We move about the Rooftops

I must have been asleep when I heard the sound. A steady, persistent scratching, as though a stone were being rubbed softly on glass, followed by a prolonged hissing. I sat up at once, though at first I could not be sure how long the scratching had been inside my head, or if indeed the sound corresponded to something in the outer world, beyond the bedroom walls. Then the hissing sound was replaced by a muffled clunk, as though something heavy and metallic were being moved carefully on the tiles of my terrace.

I reached down for shorts and slid off the bed without a sound. Behind me, Nuria turned in her sleep, then settled. I crouched so as not to be seen through the window. There was a half-moon hanging low in the sky, and the street lamps cast a vague light upwards. I decided against losing time searching for a weapon. The sight of one might cause the intruder or intruders to react in kind. I couldn’t remember whether I had locked the door leading to the veranda. Probably not. I rarely bothered unless I was going out. On all fours I edged around the corner of the bedroom into the studio and reached for the door handle. I pulled myself up and pushed the door open in one movement, jumping onto the veranda with a low guttural shout that was intended to convey extreme menace.

No one there. Not a shadow.

Only a sharp metallic smell that I could not at first identify.

I paced quickly along the tiles, then stepped on the low parapet overhanging the alleyway four floors below, and heaved myself onto the upper terrace, which slanted back behind my bedroom. This large terrace connected with the main communal rooftop patio where Manu kept his rabbits. I padded down the four steps connecting the terraces and circled the shed. The lock had been forced and the door was swinging open. I looked inside, but it was too dark to see anything. I fished in my pockets for a lighter. The flame cast a yellow, flickering light on the rabbits’ upturned faces, their noses twitching, frightened. The fact that they were all awake indicated some recent commotion. One of the cages had been broken into and the stick which Manu used to wedge it shut lay snapped in two on the concrete floor. Stepping out of the shed again, I sensed that I was being watched. I was in half a mind to return to bed, but I wanted to find out where the thieves had gone, and, if possible, some clue as to where they had come from. Of course, they could have walked past the open door to the inner staircase and gone down to the street that way. But those stairs echoed, especially at night, and the door that led onto the street creaked loudly. I had heard nothing.

Staying close to the parapet, I crossed to the far side of the patio. There was a drop of a few feet to the roof of the adjacent building, where a flat area surrounded a central raised plinth of tiles, a jumble of chimney stacks and television aerials. Between the brickwork and the tiles I caught a movement, the flapping of cloth.

The wind from seaward reminded me that I hadn’t brought a shirt. My skin was goosepimpled and I was shaking. I jumped quietly down onto the neighbouring flat roof, catching my breath on landing, then walked straight towards the chimney stack, and almost tripped over one of them: a slight adult, or a tall child, swathed in black cloth like a Ninja warrior. The face was mostly obscured, eyes staring through a slit in the black headscarf. We stared at each other, he (as I imagined) with nervous concern, I with a charged curiosity. The Ninja was sitting on the floor with his back to the brickwork of the chimney. Then I noticed two others, squatting in the deeper shadows. Nobody spoke. There were two dark sacks on the floor between them. One sack appeared to contain something conical or triangular in shape. The other sack wriggled. I had a strong sense of the absurd, standing half-naked among these three cloaked figures, with their bags of booty. I dug a pack of Camels out of my shorts.

‘Smoke?’ I offered, in Spanish, taking one myself, and lighting up. I took a deep draw, feeling oddly relaxed now, and in control. I was no longer shaking. One of the raiders stepped forward and took two cigarettes, without a word. He had on a long coarse smock, wore his head in dreadlocks, tied back with a piece of string. He was muscular, alert. I saw the tattoo of a bird in flight on his neck, and black curved lines were patterned on his forehead and cheeks, in the manner of a Maori warrior. He had sharp, inquisitive eyes. His companion stepped forward, and took one of the cigarettes from him. She wore a roomy knee-length black dress covered with a sweatshirt of indeterminate colour, hanging loose at the shoulders. She had cropped hair, multiple piercings, an upturned nose and smouldering distrustful eyes that were thickly outlined with black Kohl. As we stood there, she began moving her body in rhythmic spasms, as though powered by a personal generator: jumping on the spot, stretching, and swinging her arms, before standing still again and lighting her cigarette from her companion's.

