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‘Until I did it, I had no idea it was going to be so easy. But I had to do it, then I could forget about it. I was really afraid to take that first step, and I went over it again and again in my mind.’

Floren takes a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his brow. His grandson looks at him, half-concerned, half-respectful, sitting crosslegged on the ground, as his teacher always tells him to. His grandfather turns his back, so as to continue his work in the garden, then he goes on:

‘I just had to do it and then leave, that was all, quick and simple.’ He looks at his grandson and adds gravely: ‘But, first, I had to do it.’

It’s a very hot day in Biarritz. It’s August.

Manex moves closer to his grandfather so as to hear better. The old man continues talking while he kneels to dig a hole for the shrub he’s planting. His grandfather is right, the first step is the hardest. He finds it relaxing watching his grandfather pressing down the damp earth with his bare hands.

‘Believe me, Manex, the first step is always the hardest. After that, everything’s easy, you’ll see. But you’ve got to be brave and take that first step. The rest is as easy as falling off a log, as they used to say in my village.’

‘When will we visit your village, Grandpa?’

‘When rabbits ride bicycles.’

Manex smiles and looks down. He’s now studying the glossy wings of a ladybird clambering over the grass. His grandfather is right. 

The old man mops his brow again and sits down on a plastic chair next to Manex. With a slender twig, he cleans the dirt from under his fingernails. Manex says nothing. He’s still studying the ladybird, and, besides, there’s nothing more to say, his grandfather is right. 

Floren is remembering the spring of 1937. He still can’t think of it without feeling a twinge of pain. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to think of it without feeling pain. The pain is all that’s left to him of Manuel. Perhaps that’s because he’s never told anyone, perhaps because the rain carries away memories, and all that’s left are a few small drops of what happened. And it’s rained a lot since 1937. But he’s never told anyone, not even Geneviève in her final days, when they sat holding hands in the evening, waiting for death.

Silence clung to the walls. The neighbours were silent as stones. People never talked about the dead, not even with family members. With the arrival of the new mayor, the municipal staff underwent some radical restructuring, to use a current term. Any reds, or anyone suspected of being a red, were thrown out of the council offices. Their places were taken by fascists and other unfortunates. They kept Floren on. He was a bit of a loner and didn’t seem dangerous. In the village, people thought him rather strange. His mother had died immediately after giving birth to him, and three years later, his father left for Pamplona to find work. He went to live with an aunt who didn’t appear to be a subversive. And so the mayor with his shiny boots allowed Floren to stay in his post. Floren was a sort of general handyman, but his favourite part of the job was any kind of gardening work. Helping those delicate beings to thrive, feeling their cool stems between his fingers, keeping an eye out for any failing shoots. Theirs was the first town hall in the whole of Ribera Navarra to decorate its balconies with flowers. The previous mayor had allowed Floren to place flower pots along all the corridors and balconies.

Manex doesn’t know what the civil war was. Or, rather, they were taught it at school, but it’s the kind of thing you forget the moment you tuck into your post-exam sandwich. 

However, he does enjoy hearing his grandfather talking about it, although he finds it hard to imagine him being caught up in an actual war. War means death and enemies, airplanes and soot-smeared faces; and he can’t honestly connect his grandfather with such things. It’s exciting when his grandfather tells him how he escaped the war, then he imagines his laidback grandpa with his beret on his head as a criminal or a hero out of a film. 

‘It was really hot that week, and the crickets were screeching all night. It felt as if there might be a storm at any moment. The radio had been reporting the military coup in Morocco all morning. Do you know where Morocco is?’

‘In Africa…in the desert,’ says Manex with a shrug.

‘The commander of the Civil Guard called for calm, saying that the police were on the side of the Republic. Do you know what the Republic is?’

‘More or less.’

‘More more or more less?’

Through the window comes the smell of roasted spare ribs, and at the same time, a woman in a yellow apron shouts ‘À table!’ as only the French know how, ‘À manger!’, in a voice that comes from deep in the throat. Manex and his grandfather sit down at the table. The freckle-faced woman is using a huge fork and spoon to serve the salad. Manex doesn’t dare look at his mother, preferring to dive back into his grandfather’s soothing stories; besides, his mother is always rather sombre. The grandfather prefers to go on talking to Manex, and for him, suddenly, it feels almost like being with Manuel again. The mother, for her part, is quite happy for Manex and his grandfather to continue their chatter; she doesn’t feel like going into motherly mode; she is comfortable, as always, in her role as impartial witness.

