‘I don’t know what to say . . .’ My sister Angélica was slower to react. ‘I work at UCI, I know all the nurses there and she doesn’t sound like anyone I know . . . Besides, even if she was too embarrassed to talk to Mamá, she would have said hello to me.’
‘Well, all I know is that I saw her,’ I said again, looking around the table. ‘Maybe she’s somebody’s neighbour, or she went to school with one of us, she could have been at school with Clara . . .’
‘Maybe she’s a local,’ said Rafa as Clara shook her head.
‘I thought that too, but she didn’t look like she was from Torrelodones.’
‘That doesn’t mean a thing, Álvaro,’ my mother said. ‘Maybe if she were my age, but nowadays young people all look the same whether they’re from small towns or the city. It’s impossible to tell them apart.’
The woman had looked at me as though she knew me, or was trying to work out who I was, and it occurred to me then that this was why she had come - not to be seen, but to see us. I had looked into her large dark eyes, and she had held my gaze, patiently, resolutely, as though she had been waiting a long time to see us again, or simply to acknowledge us, to acknowledge me. I had smoked so much over the past two days that I had woken up that morning determined never to smoke again, but there was still a packet in my coat pocket, and watching her slowly smoke her cigarette, I was forced to break my resolution. By the time I had lit my cigarette, she had finished hers, and when I looked back, she was no longer looking at me, but staring straight ahead, at my mother, who was sobbing gently as Rafa took a handful of earth and threw it on to the coffin, at Clara, who, in one last, heartbreaking gesture, threw flowers into the grave, at my little nephews in their suits and ties, awkward in these roles, these clothes, knowing that grown-ups were watching. At that moment I realised that this woman knew exactly where she was and I felt a shudder of anxiety, of fear - not of danger but of the unknown. Then my mother collapsed. My brother Julio caught her and everyone clustered round, and I realised that it was over: the shovels, the prayers, the ropes. By the time I, too, finally stepped forward and took my place next to my family, my father had begun his journey towards oblivion.
‘I saw her.’ My nephew Guille, Rafa’s youngest son, stopped playing with his mobile phone and looked up at me. ‘She was wearing a checked jacket and those trousers people wear for horse riding. They were tucked into boots that came up to her knees?’
‘Yes, that’s her. I’m glad you saw her too . . .’ I smiled at him and he smiled back, a fourteen-year-old pleased to be the centre of attention. ‘Did you see her leave?’
‘No. She was right at the back. I thought she’d come up to us afterwards, but I didn’t see her again. I only noticed her because . . . well, she was pretty, wasn’t she?’
‘It’s strange . . .’ My brother Rafa looked from his son to my mother and then to me.
‘Could she be related to us, Mamá?’ I persisted. ‘A distant cousin or something . . .’
‘No,’ my mother snapped, then paused for a moment before saying, ‘Please,
, I think I’d recognise my own relatives. I may be old, but I’m not completely gaga.’
‘Yes, but . . .’ I didn’t dare continue, because I saw something in those eyes I did not expect. ‘It doesn’t matter . . .’
‘Álvaro, are you on something?’ my sister Angélica interrupted in that slyly solicitous tone everyone in the family recognised from births, hospital visits and convalescences. ‘The pill I gave you this morning wouldn’t make you act like this . . .’
I had been waiting to see the woman up close, to look into her eyes and see their colour, find out who she was, why she was there, why she studied us so closely - but all the fur coats and woollen jackets had converged, hugging friends and strangers, kissing smooth cheeks, and the woman did not appear. Then my mother, looking more shattered than she had even in her husband’s final hours, asked whether one of us would help her back to the car. Julio and I had each slipped an arm around her, felt the astonishing weightlessness of her body, and manoeuvred her out of the cemetery. ‘Forty-nine years,’ she murmured, ‘forty-nine years we lived together, forty-nine years we slept in the same bed, and now . . .’ ‘Now you have Clara’s baby on the way, Mamá, you get to watch your grandchildren grow up,’ Julio babbled, ‘you have five children and twelve grandchildren, and we all love you and need you. We need you so we can go on loving Papá, so that Papá carries on living, you know that . . .’ My mother walked slowly, Julio trying to console her with sweet, slow words. From time to time I kissed her, pressing my lips to her face as I glanced around to find the mysterious woman, although I suspected she was already gone. I was certain that this woman had known exactly what she was doing, turning up at the last minute when the mourners had their backs to the cemetery gates, when the family was gathered around the priest, leaving her free to watch the funeral from a distance, shielded by the last paroxysm of grief, only to disappear as those unaffected by the death came forward to offer their condolences. She had anticipated all this, but she could not have reckoned on me, my one phobia, the morbid aversion to funerals that had frustrated her clever plan. I had seen her - just me, and a fourteen-year-old boy - and I might have forgotten all about her were it not for the fact that, as I left the cemetery, I became convinced that her appearance at the funeral had not been a mistake, an accident, or any of the names we give to such chance events. She had come, and she had looked at us as though she knew us, and when I had looked at her, I had seen something familiar in her profile, a vague, fleeting impression I could not put my finger on, in the same way that I could not say what it was that had made my mother’s eyes flare a deeper, purer blue when I had asked my innocent question.
