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Authors: Almudena Grandes

Tags: #Literary, #General, #Fiction

The Frozen Heart (11 page)

BOOK: The Frozen Heart
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‘Oh!’ He paused and looked at her. ‘You really want me to tell you?’ She nodded so vehemently that her grandfather suddenly remembered he was talking to a seven-year-old girl. ‘You wouldn’t understand . . .’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
He smiled. ‘Well, it’s up to you . . . That night, we were all at home, and even that was quite rare because Carlos and Mateo had already been fighting for three months. My brother-in-law had a two-day furlough - you can think of it as a holiday. My brother had been fighting in the mountains all summer, but his regiment had had orders to come back and fight for Madrid right here
Madrid, because the fascists were already at the gates - just at the other end of Calle Princesa . . . He’d been given permission to see his family, but he had to go back to the barracks at night. So, what happened was that Carlos, who was a socialist too . . .’ He stopped, cupped his chin and stared into space as though seeking inspiration. ‘How can I explain it? Carlos was one of my best friends, he was more than that, he was my hero. He was also my civil law professor during my first year at university. It wasn’t really his subject, but he’d just started teaching so he was prepared to take anything, because he was very young - I mean, he was seven years older than I was, but for a professor he was very young, very clever and a bit of a drinker. I started to hang around with him, and we would go out drinking together, then I introduced him to my sister and they started courting, they got married almost immediately and we had been friends ever since. That night . . . I was moved when I saw him, when I heard him speak, because he was normally a quiet man. He had a great sense of humour, and was writing a book that he would never publish, but that night he flew into a temper - I’ve fought in two wars since then and I’ve never seen anyone as enraged as Carlos was that night, not even your Grandpa Aurelio, who was famous for his rages all over the south of France - especially the night we captured the German tank . . .’
Raquel burst out laughing. This was something she could easily imagine, she had often heard the story of how her Grandpa Aurelio had furiously grabbed the French soldier who tried to destroy the tank, how he had thrown the man clean across the room and screamed at the soldier in a language the man had never learned but which that night he understood. ‘I’m crossing the border in this tank, got that, you imbecile? I’m driving this tank back to my village.’
‘What about Carlos? Who did he fight?’
‘Carlos? He didn’t fight anybody, or rather he fought everybody, he fought the whole world. He was shouting, “Franco will never set foot in Madrid. The fascists won’t set foot here, not even over my dead body, because even if they kill me, I’ll come back from the grave and put a bullet between the eyes of every last one of them and when I’m finished I’ll start on our heroes in Valencia and show them whether or not Madrid can be defended.” I was so moved by what he said, by the way he said it, that the next day I enlisted.’
‘To go to war ?’ And although this was something she had always known, although she had seen lots of photos of her grandfathers in uniform carrying guns, Raquel seemed so shocked by his words that he burst out laughing.
‘Of course, where else would I be going? I was eighteen years old, and when I showed up at home with a rifle, my father gave me a piece of his mind . . . “That’s all we need,” he said, “first your brother-in-law, then your brother, and now you, Ignacio, now you. You won’t last two days. You’re nothing more than a lad, you’re irresponsible, a spoiled baby . . . ” That’s what my father said to me. But by the time the government ran off and abandoned the people of Madrid, I was a rifleman with the Fifth Regiment. They gave me two days’ training and then they sent me off to the front, but I carried on, and Madrid carried on and Mateo carried on and even Carlos carried on, though barely, because a shell put him in hospital for months, but he’d said he was going to survive and he did. He was a cripple, and his right arm was almost useless so he had to learn to do everything again with his left hand. “I don’t care,” he’d say, “it’s better than my right hand ever was . . . ” After that there was no more vermouth. Not until today . . .’
‘Really?’ Raquel was surprised. ‘Don’t they have it in Paris?’