‘What about Serge?’ asks the grandfather, seeing that the table is only set for three.

‘He had to go to Bordeaux for a meeting. He won’t be back until tonight.’ 

She says this without looking at him, at the same time serving Manex some salad. She isn’t in the mood to answer her father’s unspoken question. Manex sits there admiring the lettuce leaves, far removed from his mother’s words.

Floren has grown tired now of his conversation with his grandson, and has lost his appetite. Nor does he have the strength to confront the wry expression on his daughter’s face.

‘Serge works too hard, don’t you think?’ Floren asks.

‘Bof.’

Bof, which means, will you shut up, I don’t want to talk about it, leave me in peace and eat your bloody salad, cette merde de laitue, I’m up to here with your double-edged questions, just eat and shut up, you boring old man, and go and plant apple trees and listen to the radio.

All that can be heard is the sound of the neighbour’s lawnmower. He’s doubtless kitted out in a pair of red swimming trunks and a T-shirt bought at the fiesta in Bayonne, and a pair of espadrilles too small for his feet, which look like snails bursting out of their shells. The leaves on the trees are utterly still, grown flaccid in the heat. There’s not a breath of wind.

‘I was telling Manex my war stories. Perhaps I’ll take him to visit the village before the summer holidays are over. What do you think?’

‘Seriously?’ and her face lights up, probably because they’re talking about something she doesn’t care about. ‘And why would you want to go there?’

‘It’s not me, it’s Manex who wants to go,’ says the grandfather in a slightly guilty tone.

Manex is concealed beneath the peak of his baseball cap. Whenever he smiles, his cheeks dimple. Manex is just two dimples and the peak of a cap. And a few very large teeth. And loads of freckles. 

‘I’ll ask Serge to drive me to San Sebastián and we can catch the bus from there,’ says Floren.

Ah bon,’ says his daughter.

‘We could perhaps go tomorrow.’

Ah bon.’ The same words, the same volume, only this time she lifts her eyebrows just half a centimetre higher and forms a tighter circle with her lips.

‘I can’t tomorrow, because it’s the last day of my surfing course, but the day after I can,’ says Manex, looking at his mother out of the corner of his eye.

‘Fine, I’ve no problem with that.’ And she wearily places a serving of meat on their respective plates.

It was a spring very similar to this one. He’d arranged to meet Manuel behind the town hall for a game of pelota. The day before, instead of playing, they’d lain down on the court, shirts off, staring up at the warm blue sky, sweating, talking, looking. Manuel was the only one Floren talked to, well, him and a slightly younger cousin. On the afternoon when Manuel didn’t turn up, the heat was suffocating, and Floren was pleased because then, he thought, they could just lie down on the grass again, talking, sweating, looking. Crazy and happy. That was Manuel. And Floren wanted to be the same. With this in mind, he took some wine with him and a bit of cheese, but that afternoon, Manuel never turned up. And Floren was annoyed, because he thought Manuel must have gone to some secret meeting instead, as he so often had before. And for the first time in his life, Floren felt alone. Until then, he had never missed anyone, or their presence. And loneliness was an ugly thing, like stealing, like sleeping on a gravestone. On that afternoon spent waiting for Manuel, he finished off nearly all the wine. By the time he got home, he could barely speak, and it was his aunt who told him, in a tiny thread of a voice, that five young men from the village had been shot. Her face remained utterly impassive as she continued scooping milk out of the saucepan and stirring it in with the rice and the cinnamon. 

Valentín Sarnago, known as Rabbit. Adolfo Belzunce. Mari Garro: Leonor’s son-in-law. Luis: the butcher’s son. And Manuel Iroz: Manuel.

Floren felt the salt taste of blood on his tongue along with the taste of wine. And all he could do was keep quietly repeating Manuel’s name, until his aunt served supper. It was the clatter of plates on the wooden table that returned Floren to the world of the living or, in this case, the world of the dead.

Ma chérie,’ he says to his daughter, ignoring all the rules of French pronunciation. ‘I’m going to take a nap. This ghastly heat has upset my stomach. Mon pot,’ he says, addressing Manex, and although he seems about to say something more, he doesn’t.

Mother and son are sitting side by side, eating water melon, staring out at the fence surrounding the house, and they both look as if they were wearing big green smiles.

