Read The Frozen Heart Online

Authors: Almudena Grandes

Tags: #Literary, #General, #Fiction

The Frozen Heart (10 page)

‘Of course you turn here!’ His son’s indecision rescued him from his emotions. ‘Head down to Cibeles and turn up on to Alcalá . . . God, look at it, they’ve ruined it . . . Look, Raquel, when I lived here, there were mansions like that one - see? - all along the street. Some of them were bombed, because there were bombings every day . . . And you see that big building on the left? That’s the Biblioteca Nacional, that hasn’t changed. That street there is Calle Génova, I used to live down there, and there’s Recoletas and the Café Gijón - and just look at that monstrosity!’
‘I know.’ Raquel, who could not understand that her grandfather was using her to shield himself from his emotions, interrupted him. ‘I’ve seen the Cibeles fountain lots of times. We live here now, Grandpa.’
‘Of course . . .’ He nodded. ‘Of course.’
And yet he took her to a place where she had never been, and taught her that a city could be more than a collection of streets and houses.
‘Why did you want to come here, Grandpa?’ she asked, when she was tired of standing beside him while he gazed at everything in silence, as though trying to recognise every building, every rooftop, every bridge, every hill, tree and knoll and every peak of the mountains rising in the distance.
‘I don’t know . . . the view is nice, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, but . . .’ Raquel didn’t want to contradict him. ‘There are prettier places, like El Retiro, or the Plaza Mayor.’
‘Yes,’ her grandfather looked at her, smiling, ‘but this was my last view of Madrid before I left, and I wanted to come back here.’ Then he turned to his wife, brought his face close to hers and whispered, ‘It was here that . . .’
‘I know.’ Anita pressed her face to his and kissed him. ‘Don’t think about that. Come on, let’s have a drink.’
Raquel did not know what their words meant, but she guessed that her grandmother’s sudden desire to visit this café terrace was her way of changing her husband’s ellipsis into a full stop. Yet this did not surprise her as much as the sudden tremor in her grandfather’s voice, which seemed to fade like a poorly tuned radio as the waiter leaned closer and closer to him, unable to make out what he was asking for. ‘A glass of beer?’ he suggested, and Grandpa shook his head, cleared his throat, swallowed and repeated his request. The waiter nodded and gave a smile of relief. ‘Ah,
vermú de grifo
, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you the first time, of course we have vermouth on tap . . .’ Raquel did not know what this was, but if they served it here and it came out of a tap, it couldn’t be anything unusual or expensive.
There were thousands of bars in Madrid, it was something she had noticed when they first arrived, and in every bar there were lots of bottles, hundreds of bottles, whole walls filled with bottles, and in the middle of every bar was a sort of metal contraption with wheels and levers operated by a waiter who never said a word and had a serious expression as though working the contraption was so difficult or important that no one dared talk to him as he tilted a glass with one hand and pulled the lever with the other. At that moment, anyone would think that something great was about to happen, but all that happened was beer came out of the tap along with a lot of white foam. The man would scoop out half of the foam with a spatula, fill up the glass and bang it down on the bar. ‘There you go!’ he’d say with a smile. Then the customer would smile back and say ‘thank you’ as if the barman had done something important.
That was how it always was. Raquel had witnessed this ceremony many times, she had watched as her parents learned to say ‘Thank you, Andrés’, that was the name of the barman from the bar on the corner of their street. She had even looked with pity at the espresso machine, which stood at the far end of the bar, wondering why no one treated it with the same reverence. She didn’t know that you could get things out of bar taps other than beer, but that morning the waiter put an ordinary glass in front of her grandfather filled with a dark, brownish liquid with an ice cube and half a slice of orange in it, and her grandfather picked it up, sniffed it, looked at it, turning the glass between his fingers. He closed his eyes before he took a sip, and when he opened them again they seemed bigger, brighter, clearer and so strange that Raquel was shocked.
She had never seen her grandfather cry, nor would she see him cry that morning, but from the emotion that shimmered in his eyes she could tell that what had happened here was important, although she did not understand why. There were so many bars in Madrid, so many levers and taps, so many barmen versed in the sacred ceremony of pouring beer, that this could not be anything special. It seemed just like all the others, yet when her grandfather picked up one of the fried potatoes topped with an anchovy and ate it, he smiled. This was the first time that Raquel Fernández Perea had seen her grandfather smile,