At this point the wriggling bag let out a series of rapid squeaks, crescendo. The Ninja slid a hand inside his gown and produced a short, strong stick. Reaching over, he loosened the string around the neck of the moving sack. A pair of ears poked through, and in a flash he had the rabbit out of the sack, grabbed it by the hind legs and, holding it vertical, delivered two sharp blows to the back of the neck. The rabbit’s head slumped. Meanwhile, the Ninja’s headscarf had come loose, revealing him to be a boy of twelve or thirteen. He rolled back the neck of the sack and placed the limp body alongside another dead rabbit.

‘Died of fright, that one,’ explained Ninja boy, to no one in particular, stroking the rabbit’s fur.

I watched this, thinking of Manu, and the warning from the city council of his rabbits’ imminent confiscation. Better, I thought, that they be eaten by this hungry-looking troupe, whoever they were, than removed by the loathed functionaries.

I sat down. They sat down.

I told them I lived in the top flat behind us, and had heard them on the roof. They looked at the floor and nodded. They knew, they said. They knew where I lived, where everyone lived, all over this part of the city. I took this as hyperbole, bravado, but let it go. I asked them if they lived nearby. The muscular young man simply gestured around, palms up, indicating a circle in the air. They lived hereabouts. I probed, gently. They were, he said, part of a larger group, scattered across the Gothic quarter, who lived on the roofs, in disused ventilation systems, in wooden and cardboard constructs on the tops of buildings. They moved about. They were Spaniards, Basques and Catalans; Algerians, Moroccans, Germans, French, Italians, a few British and Irish, a smattering of Latinos. Ric, the athlete, was a Catalan, and did most of the talking. The girl was Irish-Galician, Ninja boy was Moroccan. They spoke a Spanish argot with occasional English phrases and words interposed, terms from the youth cultures of the past half-century mixed in at random and resulting in a bizarre form of poetry. They moved across buildings in the dead of night. They flew, interjected the girl, without smiling. Yes, they flew, agreed Ninja boy, looking up at me.

Ric held the heavy-looking bag aloft.

‘Know what this is?’

I confessed I didn’t have a clue.

‘The stuff of flight.’

He pulled a bulbous grappling hook out of the sack, displayed its sharp claws, then upturned the sack and a length of strong nylon rope tumbled out, falling loosely onto the ground like a coiled hose. A couple of cans of spray paint clanked out also. Ric scooped these up and dropped them back in the sack.

In this way, he explained, they launched themselves from the parapets across the narrow defiles of the barrio, flying and tumbling through the night like a troupe of renegade athlete-monks. Occasionally, of course, they needed to descend to ground level. For stealing vital provisions, for selling looted merchandise, for ‘shopping’ (buying drugs, mainly hash, but also amphetamines, LSD and Ecstasy). Sometimes simply to cross a wider highway such as Laietana. On these occasions they would shimmy down the ropes on poorly-lit or abandoned buildings, move in single file, with wide gaps between them, cross the deserted road at a run, before ascending the nearest appropriate building. No ropes were used for ascent, except for novices or those carrying a heavy load. There was a single criterion for becoming a roof person: the ability to scale, on demand, any building in the city without a rope. The grappling hooks were used only for crossing alleys. They were thrown with such delicacy and grace that they made little or no sound, Ric told me.

‘We are artists. Los artistas de la noche. Artists of the night.’

I asked Ric why he was telling me all this.

‘We know who you are. We’ve been told to answer your questions, to be helpful. And polite.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Sorry. Can’t tell that.’

‘Were you sent to visit me?’

