Her grandfather still had an astonishingly accurate memory of the city where he was born, of the location of streets, buildings, fountains and statues, of shops and cinemas, a memory so rich and detailed that his wife was convinced that he had spent years practising in secret. At first, he denied it, but later, having made fun of his wife for spending more than an hour trying to get her bearings in Zaragoza, he admitted that every night after he turned out the light, he would lie thinking about Madrid. He would choose a point of departure - a square, a church, a street corner - and then, from memory, he would mentally reconstruct the Calle Viriato, the Plaza de Santa Ana or the Carrera de San Jerónimo until he fell asleep. If on his first attempt he did not succeed, the next day he would glance at a map and try again. Raquel had been the privileged, often the only, witness to Ignacio Fernández’s joy when the city accorded with his memory.
That afternoon, however, her grandfather was talking for the sake of talking. He would stop in mid-sentence and suddenly change the subject without finishing the story he had begun. He held her hand too tightly as he walked, straight and stiff, his head held high, his feet moving forward at a constant speed, each pace precisely the same length as the one before. Raquel struggled to keep up with her grandfather, as though chained to this automaton that had usurped her grandfather’s body as they headed towards their destination. On that last, silent stretch, his granddaughter began to feel sorry for him, certain that this was not going to be fun and just as certain that the man her grandfather was visiting could not possibly be a friend.
‘Here we are.’
Ignacio Fernández stopped outside a great, dark doorway and turned to look at his granddaughter - not as he had looked at her in the apartment, but gazing into the depths of her eyes, into the soul of this intelligent eight-year-old girl, staring so hard that she sensed things she knew to be true although she could not understand them: that her grandfather was nervous, that he was wondering whether it might not be better to turn back, that at that moment her presence there was important to him. And since she did not know what to do, she did what she had seen Grandma Anita do whenever her husband was angry or sad or upset: she took his right hand in both of hers and kissed it over and over. Her grandfather smiled at her, a sad smile Raquel knew all too well, he took her in his arms and hugged her hard. Then he smoothed down his suit, slipped the brown leather folder under his left arm, gave her his hand and together the two of them stepped into the house.
On the third floor there were two doors, large and tall, their dark wood gleaming. Only one of them had a brass plaque in the centre, and Raquel noticed that her grandfather had chosen this door although there was no name on the plaque. As he let go of her hand in order to ring the doorbell, she also noticed that his hand was trembling like a scrap of paper in a gale.
‘Good afternoon. Can I help you?’
Grandfather did not have time to answer the maid because a lady, who looked to Raquel like a movie star, appeared beside her. She was supremely elegant, incredibly blonde, with deep blue eyes and pale white skin, and she was dressed in a black sleeveless dress, high heels and lots of jewellery: there were rings on every finger, bracelets on her wrists, and half a dozen strings of pearls twined round her throat. She gave them a polite, superficial smile, which was the only relaxed expression that Raquel would see on her beautiful face that afternoon.
‘It’s all right, María,’ she said to the maid, ‘I’ll take care of it.’
‘You must be Angélica,’ Ignacio mused aloud in greeting. His voice was his own again: clear, steady and calm, the voice of a man entirely in control of his own body.
‘Yes . . .’ The woman faltered, studying the visitor intently. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met.’
‘Of course we’ve met.’ Ignacio paused and gave a smile. ‘But you wouldn’t remember me because the last time I saw you, you were three years old, but I’m sure you know who I am.’ He paused again, the pause longer and more dramatic, as though he were playing a part. ‘Your mother and I were cousins. My name is Ignacio Fernández.’
Let’s go, Grandpa, let’s go, thought Raquel, seeing the movie star grow pale, much paler than she had been, let’s get out of here, Grandpa, please . . . The woman took two steps back, suddenly weak and powerless, as though every bone in her body had melted away, leaving her dangling like a puppet. Don’t smile like that, Grandpa, don’t smile . . . Raquel tried to speak but her lips refused to move. And the woman, struck dumb at the mention of the name - a name that had exploded inside her like a bomb, a patiently constructed time-bomb - no longer sparkled. Let’s get out of here, Grandpa, please, but he smiled, his lips curved in a perfect expression of sorrow, and he seemed calm, as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders . . .
