Her maternal grandparents had gone back, and so, after her third birthday, Raquel was sent every summer to stay with them in the bright, cool house, which had a large terrace with a vine, where her grandfather would sit and stare out at the sea. She would climb on to his knees and sit there quietly, kissing her grandfather, who was very ill, though he did not seem ill, and every time he would say the same thing; it’s nice here, isn’t it, it’s nice here. Later, in August, her parents would arrive and they would drive to Fuengirola for a picnic on the beach or to Mijas for a donkey ride, or to Ronda to see the bulls. On the last day of summer everyone would be sad, so much so that Raquel felt they were not ‘going back’, but they were leaving - leaving behind the scent of the bougainvilleas and the rosebays, the orange trees and the olive groves, the smell of the sea and the boats in the harbour, the whitewashed walls, the flowering window-boxes and shade of the vines, leaving behind the golden oil, the silver sheen of sardines, the subtle mysteries of saffron and cinnamon, leaving behind her own language, because to them, to go back did not mean to go home, one could only ‘go back’ to Spain.
And so, when Raquel’s family arrived in Paris, Papá’s parents - the ones who had not gone back - would invite them to dinner, and Grandmother Anita would ask them lots of questions - tell me everything, where did you go, what did you have to eat, what did people say, what music did you listen to, was it very hot, were there many tourists, did you bring me the things I asked for ? They had brought them - a huge box of sweet pepper and another of spicy, cans of tuna, anchovies, purple garlic, Manchego cheese, a whole ham, chorizo from Salamanca,
from Burgos, haricot beans, chickpeas, salt pork, and two huge bottles of olive oil they always bought in the village of Jaén on the way back. That’s good, Anita would say then, that’s good, and her eyes would fill with tears, and you remembered the aubergines, I’m glad, you can’t get them here, they don’t know how to cook them . . . Of course they know, Anita, Grandfather Ignacio would interrupt her, they just don’t make them the way you like them. I suppose you’re right, she would say, and then, a little fearfully because they both loved him, they would look at Mamá and say, ‘And your father, how is your father?’ Oh, he’s fine, she would answer, it’s incredible but going back has done him a world of good, maybe it’s the weather or . . . well, you know. Grandmother Anita would quickly nod and say, that must be it, because her husband was looking at her again as though he had been pricked with a long, sharp needle. It’s just foolishness, Anita, and don’t say it again, because I don’t want to hear it.
Afterwards, Grandmother would shut herself up in the kitchen and spend three days cooking, preparing a feast for the second weekend in September. Every year she and her husband held a dinner for their Spanish friends and a few French friends who loved Spanish food - apart from her son-in-law, Hervé, Aunt Olga’s husband, who was charming, a kind man, very forward thinking, but he was from Normandy and claimed that olive oil didn’t agree with him. Grandmother was terribly offended, though she always prepared something special for him, an endive and walnut salad, or meat cooked in butter, an alternative menu that grew with each passing year because every year there were more French people and fewer Spaniards. The tenses of the verb ‘to go back’ accelerated, quickly moving from the future to the present. After years of inactivity, of the permanent listlessness of sleeping in another man’s bed, everything suddenly began to change for the Spanish. Raquel was very young, but she understood.
We’re going back, even her father used the verb, though he had been born in Toulouse and his wife had been born in Nîmes. We’re going back too. It was September 1975, they had spent August in Torre del Mar and her father had found a job in Spain, not in Malaga, where Grandfather Aurelio lived, but in Madrid, Grandfather Ignacio’s city. I’m going to go out there next week, Papá, just me. Everyone else will stay until Christmas while I look for an apartment, a school and so forth. Since it’s just Raquel and the boys, and since Mamá goes to work in Aubervilliers every day, I was thinking that, if you don’t mind, they could stay with you for a few months, that way we wouldn’t have to wait until the last minute to move our things. You wouldn’t mind dropping the kids off at school and picking them up again, would you, Mamá?
Her brother Mateo was so young he wouldn’t remember Paris, but Raquel was six years old, and although they had not even left, she was already beginning to miss the place.
