Last week I discovered that my copy of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A tale for the time being had followed me from A Coruña on Spain’s northwest Atlantic coast to Aguadulce on the Costa del Sol in the Mediterranean, a distance of some 850 nautical miles. You can read about that discovery here. This week I had a strange literary experience of a different kind.
When my friend Katie visited us aboard Carina in July, she rapidly read The goldfinch by Donna Tartt, racing through the final sixty pages on her last day with us, so she could leave the book with me, so desperate was she for me to read it too. I started to read it a few days later and I became so engrossed that one day I even forgot to make dinner for the family until Lily’s and Katie’s complaints of hunger drew my attention to the fact that it was two hours after their usual dinner time!
The goldfinch is the story of a boy, Theo Decker, who, in a moment of great personal tragedy, steals Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting of a goldfinch. The story follows Theo through his teenage and young adult years, and through his obsession with the painting. The goldfinch in the painting is a captive, chained by its leg to a perch. At one point in his life, Theo finds himself living on the outskirts of Las Vegas, in a house in the middle of a mostly deserted housing development. His life spirals out of control. He grows pale and gaunt and his teeth rot.
If you haven’t read the book, I urge you to read it. It is funny and heartbreaking and shocking and joyful, and certain scenes have remained with me (the morphine lollypop☺).
But what I have just recounted of the story is enough to set the scene for my strange literary encounter of last Thursday morning.
I have been attending a GP and having medical tests at a clinic at the opposite end of Aguadulce; about a 40 minute walk along the sea front. Eventually the road and path by the sea come to an end and, to get to the clinic, I walk through a partly deserted apartment development. It is one of those property developments built before the Spanish economy crashed, when houses and apartments were thrown up with little consideration to who might occupy them. (We have similar ghost housing estates in Ireland, built when times were good and when loans for property development were dispensed like confetti). From the beach to the clinic I walk past six or more ghost apartment blocks – three or four entire street blocks of apartments where eighty percent or more of the apartments appear unoccupied. There’s a never-been-used tennis court and a lots of empty parking spaces on the mostly deserted streets.
As I walked through this development the other morning on my way to the clinic my attention was drawn to something on the windowsill of a ground floor apartment. It was a tiny bird cage, no bigger than 20cm wide and 10cm high. As I got closer I realised there was a bird inside. It was a goldfinch, instantly recognisable by its red face and bright yellow patches on its wings. It fluttered about in a cage that was probably no more than four times its body size. I was shocked to see this bird imprisoned in such a tiny cage, perhaps even more shocked than I might otherwise be as it’s a bird I am used to seeing flitting about the UK countryside. I stopped for a moment to take a closer look. As I did, a young man appeared at the open window. He was pale and gaunt with fair hair. He wore a coffee-coloured dressing gown loosely tied at his waist. I said ‘Hola’, but he did not speak. I walked on. When I walked back along the same street half an hour later the bird cage was gone, and I couldn’t remember at which of the closed windows I had seen it.
In that mostly unoccupied housing development on the outskirts of town I had encountered Theo Decker and his goldfinch. It sent a shiver down my spine.