Floren sits down on his bed. He has no intention of sleeping. He feels as if his heart were burning, his throat swollen. When he used to sit with Geneviève on her death bed, he often felt tempted to tell her, to talk about the days he spent with Manuel, but he couldn’t. After his wife breathed her last, death took up permanent residence in his mind, and he forgot all about Manuel. Until today. Manuel and Geneviève are both gnawing away at his liver, the smell of blood and fever, his daughter’s grey eyes on the other side of the table. And young Manex’s fears.

The following day, Floren went to work at the town hall as usual. As he was going up the stairs, he heard the mayor roaring with laughter about something. He was told to go and repair one of the steps down into the cellar, and he used this as an excuse to stay there, giving the occasional blow with his hammer. That day, he was all fire and hatred, with not an ounce of peace in him. Around midday, he saw the mayor and his secretary eating lunch as usual in the local restaurant, and again he felt his stomach turn over.

‘How’s things?’ the mayor said, looking up at him, still chewing, moving his greasy snout like some wild beast.

Floren saw the pig’s trotters on the table, a foot covered in yellow sauce and speared by a fork. The secretary had a fried egg and two sausages on his plate, and wore his napkin tied around his neck.

‘Cat got your tongue?’

‘Oh, sorry, sir, good afternoon.’ And as soon as he said those words, he knew.

There’s a knock at the door. Floren rumples the sheets and lies down on the bed. It’s his daughter.

‘Serge and I have decided to separate. He’s rented an apartment in Bidart. He’ll move out next month. Voilà. Anyway, I don’t feel like talking about it now, so no questions, all right?’

She stands in the doorway, not letting go of the door handle, not even entering her father’s room. Floren is now sitting on the bed, and he has no idea what would be the right reaction, joy or consternation.

‘Bo,’ he says at last.

‘It’s a mutual decision. I’ll tell Manex one of these days et voilà.’ She waves her hands about as if she were angry. ‘I’ve left you some fish for supper. I’ll eat at Magali’s house. You just have to stick it in the oven for twenty minutes, that’s all.’

And she went down the stairs, leaving the sound of her heels on the wooden floor in Floren’s room.

He realises that he’s really eager now to revisit his village with his grandson; the first time in ages that he’s wanted to do anything urgently. He’d tried to think that Manuel was just a silly story from his youth, but it’s not true. Now, like a character in a film, he wishes, sixty-three years on, that he could look at a photo or two, but he doesn’t have any. For a while, he kept a few letters his aunt had sent him, and some from his cousin too, along with a pelota ball and a Republican insignia Manuel had given him. Now he has nothing. He put them in a tote bag he’d got free from Crédit Agricole. Now all he has in that bag are the letters he sent to Geneviève from Paris, her replies from Ciboure, one of Manex’s first drawings, and the photo of his parents’ wedding, but nothing evokes any memories, nothing fills him with nostalgia, it’s as if he were totally empty-handed. Only the memory of Manuel ties him to his village, that’s the only thing that brings back the smell of the earth. And to do that he simply has to trawl through his memories. 

Floren knows that it happened shortly after Manuel was murdered, but can’t remember exactly when. He asked his cousin to bring him some seeds from Pamplona. The first thing he had to do was plant the seeds in his garden and wait for them to come up. It was a way of savouring his revenge: going to the garden every day to see if the seeds had sprouted, then watering them and watching them sway in the arms of the wind. First, a few colourful buds appeared, delicate and fringed, completely new beings in Floren’s eyes. And then they opened out into a bell-like shape. Floren found this an unforgettable sight. On the day the flowers opened, he filled a wheelbarrow with soil and took it to the town hall. He remembers preparing the window boxes on the balcony and filling them with the cool, soft soil.

‘What are you up to?’ asked the secretary, from the horrific height granted him by his gleaming leather boots.

‘I’m going to decorate the balcony in time for the festival of Our Lady.’

The secretary was accompanied by a soldier Floren had never seen before, and the two men moved off, guffawing at something the soldier had said. They kicked up the dust as they went. Floren clenched his fists in rage, until he felt the grit of the soil sticking into the palm of his hand.

Manex has come down to breakfast wearing his baseball cap. On his back is an over-sized backpack, which makes him look skinnier than he really is. Floren takes their two glasses of milk out of the microwave.

‘Aren’t you going to take your backpack off to have breakfast? You look like a turtle.’

