I heard the word ‘police’ three times on my birthday this year. I thought I was done with that.
The first mention was my fault. A colleague asked me what I’d done for my previous birthday after I mumbled something about this one being an improvement. I replied that last year I’d spent the morning in a police station in Barcelona, the afternoon in a castle, and the early evening at the airport, moving from one snaking line to another with hundreds of other people stranded by industrial strikes. Dave and I and our two boys, Liam and Milo, were at Barcelona Airport for five hours that night, begging to be put on any flight out of Europe, preferably the same one.
The airport was crowded with people who’d lost all notion of being part of a community. They were fighting for themselves and their families. Liam and Milo showed more grace, goodwill and fortitude than most of the adults around them. By nine o’clock they’d had nothing to eat since we couldn’t leave the queues. When we finally did take a break to get them some food, Liam made a cardboard frog from a drink coaster. Milo giggled and found joy in eating junky food from a small container. We were put on a flight to Hong Kong leaving the next morning.
We ate my birthday dinner at a Barcelona airport hotel at around ten-thirty at night. I don’t eat meat so they struggled to find any food for me. From memory, I ate salad.
I recall that I’d waited for self-pity to show up, like an unwelcome but inevitable guest. Turned out, I didn’t feel sorry for myself at all. I think I felt someone should, so I did mention at several key moments that it was my birthday. There was too much peripheral noise and action for it to register though. And whenever it did, there was a distraction – a surly airline worker, other people’s conversations, a purple hotel chair. Our flight debacle came at the end of a few weeks’ travel, some of which had been fraught, all overwhelming, so perhaps we were full and could feel no more.
I had cried at the Las Ramblas police station in the morning, partly because I’d braced myself to come face to face with a typical Spanish cop, someone tough, burly, corrupt and jaded. Someone swarthy who’d call me a liar and a fool and shame me in front of my children. These police meet a lot of dumb tourists who’ve been robbed. I knew that must be tiresome. The policeman we met wasn’t like this at all. He was charming.
I told him I’d been robbed. I hadn’t. My two beautiful rings had not been taken from a cafe table as I’d looked the other way while applying sunscreen. They had slipped from the lap of my sundress as I stood up on a beach in Sitges. I was tired, and my partner and I were punch drunk from a dreadful argument, and I could barely walk without fear my knees would buckle beneath me. This, of course, passed. But that afternoon my rings dropped onto the sand, then we packed up and left, ate a lunch that was greasy and flyblown but allowed us to meet an intriguing American couple who had fled to Europe to escape dramas back home, explored the narrow stone streets, and caught the train back to our Eixample apartment. By the time I realised my rings were gone, we’d left Sitges far behind.
The policeman was enormously sympathetic. He was slender and neat and graceful. He held my hand and told me I would need to grieve for my lost belongings. He showed us a keychain he’d bought from Tiffany’s when he visited New York and said he would be devastated if something were to happen to it. He leaned across the desk, locked his brown eyes on mine and said it was good I was crying, it was healthy, and that he worried terribly about people who held themselves so tightly they could not release their pain. He asked Dave several times if he was sure about the amount he’d nominated as the value of the rings. He seemed to think it was not enough. I loved him for that.
The second time I heard ‘police’ was when a colleague asked if I’d called 000 lately. He and I had done that inadvertently when I asked for his help sending a fax through our monstrously complicated photocopy machine. This machine can do all sorts of things but is reluctant to. It exudes arrogance, and I was in too much of a rush to try and win its favours so I asked the highly skilled head of our IT team to help me. He has a better relationship with machines than I do but dislikes faxes and pressed the 0 button enough times in frustration that rather than sending a fax we called the police. We both found this riotously funny, even a week later.
The third time I heard the word ‘police’ was on my car radio. I was driving home from work in the dark in thumping, heavy rain. Lighting split the sky repeatedly. The roads were crowded and the red, white and yellow car lights sparkled like stars in the wet. There was a story on the news about how a woman had killed her two-year-old son that day. She has accidentally put her foot on the accelerator rather than the brake and slammed into the veranda of the family home where he son was sitting with his grandfather, awaiting her return from her outing. I turned the radio off partway through the coverage of the story and drove home in silence.
Stand up and put your hand in front of your eyes to shield yourself from the Mediterranean sun. Push the wrong button. Put your foot down on the wrong pedal. Become one day older. Life is small moments of enormous import.