I heard those words again when my wife said that there were things my father could have told us that we did not want to know, they came to me unexpectedly as I sat in the traffic jam on the Burgos motorway, because Mai’s strange remark had merged with the image of the woman in the graveyard.
There was something unhealthy about my curiosity, I realised that, but my father’s venom towards my sister-in-law seemed somehow to be tinged with guilt, when connected to the fleeting apparition in the cemetery, and the fact that no one else seemed to care did nothing to allay my fear. It had never occurred to me to wonder what kind of man my father might have been before he became the man I knew. Maybe he had a girlfriend when he was in Russia, Mai said, and my mind had lingered on the thought, teasing out this possibility and other, much stranger possibilities, yet none of them could wipe away the icy chill of his words, nor help me to understand the look on the face of a young woman who had regarded me unhurriedly, like someone with a mission to accomplish.
I parked the car in the garage and walked down to Calle Argensola where my sister Clara lived in the beautiful, spacious old apartment we had lived in as children. I loved that house, had thought of it fondly ever since my father had killed two birds with one stone by building on one of the plots he owned in La Moraleja, so that he would have a house befitting his position and be able to escape the upheavals that now plagued what until then had been one of the quietest areas in central Madrid. I was fifteen years old when we moved to the suburbs and I spent the next ten years commuting between the old house, which my father had not sold since my brothers argued that they could sleep in the Argensola flat on Friday and Saturday nights to avoid driving home drunk, and the new house, which I stopped going home to on weekends when I came of age and got my own key to the Argensola place. For the next five years, during which I spent most of my free time wondering how to find space for all the books in my tiny, cramped, disproportionately expensive flat in Boston, I felt even more homesick for the Argensola flat with its spacious rooms and high ceilings. By the time I came back, it was too late. Clara, the most precocious member of the family, had already booked a date for her wedding and was having the flat renovated. I had to make do with the nearest thing I could find to it in the area, a big, slightly dilapidated flat on the Calle Hortaleza, which was fine once it had been done up, but which did not stop me feeling a wave of sadness every time I stepped through the door of my sister’s place.
‘Look who it is! Álvaro.’ My mother opened the door and gave me a shy smile before kissing me hard on both cheeks. ‘I knew you wouldn’t call me before you left.’
‘But, Mamá, you
he was coming.’ Clara, her lips puffy, her ankles puffier still, came to meet me, greeting me with the joy of a besieged soldier watching the cavalry arrive. ‘And, anyway, Álvaro knew you’d phone Lisette to ask her what time he’d left.’
‘And how could he know that?’
‘Because he knows you, Mamá,’ she said kissing me again. ‘Because he knows you.’
‘In any case, I don’t know what was so important you couldn’t call your mother.’
Clara suggested that maybe we could all have coffee, so we went into the living room. I sat on the sofa beside my mother while she went through the post, slicing through the envelopes with a letter-opener that cut as cleanly as a scalpel. She seemed to be in much better health, physically, than she claimed. In spite of her delicate appearance, she was a strong woman who had never suffered a serious illness, and had always recovered quickly from minor ailments. We all believed she would eventually get over the shock, but by the time she read the second letter of sympathy her eyes were filled with tears, and when she finished reading the last of them, she fell back against the sofa, burying her head in the cushions, and stayed there, absent, for a time. Clara arrived with the coffee and gave her a glance somewhere between worry and pity.
‘You don’t understand how much I want this all to be over.’
‘Of course we understand, Mamá,’ I said, seeing in her the weariness I myself had felt a little earlier, the desperate need to simply remember my father as I wanted to, rather than feeling obliged to do so by rituals, by things, by well-meaning words and ceremonies.
My mother took my hand, nodded, heaved a sigh and sat up again, then, ignoring the cup that Clara had put in front of her, she began to look at the other letters in the pile.
‘What’s this?’ she asked, holding up the letter with the Caja Madrid letterhead I had opened earlier.
