‘What’s going on?’ Raquel climbed on to his lap without asking permission.
‘Franco is dead,’ he said, and hugged her.
‘Is there no school today?’
‘Not for you. Today is a holiday.’
‘Why does no one look happy, then?’
He seemed more upset that the others, but when he heard her say this, her grandfather burst out laughing and his wife, his daughter and his daughter-in-law joined in. It was then that the holiday started, a long, strange day - perhaps not the strangest day Raquel would experience between then and that May afternoon in 1977 - but the only one on which she could do whatever she liked from morning to night.
At lunchtime, she was still wearing her nightdress, she hadn’t had her glass of milk but had stuffed herself with a packet of chocolate biscuits, she had drunk two Coca-Colas, and had used her mother’s make-up, but nobody seemed to notice, they didn’t seem to notice anything, yet they never stopped coming and going, and the phone and the doorbell rang and rang and people they knew and people she didn’t know came in and kissed her and some of them stayed and some of them went away and some of them ate and some of them didn’t. Grandma Anita shut herself up in the kitchen as she always did when she was nervous, and kept popping into the living room with a tray, and later Uncle Hervé showed up with her cousins, Annette, who was called Anne after her grandmother, and Jacques, who was called Jacques just because, and Raquel played, she put make-up on her cousin Annette, until they heard two loud claps and then her grandfather’s voice shouting, ‘Come on, we’re all going out.’
It was half past four in the afternoon and nobody was crying now. Mamá had cleaned her face, smiling from ear to ear, even though Raquel was covered in smudges of every possible colour, then she dressed her up in a new outfit, and her outdoors coat and a silly hat that was really only a toy called a bonnet and was really horrible. Raquel was about to take it off and leave it on the hall table but she was distracted by Uncle Hervé offering to take her over to his house with his children, he was taking Mateo, and even more by her grandmother’s reply, ‘No, let her come with us. She’s old enough and this way she’ll always remember today.’
Raquel would always remember that day, but not because of the kisses and the hugs, the joy and the tears, the celebrations and corks popping from champagne bottles. Spanish fiesta flared behind a few select doors of Paris, singular places, strange and yet familiar, where her grandparents were welcomed, people calling out their names, suggesting they try a
tortilla de patatas
, and another, each one the last, for this was a long night filled with bottles of champagne and
tortillas de patatas
, of kisses and fierce embraces, of curses and nicknames, of public vengeance and private grudges, of toasts to absent friends and questions to no one in particular. Because we are Spanish, and the Spanish can never be completely happy, a disciplined, drunken variant of despair began to show in the moist eyes, at the edges of the faces of hard, unemotional men, exhausted by the constant exercise of their stubbornness, as one by one they raised their glasses and repeated, ‘The dog is dead,’ and forced themselves to look happy, although they already knew that they would be dead long before their anger died.
Raquel would always remember that day, but not because of the miraculous transformation of her grandmother, who suddenly looked like a young woman, walking as though she were floating on air, as though she were dancing, nor because of the way her grandfather looked at his wife, his eyes wild, as if he were falling in love, thirty-three years after he had fallen in love with her the first time. They kissed each other long and hard as the dancing came to an end in a square where younger and very different Spaniards, the bitter fruit of Franco’s Spain, students and self-imposed exiles, pseudo left-wing adventurers from respectable families and brusque labourers, had organised an impromptu fiesta with an Argentinian bandoneon player who knew how to play paso dobles.
‘Spanish?’ a young man staring at them asked Aunt Olga. She took a long drink from the bottle before replying.
‘Emigrants?’ he asked. Olga took another drink and shook her head; she paused for breath and pointed to Grandfather.
‘This is my father,’ she said, ‘Ignacio Fernández Muñoz, alias The Lawyer, a public defender in Madrid, captain of the Republican Popular Army, he fought against the fascists during the Second World War, twice decorated for helping to liberate France, a Red and a Spaniard.’ Her voice quivered with a pride which Raquel did not understand.
She had heard these things many times, this was her grandfather, the father of her own father, who sang ‘I’m sick to death of the civil war’ and fell about laughing, and his sister, who joined in the songs and laughed along with him, but that did not surprise Raquel as much as the reaction of this stranger, little more than a boy, who walked over to her grandfather, shook his hand and spoke to him, his voice thick with emotion, his body stiff, head held high.
