I knew that there was something unhealthy about my fixation, but my visit to the town hall completely did away with the reassuring possibility that what had happened was down to chance, since a road accident was news and the relatives of someone who had died of old age would know each other in a village like that. The presence of a strange woman at my father’s funeral was not a mistake, a slip-up, or a mix-up of any kind. I should have been troubled, but I felt oddly reassured, almost happy at the thought. I didn’t say anything to anyone, not even to Mai, and yet she was the one who unwittingly steered me in an unexpected direction.
‘Álvaro,’ she said that night, when Miguelito was in bed and the two of us were eating together in the kitchen, ‘I’ve been thinking . . . How old was your father when he married your mother ?’
‘I don’t know . . . Let me think . . . he was born in ’22, and they were married in ’56 . . . Thirty-four.
‘Thirty-four.’ She nodded slowly, as though chewing over the number along with her salad. ‘That’s what I thought.’
‘I don’t know. It’s just extraordinary, isn’t it? A man who lived to be eighty-three, who didn’t marry until he was thirty-four, who lived through so much, the civil war, the Second World War . . . And it seems normal to us, obviously, because that is who he was, and we knew him. But there are lots of things we don’t know about his life, or at least things I don’t know. I mean, he must have had a lot of girlfriends before your mother, mustn’t he, when he was in Russia and so on? Think about it . . . I wish we’d talked to him more about his life, I feel we’ve missed an opportunity to get to know him . . . Maybe it’s just that I miss him.’ She reached across the table, took my hand and squeezed it. ‘I loved him very much, Alvaro, you know that . . .’
‘And he loved you . . .’ I said, squeezing her hand in return.
Mai had been one of my father’s greatest conquests. When I met her, a few months after I came back from Boston, I was still getting over a complicated relationship with an Asian-American girl called Lorna, who could go from charming to insufferable, often in the same day, occasionally in the same hour and sometimes from one minute to the next. At first, I thought that this was what people meant when they talked about passion, but after a while I became convinced that it was more likely a nervous disorder of some sort, so I dumped her, and she set about trying to ruin my life. I had never really thought about spending the rest of my life in the United States, but Lorna was the deciding factor in my return to Spain. When I got back to Madrid, the last thing I wanted was another relationship, but I was thirty, I was single and I was employed, so the whole world was secretly plotting to pair me off. Mai had no part in this scheming, but she did sleep with me the first night I met her.
‘What a shame!’ she said the next morning. ‘But that’s life, I suppose. I’ve been waiting for years for an interesting man to appear and now that I’m almost engaged to someone else, you show up . . .’ We kissed goodbye, a long, languid kiss filled with the melancholy of those destined never to meet again, but less than eight months later my friend Fernando, who was married to one of her cousins, invited me to another party.
‘I’ve got a bad feeling,’ he said to me as I arrived. ‘But careful, this whole thing smells like a hunt to me, and I think they’ve got you down as the fox . . .’
I burst out laughing.
‘What is it? Are you OK with this?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered. ‘You tell me, you’re the expert on this family.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve seen worse,’ and he raised his right hand, making the sign of the cross, giving me his blessing. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘What happened to your fiancé?’ I asked Mai when I saw her, though I had already worked it out from her appearance; she looked more sophisticated, more stylish than the last time. ‘Nothing, ’ she said. ‘That’s just the problem, nothing happened.’ She was stunning, wearing a short, brown, low-cut dress, with bronze highlights in her hair and the wild brilliance that blazes in a woman’s eyes when she is on the hunt. ‘I’m glad,’ I told her, ‘I’ve been thinking about you a lot.’ This would not have been totally true ten minutes earlier before Professor Cisneros had taken me into his office to offer me the benefit of his wisdom, but it had been true ever since, as she tilted her head slightly to give me a sidelong smile, brazen, alluring, perfect. And I had no doubts. Not that night, nor the next morning, nor in the months that followed, when she let slip that she was thinking of moving in with me because she never slept at her place any more.