‘Let’s go . . .’ Raquel finally managed to say, her voice almost a whisper.
‘I’ve come to see Julio,’ her grandfather’s voice countermanded hers. ‘Is he home?’
‘No . . . No, he . . . He’s gone out.’ The woman looked at him, looked at the little girl, playing for time. ‘He’ll be back later.’
‘All right.’ Ignacio Fernández took a step forward, though no one had invited him in. ‘I’ll wait for him, if you don’t mind. It’s been a long time . . .’
‘Of course, of course.’ The lady of the house took a moment to react. ‘Do come in . . . and the little girl ?’
‘This is my granddaughter, Raquel.’
‘Isn’t she sweet!’ The movie star struggled to regain her composure, but her eyes had a glassy sheen which filled the girl with a pity far worse than fear.
‘Would you like to come and play with my children for a while? They were just about to have their afternoon snack . . .’
Raquel squeezed her grandfather’s hand in desperation, because she did not want to be parted from him for an instant, but looking up she knew she had no choice.
‘What a good idea . . .’ Her grandfather kissed her on the head. ‘You go with them.’
‘María . . .’ The maid had not gone far. ‘Could you show this gentleman into the study? I’ll be there in a moment.’
The blonde woman took Raquel’s hand and led her down a long hallway lined with dark wooden furniture. There were paintings on the walls, some very old and very big, others small and clustered in groups. The carpets muffled their footsteps so completely that it took Raquel a moment to realise that the strange, muffled, insistent noise she could hear was simply the sound of the woman breathing. She was panting as though someone were following her, as though she were running rather than walking, or was trapped somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere dark and dangerous instead of simply walking down the corridor in her own home. As they turned the corner, the corridor changed, there was no furniture now, no paintings or carpet, but light flooded in from two windows that opened on to an internal courtyard. At the end of the corridor was a double door. The woman pushed it open and led Raquel into a big kitchen containing white furniture and with a table in the middle set for afternoon tea.
‘OK.’ The blonde woman finally let go of her hand, gave her a smile so tense it looked like a grimace, and nodded towards the two children sitting at the table. ‘These are my two youngest, Álvaro and Clara. Children, we have a guest, her name is Raquel, and she’s your cousin, a distant cousin but still . . . No, actually . . . I think she’s your niece, twice removed. I don’t know, I always get mixed up with family. Anyway . . . You sit here. Would you like a hot chocolate? Fuensanta makes wonderful hot chocolate . . .’
She was so nervous that when she pulled out the chair she knocked a napkin on the floor. A fat, smiling woman of about fifty in a blue uniform with an immaculate white apron offered Raquel a spoon and said she would take care of everything.
‘Thank you, Fuensanta . . . I’m just going to the bathroom for a minute . . . I have to . . . Jesus, where did I leave my cigarettes?’
Raquel looked at the children. They didn’t look like brother and sister. He had short, thick black hair and dark eyes like bottomless pools; the girl was blonde with pink skin and golden eyes that shone like beads of honey. She seemed very pretty. More than that - she had the sort of beauty you see in television advertisements for shampoo or biscuits, the gentle charm of those who always play the lead role in the school play, that innate, magnetic beauty that determines the pecking order in the classroom and the playground. Even Raquel would not have been indifferent to her beauty, would have wanted to be her friend, would have invited her to her birthday party before anyone else had she met her on some other day when she did not need to watch her words, to fear for her grandfather, to protect him from a kind blonde woman who invited you to have hot chocolate with her children. The boy fascinated her much less than the girl, but he seemed to be fascinated by her.
‘You’re my niece?’ This was the first in a long series of questions.
‘I don’t know.’ This was the truth, because no one had ever mentioned this family to her.
‘How old are you?’
‘I’m seven,’ his sister chimed in.
‘And I’m twelve.’ He thought for a moment then shook his head. ‘You can’t be our niece, we’re too little. You must be our cousin.’
‘I don’t know,’ repeated Raquel. ‘But my grandpa told your mother that he was her cousin or something . . .’