smile, his lips curved in sheer happiness, with no pretence, no reticence, no fear and no pain. Her grandfather was smiling like a small child, an avid student, a brave soldier, a lucky fugitive, a quiet lawyer, a resigned wrestler, a Madrileño far from Madrid, like every man who had ever felt that, for one fleeting instant, perhaps the time had come to make peace with himself. Raquel understood none of this, but she knew that something important was happening; she was certain of it when her grandfather took his wife’s hand and squeezed it and her grandmother laughed.
‘And what if they hadn’t had vermouth on tap, eh?’ Her grandmother was as happy as he was. ‘Really, Ignacio, you’re so stubborn . . .’
That morning, Raquel did not yet know that, as a young man studying law in the magnificent old building that housed the Universidad Central on Calle de San Bernardo, Ignacio Fernández Muñoz would head home after class, stopping at every bar along the way, and in every bar he would ask for a vermouth on tap, and with every glass he got a complimentary tapa or snack. His granddaughter had never heard him tell this story. For years, what her Grandfather Aurelio had missed about Spain was the sea, not the huge waves, the vast expanses of sandy beach, the subtle evanescence of the horizon, but a tangible piece of sea, a small strip of water in Andalucía he could call his own, where he could sit in the shade of a vine on the patio of his shimmering whitewashed house surrounded by orchards, far from the town and the beach. Raquel knew this, and she knew that her Grandma Rafaela had missed two things, grilled sardines and music. ‘I’ve always loved to sing,’ she would say, ‘I can’t tell you how much I loved it, but you can’t do it here, it’s stupid, but when I first started working as a cleaner for a doctor - he was a comrade, a good person - in Nîmes after our war I used to sing to myself while I was working and he’d always say, don’t sing like that, Rafaela, it sounds like you’re in pain. Obviously, they never sing, they don’t even sing at parties . . .’
Raquel had heard this story many times, and she had seen her grandmother in the kitchen of her house in Torre del Mar, dancing by herself to the radio. Her smile was like the smile of Grandma Anita when she opened the parcel they brought back from Spain every September when half a dozen tins of anchovies and a string of dried peppers seemed to be transformed into something else, as if Spain itself, the air, the soil, the mountains, the trees, the language and the people, could be glimpsed through the cracks in this cardboard box, as if its best, its purest essence were distilled in the purple of the aubergines whose skin her grandmother stroked with a tremor of longing. ‘Beautiful,
, beautiful, just look how beautiful they are . . .’ Raquel knew that, as she looked at those aubergines, her Grandmother Anita was happier than her little brother Mateo when he saw his Christmas presents. But not until that morning in September had it ever occurred to Raquel that her Grandfather Ignacio, who was always so quick to tell his wife that of course they had aubergines in France, also missed something.
‘The sky, I missed the sky,’ he told her that same afternoon when it finally occurred to her to ask him, and she listened as he rattled off a whole string of other things, as though he had spent the past thirty-six years secretly preparing for this conversation. ‘The light of morning, especially in winter, the pure, dry air that slashes at your face and wakes you up inside. Tap water, the water here tastes better than any mineral water in the world. The first signs of spring in February, though they are also so fleeting, so illusory, and do not last long, but the joy of stepping out into the street to take the sun, with no umbrella, no coat, and the pavement cafés suddenly full of people . . .’ He looked at her and shook his head. ‘I’ve often thought back to February in Madrid, you know. I thought about it every day of every February of every year I lived in France. And the bars, the streets, going out early in the morning when everyone is still asleep, buying the paper and having breakfast in a café at a table by the window, reading the paper while the regulars make comments on the news . . .’
‘You like that?’ his granddaughter interrupted him, surprised.
‘Of course I do.’ He gazed at her thoughtfully for a moment and then laughed. ‘What is it? You think that’s strange?’
‘Very strange. It’s much nicer to have breakfast at home in your pyjamas all toasty and warm . . .’