‘Of course they do, but it’s not the same . . . When I left, I didn’t realise I was leaving for a world with no tapas, no vermouth on tap, no drinking binges where you’re tipsy for three days on end and all you do is laugh. I’ve missed that, missed it terribly, missed the good things and the bad, the noise and the shouting and the dirt. It might sound strange but I even missed the badly dressed women and waiters who wipe down every table with the same filthy rag. I could never stand flamenco, because when I was a boy you heard it in every restaurant, on every street corner at every hour of day or night, but there I even missed flamenco. But mostly I’ve missed the sky. When you’re born here and you leave, other skies seem so bleak, so fake, like a painted backcloth in a theatre.’
Raquel was astonished that her grandfather had missed so many things for so long and had never wanted to speak of them, but she did not dare ask him why. He was afraid. Afraid that he no longer belonged in this city, in this country, afraid he might not recognise himself in the mirrors of his childhood, afraid that he had stumbled too deep into the unending labyrinth of transitory people who do not have anywhere to belong. ‘I’ve lost so many things in my life that I was afraid that I had lost everything,’ he said finally, after he had asked his son to look for a house so he could move back permanently at Christmas. From time to time, his wife would timorously outline the advantages of living on the Canillejas road. ‘You should see how nice their place is, there’s no noise, no traffic, they’ve got a parking space and a garden.’ But she never dared say more. Her husband loved the city so much that it would have been worse than cruel to tear him away from it now, and Canillejas would never be Madrid to Ignacio. Nor to his granddaughter.
In those September days, Raquel learned to see the city through her grandfather’s eyes. Every afternoon, Ignacio Fernández borrowed his son’s car and drove his granddaughter to one of the five or six areas which to him had always been, and would always be, Madrid. Sometimes, if they were not going far, Grandma Anita would go with them, but Grandfather almost always planned long trips. ‘Because if I don’t,’ he said to Raquel, ‘your grandma will have us stopping in front of every shop window.’ And the little girl, who would sigh and groan with every step whenever her parents tried to take her somewhere, would nod and smile, slipping her hand into her grandfather’s.
Their weekends were ruined. The two of them would sit side by side on the sofa in the living room, sulking, because they had planned to go to the Rastro or the Plaza Mayor or back to Vistillas to have a glass of vermouth, and everyone else was determined to take them on a trip to El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, Aranjuez, Chinchón. ‘No way!’ Grandpa would say. ‘Not Chinchón, why would we want to go there?’ But they went and they admired the streets and the mansions and ate suckling pig or roast lamb because Grandma Anita had never been to the centre of Spain and wanted to see everything as quickly as possible.
‘You still have one weekend left.’ Her father drove during these excursions, calmly accepting the late Sunday afternoon traffic jams.
‘If you like we could go to your pueblo, Mamá, the place where you were born. I looked on the map and it’s not . . .’
‘Absolutely not.’ She cut her son off with the same skill with which she wielded a kitchen knife. ‘I’m not going back to my pueblo, I have no intention of ever setting foot in it again, I swore I would never go back, and when I make a promise, I keep it - not like your father.’
‘Because you’re stubborn as a mule, Anita.’
‘You can talk!’
‘What about me?’
‘You’re worse.’ She turned her head and looked out at the scenery, changing her tone of voice so that it was coaxing, almost childish. ‘Now Teruel, I’d love to go to Teruel, and Zaragoza, especially Zaragoza. My grandparents lived there and Mother always took me with her when she went to visit them. They always made a fuss of me because I was the youngest. My poor mother . . .’
‘OK . . .’ her son hurriedly agreed before Grandma burst into tears, which she inevitably did whenever she thought of her mother. ‘Next weekend I’ll take you to Zaragoza.’
‘We didn’t get to go to the flea market, Grandpa,’ Raquel said when he came to kiss her goodnight.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘we’ll get there . . . When I come back we’ll have every weekend to enjoy ourselves.’
