‘OK, then,’ I smiled finally, ‘I’ll have some of that.’
Lisette herself was as rich and intense, as syrupy and golden, as the crème caramel she now offered me. She had the face of an exotic doll, almond-shaped eyes with just a touch of make-up, full crimson lips, her body small and slender yet curvaceous with soft, velvety skin the colour of milky coffee. ‘Have you seen Mamá’s new maid, the one from Santo Domingo?’ my brother Julio had asked me at one of his kids’ birthdays, and when I told him I hadn’t, he put his face in his hands. ‘Jesus, she’s sex on legs.’
At that point I burst out laughing, although I didn’t particularly pay him any attention since my brother was the kind of man who tripped over gorgeous women at least twice a day, even if he only went out to walk the dog. But when I saw Lisette I had to admit that, despite his somewhat shallow and indiscriminate taste, this time my brother had not been exaggerating. ‘Hey,’ I said when I next saw him, back when my father still wanted us all to go to a restaurant for Sunday lunch, ‘you were right!’ ‘Right about what?’ Julio asked. ‘That thing you said about the Caribbean,’ I replied, even though it was just us and Rafa at the bar and none of the women could overhear. ‘I was right?’ I nodded. ‘Boy were you right!’ ‘Well, I did warn you,’ he shot back. ‘Incredible,’ I said. ‘Fucking incredible,’ he stressed. ‘Could you two just stop all that bullshit?’ interrupted Rafa, who, according to Julio, had always been appropriately interested in women, that is to say, not very interested, ‘you sound like a couple of horny schoolboys.’ ‘Not schoolboys,’ Julio burst out laughing, ‘but definitely horny,’ and I laughed with him.
I liked women a lot more than Rafa did, but I was less obsessive than Julio. I didn’t go looking for them, I didn’t run around after them, I didn’t chat them up in bars or chase after them at traffic lights. To me, women had always seemed to be a sort of gift, an extraordinary goodness that floated far above my head and rained down on me from time to time. I never felt that I had done anything to deserve the attention that some of them lavished on me, perhaps because, although I found them beautiful, funny, gentle, and infinitely arousing, I also found women strange. I never bothered to try to fathom the mysterious working of their minds, never doubted for a moment that they were the ones who did the choosing; I was content to watch them come and go, neither regretting those who were beyond my reach, nor believing that their preference was in itself valuable, but accepting their existence gratefully. In any case, I loved my wife.
Mai and I had been together for nine years and neither of us had yet shown any sign of growing tired of the other. She was still cheerful, tranquil and patient, did not meddle too much in those parts of my life that did not concern her, and valued her own independence. I was grateful that she was easygoing and was pleased that she did not seem to miss the intense, emotional ups and downs of the kind of love that catapulted many of her friends from abject depression to the dizzy heights, only to spiral inevitably back down into depression, their lives like a squall constantly about to break.
‘She’s a complete idiot, you’ll never believe what she’s done this time,’ Mai would say before she’d even hung up the phone, annoyed by histrionics I simply found amusing.
Then she would lie next to me on the sofa and I would stroke her hair while she brought me up to date on the endless passions, the jealousies, the break-ups, the doubts, the reconciliations, the wild make-up sex, the business trips, more jealousy, more doubts, more break-ups, and I wondered whether sometimes she too was prey to these strange, intense feelings, beyond reason, something capable of dismissing common sense in favour of some mythic happiness as insubstantial as smoke. Or not.
I didn’t know, because I was not the kind of person who felt this kind of suffering, that kind of happiness, and so, sometimes as I sat there listening to Mai, I wondered whether she had the same doubts as I did, if she had ever wondered about the stability of our life together, what we were losing in return for this image of the perfect couple. I never saw the least indication that my wife was unhappy, not even on the hypothetical plane on which I played out these timid conjectures. It only took a moment for me to remember how much I loved Mai, that I liked her, that we were happy together. This had always been enough in dangerous situations, and although there were a number of isolated instances when I had succumbed to temptation, I had only ever cheated on her when I was away from home, and only with women I met by chance and did not find too attractive, at least not attractive enough to think of these nights as anything more than a moment of madness. Whenever I met a woman I thought I might grow attached to, I put up barriers.