‘It’s from someone in some bank or other, they want to talk to you about money, some investment fund Papá had with them. Give it here, let me have a look . . .’ I read the letter again and paraphrased it for her. ‘That’s what it is, Papá had invested money - it doesn’t say how much here - in tax-deductible bonds. Anyway, this man wants to know whether you want to redeem the capital or reinvest it in bonds, which - not surprisingly - he thinks would be a much better option . . .’
‘What’s his name?’
‘The guy who wrote the letter?’ My mother nodded. ‘It says R. Fernández Perea. I’m not sure, Ramón, Ricardo, Rafael . . .’
‘I don’t know him.’
‘Maybe Roberto,’ Clara chipped in.
‘Or Remigio,’ I said. My sister started to laugh but she stopped our little game when she saw the look of impatience on my mother’s face.
‘No, I don’t know anyone by any of those names. And what does this person expect me to do? Does he want me to call ?’
‘Let’s see.’ I glanced back at the letter. ‘He says he is at your disposal should you wish to meet with him personally, but you could just call him. The phone number is here.’
‘Go and see him, Mamá.’ Clara looked at her and then at me. ‘Since it’s about money, I think that’s better, don’t you?’
‘Of course,’ I agreed, though I had no opinion.
My mother sipped her coffee slowly.
‘One thing, Alvaro . . . These accounts or whatever they are, were they in your father’s name or in the company’s?’
‘Looks like they were in Papá’s, he’s the only one mentioned.’
‘Well then, you go. Call him, meet with him and he’ll explain everything.’
‘Me?’ I tried to defend myself. ‘Why me? I don’t know anything about that kind of thing. Let Rafa go, he knows about money.’
‘Rafa knows about company finance, not personal banking, and your father always kept those accounts separate. It’s better that you go. Anyway, your brothers are always busy. It’ll be easier for you to pop into the bank some morning, and . . .’
‘Mamá, I have a job too, you know.’
‘Yes, I know, but . . . It’s not the same. It’s not as if you teach every day,
‘But . . .’ I’ve got an exhibition about black holes in two weeks, so I’ll have to be at the museum every day, I was about to say. ‘All right . . .’
I gave up. It was a battle I could never win, just like the battle to convince my mother and my brothers that the state didn’t pay me a monthly salary to sit around - an argument that wasn’t helped when I started working as a consultant for the new Interactive Science Museum, so that I now earned more than my sister Angélica, the only other Carrión who worked in the public sector. Far from enhancing my prestige, this merely confirmed my family’s opinion that my job was nonsensical. ‘And you’re telling me some bank gave you money to set up this place?’ my mother asked me the day I took her to the museum with my nephew Guille - whose opinion I was far more interested in, given that he was the brightest ten-year-old I knew. ‘Millions, Mamá, millions,’ I said. She raised her eyebrows. ‘But it looks like an amusement park,’ she said finally. ‘What did you expect? Tracts about Newton on the walls and cabinets full of medieval slingshots?’ I asked. ‘Well, at least then it might
like a museum,’ she replied. We didn’t say another word to each other until Guille returned to us. ‘It’s incredible, Álvaro,’ he said. ‘No, seriously, I love it, it’s frigging fantastic!’ My mother told off her grandson for talking like that and on the way home scolded me for wasting my talent on such rubbish.
‘So you’ll go and see the man at the bank?’ she said at the door when I was hoping to get away with just a goodbye kiss.
‘Yes, Mamá, I’ll go . . .’
And that was it. My mother sent the wrong son to the meeting, and nothing would ever be the same again.
hat afternoon, when she went to wake him, Raquel Fernández Perea found her grandfather Ignacio sitting up in bed with his glasses on, staring into the distance at some point suspended above the blue spring sky, which hung like a tender promise over the city.
‘It’s five o’clock, Grandpa,’ the little girl announced, then, interpreting his smile as permission, she ran to the bed and lay down next to him. ‘Did you not get any sleep?’
‘No,’ he said, only to correct himself immediately, as though eager not to arouse suspicions. ‘Well, a little . . .’
‘Where are we going today?’