‘Why didn’t you say something at the time, Álvaro?’
‘Say something about what?’ Miguelito was struggling in my arms like an animal as I tried to strap him into the child seat in the car. By the time I had managed to buckle him in, he was fast asleep.
‘About the girl . . .’ Mai started the car.
I slipped into the passenger seat. My sister Angélica, in her usual hysterical way, had insisted that I wasn’t fit to drive. Besides, I didn’t feel like it.
‘You could have told me at the time, or when we went to pick up Miguelito, or on the way to the restaurant.’
‘I suppose so . . .’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say. ‘It just didn’t occur to me.’
We stopped at a traffic light and Mai smiled and stroked my hair. Then she leaned over and kissed me, and this warm, calm and affectionate gesture rescued me from the cold and the worry of the morning, bringing me back to somewhere familiar, to the little patch of garden that was my life.
‘It was strange, though . . .’ she said after a moment, as we turned on to the motorway.
‘Yes. I mean no.’ Death is strange, I thought. ‘I don’t know.’
randma Anita’s balconies teemed with geraniums, hydrangeas and begonias, blooms of white and yellow, pink and red, violet and orange spilling out of the clay flowerpots, climbing the walls or tumbling over the railings. ‘In Paris, the frost used to get them every year,’ she said to her granddaughter as she stepped outside to water them. It was a difficult task, because the plants were constantly searching for space that did not exist, climbing over one another as they grew towards the light, and only Grandmother knew exactly when and where, how and how much to water each pot.
‘Come over here into the sun with me, I’ll comb your hair.’
For Raquel, this was the prelude to the most glorious part of her Saturdays. She would rush over and sit very still, staring out at the balconies that looked like posters advertising happiness as her grandmother brushed her hair.
‘Why do people call you Anita, Grandma?’
Absorbed, as she watched her nimble fingers divide and subdivide the tresses with almost mechanical precision, Grandma Anita hesitated a moment before answering.
‘Because that was the name I was given.’
‘But you were named Ana, weren’t you?’
‘Of course. My father wanted to call me Placer, pleasure, but my mother didn’t like it. She said Placer was no name for a decent, hard-working woman . . .’
Although Raquel could not see her face, she knew her grandmother was smiling, although she had never understood why it was funny. ‘And as I was the youngest in the family, and I was never very tall, and I was only fifteen when we left . . . Well, everyone always called me Anita.’
She finished braiding one side and began on the other: the plaits were perfect, the same length, the same thickness, not a single stray hair, and as symmetrical as ears of corn.
‘What about you?’ she asked after a moment. ‘Do you know why you’re called Raquel ?’
‘Of course I know.’ Raquel took a deep breath and rattled off the answer. ‘Grandma Rafaela didn’t like her own name, but she wanted Mamá to be able roll her Rs properly, so she wanted to find a different name beginning with R, and Raquel was the one she liked best, so she was called Raquel and Mamá and Papá liked it best too, and that’s why they called me Raquel too, even though people say the thing about rolling her Rs is just silly.’
‘Well, they’re wrong.’ Grandma Anita took the girl by the shoulders, turned her round and studied her carefully, looking for some fault she never found, then kissed her cheeks, her forehead and the tip of her nose. ‘Now you look beautiful. Do you want to wake your grandad ?’
