Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel. This was over at Santa Maria de Montserrat. It was an April morning. And the baby was so wriggly and minuscule that the basket she was found in looked empty at first glance. The child had got lost in a corner of it, but courageously wriggled her way back up to the top fold of the blanket in order to peep out. The monk who found this basket searched for an explanation. His eyes met the wooden eyes of the Virgin of Montserrat, a mother who has held her child on her lap for centuries, a gilded child that doesn’t breathe or grow. In looking upon that great lady the monk received a measure of her unquestioning love and fell to his knees to pray for further guidance, only to find that he’d knelt on a slip of paper that the baby had dislodged with her wriggling. The note read:

1. You have a Black Madonna here, so you will know how to love this child almost as much as I do. Please call her Montserrat.
2. Wait for me.

A golden chain was fastened around her neck, and on that chain was a key. As she grew up, the lock of every door and cupboard in the monastery was tested, to no avail. She had to wait. It was both a comfort and a great frustration to Montse, this . . . what could she call it, a notion, a suggestion, a promise? This promise that somebody was coming back for her. If she’d been a white child the monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat might have given her into the care of a local family, but she was as black as the face and hands of the Virgin they adored. She was given the surname Fosc, not just because she was black, but also because her origin was obscure. And the monks set themselves the task of learning all they could about the needs of a child. More often than not they erred on the side of indulgence, and held debates on the matter of whether this extreme degree of fondness was a mortal sin or a venial one. At any rate it was the Benedictine friars who fed and clothed and carried Montse, and went through the horrors of the teething process with her, and rang the chapel bells for hours the day she spoke her first words. Neither as a girl nor as a woman did Montse ever doubt the devotion of her many fathers, and in part it was the certainty of this devotion that saw her through times at school and times down in the city when people looked at her strangely or said insulting things; the words and looks sometimes made her lower her head for a few steps along the street, but never for long. She was a daughter of the Virgin of Montserrat, and she felt instinctively and of course heretically that the Virgin herself was only a symbol of a yet greater sister-mother who was carefree and sorrowful all at once, a goddess who didn’t guide you or shield you but who went with you from place to place and added her tangible presence to your own when required.

When Montse was old enough she took a job at a haberdashery in Les Corts de Sarrià, and worked there until Señora Cabella found her relatives unwilling to take over the family business and the shop closed down. ‘You’re a hard-working girl, Montse,’ Señora Cabella told her, ‘and I know you’ll make something of yourself if given a chance. You’ve seen that eyesore at the Passeig de Gràcia. The Casa Milà. People call it La Pedrera because it looks like a quarry, just a lot of stones all thrown on top of one another. An honest, reliable girl can find work as a laundress there. Is that work you can do? Very well – go to Señora Molina, the conserje’s wife. Tell her Emma Cabella sent you. Give her this.’ And the woman wrote out a recommendation that made Montse blush to read it.

She reported to Señora Molina at La Pedrera the next morning, and the conserje’s wife sent her upstairs to Señora Gaeta, who pronounced Montse satisfactory and tied an apron on her. After that it was work, work, work, and weeks turned into months. Montse had to work extra fast to keep Señora Gaeta from noticing that she was washing the Cabella family’s clothes along with those of the residents she’d been assigned. The staff turnover at La Pedrera was rapid; every week there were new girls who joined the ranks without warning, and girls who vanished without giving notice. Señora Gaeta knew every name and face, even when the identical uniforms made it difficult for the girls themselves to remember each other. It was Señora Gaeta who employed the girls and also relieved them of their duties if their efforts weren’t up to scratch. She darted around the attic, flicking the air with her red lacquered fan as she inspected various activities. The residents of Casa Milà called Señora Gaeta a treasure, and the laundry maids liked her because she sometimes joined in when they sang work songs; it seemed that once she had been just like them, for all the damask and cameo rings she wore now. Señora Gaeta was also well liked because it was interesting to hear her talk: she swore the most powerful and unusual oaths they’d ever heard, really unrepeatable stuff, and all in a sweetly quivering voice, like the song of a harp. Señora Gaeta’s policy was to employ healthy-looking women who didn’t look likely to develop bad backs too quickly. But you can’t guess right all the time. There were girls who aged overnight. Others were unexpectedly lazy. Women who worried about their reputations didn’t last long in the attic laundry either – they sought and found work in more ordinary buildings.

