‘But the other day, when you saw Ramón, you told me . . .’
‘I know what I told you! I told you that Ramón told me that X said that Y had heard that Z had been informed at some secret meeting - though nobody knows when or where this meeting took place - that somebody, and we don’t know who that somebody is, said they weren’t going to do anything without us. And do you know what that means? It doesn’t mean shit, that’s what it means. It’s possible, Anita, that right now, at this very moment, I’m not fucking Spanish any more. I don’t have a Spanish passport, or a French passport or any other kind of passport. All I have are papers stating that I’m a political refugee and my membership card for the Spanish Communist Party, something that’s even banned in France. Where do you want me to go with that?’
‘But Aurelio . . .’
‘Aurelio was ill, I’m not ill . . .’
‘That has nothing to do with it.’
‘It has everything to do with it! Aurelio is retired, I’m not, I’m fifty-seven and I can’t live on fresh air, Anita, I can’t suddenly decide to get up and leave, and neither can you. You’ll have to talk to the woman who runs the nursery school with you, decide what you’re going to do, whether you’re going to sell up or close the place, I have to find a job, I can’t . . .’
‘But you’ve already talked to Marcel and he . . .’
‘He nothing! Marcel will do what he can, when he can, and right now he can’t, right now we have to wait, to see how it goes, how things develop. At least that’s what I’m going to do. If you want to go back before then, talk to your son, I’m sure he’d be delighted.’
‘Why are you so stubborn, Ignacio?’ Grandma Anita shook her head from side to side, having travelled this road so often before.
‘I’m not stubborn,’ he replied, almost gently, ‘I’m realistic.’
‘Realistic my foot! You’re stubborn, that’s what you are, stubborn as a mule.’
Her husband made no further attempt to defend himself. He simply went back to his seat, poured himself another brandy, and toyed with it for a moment.
‘Anyway . . .’ At the sound of her husband’s voice, Grandmother stiffened, but he was not talking to her now, but to his son. ‘Where did you say you were living?’
‘It’s a small development, four apartment blocks with communal gardens near Arturo Soria.’
‘And where’s that?’
‘Well, I’m not sure how to explain . . . At the end of the Calle Alcalá, right at the end, past the bullring.’
‘In Ciudad Lineal ?’
‘No, farther out, heading towards Canillejas.’
‘Canillejas?’ Ignacio Fernández looked at his son, eyebrows raised, his face like that of a frightened child. ‘But that’s miles outside Madrid.’
‘It used to be, Papá. Nowadays it’s part of Madrid. The city has grown a lot since you were there.’
‘But I never even thought I’d be living in Canillejas,’ he said, and glanced at his wife, who gave him a curious smile, shaking her head as if to say she had been right all along.
‘So what do you want?’ His son was smiling too. ‘I don’t think you’re going to find a place back on the Glorieta de Bilbao.’
‘Well, if not there, at least somewhere near by.’
‘What’s the name of that square?’ One year later, this was the first question Raquel asked the caretaker as he helped her take down the blue-and-white sign from the balcony, which was clearly no longer for sale. ‘That’s the Plaza de los Guardias de Corps,’ he told her. ‘That’s difficult,’ she said, as the man, who had told Mamá that he realised the apartment was a little expensive, but in this neighbourhood, they wouldn’t find anything better, signed a piece of paper. ‘And how far is it to the Glorieta de Bilbao?’ she asked him. ‘On foot?’ She nodded. ‘About ten minutes if you’re a slow walker . . . That’s not far, now, is it? No. I’d say it was very close.’