And Raquel dashed off into the darkness of the long hallway with its high ceiling and parquet floor, so different from her own apartment, until she came to the last door, the door to her grandparents’ room, where light reigned once more. She had always loved this apartment from the first time she saw it, unfurnished and freshly painted with a blue-and-white ‘For Sale’ sign hanging from a forlorn balcony that could not possibly imagine its future splendour. ‘Look, Mamá,’ she said struggling to read the words, partly because, although she had learned to speak in Spanish, she had learned to read in French, and partly because she had something with a strange name that her father and some of her uncles, and cousins, also had, which made it hard for them to read or write in either language. ‘
, Mamá, look,’ but her mother was already making a note of the phone number. ‘Come on,’ her mother said, ‘maybe there’s a caretaker.’ There was, and he had the key. ‘This way,’ he said. ‘We’ve just had a lift installed, see, they brought it all the way from Germany and, of course, these old houses, well, they’re not geared up for all these new-fangled gadgets . . .’
They went up to the apartment in the strangest lift Raquel had ever seen in her seven short years. The lift was so small it looked like a toy, and they had to go in Indian file - first the caretaker, then Raquel, with her mother bringing up the rear. ‘You’ll see,’ the man said. ‘It’s a beautiful flat, it’s just been done up. They took out the partition walls to make the rooms bigger, and put an extension on at the side - there used to be a little terrace there, and they put in a kitchen and a second bathroom . . .’ In the month and a half they had been scouring Madrid for an apartment for her grandparents, they had heard this all before, but this time it turned out to be true. They stepped into a large rectangular living room with two large balconies and a round, wrought-iron pillar in the centre. ‘It might get in the way a bit when they try to arrange the furniture,’ said her mother, ‘but it’s nice.’ When she had first seen the apartment on that October afternoon in 1976, with the light of the weary sun thrown like a translucent gauze over the dying leaves of the trees, the room that Raquel had liked best was this room at the end of the corridor. It too had an iron pillar, with the same capital of leaves and tendrils, but here the pillar was not in the centre of the room, but slightly to one side. Facing the wall where the bed would be, a row of windows opened on to a sea of rooftops and terraces, waves of red, ochre and yellow surging towards the distant horizon above what seemed to be an empty space, but was actually a large terrace, almost a garden, since the tops of the acacias reached the third floor.
From here, Raquel could look out over Madrid, the red roof tiles dancing between light and shadow, all alike and yet different, like scales or petals, cunning mirrors that absorbed the sunlight to reflect it on a whim. The slender, jagged spires of churches rose humbly over an undulating cityscape which danced around them like a boat, like a dragon, like the ancient, throbbing heart of a sky more beautiful than any Raquel had ever seen. How big the sky is here, she thought, as she looked out at an infinite expanse of blue so intense, so pure, that it didn’t seem to be a colour but a thing, the true image of every sky. A few high clouds formed a wispy veil so delicate that the light passed through unaffected, the clouds looked hand-picked, placed in the sky deliberately to accentuate the blue. This sky which had greeted her towards the end of the day was the same sky which, years ago, her grandfather Ignacio had bid farewell to at dawn, not knowing that he would carry it in his heart wherever he went for such a long time to come.
Raquel already knew that sun and light and blue were important to Spanish people. ‘I’m dying, Rafaela,’ her grandfather Aurelio, her mother’s father, had said to his wife, stepping out of the surgery where the doctor had just diagnosed him with a serious, inoperable heart condition. ‘You heard me. I’m dying, and I want to die in the sun.’ Rafaela had not wanted to tell her only daughter the truth. Her daughter, who had married here in France, before her brothers, and who had just fallen pregnant. ‘We’re going back,’ she had said simply. ‘We’re going to sell our house and buy a house by the sea, in Malaga maybe, or Torre del Mar, wherever your father wants . . .’ We’re going back, we’re not going back, I think they’re going back, I’d like to go back but my father doesn’t want to, I think my family will go back sooner or later. Nobody ever said where they were going back to - they did not need to. Raquel, who was born in 1969 and grew up hearing sentences composed of every tense, mood and interpretation of the verb ‘to go back’, never asked why. That was simply how things were. The French moved, or went away, or stayed. Not the Spanish. The Spanish either went back or did not go back in the same way that they spoke a different language, sang different songs, celebrated different holidays and ate grapes on New Year’s Eve.