It was generally agreed that this mansion the Milà family had had built in their name was a complete failure. This was mostly the fault of the architect. He had the right materials but clearly he hadn’t known how to make the best use of them. A house of stone and glass and iron should be stark and sober, a watchtower from which a benevolent guard is kept on society. But the white stone of this particular house rippled as if reacting to a hand that had found its most pleasurable point of contact. A notable newspaper critic had described this effect as being that of‘a pernicious sensuality’. And as if that wasn’t enough, the entire structure blushed a truly disgraceful peachy-pink at sunset and dawn. Respectable citizens couldn’t help but feel that the house expressed the dispositions of its inhabitants, who must surely be either mad or ceaselessly engaged in indecent activities. But Montse thought the house was beautiful. She stood on a corner of the pavement and looked up, and what she saw clouded her senses. To Montse’s mind La Pedrera was a magnificent place. But then her taste lacked refinement. Her greatest material treasure was an egregiously shiny bit of tin she’d won at a fairground coconut shy; this fact can’t be overlooked. But there was also Señora Lucy, who lived on the second floor and frequently argued with people about whether or not her home was an aesthetic offence. Journalists came to interview the Señora from time to time, and would make some comment about the house as a parting shot on their way out, but Señora Lucy refused to let them have the last word and stood there arguing at the top of her voice. The question of right angles was always being raised: How could Señora Lucy bear to live in a house without a single right angle . . . not even in the furniture?

‘But really who needs right angles? Who?’ Señora Lucy would demand, and she’d slam the courtyard door and run up the stairs laughing.

Señora Lucy was a painter with eyes like daybreak. She told people that she was fifty years old and gave them looks that dared them to say she was in good condition for her age. (Señora Lucy was actually thirty-five, only five years older than Montse. One of the housemaids had overheard a gallery curator begging her to stop telling people she was fifty. The Señora had replied that she’d recently attended the exhibitions of some of her colleagues and now wished to discover whether fifty-year-old men in her field were treated with reverence because they were fifty or for some other reason.) Aside from this, the housemaids were a bit disappointed with Señora Lucy. They expected their resident artist to lounge about in scarlet pyjamas, drink cocktails for breakfast and entertain dashing rascals and fragrant sirens. But Señora Lucy kept office hours. Merce, her maid of all work, tried to defend her by alleging that the Señora drank her morning coffee out of a vase, but nobody found this credible.

Montse found ways to be the one to return Señora Lucy’s laundry to her; this sometimes meant undertaking several other deliveries so that her boss Señora Gaeta didn’t become suspicious. There was a workroom in Señora Lucy’s apartment; she often began work there, and then had the canvases transported to her real studio. Thirty seconds in Señora Lucy’s apartment was long enough for Montse to get a good stare at all those beginnings of paintings. The Señora soon saw that Montse was curious about her work, and she took to leaving her studio door open while she etched on canvas. She’d call Montse to come and judge how well the picture was progressing. ‘Look here,’ she’d say, indicating a faint shape in the corner of the canvas. ‘Look here.’ Her fingertips glided over a darkening of colour in the distance. She sketched with an effort that strained every limb. Montse saw that the Señora sometimes grew short of breath though she’d hardly stirred: a consequence of snatching images out of the air – the air took something back.

Montse asked the Señora about the key around her neck. It wasn’t a real question, Montse was just talking so that she could stay a moment longer. But the Señora said she wore it because she was waiting for someone; at this Montse forgot herself and blurted: ‘You too?’