Consequently, I did not suffer from any pangs that first summer Lisette spent at my parents’ house, and since that time we had had a curious relationship, a sort of innocent flirtation that did not worry me in the slightest. This was a game that I knew how to play, something that the women I genuinely found attractive - Lisette, the secretary at the museum, one of my colleagues - realised immediately. Some of them, especially the younger women, were hurt by my lack of ambition, but for the most part we had fun.
‘Delicious,’ I said as I finished the dessert. ‘You get better every day.’
‘Thanks.’ She smiled. ‘How is your mother?’
‘Not great. She says she’s fine, but . . . Staying with Clara has done her a world of good. She spends her whole time tidying: the kitchen cupboards, the wardrobes, the boxroom. My sister must be going up the walls, but it keeps Mamá busy.’
‘She will come back, won’t she?’
‘Of course she’ll come back!’ I said with exaggerated emphasis because I could hear a waver of anxiety in her voice and realised she was worried about her job. ‘She still doesn’t really get on with Curro and sooner or later she’s bound to get bored with reorganising things. Clara is due next month, so Mamá will probably hang around until the baby is born, but she’ll be back here by the middle of June, when it starts to get hot. You know how much she likes to have her grandchildren over in the summer.’
‘I could go and stay with her there, help her with things,’ she pursed her lips, her face both puzzled and hurt, ‘but she doesn’t want me to.’
‘Of course she doesn’t, because she’ll be coming back here, and she needs you to look after the place in the meantime, to pay the gardener and so on . . . That reminds me, I brought some money for you.’ From my wallet, I took out half a dozen sealed envelopes held together with an elastic band, each one carefully marked with my mother’s elegant, old-fashioned handwriting. ‘Has there been any post?’
‘It’s in your father’s study.’ Lisette gave a shrug. ‘I always used to leave it there. I’ll go and get it if you like . . .’
‘No, I’ll come with you . . .’
I did not know how my brothers had felt, I knew that I was going to find this very difficult, and yet I had not anticipated the aching sadness that breathed through every object, permeating the whole house with an invisible patina at once ancient and impossibly new. Heading towards his study, something I could have done blindfold, every step I took, every door I opened, every thing I touched jolted me with the realisation that this was a step, a door, a thing that still existed in a world where my father did not.
Matter has no spirit and yet my soulless body ached at the implacable memory of this room, the antique wooden desk, the wine-coloured leather wing chair, the fading Persian rug and, at the far end of the room, the low table, the pair of armchairs and the sofa, its back to the huge glass-fronted bookcase. The study smelled of my father, it held the touch of his fingers, the sound of his voice, the gaze of those eyes that had looked around this room day after day, year after year. Some of the most important events in my life had taken place in this room. It was here that as a teenager I had phoned my girlfriends in secret and read illicit books, here that I had confessed that I did not intend to study architecture, here that I announced that I had received a scholarship to study for a doctorate at a university in America, here that I told my father I was going to marry Mai and that I was going to have a child. Yet none of these things seemed important now, while the harsh glare of the furniture, the mathematical precision of the angles between desk and chair, stapler and letter-opener, appointment book and pencil holder, all proclaimed the passing of this man who would never use them again. Standing in this impossibly lifeless room, the certainty of the loss hit me again. I wondered how many more times it would happen, how long it would be before I would simply remember my father as I wanted, rather than feeling obliged to do so by rituals, by well-meaning words and ceremonies.
I love my father. I admire him, I need him, I miss him, but I had not yet learned to conjugate those verbs in the past tense. It wasn’t easy. In death, we say, all men are equal, but it’s not true, they are not equal in our memories. My father was more extraordinary than we, his children, would ever be, and his strength, energy and integrity were reflected in us, doing more to keep us whole and united than all my mother’s affectionate scheming. I knew this better than anyone, because I was the one who had drifted away the most, the only one who had not attempted to be like him. I regretted that now, in spite of the yawning gulf between my beliefs and his. He always knew that I loved him, that I admired him, that I needed him, but that was not enough to relieve the nagging feeling that I had ended up being the son he would never have wanted to have.