And so it was. To the old customs Ignacio Fernández picked up once more in January 1977, he added a new one - every Saturday between nine o’clock and ten, he would collect Raquel from her house on the Carretera de Canillejas and take her to his house on the Plaza de los Guardias de Corps, opposite the place where the Conde-Duque de Olivares barracks had once stood. The mornings were always the same. He would leave the car in the garage and they would stop at the first newspaper stand, then buy some
and chat for a while with the doorman before going up to the apartment, where Grandma Anita, who refused to have breakfast in a bar, would be waiting with freshly made coffee and a bowl of chocolate milk, eager to see her granddaughter. After breakfast she and Raquel would go shopping. Raquel loved pushing the shopping trolley around and talking to her grandmother, who would ask her advice about the fruit and the fish as if she were a grown-up, and then explain how they would cook this or that. From time to time, a shopkeeper would make a mistake and say, ‘You see how lucky your mother is to have you with her ?’ and they would both laugh. They were happy times, because her grandmother had set aside the time just for her.
With the money her partner had paid to buy out Anita’s share in the nursery school in France, she had set up another business. She had two minor partners, both with lesser shares, but she kept it in the family - one of the partners was Raquel’s mother and the other, one of the child’s aunts, the wife of her mother’s older brother, whose name was Aurelio like his father. Both of them had worked in the same business, and together they convinced Anita to set up a small shop making custom frames for pictures. Aside from these commissions, they sold lithographs, posters and ready-made picture frames along with a few trinkets. Grandma had no experience of framing, but she had excellent taste and she enjoyed talking to the customers, advising them on the size of the mount and the moulding of the frame. She had nothing to do with the actual framing process because she said that she was now too old to learn a trade, but she loved the work. On Saturdays, however, Anita would not open the shop until half past five, leaving her husband with their granddaughter for three hours, which were the best hours of the best days in Raquel’s life until that May afternoon when she found her grandfather sitting up in bed with his glasses on, staring into space.
‘Where are we going today, Grandpa?’
‘Today we’re going visiting,’ he said, and gave her his old smile, the smile he had worn in Paris which looked like a mask.
‘But where?’
‘To visit a friend of mine.’
‘Really?’ Raquel frowned, because Saturday afternoons were supposed to be just for the two of them. ‘Will it be fun?’
‘Absolutely. They have lots of children, some of them are your age.’
But she knew that it would not be fun, and it wasn’t. It was strange and mysterious, but it was not fun. Raquel guessed this even before her grandmother opened the door, kissed them both quickly and said she had to hurry because she was running late. Her husband reminded her that they would pass by the shop to pick her up at about half past eight and then the three of them would go out for dinner. This, too, had become part of their Saturday routine. On Sundays, when her parents came to her grandparents to have lunch and take her back home afterwards, Raquel, proud to have eaten out in a restaurant, would painstakingly relate every detail. And yet she did not tell her father, or her mother, or her Grandmother Anita what happened that Saturday, which had seemed like every other Saturday but which had felt different from the moment her grandfather decided to wear a grey suit and a tie rather than the shirt and jumper he usually wore. Then, from a drawer in his desk, he took out a brown leather folder, the corners faded by time.
‘What’s that, Grandpa?’
‘It’s a folder.’ He showed it to her, careful not to bring it too close. ‘See?’
‘I can see that, but what’s inside it?’
‘What papers?’
Not only did her grandfather not answer her question, he behaved as though he hadn’t heard it, and this too was new, because ordinarily he never asked her to be quiet, never asked her to leave him in peace, never once muttered under his breath ‘sometimes you try my patience,
’, the way her parents did. Grandpa Ignacio had always answered any question she asked and, unlike her mother, had never worried about his granddaughter’s appearance. And yet, that afternoon, before they went out, he had looked her up and down, from her shoes to the satin ribbons on the perfect braids plaited by her grandmother, which of course, matched her dress, which matched her jacket.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘Nothing,’ He kissed her forehead. ‘Just admiring how pretty you look.’
Then, as if to gloss over his strange attitude, he did his best to behave normally, explaining the names of the streets to her, or telling her stories about his childhood, stories about curious characters he had known or had heard about when he was a boy.
‘Today we’re going to a different district - or to be more precise, we’re going all the way to the other end of this district. My friend lives on the Calle Argensola, which is at the far end of the Calle de Fernando VI. You’ll see, we’ve been there before on our way to the Paseo de Recoletos.’
BOOK: The Frozen Heart
5.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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