‘What are you looking at me like that for, Alvaro?’ She smiled at me. ‘I knew this would happen. Your father and I were sure it would happen some day. Nothing stays secret for ever and our secret has always been so complicated. There were too many people involved, too many grudges. What we couldn’t possibly have imagined was how you’d find out but ... Well, I suppose life’s full of surprises.’
‘Explain it to me, Mamá.’ I hadn’t planned to speak but the words burst out of my lips. ‘You don’t need to tell me the details, because there’s no point, I already know everything, but tell me how this could have happened, because I don’t understand, I’ve tried and I don’t understand ... All this cruelty, this greed, this cynicism ...’
She leaned forward, rearranged her skirt, closed her eyes for a moment then opened them again.
‘You were the one who taught me right from wrong, Mamá, the one who taught me not to be selfish or greedy, not to be jealous of my brothers and sisters, to share what we had and to forgive each other. You taught me the Our Father, do you remember? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I know that’s not how they say it now, but I can still recite the old version by heart ... But I can’t do it any more, I can’t, Mamá, I can’t believe that you could lower yourselves like that, that you could sink so low. I have to find some way to make sense of it, because you are my mother and Papá was my father, and I can never stop loving you, I’ll never be another man’s son, another woman’s son, I’ll never have any other family, but I just don’t understand ...’
Her eyes were so cold, so clear.
‘I feel so alone, Mamá,’ I needed to look at her, but I didn’t dare, ‘I need you to explain so that I can believe it, do you understand? I need you to tell me why Papá swindled everyone, why he betrayed the people who trusted him, why he never believed in anything, why he never loved anyone, why he stole and lied and cheated and why afterwards he was able to love you, to love us, explain it to me, tell me something that is better than what I know ... Explain to me why Papá buried his mother, why he disowned her. Tell me how it’s possible to inform on a starving, unarmed man who’s exhausted and just wants a place to sleep for the night, tell me how your mother could have sent her cousin’s husband to his death, because she knew they would shoot him ... Tell me, or at least tell me that she never slept after she’d done it. You taught me the Our Father, Mamá, tell me that her conscience tormented her to her dying day, that she would have done anything to turn back the clock and spare his life ...’
I heard footsteps, laughter, then Lisette’s voice calling out ‘Iñigo!’, proof positive that reality still existed beyond that door.
‘I know it can’t have been like that, Mamá, but I need you to tell me, even if you have to lie to me ... I don’t understand my father, I don’t understand my grandmother, I don’t understand you, my own mother, I don’t know how you could marry the man who threw you and your mother out on to the street, who stole everything you had, a man your mother hated more than anyone in the world. Papá was her worst enemy, you were her only daughter, and didn’t it occur to you to look for someone else? You raised five happy children, and we were all well behaved and good at school and responsible and reasonable and we grew up to be good people, good workers, good citizens, and good parents to your grandchildren ... It’s unbelievable, Mamá ... Don’t you think it’s unbelievable?’
I heard footsteps again, more laughter, and the sound of the front door slamming.
‘That’s why I need you to explain. Please, Mamá, explain it to me. Tell me what everyone else tells me, that I can’t possibly understand, that I didn’t live through those times and I have no right to have an opinion, to judge ...’
My breathing was painful now, my tongue sore.
‘Tell me this wasn’t a country, Mamá, tell me it was the Wild West, tell me everyone was prepared to sell his soul for a plate of lentils, that a man’s life wasn’t worth the price of the clothes he stood up in, that nobody remembered what dignity was, tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because I was born into a world of privilege and I should be grateful. Tell me anything, tell me you didn’t know what was going on, what your mother did, what Papá did ...’
Finally I looked at her and saw that her eyes were closed, barricaded behind her hands.
‘It must have been hard to live with your head held high, with your eyes open, ears alert, I can imagine that, because fear debases everyone, depravity can only breed depravity ... It must have been like that ... I can imagine that, but it doesn’t comfort me, because you were alive, Mamá, you had eyes and ears, and there are families who survived with no secrets, no one to cry over, no one to worry about, people with no sins and no deaths on their consciences, but you ... for you to tell me that you never asked questions, that Papá died with a clear conscience ... I’d rather you told me something else, I’d rather you told me that it was a long time ago, that you don’t remember, that you don’t understand what I’m saying, that you don’t know why I want to rake up the past after all this time. That I’m naive, a fool ...’
She took her hands from her face then, and opened her eyes.
‘At least tell me that, Mamá.’
She was so quiet it was as though she had stopped breathing, and her eyes, bluer now, not just cold but frozen in their fury, held the gaze of a young woman. My mother was beautiful, she had always been beautiful, but now, as callousness stole over, up through her skin, I did not find her beautiful. For a moment I was afraid of her.
‘Could you give me a cigarette?’
‘What?’ At first I thought I had misheard, but she nodded to my pack of cigarettes.