‘It would be good if you were our cousin, because we don’t have any cousins,’ the little girl said.
‘No,’ her brother confirmed, ‘Papá and Mamá were only children. Have you got cousins?’
‘Yes, lots . . . Miguel and Luis, who live in Málaga, Aurelio, Santi and Mabel, who live near my other grandparents in Torre del Mar, Pablo and Cristina, who live here in Madrid, and then I have cousins in Paris, Annette and Jacques.’
‘You’ve got cousins in Paris?’
‘Yes. We used to live there. I was born in Paris.’
‘That means you’re French.’
‘No, I’m Spanish. My parents are Spanish, and my grandparents. ’
‘That’s weird.’ The boy stared at her as though he didn’t believe a word she had said. ‘People who are born in France are French.’
‘Have you got any brothers or sisters?’ asked the little girl.
‘I have a brother, his name is Mateo, he’s four. But I’m going to have another one in November.’
‘There are five of us,’ the boy said, ‘Clara is the youngest.’
‘And you’re the second youngest, Álvaro, so there . . .’
Fuensanta served the hot chocolate, it was delicious, and she put two plates in the middle of the table, one with buns, and the other one with freshly made toast. ‘Don’t eat them all,’ she warned. ‘Your brothers will be home soon and they’ll be starving after the match . . .’ When she couldn’t eat any more, Raquel tilted her chair back and to her surprise, almost against her will, she experienced a moment of genuine contentment, as though the taste of the chocolate and the sweet buns had banished the feeling of being trapped in enemy territory.
‘I have a train set,’ the boy told her, ‘I’ll show you if you like.’ They trooped out into the corridor, the boy leading the way, Raquel in the middle and the little girl behind, and headed to a bright, spacious room with two balconies that overlooked the street. There was a pile of toys in the middle of the floor and a door on either side.
‘Is this your room?’
‘No, this is the playroom. I sleep in there,’ he pointed to the door on the left, ‘with my brothers, and the girls sleep in the room opposite.’
‘Do you want me to show you my dolls?’ said Clara. ‘I have lots of dolls.’
‘No, she doesn’t want to see your dolls.’ Álvaro spoke to her with the contempt of an older brother. ‘She wants to see my train set. Look . . .’
The train set was laid out on a board between the two balconies, and it was beautiful, because it had a bridge and a tunnel and a train station with tiny little people standing on the platform and others sitting on benches; there were even little mountains and a town in the background. The set had two engines, an old, black train that pulled three wagons full of coal, and a newer one painted in bright colours, hitched to a long line of passenger carriages.
‘It’s not your train set, Álvaro, it belongs to the three of you.’ The little girl came over to Raquel carrying two almost identical dolls wearing identical clothes in different colours. She held them out as though she wanted Raquel to pick one. ‘Look, they’re twins. Aren’t they pretty? Here, you take one . . .’
The trains had started up and were chugging along in opposite directions, accelerating as they went, when a chorus of male voices erupted in the hall singing a victory song. ‘
Hemos Ganao! Hemos Ganao! el equipo colorao!’
‘Papá!’ the two children cried out as a tall, plump, dark-skinned man - not young, but with the athletic build of a much younger man - came into the room preceded by a lanky blond boy and another boy who looked a lot like the first but was older.
‘Three - nil!’
The father shouted the result, holding up three fingers of his left hand and making a zero with the thumb and index finger of his right to illustrate the score, then he scooped his two younger children into his arms and tickled them and they tickled him until all three of them collapsed on to the floor in a ball of arms and legs, barely stopping to catch their breath.
‘And I haven’t even told you the best bit. Julio scored two goals, he was great, wasn’t he, Rafa?’ And then, with Álvaro still hanging on to his neck and Clara still clinging to his feet, he turned and stared at Raquel. ‘And who might you be?’
‘She’s our cousin,’ the little girl said, ‘her name is Raquel.’
He burst out laughing, kissed his daughter, and smiled at his pretend niece, and it was then that she realised that, aside from her blonde hair and her caramel-coloured eyes, the reason Clara was so pretty was that she had her father’s smile.