‘What is it,
, don’t you want to go?’ Grandma Anita, chopping nuts for Uncle Hervé’s salad, looked worriedly at her granddaughter, who was quiet and withdrawn. ‘You’ll be happy in Spain, you’ll see, and don’t worry about school. Do you remember how you cried when I told you you wouldn’t be going back to kindergarten? And what happened? Nothing. You met lovely Mademoiselle Françoise and you made lots of friends. Well, it’ll be the same in Spain, it’ll be better, because it’s your own country, our country. We’re Spanish, you know that.’
I’m not, she was about so say, you all might be, but I’m Parisian, I was born here and I don’t want to go back, I’m scared of leaving my friends, my school, my home, the streets and the TV programmes. This is what she thought, and if in the end she resigned herself to voicing a more restrained objection, it was not because at six years old she could not clearly formulate her thoughts, but because she knew that in this house such things simply were not said.
‘I wish we were at least going to Malaga. My grandparents are there.’
‘So what? Your Grandpa Ignacio comes from Madrid. Ask him, he’ll tell you all about it.’
‘Why don’t you come with us, Grandma?’
‘Because . . . because some must work and some must play, that’s why.’ She finished chopping the walnuts, tossed them into a bowl and put her hands on her hips. ‘Because your grandfather doesn’t want to go, he’s the most stubborn man in the whole world, and I should know, I’m from Aragon, and they say we’re stubborn as mules. When they wanted to make him a French citizen, he didn’t want it, when we were able to save a bit of money, he refused to buy an apartment, and look at your Grandpa Aurelio, with the little he made on the house in Villeneuve, and even with everything he had to pay off, he still had more than enough to buy the place in Torre del Mar. But not your Grandpa Ignacio, oh no. I’ve always had to lead him round by the nose. And for what? I ask myself. For nothing. Where’s you Grandpa Aurelio, the one who was stupid enough to put down roots in France? Back in Spain. And where’s your Grandpa Ignacio, the one who always refused to invest a centime here? In France. So here we are and here we’ll stay.’
‘But you want to go back . . .’
‘Of course . . .’ Her grandmother sat down and took the girl in her arms. ‘If I’d married a Frenchman like Olga, maybe not, but . . . I married your grandfather, I was lucky enough to marry your grandfather, because we’ve been very happy together, but always in Spanish, speaking Spanish, singing in Spanish, bringing up Spanish children, with Spanish friends, Spanish food, Spanish habits . . . I learned to cook just like my mother-in-law -
on Saturdays, paella on Sundays - I’ve gone on doing it all these years, and I loved her as if she were my own mother, because she was there for me when your father was born and we didn’t know where Ignacio was, didn’t know if he was alive or dead, and I wasn’t even married. We had a hard time, back then, but everything was logical, it made sense, and now . . . Now I don’t know what we’re doing here, especially when you’re going back. If it was up to me, we’d be in Madrid already.’
‘What about the town you grew up in?’
‘Where I grew up? I don’t ever want to set foot in that place . . .’
That was how strange, how absurd, how incomprehensible things were. Because they were Spanish. Raquel’s father had been born in Toulouse, her mother had been born in Nîmes; at the age of fifteen her Grandmother Anita had left a village somewhere in Teruel, but her granddaughter never knew its name and never wanted to know, because Anita could not bring herself to say it. Near the Sierra de Albarracín, was all she would say, and that it was a miracle she was alive at all, because they had killed everyone, her father, her brothers, her brothers-in-law, everyone except her, on that one terrible day, when, barely fifteen years old but with the courage of a woman of thirty, she had set off down the road with a tubercular sister and a mother who, at fifty, was like an old woman, until eventually she reached Toulouse.
There, alone, she had been taken in by a married couple from Madrid, Mateo Fernández and his wife Maria, who had two sons; one had been executed by firing squad in Spain, the other was a prisoner somewhere in France, forcibly conscripted into a military work detail simply because he was Spanish. They also had two daughters; the elder girl, barely twenty years old, was widowed, her husband executed before the same adobe wall where his brother-in-law had been gunned down. Anita married the only boy in the Fernández family to survive the two wars, ‘our war and the other one’, she would say, as though Spanish wars were better, different, more important, and it had made her very happy to see her eldest son paired off with Raquel Perea, daughter of a man from Malaga named Aurelio, who was scared of nothing except thunderstorms. Aurelio had been about to cross the border into Spain, having escaped from the internment camp where he had met Ignacio Fernández, alias ‘The Lawyer’, but at the last moment, when he was close enough to see Guardía Civil uniforms, he turned back, because we come from a country of bastards, that’s the truth, what more can you say.