The one moment of hesitation occurred some time later, when I had finally used up every excuse imaginable for not taking her to meet my curious family. It was July and sweltering hot. As we drove through the gates, somewhat imposing in themselves, of my father’s property in one of the most expensive parts of La Moraleja, she seemed so overwhelmed that, for a moment, I thought our relationship might not make it through the paella. ‘Jesus Christ,’ she said as I parked in the one space left by my brothers. Everyone was sitting on the porch, gathered around my father like magistrates at a tribunal. As we started up the steps, my father got to his feet, and bestowed on us a particularly captivating version of his famous radiant smile. At that moment, I thought my girlfriend, who was highly intelligent, might find this impeccable display of affection suspicious. But I was wrong.
In time, Mai became my father’s favourite daughter-in-law, the only one worthy of receiving his constant, ambiguous attention to the end, an utterly paternal affection mingled with a sort of wistful flirtatiousness, the easy charm Julio Carrión always used to win over his sons’ wives, so different from the manly complicity, the unspoken macho bond he used with his sons-in-law. I was amused by the banter between my father and my wife, and even more amused to see that my mother was jealous, even my brothers were jealous, furious at the unexpected advantage this common girl - whom they had never thought of as a good match - gave me over them. In my family, we all competed for my father’s attention, it had always been this way, and Mai had no problem with that. Rafa’s wife was slightly ugly, fairly spiteful, and very, very slow - too slow to keep up with her father-in-law’s constant punning and wordplay. Papá would sometimes lose his patience and in a jokey tone, which did nothing to mask his irritation, say, ‘Come on, Isabel, you’re not stupid.’ He preferred Julio’s first wife, Asun, who was cute, clever and gentle, but she was gone. In 1999, a few weeks before their tenth wedding anniversary, my brother dumped her for another woman, who, as far as my father was concerned, would always be the other woman.
‘What? Have you actually met her?’ he said to me once, when I dared to defend her as we watched Julio’s car move down the driveway.
‘Yes, Papá,’ I said, and started to giggle, which did nothing to help my good intentions, ‘I was the first to meet her.’
‘I want to ask you a favour, Álvaro . . .’ That morning I had noticed a nervousness in my brother’s voice when he phoned. ‘You can’t say no, this is really important to me.’ This preamble, somewhat more serious that his usual ‘Listen, Álvaro, it’s Julio, and since we’re having dinner together, I need to talk to you about the business’, alerted me to the exceptional nature of the situation, but it did not prepare me for what came next. ‘You and Mai have to come round to dinner one of these days, I need to introduce you to my girlfriend.’ ‘Girlfriend?’ I said. ‘Well, it’s just that . . . I’m divorced.’ ‘Not yet, you’re not,’ I objected - it was barely two weeks since we had heard about his separation. ‘Well, I’m getting divorced, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?’ and he rattled off parrot fashion, ‘She’s a wonderful girl, really, she’s great, I really love her, I don’t think I’ve ever been in love before, and you two are the trendy liberals in the family, Álvaro, I thought you’d be on my side . . .’ He took a deep breath and then picked up again. ‘It’s just that Verónica - her name is Verónica - she doesn’t trust me.’ I’m not surprised, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. ‘I’m serious about her, I swear, but she doesn’t trust me because I told her that I was already divorced . . . so she’s suspicious, you know, and I need to introduce her to someone in the family, and you’re the only one I can ask, I thought you two wouldn’t mind - I mean, you didn’t even have a church wedding. For Christ’s sake Álvaro, don’t fuck around, you’re hardly going to tell me now that you think marriage is for life . . .’ Mai didn’t much like the urgency in my brother’s request, but she agreed that we couldn’t refuse, and in the end, despite her principles, she enjoyed the evening as much as I did.
Julio had invited us to dinner at the most expensive and exclusive restaurant he knew, an extravagance that did nothing to favour his twenty-six-year-old girlfriend, who was undeniably pretty, though Mai didn’t think so. Verónica was passably educated, though you would not have thought it to look at her. She was wearing make-up that made her look ten years younger, her hair was carefully coiffed, her nails were painted with little purple moons, and she had squeezed herself into a miniskirt and jacket that were two sizes too small for her. From the denim embroidered with sequins, mirrors and coloured thread, Mai immediately recognised that the outfit was the work of a chic Italian designer, and more importantly, she told me, obscenely expensive.