‘That’s exactly what your grandmother used to say, but I always hated having breakfast at home. Of course, there’s something I hate more - bars that try to rush you, where they’re eager to be rid of you, but that’s why I missed the bars here in Spain where a long leisurely breakfast can run straight into the aperitif . . .’ He paused for a moment. ‘It’s not easy living without the aperitif . . . It’s a ridiculous habit - a pointless little snack, my mother always said it was bad for you, because it doesn’t whet your appetite, it fills you up, a couple of glasses of vermouth, a few anchovies, a few crisps, and so on until by the time you get home, you’re full up, but you’re so tipsy, so happy and relaxed, you go straight to bed, have a little nap and by nine o’clock you feel ready to start again. Spending your life in bars, that’s what it means to be rich, what it means to really live. It’s not like I got to enjoy much of life - three paltry years - because after that war broke out, the fascists moved quickly, they took Toledo and they kept advancing, then one night while we were having dinner we heard that the government was planning to leave Madrid, heading for Valencia, leaving us behind, because in their minds the city was as good as lost . . .’
By this point, Raquel had realised that her grandfather was no longer talking to her, to a seven-year-old girl who was only dimly aware that once upon a time in Spain there had been a war and that her family had lost the war and that’s why they went to live in France, which was just as well because the ones who stayed behind were all killed. She also knew that it had something to do with her Grandmother Anita’s two fixations - she wouldn’t eat apricots and she refused to speak the name of the village where she was born - but Raquel went on listening to her grandfather with rapt attention, as though she understood what he was saying, because his eyes were shining like the eyes of a much younger man, and when he looked at her she felt warm inside.
‘I’ll never forget that night as long as I live. The news wasn’t official, and a lot of people didn’t think it was important, but we were politically aware, so for us the government leaving was really them running away - more than that, it was a betrayal, the first of many . . . My father, who was a staunch republican, had been in a foul temper for the past two weeks, he was livid that Azaña had fled to France - never forget, the president of the republic was the first to run away. My brother Mateo, the one who found out the government had met with all the political parties to tell them that it was impossible to defend Madrid, was so furious he didn’t even try to defend the war minister Largo, who was a socialist just as he was . . . But the one who took it worst was my brother-in-law Carlos, who was married to my sister Paloma,
la bella Paloma
, we called her, you remember her, don’t you?’
‘Yes.’ Raquel remembered her, an old woman with white hair who looked like she could be her grandparents’ mother. She used to live with her sister María on the outskirts of Paris, but she seemed mad and never went out. ‘But I didn’t think she was pretty.’
‘She was . . . She was very pretty, the prettiest woman I’ve ever known.’
‘Prettier than Grandma?’ his granddaughter asked, puzzled, because until that day Anita Salgado Pérez had held the title of the most beautiful woman in the family.
‘Well . . . she was different. I love your grandmother, she is short, but she is a pretty little thing, like a perfect miniature. My sister was more of a woman, taller, more . . .’ He paused for a moment, trying to find the words to explain himself. ‘Maybe it’s just that the rest of the family were nothing much to look at, that’s why Paloma stood out. My brother Mateo . . . well, his ears didn’t stick out and he had extraordinary blue eyes, but the poor man had a face that would stop a clock. I suppose he looked all right, but María and I were quite ugly.’
‘You’re not ugly, Grandpa.’
‘Really?’ He looked at his granddaughter in mock amazement, making her giggle. ‘With my big jug ears and my stubby little nose and my neck like a stork’s?’
‘You’re not that bad . . .’ Raquel protested. ‘You’re tall and you have a good body . . . I wouldn’t mind being your girlfriend.’
‘Thank you,’ he kissed her on the forehead, ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
‘What about Paloma’s husband ?’
‘He wasn’t what you would call handsome either, but he was attractive, dark skinned, very intelligent . . . He had character. He was madly in love with his wife and it showed. My mother used to say they looked like a couple of film stars.’
‘No, I meant what happened to him.’
‘He was executed by firing squad after the war. Paloma was a widow at the age of twenty-four.’
‘No, I didn’t mean that either.’ Raquel grew impatient. ‘I know they shot him - they shot your brother Mateo too, didn’t they? You’ve told me that before. I want to know what happened that night, the night you were talking about . . .’

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