This was the same Aurelio who had now gone back because he wanted to die in the sun, and every year he seemed farther from death, living in the shade of his vine; these thoughts brought tears to the eyes of the woman who now cradled his granddaughter in the kitchen of her house in Paris, Grandma Anita, who in her whole life had never seen an Andalusian vine, had never been to Malaga, had never seen the Mediterranean except from the Côte d’Azur, who had lived in France for more than twice as many years as she had lived in the village in Aragón whose name she could not bring herself to utter, who was alive thanks to a miracle and who had probably saved her husband’s life when, in 1945, he told her he was thinking of crossing the border because they needed men there, experienced men capable of fighting for the cause. ‘Please, I’m begging you, Ignacio,’ she had said to him, ‘whatever you do, don’t go back, you’ve already given enough, and I have only you, I have no family now, no home, no village, no country, nothing, all I have is you and a son you did not meet until he was two years old, and another on the way, you’ve done enough already, leave it to others now.’ ‘Others have done as much as I have,’ he said. ‘But they can do nothing for us, and you can. You’re needed here, Ignacio . . .’
This last argument, shot through with such love, such desperation, had kept the most stubborn man in the world in France, the man who had wanted to go back to Spain when his wife did not want him to go and who did not want to go back now when she wept, homesick for the shade of a vine she had never seen. This was how things were; little Raquel could not make sense of them, yet this emotional maze where dead-end streets all led to a chalk-white house by the sea was the backdrop to her life, the life she had been given.
‘I’m sick to death of the civil war,’ her father would sing when they went for a drive. Her mother would burst out laughing and add another verse, ‘and sick of the brave Spanish Reds, tralala’. ‘I’m sick to death of Madrid,’ her father went on, ‘and sick of the battle of Guadalajara, tralala,’ her mother replied. ‘I’m sick to death of the Fifth Regiment, and sick of that photo of Dad in the tank, tralala, tralala, tralala . . .’ It was the same every Sunday, driving home after Grandma Anita’s paella, her parents falling about laughing, and yet her father was in Spain now, and her mother was packing their things and to every question she asked Raquel received the same answer, ‘because I say so, because we’re Spanish’. Until finally her Grandpa Ignacio gave her a different answer.
‘I could have died many times, you know. I could have died during our war, the civil war, or when I was locked up in Madrid, or when I escaped from prison. I could have died when they put me in Albatera, or when I was thrown off a train in Cuenca in the middle of nowhere, or when I took a van from Barcelona to Gerona. I could have been killed crossing the border, or I could have died in the camp in Barcarès - a lot of people died there - or when I deserted, or when Madame Larronde told my mother that my brother-in-law was about to turn me in, or afterwards when I went back to my battalion, when I escaped again, when I fought against the Germans, let’s see . . .’ He counted them off on his fingers. ‘Thirteen times I could have died, and I’m still here. What do you think?’
‘What about when you wanted to go back to Spain and Grandma wouldn’t let you?’
‘That doesn’t count.’
‘And why were you escaping all the time?’
‘Because they were trying to kill me.’
But that was after the sad, tropical November morning, cold outside and too warm inside, when she heard her mother screaming into the phone, ‘Mamá, we already know, we heard it on the radio and I phoned my husband a while ago. Really? Good, but don’t cry, Mamá, put Papá on the phone, Papá, don’t shout, calm down or you’re going to make yourself ill . . .’
Raquel could not tell the time, but she knew it wasn’t early because the light was blazing through the blinds, and it was Thursday, she was sure of that, she had been counting off the days until Aunt Olga would take her to the cinema with her cousins, and now there was only one day and one night until Friday. Then the doorbell rang and it was Aunt Olga, and she was shouting too. Raquel was scared. She sat quietly in her bed trying to work out what had happened until she heard her brother Mateo crying and she got up. They were all in the kitchen, looking sad and solemn. Aunt Olga was blowing her nose and putting coffee on the stove, Mamá’s eyes were puffy, and her grandmother was shaking her head, giving deep sighs as though she was finding it difficult to breathe. Her husband, sitting in front of the empty table, arms hanging limply at his sides, was the only one who saw Raquel come in.