But at that moment, she just looked like every other twenty-something and countless thirtysomething girls having dinner with rich men old enough to be their father. In an ordinary restaurant, despite the twelve-year age gap between them, Verónica would have attracted attention only because of her magnificent cleavage - ‘It’s a push-up bra,’ Mai whispered to me - but this black basque and its effects were hardly sufficient to justify the ruin of the family, although they were disturbing. I didn’t say this to my wife, obviously. And if I sided with my brother, it was not because of his girlfriend’s breasts, but because of her intelligence, though she hid it well. She looked at Julio as though he were a god and, for his part, he looked at her like a benevolent, all-powerful deity in thrall to her formidable gravity-defying breasts. Six weeks later, in spite of my shrewd advice that he should take things slowly, Julio showed up with her unannounced at father’s birthday dinner. Papá was not taken in by her demure T-shirt.
‘She’s a cheap whore, Alvaro. Jesus Christ, you only have to look at her ! It doesn’t surprise me coming from your brother, Julio has always done his thinking with his dick, but come on! You’re more intelligent than that. I think . . .’
‘No, Papá,’ I interrupted him gently. ‘OK, she does look like a tart, but I don’t think she
one. She’s a nice girl, seriously . . .’
‘Well, I’m not saying she isn’t . . . But she’ll cheat on your brother, that’s for sure. I give it a month.’
‘It’s not like that, Papá,’ I insisted. ‘It’s the other way round.’
I was right, something I also found out before anyone else. ‘Álvarito, listen, you need to come over, we need to talk about the business.’ It hadn’t been a year since the wedding but Julio and Verónica were still together, still happy in their elemental, lopsided, effective way. Although she had had two children one after the other, both of whom were so young that she had to take them everywhere with her, she would occasionally dress the way she used to, and Julio would look at her like a Greek god in all his helpless omnipotence. Until one day my father had a heart attack and had to be hospitalised for the first time, six months before he would go in for the last time, and Julio showed up at the hospital crying like a baby because Verónica had twice caught him cheating on her, and now had packed her bags.
Between sobs, my brother told me what had happened. ‘Now you’ve got the house to yourself,’ she’d told him at the door. ‘You won’t have to ask anyone for favours, you don’t have to remember to erase the message on your mobile before you come home or hide the credit card statements. I’m leaving, so you can fuck whoever you like.’ I realised this was the first time I had seen Julio cry since we were young, and I asked him why he didn’t cry a little less and try a bit harder to stop sleeping around. He shrugged his shoulders and went on crying. Verónica took the kids and left, she didn’t complain, she didn’t phone people to bad-mouth her husband, she didn’t talk to a lawyer, she didn’t ask for money and she didn’t plot her revenge. All she would say was: ‘I still love him, but I can’t take it any more.’ The way she behaved - dignified, sober, firm - finally won over my mother and my brother Rafa, but it did not convince my father.
‘I told you she was a cheap tart,’ he said offhandedly, when, after two months, Julio finally managed to convince her to come back. ‘Didn’t I tell you?’ I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t think of anything to say. His words pierced me like a hard, brittle splinter, fossilising inside me, in that perfect place we think of as the heart, and I have never been able to recall them without a shiver running through me. Maybe I should have asked him why he said it, by what criteria he had made a judgement which to me seemed inconceivable. But I did not dare to question him, maybe because I was afraid of what he might say.
‘You’re making a big deal out of nothing, Álvaro.’ Mai took my father’s side, as always. ‘What do you expect? Your father is an old man . . . he probably can’t accept that a woman would leave her husband, particularly when that husband is his son . . .’ All right, Julio had it rough for a while - in fact, I thought there was a certain dignity in the way he humiliated himself, a sort of tragic nobility I never thought him capable of, just as I had never realised how much he loved Verónica, even though he cheated on her again and again. And I knew that I had never experienced anything like this, but I felt close to my brother, his red eyes, his trembling hands, his forlorn face, his ashen skin, and sunken cheeks. And at that moment, I understood Verónica too, I could imagine how she had left a home that she would one day return to, could imagine her opening the front door of her rented flat to take the children to nursery only to find her husband sleeping there fully clothed. After this, my father did not leave hospital. He was too weak now. He had only four months to live and yet in spite of everything, in spite of the fact that his voice was a faint echo of my father’s voice, he had still found the strength to say: ‘I told you she was a cheap tart.’