The Señora was amused. ‘Yes, me too. I suppose we’re all waiting for someone.’ And she told Montse all about it as she poured coffee into vases for them both. (It was true! It was true!)

‘Two mostly penniless women met at a self-congratulation ritual in Seville,’ Señora Lucy began. The event was the five-year reunion of a graduating class of the University of Seville – neither woman had attended this university, but they blended in, and every other person they met claimed to remember them, and there was much exclamation on the theme of it being wonderful to see former classmates looking so well. The imposters had done their research, and knew what to say, and what questions to ask. Their names were Safiye and Lucy, and you wouldn’t have guessed that either one was a pauper, since they’d spent most of the preceding afternoon liberating various items of priceless finery from their keepers.

These two penniless girls knew every trick in the book. Both women moved from town to town under an assortment of aliases, and both believed that collaboration was for weaklings. Lucy and Safiye hadn’t come to that gathering looking for friendship or love; they were there to make contacts. Back when they had toiled at honest work – Lucy at a bakery and Safiye at an abattoir – they’d wondered if it could be true that there were people who were given money simply because they looked as if they had lots of it. Being blessed with forgettable faces and the gift of brazen fabrication, they’d gone forth to test their theory and had found it functional. Safiye loved to look at paintings, and needed money to build her collection. Lucy was an artist in constant need of paint, brushes, turpentine, peaceful light and enough canvas to make compelling errors on. For a time Lucy had been married to a rare sort of clown, the sort that children aren’t afraid of: After all, he is one of us, you can see it in his eyes, they reasoned. How funny that he’s so strangely tall. Lucy and her husband had not much liked being married to each other, the bond proving much heavier than their light-hearted courtship had led them to expect, but they agreed that it had been worth a try, and while waiting for their divorce to come through Lucy’s husband had taught her the sleight of hand she eventually used to pick her neighbour’s pocket down to the very last thread. The night she met Safiye she stole her earrings right out of her earlobes and, having retired to a quiet corner of the mansion to inspect them, found that the gems were paste. Then she discovered that her base metal bangle was missing and quickly realized that she could only have lost it to the person she was stealing from; she’d been distracted by the baubles and the appeal of those delicate earlobes. Cornered by a banker whose false memory of having been in love with her since matriculation day might prove profitable, Lucy wavered between a sensible decision and a foolhardy one. Ever did foolhardiness hold the upper hand with Lucy; she found Safiye leaning against an oil lantern out in the garden and saw for herself that she wasn’t the only foolish woman in the world, or even at that party, for Safiye had Lucy’s highly polished bangle in her hand and was turning it this way and that in order to catch fireflies in the billowing, transparent left sleeve of her gown. All this at the risk of being set alight, but then from where Lucy stood Safiye looked as if she was formed of fire herself, particles of flame dancing the flesh of her arm into existence. That or she was returning to fire.

They left the reunion early and in a hurry. Having fallen into Lucy’s bed, they didn’t get out again for days. How could they, when Lucy held all Safiye’s satisfactions in her very fingertips, and each teasing stroke of Safiye’s tongue summoned Lucy to the brink of delirium? They fell asleep, each making secret plans to slip away in the middle of the night. After all, their passion placed them entirely at each other’s command, and they were bound to find that fearsome. So they planned escape but instead woke up intertwined. It was at Lucy’s bidding that Safiye would stay or go. And who knew what Safiye might suddenly and successfully demand of Lucy? Stop breathing. Give up tea. The situation improved once it occurred to them that they should also talk; as they came to understand each other they learned that what they’d been afraid of was running out of self. On the contrary the more they loved the more there was to love. The lovers spent Christmas together, then parted – Lucy for Grenoble, and Safiye for Barcelona. They wrote to each other care of their cities’ central post offices, and at the beginning of April Safiye wrote of the romance of St Jordi’s Day. Lucy, it is the custom here to exchange books and roses each year on April 23rd. Shall we?