‘Señor, it is an honour to shake your hand.’
Raquel, who would remember this day her whole life, watched the scene as though she were watching a movie. The accordion stopped playing, the dancers stood motionless, the singing quickly trailed off as a murmur moved through the crowd, fragmentary, reverential, almost liturgical whispers,
, the noble words spoken in low voices.
Captain, republican, exile, red, words like precious jewels, like a spring of fresh water bursting forth in the middle of the desert. All eyes turned towards this tall, well-dressed man, who looked no different to a Frenchman, since he was blond and fair skinned, and his wife, the short, dark-skinned woman pressed against him, looked too sophisticated to be Spanish, with her hair cut short and dyed a deep red, and a modern coat that came down to her ankles. These boys, with their long hair, their round, wire-rim glasses, their shirt-tails hanging out and their duffel coats unbuttoned, and these girls, who wore their hair loose but otherwise went around dressed like Grandma Rafaela, their faces solemn, yearning, respectful, as though they had been waiting for this moment their whole lives.
At first, her grandparents were so stunned that her grandfather did not manage to say anything as he clasped the first boy’s hand. ‘I’d like to shake your hand too,’ said a second boy, the third called him comrade, and the fourth, a girl, thanked him, ‘We owe so much to people like you.’ At that point, Grandmother, who had managed not to cry all day, broke down and began to sob, the tears falling from her eyes with a gentle reserve, ‘I’m very proud to meet you, señor, it is a pleasure, an honour’, until the last of them, a short lad with black curly hair who stood to attention in front of him like a soldier, at your service, Captain, and Grandfather closed his eyes, opened them again, and at last he smiled.
Is it possible? he murmured, shaking his head and repeating this phrase so typical of him, is it possible? he said it whenever something good or bad seemed impossible, the inevitable prologue to shocks and surprises, unexpected sorrows and joys, is it possible? he said, and rather than take the boy’s hand, he hugged him.
At that moment, the whole square seemed to take a breath, inhaling and exhaling as one, the buildings and the people coming alive again. The accordion started up, Grandma took her husband by the arm, ‘Dance with me, Ignacio’, and they danced together, alone in the centre of the plaza, and when they finished, they kissed each other for a long time, as though they were finally, truly happy.
When they finished dancing, everyone clapped and clustered round them. Corks popped again, and everyone toasted the day and the night, and now they felt able to speak, to ask questions and answer the questions the grandparents asked. They came from all over: Catalonia, Galicia, there were half a dozen from Andalucía, someone from Murcia, a couple from Ciudad Real, a girl from the Canary Islands, a few Basques, two people from Asturias, an Aragonese man from Zaragoza and four or five people from Madrid, two of them even claimed to be from Vallecas. They seemed a tight-knit group, although most of them had not met until that morning when they had wandered out into the streets where they gathered in twos and threes and went to find the bars where Spanish expatriates congregated. They had spent the whole day drinking and singing, dancing, rounding up a number of French people along the way, girls mostly, a couple of Chileans and the Argentinian who was playing the bandoneon, but Raquel did not know this because she had fallen asleep on a bench and had to be woken up for the photos.
She fell asleep again in the car and did not wake again until her mother tried to get her undressed and put on her nightie. After that, she could not get to sleep again. She could hear doors opening and closing, whispered goodbyes, a half-silence broken by the furtive sounds of someone else who was awake but attempting to be quiet. Raquel was alone in her bedroom that night as Mateo was sleeping at Aunt Olga’s. She got up, went out into the corridor and found the light was on in the living room. Her grandfather did not tell her off. Instead, he smiled, took her in his arms and told her how he might have died many times.
‘And why did everyone want to kill you?’
‘For being a republican, being a communist, being a Red, for being Spanish.’
‘And were you all those things?’