Grandpa Ignacio treated his midday siesta as if night had come in the middle of the day: he undressed, put on his pyjamas, pulled down the blinds and closed all the doors before getting into bed. Grandma Anita preferred to doze in her rocking chair, with the television on, a cushion at her back, another behind her head and something to read - a book or a magazine - that would slowly slip from her fingers. ‘Ouf, I think I just nodded off!’ she would say when she woke, refusing to believe her granddaughter when she said she had been sound asleep and snoring long before the farmer’s wife - or was it the governor’s daughter? - was kidnapped in whatever movie was on Channel 1. ‘Snoring?’ she would say. ‘Snoring? You grandfather is the only one round here who snores . . .’ This was true. Raquel could hear him halfway down the corridor; it sounded as if her grandparents’ room was a den full of ferocious monsters that always vanished the moment she opened the door, pulled up the blinds and said, ‘It’s five o’clock, Grandpa, where are we going today?’
So began the best part of every Saturday, which had been the best days in Raquel’s life since her grandparents went back to Spain. It had not been easy, but it had been worth it. It had not been easy because they had been waiting for them for a long time, much longer than anyone expected. Ignacio Fernández Muñoz refused to set foot in Barajas airport until September 1976, and even then he made it clear it was only for a holiday.
‘I’m just here on holiday,’ he said as he kissed his grandchildren. His voice betrayed no trace of emotion or uncertainty, as though he truly believed what he was saying, or as though he felt protected by the neutral territory of the airport. His every gesture, his every movement, from the elegant detachment of his gait to the polite curiosity with which he stared at the tourists, at the suitcases, at the little plastic flamenco dancers staring back at him from every shop window, was so precise, so polite, so languid, that it looked as though he had spent years practising in front of a mirror. Raquel was disappointed by the grace with which he pretended he had just landed in Switzerland, a distant, indifferent manner that would have led anyone watching to assume he had simply come along to keep his wife company. Because Grandma on the other hand - Grandma kissed the frame of the door leading into the arrivals hall. ‘Anita, please,’ he whispered as she did the same thing to the door at the main exit. ‘Anita, stop this foolishness, please, for pity’s sake,’ and she cried and she laughed and she clapped her hands to her face and said strange things, stock phrases, clichés, non sequiturs, talking about her mother without realising it, and hugging each of them in turn. But once they had reached the car, packed the suitcases into the boot and got inside, Grandpa offered his greetings, still without losing his composure. The driver turned the key in the ignition and pressed the accelerator. As he was putting the car in reverse, his father stopped him:
‘Where are we going?’
His son turned towards the man in the back seat and stared at him. It was half past twelve, the day was bright and sunny, with a gentle warmth that heralded the coming autumn.
‘Well . . . home, to drop off your stuff.’
‘Absolutely not!’ The passenger’s voice was firm. ‘I’m telling you, I haven’t waited thirty years to come back to Madrid in order to go straight to Canillejas . . .’
‘Where do you want to go, then?’
His son, smiling at his father’s cavalier impulsiveness, turned to look at him, suspecting he was about to make a fool of himself.
‘And where is that - apart from somewhere in the lyrics of “
Su majestad el chotis
‘What do you mean, where is that! Where it’s always been, at the far end of Calle Bailén. Let’s go . . .’
‘OK . . .’ But neither the car nor the driver’s head moved. ‘And how do I get there?’
‘Is it possible?’ His father shook his head happily, as though in his son’s ignorance he had discovered something he had lost long ago. ‘Let’s see . . . You know La Puerta del Sol ?’
‘Of course, Papá.’
‘OK, well, when you get there, take Calle Arenal, turn off at Ópera, drive round the theatre, turn on to the Plaza de Oriente and then take a left . . .’
‘Which Arenal - there are two of them, aren’t there?’
‘I’ll let you know,
, I’ll let you know.’
Raquel, sitting next to her grandfather, heard him murmur, ‘It’s all changed so much, I’d hardly recognise the place . . . that can’t be right, can it? I don’t know, I’m completely lost, Anita . . .’ until they came to a broad avenue with trees and fountains and cars speeding in all directions, and his voice grew louder, solemn and serious, almost angry.
‘La Castellana,’ he said to Grandma Anita, who was sitting by the other window with Mateo in her arms, and he took her hand and kissed it over and over.
‘Do I turn here or not?’