‘You’re going to love it, Grandpa, you’re going to love it.’ She had rushed to the phone as soon as they got home, eager to be the first to tell him the news. ‘You can’t imagine how big the sky is from there.’
n the hour and a half of my second class that morning, my mother managed to crash the voicemail system of my mobile. Álvaro,
, it’s Mamá, don’t forget to give Lisette the money for the gardener; Álvaro,
, remember to pick up the post, I know you’ll probably forget; Álvaro,
, when you pick up the post, could you go through it and throw out the junk mail, because I don’t have time for all that rubbish right now; Álvaro,
, instead of gorging on junk food like you always do, why don’t you ask Lisette to make something for you back at the house, you know what a good cook she is; Álvaro,
, call me when you’re leaving La Moraleja, I might take your sister out shopping . . . I deleted the messages before leaving the campus, standing at the bar with a glass of beer and two
montaditos de lomo
, the house speciality, famous all over Madrid’s Universidad Autónoma, although some people said the secret ingredient was simply that the chef never cleaned the grill, then I left a message on Mai’s voicemail - she was the scatty one - to remind her that I couldn’t pick our son up from school that afternoon, since it was my turn to ‘keep an eye on things’, as my mother put it, at her house.
It had been a little less than a month since my father’s death, and I quickly worked out that she had previously delegated the task to my two brothers, working down the list by age and leaving out the women, as she always did. I did not know how my brothers had felt going back to a house that inevitably still bore traces of Papá, his things still strewn over his desk, his favourite chair still turned to face the television, because we were all at that autistic, considerate stage of mourning, when everyone tries to avoid burdening others with his own grief and hopes they will do the same. Almost every afternoon, we spent some time with my mother, so we saw a lot more of each other than usual, but by virtue of the strict but tacit agreement between us, we avoided discussing the recent memories of our adult lives, settling instead for the shared memories of childhood, which were sweet and easier to digest.
In peacetime, I got along well with my brothers, when there were no external conflicts to trouble the comfortable, routine topics of conversation - the weather, the football, the kids. But lately, things had been anything but peaceful and a number of family meals, children’s birthday parties, even Christmas 2003, had degenerated into blazing rows. Whereas previously, Papá’s distaste for talking politics had put a brake on such things, now we found ourselves re-enacting on a smaller scale the tensions that divided the whole country. Divisions in the dining room echoed the balance of power in government, with the right wing holding an overall majority, while the opposition - my mother, my brother-in-law Adolfo and me, with the passive support of my sister Angélica - was zealous and argumentative. The radicalism of one side fuelled radicalism on the other, to the point where I found myself haranguing my pupils about the evils of the government before the 2002 general strike, even though I had joined a union only to support my friend Fernando, and until then had adopted political views more out of instinct than necessity. My family had been at daggers drawn until that first day in March 2005, when collective grief at our father’s death had brought us together. Now, however, the fault-lines had once more begun to show.
As happens in almost all large families, ours had been divided into two groups, the elders - Rafa, Angélica, Julio - and the ‘little ones’, my sister Clara and me. The fact that I was only four years younger than Julio but five years older than Clara had never seemed to matter, but over time, other factors had complicated this web of rifts and alliances for everyone but me.
Rafa and Julio worked together. Both had bowed to my father’s wishes. He had wanted his firstborn to study business, his second to study law and would have liked me to become an architect so that he could parcel out his various companies between his three sons. When I told him architecture didn’t appeal to me, and that I was thinking of doing physics, he gave me a long and detailed lecture outlining the advantages of his strategy. Though he never reproached me for my decision, I still felt as though I had disappointed him. Angélica’s vocation as a doctor, in a family with no paramedical precedents, appealed to him, and Clara’s unpredictability in embarking on two careers and finishing neither frustrated rather than upset him.
Faced with the professional common ground my brothers had shared almost since university, my sisters slowly began to forge an alliance based entirely on gender. For their part, Angélica and Julio shared the fact that both had divorced and remarried, and had had children by both partners. Although they had each married only once, Rafa and Clara shared the fact that both had married partners of a higher social standing than our own, though in the case of my sister-in-law Isabel, who had blue blood on both her mother’s and her father’s side, the size of our family fortune somewhat took the shine off aristocratic names.