‘Yes, and I still am. That’s how I might have died many times, but I survived, and do you know why?’ Raquel shook her head, her grandfather smiled again. ‘For nothing.’ He paused for a moment and then said it again. ‘For nothing. So I could dance the paso doble with your grandmother in a freezing square in the Latin Quarter in front of a bunch of kids. Oh, they were good kids, generous, funny, great kids, but they don’t know what they’re talking about, they have no idea what they’re saying.’
‘But that’s not nothing.’
‘No, you’re right. But it’s not much. Not much at all.’ Her grandfather kissed her and looked down at her. He was still smiling, but Raquel had never seen a sadder smile than this. Her grandfather’s sadness was the reason she would always remember this day, the night of 20 November 1975 - a deep, dark, smiling sadness, the remains of a day of laughter and shouting, of champagne and
tortillas de patatas
, a Spanish fiesta, wild and dark and joyous, and this tired old man smiling at this final defeat, a trivial defeat, definitive, cruel and ambiguous, the work of time and of chance, the victory of death and not of the man who had eluded it so many times.
Ignacio Fernández had not shed a single tear that day. He had watched his wife cry, his daughter and his daughter-in-law, had watched many of his friends and his comrades weep, men who like him might have died but had lived to see their enemy’s corpse pass by. A toast, they said, because we come from a country of
hijos de puta
, a country of cowards, cads, of grateful stomachs, a shitty country, he had heard all these things and had not shed a single tear. Since we have not been able to kill him these past forty years, let’s drink a toast, and he had said nothing, done nothing, but silently raised his glass over and over again. I want to die, Ignacio, said an old man who had hugged him in one of the many places he had been tonight. Don’t fuck around with me, Amadeo, he had said, today is not a day to die, and now he was smiling, but his granddaughter did not understand.
‘Don’t talk like that, Grandad,’ Raquel tried to say, as choking tears rose in her throat.
‘Hey.’ Her grandfather held her at arm’s length, frowning, then took her in his arms again. ‘What’s the matter ?’
‘I don’t know.’ And she didn’t know. ‘It just makes me sad when you talk like that.’
‘Don’t worry. I’m happy, even if I don’t seem like it. Now I can go back too.’
The following morning, Raquel could not remember going back to bed, but she would never forget that conversation. She remembered her grandfather hugging her, lying down next to her, and the next thing it was morning, and Mamá was in her room, ‘Get up, Raquel,
. Come on, breakfast’. Later, her grandmother had taken her to school as if it was an ordinary day, and it was an ordinary day except for the fact that she was exhausted and fell asleep at break time, and later, when Aunt Olga picked her up and took her and her cousins to the cinema, she fell asleep again and didn’t see the film. As it turned out, this was lucky, because when she got back to her grandparents’ house she was wide awake and she immediately realised that the young man getting out of the taxi outside the door was her father, and this sparked off another fiesta, one that was private, and familial, sour, sweet, bitter, salty, one that was perfect.
‘I wanted to be with you, Papá, with you and Mamá,’ her father said simply. He handed out presents, a huge box for Raquel, a smaller one for Mateo, a bottle of perfume for his wife and one of olive oil for his mother, and a patient, detailed account of the events of the previous day as they had been witnessed at first hand. His father listened attentively, his expression solemn; he did not even smile when his eldest son admitted that he was still hungover after the epic drinking binge. He had had a few glasses of champagne at the office in the morning, and had continued the celebration with cider, white wine, rum and whisky. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ he said, ‘we had to mix our drinks, because by lunchtime, there wasn’t a glass of champagne to be had in Madrid.’ Grandmother was already making plans, juggling dates, calculating how many bedrooms they would need, ‘we could live somewhere near you, what do you think, Ignacio?’
Her husband did not reply at once. He drained the glass of brandy in front of him, got up from his chair and put his fists on the table; only then did he explode.
‘What are you talking about, Anita? Would you mind telling me what the hell you’re talking about?’ Grandmother lowered her eyes and said nothing, no one dared to speak, although Uncle Hervé, who was French and who had had his fill of these outbursts of Spanish passion, gave a weary shrug which his father-in-law did not notice. ‘You know who’s giving the orders in Spain? Haven’t you seen the
hijo de puta
crying? Don’t you know who he is? Phone Aurelio, go on, let him tell you, or call Rafaela, they know all about him in Malaga.’