‘Not exactly. But if you were awake and followed us we were told not to avoid you.’

‘Why were you sent?’

‘You’ll see.’

‘Were you told to give that answer also?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you visited my flat before?’

Ric hesitated.

‘ Don’t tell him any more,’ said the girl urgently, in English. ‘It’s not the time or place. Not yet.’

Not the time or place. The girl spoke with a soft Irish accent, Galway, Clare. Ric hissed at her, ‘Let me answer the questions, Fionnula. It’s my job.’

The girl called Fionnula shrugged, traced patterns on the floor with her foot.

‘Well, have you?’ I persisted.

‘We’ve been this way before,’ answered Ric.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ added Fionnula quietly, with a subversive glance at Ric.

‘Did you deliver a postcard to my home?’

Fionnula interrupted again, with a caustic laugh. ‘We’re not after posting mail,’ she said. ‘We leave that to the postman. Why, have you been receiving dirty postcards, unsigned love letters, missives from the Jehovah’s witnesses?’ She used the Spanish term, Testigos de Jehová. She bounced up and down as she spoke, like some demonic toy with a faulty spring.

‘Just an invite to an art gallery: a picture postcard,’ I replied.

‘Oh no, we don’t do art galleries,’ she said, with finality.

Since the talk had switched to English, Ric backed off, watching the two of us in turn. I suspected, from the intimate way the two of them moved in relation to one another, that they were lovers. Uncertain whether or not to believe the girl about the postcard, and bewildered by her allusion to a more appropriate time and place, I wondered whether I would get anywhere with direct questioning. She was operating according to a distinct set of rules. Or no rules at all. I was tired and sensed they’d told me as much as they were prepared to tell.

‘And the rabbits?’ I asked.

‘Oh the rabbits were incidental. We have to eat.’ Ric smiled for the first time, showing off nice gold canines.

‘Spoils of conquest,’ sniggered Fionnula.

The Roof People. From my talk with Ixía earlier in the day, I had imagined a larger group, extras from a Pasolini movie, clustered round a fire on the top of some derelict property in the old city, turning rabbits on a spit. I had them wearing hats with earflaps and leather jerkins, blackened stumps of teeth or toothless gums, syphilitic noses, cauliflower ears, flattened foreheads, a self-parodying assembly of insane lepers. Nothing that would have prepared me for this rather beautiful trio.

‘Why don’t the cops stop you?’ I asked. ‘You must get hassle from them. Helicopters, roof patrols, stuff like that?’

‘If there’s a break-in we sometimes draw the heat,’ replied Ric, whose English had evidently been acquired in North America. ‘But we aren’t that easy to track down. We move around a lot. And we don’t make any noise, as a rule.’

‘You woke me up.’

‘We meant to. I scratched on your terrace with a stone,’ said Fionnula.

Ric scowled at her.

‘Why?’

‘We wanted to lure you out. The thrill of the chase and all that.’ She shrugged.

‘You didn’t hide very well.’

‘We didn’t try to.’ Fionnula pretended to stifle a yawn. Like a speedfreak ballerina, she was all movement, jogging on the spot, miming kung-fu kicks in the air, and shrugging with every utterance she made. Her defining gesture was the vigorous shrug. The way her sweatshirt hung off her shoulders revealed the straps of her black dress, as if it had been shrugged out of place.

By contrast, Ric seemed cool, detached and serious. He had the air of a commando leader who has led his detachment on a successful night raid. He spoke slowly, in a measured way, avoided smiling. But he was likeable, and had definite style.

Ninja boy kept quiet, and remained seated. He looked like some kind of a mascot, but the way he played with a long-handled knife, spinning and catching it with an easy dexterity, suggested otherwise.