In each case, I had remained on the sidelines. I did not work for the family business, I had been the last to marry, my only wedding had taken place in a register office, my wife worked as a civil servant, her family were practically paupers, and my son was the only one of my parents’ grandchildren to go to a state school. To top it all, I was the only member of the Carrión family to vote for the left until my sister Angélica, the perfect wife, capable of winding herself around the man by her side with the sinuous intimacy of an orchid to a tree, kicked off the twenty-first century by unexpectedly leaving her first husband - a rather dumb urologist who had already walked out on her a couple of times - for an oncologist who was more intelligent than she was, handsome, charming, a militant atheist and even more left-wing than me.
Since then, my brother-in-law Adolfo had sided with me in these arguments and my sister followed our lead, albeit with some difficulty, since she had previously had no interest in politics beyond an instinctive, I would almost say pathological, approach to law and order which consisted of blaming everything on the victims. Five years into her second marriage, she could just about keep this trait in check and I was grateful to her for having brought someone interesting into our family discussions.
My isolated position meant that I could maintain a similar, equidistant relationship with all my siblings, including those like Rafa and Angélica whom I loved but did not get along with. Julio, who as a little boy had seemed destined to idolise and emulate the firstborn, had adroitly managed to shed this role to become a very different man, someone whose moods veered from light to shade with equal intensity. He was very likeable, funny, he adored his children, and he knew how to get the most out of those pleasures in life that cost nothing. In addition, he was much weaker than Rafa, which to me seemed a virtue, and although we didn’t have much in common, he was the closest thing to a friend I had among my brothers and sisters.
Clara and I still shared a special closeness, though I knew that there were times when she looked at me as though I were from another planet, wondering what I had done with her brother Álvaro. None of this bothered me much, until the day my father had another heart attack and the gravity of the prognosis meant we kept vigil into the long dark hours, the brothers- and sisters-in-law all vanishing, leaving me alone with Clara and Mamá in the waiting room of UCI. Then, perhaps because I had nothing else to do, I thought about my family, what we were, what we had been, about the things that brought us together and those that kept us apart, about the things that had endured and those which time had obliterated.
My father made it through the night; in fact he would live for almost a fortnight. From that moment, my sister and my mother became inexplicably important, almost indispensable, to me, not simply for what they represented, but for that part of me contained in each of them. And I knew that this was simply a side effect of grief, a trap set by my tired brain, which was frantically attempting to commit to memory every date, every place, every image of this man whom we could now do nothing to save. To remember my father was to remember us all, freshly washed and combed and dressed, posing for the camera in every family snapshot in the photo album which Mamá kept in the attic, along with the folders in which she kept our school reports. And I was thinking about this as I unwillingly, almost fearfully, prepared myself for my father’s absence, his desk still littered with papers, his chair in front of the television, maybe even his toothbrush, or worse still the empty space where his toothbrush had once been. But I had not reckoned on Lisette.
‘Álvaro!’ I opened the gate with the remote control, but she was already standing outside the front door waiting for me, as though she had heard the car. ‘It’s so lovely to see you!’
I gazed up at her for a moment for the simple pleasure of looking at her. Then, as I bounded up the half-dozen steps to the front porch, I wondered how she would greet me. In front of my mother, Lisette always addressed me formally and referred to me as ‘señorito Álvaro’; in front of my wife, Lisette talked to me as a friend but did not kiss me when we met. That afternoon she kissed me on both cheeks, as she always did when it was just the two of us, and then hugged me, rocking me like a mother comforting her child.
‘How are you,
‘Fine,’ I said, but my smile faded as I realised what she meant. ‘Well . . .’
‘I know . . .’ Slowly she let the palms of her hands slide down the back of my neck before stepping away. ‘I know . . .’
‘Your mother called to say you would be coming,’ she said as she walked into the house and headed towards the living room. ‘I’ve made you some sandwiches and a little salad . . .’
‘Thanks, Lisette, but I ate something at the university before I came.’
‘Oh,’ she seemed disappointed, ‘so I suppose you won’t want some crème caramel after all the trouble I went to learning how to make it?’