Lucy happily settled down to work. First she sent for papyrus and handmade a book leaf by leaf, binding the leaves together between board covers. Then she filled each page from memory, drew English roses budding and Chinese roses in full bloom, peppercorn-pink Bourbon roses climbing walls and silvery musk roses drowsing in flower beds. She took every rose she’d ever seen, made them as lifelike as she could (where she shaded each petal the rough paper turned silken) and in these lasting forms she offered them to Safiye.

The making of this rose book coincided with a period in Lucy’s life when she was making money without having to lie to anyone. She’d fallen in with an inveterate gambler who’d noticed that she steadied his nerves to a miraculous degree. He always won at blackjack whenever she was sitting beside him, so they agreed he’d give her 10 per cent of each evening’s winnings. This man only played when the stakes were high, so he won big and they were both happy. Lucy had no idea what was going to happen when their luck ran out; she could only hope her gambler wouldn’t get violent with her, because then she’d have to get violent herself. That would be a shame, since she liked the man. He never pawed at her, he always asked her how Safiye was getting on and he was very much in love with his wife, who loved him too and thought he was a nightwatchman. The gambler’s wife would’ve gone mad with terror if she’d known how close she came to losing her life savings each night, but she didn’t suspect a thing, so she packed her husband light suppers to eat at work, suppers the man couldn’t even bear to look at (his stomach always played up when he was challenging Lady Luck), so Lucy ate the suppers and enjoyed them very much, the flavour of herbed olives lingering in her mouth so that when she drank her wine she tasted all the greenness of the grapes.

From time to time Lucy paused her work on the rose book to write and send brief notes: Safiye – I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to think; I’m afraid I’ll only be able to send you a small token for this St Jordi’s Day you wrote about. I’ll beg my forgiveness when I see you.

Safiye replied: Whatever the size of your token, I’m certain mine is smaller. You’ll laugh when you see it, Lucy.

Competitive as ever! Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t get caught. I love you, I love you.

On April 23rd, an envelope addressed in Safiye’s hand arrived at the post office for Lucy. It contained a key on a necklace chain and a map of Barcelona with a black rose drawn over a small section of it. Lucy turned the envelope inside out but there was no accompanying note. Safiye’s map led Lucy to a crudely hewn door in a wall. This didn’t look like a door that could open, but a covering for a mistake in the brickwork. The key fitted the lock and Lucy walked into a walled garden overrun with roses.

‘And what about your own key, Montserrat?’

Lucy’s key gleamed and Montse’s looked a little sad and dusty; perhaps it was only gold-plated. She rubbed at it with her apron.

‘Just junk, I think.’

‘Montserrat, have you seen the newspaper?’ Assunta called out across the washtubs.

‘I never see the newspaper,’ Montserrat answered through a mouthful of thread.

‘Montserrat, Montserrrat of the key,’ Marta crooned beside her.

The other maids took up the chant until Montse held her needle still and said, ‘All right, what’s the joke, girls?’

‘They’re talking about the advertisement that’s in La Vanguardia this morning,’ said Señora Gaeta, placing the newspaper on the lid of Montse’s work basket. Montse laid lengths of thread beneath the lines of newsprint as she read: Enzo Gomez of Gomez, Cruz and Molina awaits contact with a woman who bears the name Montserrat and is in possession of a gold key one and one half inches in length.

Without saying another word, the eagle-eyed Señora Gaeta picked up a scarlet thread an inch and a half long and held it up against Montse’s key. The lengths matched. Señora Gaeta rested a hand on Montse’s shoulder, then walked back up to the front of the room to inspect a heap of newly done laundry before it returned to its owner. Montse kept her eyes on her work. It was the only way to keep her mind quiet.

The solicitor Enzo Gomez looked at her hands and uniform before he looked into her eyes. Her hands had been roughened by harsh soap and hard water; she fought the impulse to hide them behind her back. Instead she undid the clasp of her necklace and held the key out to him. She told him her name and he jingled a bunch of keys in his own pocket and said, ‘The only way we can find out is by trying the lock. So let’s go.’

