I´m sad to admit that over the past few weeks my visits to Plaza Mayor have become more widely-spaced. Uncharacteristically cloudy skies and sporadic dribbles of rain have made window-seats in cafés a more appealing prospect than bottom-numbing stone benches and, as a consequence, long afternoons of people-watching in the Plaza have been replaced by a brief stroll across the cobbles on my way home.
I certainly regret that the hours spent whiled away soaking up the ambience of the city´s centrepiece have been curtailed. The everchanging face of the square meant that every afternoon spent bench-side had a different vibe, each day defined by the assorted gaggles of tourists, the random rotation of street performers and the distinct mood imposed by the weather.
The last time I lingered there, about a fortnight ago, the square was buzzing with the jaunty swing of a jazz band. Normally afloat with the melodious tunes of accordion players, the plaza was alive with a relentlessly strummed, rythmic riff and the lively counterpoint of two saxes. Rare visiters to the square, the group injected an energetic, foot-tapping bounce. Of the street performers, some of the regulars looked distinctly put-out: a broad-bellied, heavily moustached violinist retreated morosely from the square, his violin resting over his shoulder, and a sullen-looking Spongebob Squarepants retired wearily to a bench, lighting a cigarette. Even Spiderman, normally the commanding, central figure of the square, had been relegated to a shaded corner, temporarily defunct.
On subsequent visits, when I hurriedly skirted the Plaza en route to class, I did not see the jazz band. However, neither did I see Spiderman. His habitual corner remained empty, his hulking figure nowhere to be seen. Usually such a reliable presence in the square, the absence of his distinct, rotund silhouette was poignant. Given that the last time I saw him he had been uncharacterically unanimated, I started to worry.
Granted, there were an abundance of logical explanations for his temporary absence - perhaps he had wondered off to get a sandwich as I had passed, or had simply taken a day or two off with a bout of flu. However, I struggled to imagine Spiderman tucked up in bed with a snotty nose and a temperature. In fact, it was difficult to imagine the-man-beneath-the-suit at, making it all too easy to dismiss any rational reasoning. I began to fear that he had finally tired of Plaza Mayor and so taken his unique business elsewhere. At first glance he may appear to be something of a peculiarity, out-of-place alongside the majesty of the square. However, his unwavering occupation of the square has cemented his position as an essential resident. For me, he is an essential personality in the Plaza, a defining idiosyncracy of the square. It seems to lack something when he´s not there.
However, my fears were extinguished last Saturday when, with a free afternoon and a forecast of “sunny spells”, I gratefully returned to my favoured bench. Even before I had passed under the arched entrance to the Plaza I could hear the welcomingly familiar bellows of, “Now, scaaaary... now, seeexy!”. Spiderman had returned, and was in his element. As I watched that afternoon, he never paused from his personna. A day of non-stop business, he worked through his trademark repertoire of postures without pause for breath. Contesting a relentless flow of business, on one occasion he didn´t even bother to roll down his mask and stub out his fag before coraling an unsuspecting tourist into position - I am sure that a weathered, overweight Spiderman miming flight with a fag hanging from the corner of his mouth made an illustrative picture of the streets of Madrid.
When I had been seated for about half an hour a group of 16 American señoritas meandered into the square, each sporting a red, silk sash declaring that they were on “Sarah´s Hen Weekend”. Spiderman made a beeline for the group. He ambled slowly towards them in broad, easy steps, and paused a few metres away. Rolling back on his heels, his back slightly arched, belly potruding round and proud before him, he spread his arms wide, palms open, in a welcome gesture. Though a giggly and somewhat apprehensive group at first, being an expert at his trade he had soon coaxed them into semi-circle around him. With his audience in place, he lowered himself awkwardly to his knees in theatrical mock worship of the bride, his heavy belly grazing the cobbles. After, having won over the sceptics in the group, he struggled laboriously to his feet and began authoritatively herding the group into collective poses.
As I walked away, his booming bellow fading into a distant rumble, I smiled to myself. The ringmaster had returned!