. A big haul. As we all three stand to leave she speaks something straight at me this time, in Catalan, with what looks like genuine compassion, shaking her head.
Kate explains, “She wants me to tell you she’s very sorry.”
The anger and hurt lasts for days. Both Shelley and I have re-occurring nightmares of the thief’s sinister stubbly face mocking us in our sleep. We pointlessly go over different scenarios where just one tiny action might’ve changed everything. I strain to remember song demos that I’d saved on three different devices that were all in the bag. In the day, pushing through the surging tide of La Ramblas to get to the Apple store to try to get codes to track my laptop I’m on full alert, just daring some thief to try it again. I witness a group of brazen youths, a girl pretending to faint in the street while her friends attempt to fleece the pockets of tourists rushing to help. But they’re too slow and ham-fisted and are sprung and all run off through the crowd shrieking.
Back at the flat we’re both so down in the dumps we even contemplate cancelling the show, there’s no way this tour will even come close to recouping now, we’d be better off just having a holiday. But Kate is a great morale booster and after a few days of her soothing optimism and enthusiastic tour-guiding we’re happy we didn’t. It’s a packed house and warm listening audience.
Shelley and I sing together with a kind of renewed vigor and tenderness, and the bartender brings us shots of a local aperitif during our set and there’s many more after. We’re high on the righteousness of victims. Strangers who’ve heard of our plight regale us with their own stories of theft. The country is going through hard times and everyone has been touched by it. Without even me describing the perpetrator most say that he was probably Moroccan, and even if caught would be back on the street in a day or so. Others say station security turn a blind eye in return for kickbacks. It all seems to be a well-oiled micro economy that’s been thriving for a long time.
Oh well, let’s just drink. To see us tonight you’d be forgiven for thinking we had not a care in the world. Shelley tells me later one of the staff looked over at me carousing with someone and asked, “So he is the guy who lost everything?” and when she nodded he said, “But he is happy go lucky!?” Surprisingly I even sell about five of the ten CDs I didn’t smash.
While the night lights of the outside world stream past I watch a downloaded episode of ‘Q and A,’ my little weekly connection to the current affairs of home. On the panel tonight, shy and taciturn Aboriginal folk singer Archie Roach is sitting with the patience and quiet wisdom of a mountain. And if he’s a mountain then Eric Abetz is a yapping mountain goat clinging to the side. Towards the end Archie is asked what he thinks about Jamie Packer wanting to build a mega casino in Sydney and for the first time all evening he opens his eyes wide in bewilderment and says after a pause, “Ah…I don’t really think about him much at all…”
I laugh along with the studio audience and glance over at Shelley obliviously listening to my iPod and swaying her head along to something.
Back on the screen Archie is moving over to a small stage to sing a song to close the show. After a false start where he searches for the key signature he eases into a soulful folk song, its lyrics timelessly simple and direct. It could be about God but I’m guessing it’s he and his life partner Ruby Hunter singing to each other. She passed away a couple of years back and I’ve heard Archie is struggling.
I’m here beside you
And don’t you forget it
I’m with you walking down this road
Give up what’s inside you
You won’t regret it
Together we can lighten this load
I picture them both as kids, dealing with the madness of the streets and the demons of their past lives through laughter and song.
You did the same for me
When I was in trouble
I wanted to disappear out of sight
But you wouldn’t let me
You were so stubborn
You brought me out of that dark night
Even without the emotion of the words his breathy mournful vibrato gets the tears welling. How does it happen? At risky coin-toss odds two far-flung souls meet and love and walk together, guiding each other through their lives. It can be as simple as that.
Now Shelley is rolling up the headphones, she stretches like a waking cat and points out the window smiling. She’s excited to see her friend soon. The bus engine roars as it drops down a gear. We’re here. I snap shut the laptop lid and we pull into the Barcelona bus station.