‘Can I have a cigarette?’ she said again in a neutral voice.
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘here. But I really don’t think you should smoke ...’
‘I shouldn’t,’ she lit a cigarette, her hands trembling, ’but I enjoy it.’
We smoked in silence and I had time to regret what I had said to her, and to realise there was nothing else I could have said.
‘You know something, Alvaro?’ She stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, and now she was a different woman, she was the mother I had always known. ‘You really should get your hair cut. It’s such a shame you wear it long because it eats into your face, and you’re a handsome man, you’ve always been the most handsome one in the family ...’
And the most intelligent, Mamá, I was about to say, don’t you remember? But I get the message, don’t worry, I’m going ... I got to my feet and didn’t open my lips until I pressed them to her forehead. I had never experienced a moment as difficult as this.
‘Goodbye, Mamá ...’
I headed towards the door and realised I felt better than I had expected, maybe because I was no longer capable of feeling anything; the astonishment whitewashed everything inside me, within and without.
‘Listen, Álvaro ...’ But there would be no mercy, not yet. ‘I forgot to mention. Not next Sunday but the Sunday afterwards, the sixteenth ...’ She frowned. ‘That is the sixteenth, isn’t it? Anyway, we’re having a barbecue for María’s twentieth birthday. I can hardly believe it, twenty ...’
Suddenly I found myself smiling. I was smiling from sheer astonishment, because I could not believe what I was seeing, what I was hearing, it couldn’t be happening, but I had eyes and ears too and I trusted them, and this woman was my mother, I thought, and I was her son. She was saying these simple, affectionate words and looking at me with those eyes.
‘It’s amazing isn’t it,’ and this man was now me, and she smiled too, ‘I remember when Angelica was pregnant, my first grandchild, I couldn’t believe it, sometimes I think it was just yesterday ... but it’s not ... Anyway, your niece wanted a barbecue, but I’m not sure, this late in the autumn it might rain, but we’ll do what we can ... And I was thinking that ... Well, obviously I hope you’ll come, and maybe you could bring Miguelito, Álvaro ...’
And at that moment, precisely at that moment, not a second earlier or later, her eyes filled with tears.
‘I’d love to see him. That’s the hardest thing about divorce, it’s terrible, really, not being able to see your grandchildren ... So I’m counting on you, and on Miguelito. Don’t worry about Rafa, I’ll have a word with him.’
She looked away, smoothed her skirt.
‘I just wanted you to know that, if you want, you can bring this girl, Raquel, isn’t it?’
The whiteness dazzled me, blinded me, shot through my temples like a razor-sharp needle.
‘I remember her name because I was really surprised at someone in their family having a biblical name. I’m sure she’s very pretty, because she was a very pretty child, and I’m sure she’s very educated and refined and that she’ll know how to be ...’
Everything past and present was white, within me and without. My fingers were white, my hands were white, the tie I took off and the pocket I stuffed it into were white, my eyes and everything they saw, my ears and everything they heard, and my brain in its bleached-white uselessness.
‘Don’t look at me like that, Alvaro.’ My mother too was white, she smiled at me with white lips. ‘You’ll always be my son, whatever happens. I know you think all of this is serious, but it’s not, I know it’s not. Time will put things into perspective and after I’m dead you’ll regret the things you said to me a moment ago, but until then I have no intention of losing you. As for this girl ... Well, she can hardly be any worse than your sister-in-law Veronica. Now she’s the mother of two of my grandchildren. Just like anyone else.’
Don’t suffer, Mamá. Don’t suffer for me or for anyone, don’t even suffer a little, never seek consolation in suffering, that’s the only thing I wouldn’t understand, now that things have begun to take shape and form again, get back their colour, now that I have regained control of my body, now that my eyes, my ears, my brain can see something other than whiteness, don’t suffer, Mamá, don’t even think about suffering, because I won’t suffer for you.
I left without saying a word. I started the car without putting on my seat belt and drove away as quickly as I could. I drove without knowing where I was going until I came to myself and parked at a bus stop. My legs, my hands, my whole body was trembling, and it would have done me good to cry, but I didn’t even try. I rarely cry, very rarely, almost never.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I know I eventually drove back to Madrid, that I parked as if by some miracle in front of the Cuartel del Conde-Duque, that Raquel buzzed open the door without saying a word, that I stepped into the lift with the big suitcase and my story over my shoulder.
I know that at that moment I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t so serious. My mother’s heavily made-up cynicism, her pitiless smiles, the stony husk of her soul, the hard, dry scar where her heart should have been stung my eyes. And yet mine was just one more story, one of many, so many, so similar, great and small, sad, ugly, squalid stories which always seem like lies at first and always turn out to be true.
Just a Spanish story, the kind that ruin everything.
The Conservative Spanish Federation of the Autonomous Right
In Spain, presents are exchanged on 6 January.
A reference to
no. 53, the poem by Antonio Machado that is reinforced in the book’s title.