The route they took was familiar. Gomez stopped walking and rifled through his briefcase, pulled out a folder and read aloud from a piece of paper in it:

Against my better judgement but in accordance with the promise I made to my brother Isidoro Salazar, I, Zacarias Salazar, leave the library of my house at 17 Carrer Alhambra to one Montserrat who will come with the key to the library as proof of her claim. If the claimant has not come forth within fifty years of my death, let the lock of the library door be changed in order to put an end to this nonsense. For if the mother cannot be found then how can the daughter?

Enzo put the folder back into his briefcase. ‘I hope you’re the one,’ he said. ‘I’ve met a lot of Montserrats in this capacity today, most of them chancers. But you – I hope it’s you.’

A gallery attendant opened the main gate for them and showed them around a few gilt passages until they came to the library, which was on its own at the end of a corridor. Montse was dimly aware of Enzo Gomez mopping his forehead with a handkerchief as she placed the key in the lock and turned it. The door opened onto a room with high shelves and higher windows that followed the curve of a cupola ceiling. The laundry maid and the solicitor stood in front of the shelf closest to the door. Sunsetlit the chandeliers above them and they found themselves holding hands until Gomez remembered his professionalism and strode over to the nearest desk to remove the papers from his briefcase.

‘I’m glad it’s you, Montserrat,’ he said, placing the papers on the desk and patting them. ‘You must let me know if I can be of service to you in future.’ He bowed, shook hands and left her in her library without looking back, the quivering of his trouser cuffs the only visible sign of his emotions.

Montse wandered among the shelves until it was too dark to see. She thought that if the place was really hers she should open it up to the public; there were more books here than could possibly be read in one lifetime. Books on sword-swallowing and life forms found in the ocean, clidomancy and the aurora borealis and other topics that reminded Montse how very much there was to wonder about in this world: there were things she’d seen in dreams that she wanted to see again and one of these books, any of them, might lead her back to those visions, and lead her further on. For now there was the smell of leather-bound books and another faint but definite scent: roses. She cried into her hands because she was lost: she’d carried the key to this place for so long and now that she was there she didn’t know where she was. The scent of roses grew stronger and she wiped her hands on her apron, switched on a light and opened the folder Enzo Gomez had handed her.

This is what she read:

Montserrat, I’m very fond of your mother. I was fond of everyone who shared my home. I am a fool, but not the kind who surrounds himself with people he doesn’t trust. I didn’t know what was really happening below stairs; upstairs we are always the last to know. Things could have been very different. You would have had a home here, and I would have spoiled you, and doubtless you would have grown up with the most maddening airs and graces. That would have been wonderful.

As I say, I was fond of everyone who lived with me, but I was particularly fond of Aurelie. I am an old man now – an old libertine even – and my memory commits all manner of treacheries; only a few things stay with me. Some words that made me happy because they were said by exactly the right person at exactly the right time, and some pictures because they formed their own moment. One such picture is your mother’s brilliant smile, always slightly anxious, as if even in the moment of delighting you she wonders how she dares to be so very delightful. I hope that smile is before you right now. I hope she came back to you. I first met her soon after she’d been abandoned by her travelling companion, a musician she’d accompanied from her home town of Paris. I believe this musician to be your father. And that, I’m afraid, is all I know about that.

Please allow me to say another useless thing: Nobody could have made me believe that Aurelie ever stole from me. The only person who could possibly have held your mother in higher esteem than I did was my brother, Isidoro. He wrote to me about your mother, you know. He told me I should give my library to her. Then he told me she’d be happier if I gave it to her daughter. Do it or I’ll haunt you to death, he wrote. The rest of this house is dedicated to art now; it’s been a long time since I lived here, or visited. But the library is yours. So enjoy it, my dear.

Zacarias Salazar


Photography © Pierre-Olivier Deschamps / Agence Vu, Casa Milà, Barcelona, Spain

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