Manex puffs out his cheeks and makes paddling movements with his hands. Grandfather and grandson drink their chocolate milk and eat their toast and blueberry jam. Floren has barely slept because he feels so nervous. It has been longer than he thought since he went back to the village, and he’s more excited than he expected to be at the prospect. They hear Serge papping his hooter outside before they have time to do the washing up. Manex waves goodbye to his mother, who is leaning out of her bedroom window, holding a cup and wearing a tracksuit. Floren waves goodbye too, and they get into the car with the engine already running.

‘So why are you going back now? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine, but it’s odd, don’t you think, after all these years, to suddenly decide to go back?’

Serge drives very fast. He has to shout above the crackle of the badly tuned-in radio. Beside him, Manex is playing with his Game Boy.

‘I want to show Manex where I was born. He’s curious to see it,’ says Floren in the back seat.

Ah bon?’ And Serge playfully taps the peak of Manex’s baseball cap.

Manex doesn’t even look up from his screen. They leave behind them the green fields and the cows with their all-too-human eyes, the white and red houses. When they reach San Sebastián, Serge leaves them at the bus station. 

‘I’ll be back here at eight o’clock on the dot. Soyez sages,’ he shouts above the crackling radio and again taps Manex on the head.

Once they’re alone, Floren and Manex feel liberated. They buy their tickets and get on the bus.

‘Have you given any more thought to what we were talking about?’

‘A bit.’

‘And?’

‘Well, yes.’ Eyes down, Manex continues pushing the buttons on his Game Boy, even though he’s turned it off.

‘Yes, what?’ asks Floren, pretending to be annoyed.

‘Yes, you’re right.’

‘I’m sure it’s no big deal. I mean, you didn’t murder your teacher and then bury him in the garden, did you?’

‘No,’ says Manex laughing.

‘Are you planning to kill someone?’

‘No!’

‘Have you sold your mother’s wedding ring to buy drugs?’

‘No!’

‘That’s all right then. Your mother will be fine about it.’

And Manex continued pressing the buttons for a while, before falling asleep on his grandfather’s lap with his baseball cap pulled down over his face. Floren is staring intently out of the window, not wanting to miss a single detail. This is like travelling back through his life, returning to the past hand-in-hand with his grandson. As the landscape changes and grows less green, Floren’s memory takes wing. They arrive two hours later. If it wasn’t for the church he can see from the road, he wouldn’t have recognised his village. He thinks he ought to wake Manex up, but keeps putting it off, enjoying his solitude. When he reaches the village, he feels a nervous itching in his balls, just as he used to as a young man. He removes Manex’s cap, and the sun lights up his grandson’s face. With his eyes half-closed, and the corners of his mouth sticky with saliva, Manex asks:

‘Where are we?’

‘In my village,’ Floren says, and suddenly he feels very alone.

After Manuel, Floren had never loved another man. When he was fourteen or fifteen he’d been with the milkman’s son, whose name he can’t even remember now. They would have sex lying among the cows in the barn, on the straw that stank of urine. And then they would greedily drink the watery milk from the cows’ udders. Another memory he had erased until today. With Manuel, though, it was different. They were friends, or, more importantly, they were going to be friends. Manuel was the last man he had loved. Shortly after that, in the same year that he fled the village, he met Geneviève in Ciboure, and shortly after that, they married. Shortly after that, his daughter was born, and shortly after that, the son who now lives in Dax. And shortly after that, there was now. 

Where once there had been countryside there were now petrol stations and supermarkets, geometric houses scarring the horizon. There’s an outpatients’ department where the hermitage used to stand, and a wide road passes straight through the place where the house he was born in once stood.

‘I used to live here, Manex.’

‘What, on the road?’

He recognises the accents, the unique way people here have of pronouncing words. He feels a need to talk to someone, but in Spanish; he hardly speaks Spanish to anyone in Biarritz, or only with one friend from Behobia and a couple of other people, but it’s not the Spanish he spoke in his youth. He wants to talk to someone of his own age, to hear again the gentle, touching way they have of speaking. Still looking sleepy, Manex imitates his grandfather’s way of walking, hands behind his back, a frown on his face, wearing a baseball cap instead of a Basque beret. They look very alike.

When they reach the town hall square, they stop.

‘This is where I used to work, and it’s hardly changed at all. I put up those window boxes, you know. This was the first town hall in the whole of Ribera to have window boxes.’

He fled the village that same night, for ever, and without a backward glance. Until today. Wrapped up in a blanket he had two photos, a piece of stale bread, some chocolate, a slice of cheese, a shirt, a pair of underpants and a pair of socks, and inside the socks, twenty-five duros.