Then again, they were just kids, playing at being outlaws. They inhabited a world in which they were, by their very choice of habitat, looking down on things. The way that Fionnula and Ninja insisted that they ‘flew’. A community of Peter Pans, in which the subversion of gravity was the starting point, alongside a rejection of everything to do with the earthbound workaday world. Ironic, I mused, that they based themselves in the old town (medieval, so where else?) centred on those two bastions of provincial power: the Presidential and the Mayoral Palaces. The twin centres of administration. The roofline must have been alive with electric circuitry, CCTV, armed security men, heli-pads even, at least in the vicinity of Plaça Sant Jaume.

Ninja boy tapped my foot and made the gesture for a cigarette, looped thumb and forefinger pressed to his pursed lips, a request that managed to combine subservience with condescension. I handed one down to him and he nodded at me, a grown-up nod between equals, which contrasted strangely with the foot-tugging request.

‘Doesn’t say much, your friend,’ I commented to Fionnula, working on some tacit notion of Celtic solidarity, which she had given me no reason to presume.

‘He sings poetry in Berber,’ she replied, simply.

Ninja looked up, taking it in.

‘Does he have a name? Do you have a name?’

Ninja tut-tutted.

‘He has a name, but none of us can pronounce it,’ Ric said.

Bullanoghiratheriffalachtoyeridobarrandawuyasinstallazazaallaza,’ said Ninja boy.

‘See what we mean?’ added Fionnula, with a shrug.

Ric slipped into his rucksack, picking up the rope and grappling hook separately. Ninja shouldered the rabbit sack. Fionnula tried to scrounge a couple more cigarettes off me. I gave her the rest of the pack, which she slipped inside a leather pouch, worn around her neck. Then, without another word they left, Fionnula, turning, as they climbed onto the roof of the next building, to poke her tongue out and give me an impish thumbs-up.

As they moved away I saw a fourth figure, a slim girl with long curls, diminutive and unmoving in the pale dusk. She stood waiting on an adjacent rooftop. When Ric had cast his rope across the wider breach to this further building, a distance of some three or four metres, the girl knelt by the grappling iron as if to check its purchase on the brickwork. Meanwhile Ric had tied the loose end of the rope to a chimney stack. Fionnula and Ninja swung down below the rope and pulled themselves over the chasm, arms rotating at speed. Once they had reached the neighbouring rooftop, Ric untied the rope, coiled it into a ball, and tossed it to his waiting companions. He took several steps back, sprinted towards the edge, and jumped, tracing a slight arc against the backdrop of the dark hills behind the city. There was a split second in which he appeared to be suspended in mid-air, and then he landed on his feet, unwavering, on the far side.

A grey-pink waterstain was unrolling in the sky to the east as I watched the small group disappear into a labyrinth of TV aerials, satellite dishes and the piles of orphaned breeze-blocks that littered the nearby roofline: shrouded raiders disappearing into the last vestiges of night. Unseen navigators of the upper zones. Zonards. The undead returning to their precipitous daytime graveyard.

Once they were gone it was as if I had hallucinated them, as if I had conjured them from some long-forgotten dream territory of myths about lost children, of kids who run away to join the circus, or who are captured by the gypsies. What was it Ixía had said: that they steal children? Wasn’t it they who were the stolen children? I remembered Nuria’s gift to me of the Romancero Gitano by Lorca, and two lines from the first poem in the book, that speak of the shrouded moon lifting a child across the sky:

Por el cielo va la luna

Con un niño de la mano.

Shirtless in the nudging chill that precedes the dawn, I felt the wind keening on my skin. I vaulted back onto the roof of my own building, and trotted up to the top terrace. Climbing back down onto my private veranda, balancing for three or four paces on the parapet high above the street, brought about a rush of vertigo. I thought again of the precarious lifestyle of the roof people. I realised that I was envious of them, envious of their detachment and their appropriation of the unmapped summits of the city.

Then I saw their calling card. On the outer wall of the bedroom, the vertical line a metre long, the horizontal somewhat shorter, had been sprayed a perfect yellow cross.

From the novel The colour of a dog running away (Parthian Books)

© Richard Gwyn, 2005

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