It was not easy being the son of a man like my father, a natural charmer, a born winner, a magician, the genie of his own magic lamp. I never met anybody who did not like him, did not submit eagerly and seek out his company. Nobody, that is, except me, when I saw myself reflected in him and felt overwhelmed by the difference, crushed by his superiority. I did not even manage to be taller than him, and the inch I never grew, the inch that would have made me as tall as him, expanded in my adolescent mind to become a symbol of my failure to live up to him.
Sometimes, I felt proud of myself, but I never felt that my father would be proud of me. And yet, despite the fact that I was the only one of his children to question him, the values that he stood for, he had always been more magnanimous to me than I had been to him, as though he could tell that my defiance was not a whim, but a need that grew out of my own sense of inferiority. It was not easy to be the son of a man like that, at least it had not been easy for me, and all that forgotten pain, long buried in the sands of all the days that had passed, since the time when he had been the most important person in my life, now spouted again with every memory of him. Death is terrible; it is savage and impious, insensitive and cynical, but most of all it is dishonest.
‘Is that all there is?’ Lisette nodded as I picked up the pile of letters which lay on the desk. ‘I’ll take them into the living room.’
I didn’t want to sit in his chair, didn’t want to lean over his desk and touch his things, but as I was leaving, I could not help but notice the empty spaces on the wall.
‘Where are the photos?’ I asked, referring to three framed portraits, one of my father in a German Army uniform posing beside a plane, one in which he and my mother stood facing each other, smiling, she almost a woman, he already a man, the name and address of a photographer on the Gran Vía in the bottom right-hand corner, and a snapshot, yellowing at the edges, of my father standing between my two older brothers in their school football kit.
‘Rafa took them,’ Lisette said, her voice hesitant until she saw my smile. ‘Julio took the photo of your mother on the desk, the one in the silver frame, you remember . . . The girls haven’t been yet. Aren’t you going to take anything?’
I took a moment to digest what she had said. Death, I realised, had magnified my brother Rafa’s unconditional, extreme worship of my father’s personality. I shook my head.
‘Not now,’ I said at last, ‘I’ll have to think about it.’
It didn’t take long to sort through the post, about thirty letters, the junk mail outnumbered by the smart white hand-addressed envelopes bearing yet more belated condolences. There were a few invoices, which I gave to Lisette to file with the others, and five letters from five different banks, four of them in ordinary windowed envelopes and the other in a sealed envelope which I opened in case it was just a leaflet offering a loan. When I realised it was a personal letter from a financial adviser, I put it with the others. I said goodbye to Lisette, kissing her absent-mindedly, and headed back to Madrid.
The traffic was so heavy on the motorway to Burgos that as I passed Alcobendas I was able to see that the interactive museum I had been working with for a few years had now taken down the banners that had advertised the exhibition on Mars on loan from a German museum. The next exhibition, on black holes, was one I had curated myself. I was happy with the way it had turned out, yet, long before I reached Madrid, I found myself thinking about the woman at the cemetery again, as I had done at some point every day for almost a month.
I thought about her and I thought about me, and when I did, I remembered the strange state I had been in when I saw her, that sudden heightened awareness which had fixed her in my memory like some posthumous facet, dark and secret, of my own father.
I didn’t dare to talk to anyone about this, because I realised that there was something unhealthy about my curiosity, something I did not quite understand myself, but something that had led me to the town hall in Torrelodones to check that there had been no other funerals that day or the previous day. Two people had, however, been buried the following day - a nineteen-year-old motorcyclist killed in a traffic accident and an elderly woman who had been born in the village. The official who dealt with me, and who unquestioningly accepted my garbled excuses about some mix-up over the invoice for the hearse, told me that the population of Torrelodones had grown considerably, but that most of the new-comers were from Madrid, with families who tended to bring them back when they died. ‘Your father was different, of course, but then he was born here,’ he said.