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The Ashes Before Bonfire Night

by Ernesto Sarezale



The Asian man soaping his hairy body in the public shower by the beach was a good omen. His nonchalant presence dissipated some of my qualms about the successful execution of my mission. 


It was close to sunset and the few remaining bathers were evacuating the beach, which now looked nothing like what that woman had described loudly on the phone as she strode on the promenade just a couple of hours earlier:


“Está a tope y no hay más que hombres. ¡Y he contado al menos seis en pelotas!” 

(It’s packed and there are only men. And I have counted at least six who are bollock naked!)


Now, just after 8.30 in the evening, most people were probably getting ready for Sant Joan’s bonfire celebrations. Only a group of fully clothed Argentinians and a US American couple were lingering on the sand. The couple were getting ready for a swim: she was wearing a colourful bikini; he removed his flowery shorts to reveal a pair of dark Speedos.


Although the sun was low, it was still warm and sweaty. I released the heavy rucksack I was carrying; I took off all my clothes and lay my towel not far from the Argentinian ensemble. They were having a loud conversation. I do not remember what exactly they were discussing – whether it was the political situation back home, council affairs at the Barcelona neighbourhood where they lived now, football or their favourite soap opera – but the tone was agitated and intense.


The South Asian man was still in the shower covered in soap, totally oblivious to the signpost warning–-with crossed out soap bubbles–-that the use of shampoo and shower gel was forbidden. I had witnessed more than once the demeaning–-brutal even–-treatment afforded by the local police to Asian and African migrants for smaller transgressions. So, his calm disobedience was a clear sign that the police were unlikely to be found in the vicinity. A reassuring omen indeed, given that-–according to Reddit-–my mission this evening was of dubious legality on Spanish shores. 


I was amused by the fact that the middle-aged man in the shower was also oblivious to another big signpost, opposite him, informing that this was the beginning of the nudist section of the Mar Bella beach. He meticulously clung to his beige y-fronts even when they obstructed the thorough body cleansing he was clearly aiming for.


I dipped my toes in the water, welcoming the light evening breeze. The man from the US couple, deep in the sea, had taken off his Speedos and was flaunting them in the air as his partner reacted with raucous laughter. When I got back to my towel, a nude chubby man was drying off near me. A friend greeted him from a few yards away and they started chatting in Catalan at a distance from each other – their lively conversation interwoven with the mate-sipping Argentinians’ rowdy debate. Inside the water, the US couple seemed to be engaging in amorous behaviour. 


I collected my belongings and ventured towards the more secluded part of the beach, where a layered block of concrete stood–-like the intriguing remnants of a bunker buried in the sand–-in front of a mound of yellowing grass and council protected flora that sheltered this long section of the beach from the busy promenade. 


I wanted my mission to be as private as possible, undisturbed not only by the police but by any prying eyes. Yet it was not easy, even so late in the evening. Ahead of me, two young female tourists were walking towards the cement construction and stopped at the very spot where I wanted to settle for my ritual. They started taking selfies against the sea. At that time of the day, the calm sea looked immense; silver hued and majestic. The girls stared back at me as if uneasy with my naked presence just a few steps away. 


I accepted that full solitude was probably unachievable, and I was content that, once the two women disappeared, the only people in sight were a small group of itinerant vendors crunching the numbers after a long day marching back and forth the beach offering sunbathers cold beer, water and sangría. They boys sat chatting amongst themselves totally unaware of me.


I placed my rucksack and my clothes on the lower layer of the concrete structure and pulled the heavy cardboard cylinder out of my bag. It looked massive on the cement surface. 


I opened the lid. The contents of the cylindric container appeared a lot coarser and heftier than I would have imagined a person’s ashes would be. They looked more like grey gravel than ash. I reflected that John was cremated in the thick suit he wore at our wedding. Also, his mother, following my suggestion, had inserted in his front pocket the heart shaped stone John and I had found at the beach near Bridge of Don in Old Aberdeen. His robust bones were there too. 


I looked around me again to confirm that there were no witnesses. Still a sensation of guilt and apprehension. But John’s last wishes were more important at that point than any legal concerns. I breathed deeply and sat for a few seconds, my mind empty, staring inattentive at the small boats mooring in the distance. And just then, out of nowhere, a North African youth appeared shouting: 


“Pareo, pareo! Shawl, shawl!” 


We looked at each other. He smiled. 


“Do you want a sarong?” he offered in English. 


I shook my head, and he disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. 


I decided that the time had come. But, as I embraced the cylinder ready to dip into the water, I saw with the side of my eye a man scanning the sand with a metal detector walking in my direction. As I waited for him to walk past me, I scattered a few of the ashes next to a seashell on the sand and snapped a quick photo with my phone to post it on Instagram. The man got lost in the distance.


I was as alone as I could ever be. My mind still empty, I walked into the sea. It gets deep very quicky at the beaches in Barcelona and in seconds the water reached my waist. I was holding the ash container above the water in an awkward posture that made my arms ache. Little by little, I managed to empty the contents of the cardboard cylinder. The gentle waves swayed the ashes around me in what looked like a dance. The closest I’d ever get to hugging John now that he was gone. I breathed in. Yes, he was gone. He was not there. What surrounded me was just soil and water. And my mind was still empty. I swam around the ashes. I watched them slowly drift away. Very slowly. Most of them were still floating near the sand bank after I walked out of the water and stood by the concrete structure. Impassive. Unable to think. Still naked. My skin covered by sea salt and John’s ashes. Wondering when I was going to start crying. 


Yet, it was not meant to be. A new witness prevented it. A grey-haired man wearing a sarong manifested himself a couple of meters away from me. He was smiling, full of intention. I did not know what to do. I guess I just stared blankly at him. He opened his sarong to display a semi-erect penis, still smiling. I looked at the sea in the direction of the ashes. He seemed to take it as an invitation and dipped into the sea, his head turned towards me as he swam in. Little could he know that the murky water he was plunging into was full of human ashes. I imagined John would have been amused that, in our last goodbye, I was sharing him with another man. A threesome of sorts. 


And again, the man vanished--as suddenly, as instantaneously, as the boy selling sarongs and the man with the metal detector had vanished before. 


I got dressed, packed my things, binned the ash container and headed towards the nearest bus stop. I was meeting a friend at the Three Chimneys Square, in the Poble Sec neighbourhood, for a special bonfire gathering organised by local activists. 


Every year, hundreds and hundreds of bonfires are lit in Barcelona on St. John’s night, the shortest night of the year. The morning after, its streets, squares and beaches wake up covered in ash.



 


Ernesto Sarezale is the pen name of a Basque poet based in London. Active in the performance poetry scene for many years, he once won the Sexual Freedom Award for Poet of the Year and has hosted and promoted queer spoken word events such as Homophone, Glam Slam UK and Velvet Tongue.


Ernesto has performed at a variety of poetry, cabaret, stand-up and arts events in London and internationally. He produced for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a one-man show called "In the name of the flesh”, also the title of his most recent poetry pamphlet.


Currently he is also focusing his efforts on queer micro-fiction, interactive multimedia performances, and documenting in film the LGBTQ+ spoken word scene in London (and beyond). Ernesto has had his work published in anthologies, journals and zines such as Magma, Chroma, Ink Sweat & Tears, t'ART press, harana poetry, Crooked Fagazine, Litmora, Brilliant Vibrating Interface.


You can find Ernesto on Instagram and X: @sarezale.

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