He wept for everything he wasn’t leaving behind. After a day’s walk, he reached Pamplona. It was the second time he’d been there, and it seemed to him that there were far too many people. Floren held his breath when he passed some soldiers, thinking they would somehow know what he had done and would shoot him. However, the soldiers walked on, leaving only the echo of their boots, and for a while Floren stayed where he was, staring down at his dusty alpargatas. Two days later, he crossed the frontier and found shelter in Ciboure. There he met Geneviève, and shortly after that, they married. Shortly after that, his daughter was born, and shortly after that, the son who now lives in Dax. Shortly after that, his daughter married Serge, and Manex was born.

And shortly after that, there was now.

Floren is standing alongside Manex opposite the arcade beneath the town hall, remembering that night. The window boxes are planted now with miniature conifers, and a square banner bearing the word PEACE hangs from the balcony.

‘Are you crying?’ Manex asks him.

‘Why would I be crying?’

‘Perhaps it’s made you sad coming back to the village.’

‘Sad? No, I’m happy!’

‘But you are crying,’ says Manex, playing the detective.

‘As we say here, you’re more irritating than an itch in the goolies.’ But Manex doesn’t know what ‘goolies’ means.

When the flowers were fully open, he dug them up and placed them gently, one by one, in the wheelbarrow, as if they were newborns. He had to make three journeys to transport all the flowers to the town hall, at night, and he was afraid that the squeaking wheelbarrow would wake the people in that silent village of stone, more silent and more like stone than ever. It was a clear, warm night. He prepared the soil in the window boxes and planted the petunias, with the colours that Manuel and the others had loved so much: first, the purples, then the yellows, and then the reds. Lots of them. That night, the moon looked like a big round cheese, or a very fat woman laughing. There was no one in the streets. Outside the town hall, Floren lit a cigar. He had a beautiful view from there of the flowers overflowing the balconies and swaying in the breeze beneath a milk-white moon, white the colour of treachery, the colour of a scream. It was the first time he had felt complete since they’d snatched Manuel from him – complete, but alone.

He pinches the back of Manex’s neck and says:

‘Come on, we’ve got loads of things to see.’

Hands behind their backs and taking short steps, they head for the small shop next to the town hall.

‘Are you Perico?’ he says softly to the old man standing among the packets of cigarettes and nuts, his eyes hidden behind a pair of glasses with thick, smeary lenses. ‘Do you remember me?’

The man in the glasses shifts the toothpick he’s chewing from one side of his mouth to the other, but doesn’t answer.

‘Do you know who I am? I’m Floren Ainzúa, the nephew of Paca, the woman who used to sell eggs. Do you remember me?’

The man takes off his glasses and cleans them on one of the paper napkins he uses to wrap up any knicknacks. He finally manages to dredge up a memory of the woman who used to sell eggs, and of that rather strange, silent nephew of hers who disappeared…other memories crowd into his mind too.

‘Yes, I do remember.’ The man reaches out one hand from behind the window, quickly and fearfully, as if he were committing a forbidden act. ‘How’s things?’

Floren shakes the proffered hand hard and smiles, revealing a few still healthy teeth.

‘This is my grandson,’ he says, placing one earth-coloured hand on Manex’s head. And before going on, he glances up at the balcony of the town hall. ‘He doesn’t speak any Spanish, only French and Basque.’

 

 

 

Eider Rodríguez (b. 1977) was born in Errentería in the Basque Country and writes in Basque and self-translates into Spanish. She currently lives in Hendaye on the border between France and Spain. She studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Madrid, and, in 2004, published her first collection of stories Eta handik gutxira gaur, from which this story is taken. Her 2007 novel, Bihotz handiegia, won the Premio de Euskadi and the premio Euskadi de Plata.  

 

  • The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories

  • This exciting new collection celebrates the richness and variety of the Spanish short story, from the nineteenth century to the present day. Featuring over fifty stories selected by revered translator Margaret Jull Costa, it blends old favourites and hidden gems - many of which have never before been translated into English - and introduces readers to surprising new voices as well as giants of Spanish literary culture, from Emilia Pardo Bazán and Leopoldo Alas, through Mercè Rodoreda and Manuel Rivas, to Ana Maria Matute and Javier Marías.

    Brimming with romance, horror, history, farce, strangeness and beauty, and showcasing alluring hairdressers, war defectors, vampiric mothers, and talismanic mandrake roots, the daring and entertaining assortment of tales in The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories will be a treasure trove for readers.

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