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‘Although, officially, the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1, 1939, armed resistance against Franco and his regime was not over. In the 1940s groups of guerillas slipped out of their sierra hideaways to harass the dictatorship and try to create a climate of rebellion throughout the peninsula…. the last fighters continued in the mountains until 1952.’
‘During the years of the dictatorship, the defeated in Spain had no public right to historical memory, living as they did in a kind of internal exile…. When, in the early 2000s, the grandchildren of the victims of the Francoists finally initiated a nationwide movement for the recovery of historical memory, it provoked a near-hysterical rejection by those who denounced their quest as merely “raking up the ashes”’.
MADRID, 1.9.2018. ‘Spain to Exhume Franco From Monument He Had Built’.
‘The Spanish Parliament voted on Thursday to exhume the remains of Francisco Franco, the former dictator, from the underground basilica that he had built near Madrid, intensifying a debate over his legacy that continues 43 years after his death.’
She closed the door on her last lunch customer and stood for a second looking out at her small terrace, checking for traces of the graffiti that had been waiting for her that morning. This time they’d scrawled it in ungrammatical German across the raised flagstones.
Go home, foreign canary!
No, nothing now to be seen, she must be getting better with her scrubbing brush. A pity she couldn’t get rid of the Town Hall warnings as easily. Another pale envelope had arrived that morning – another fine, another threat to close her down. Should she confront the cow who kept informing against her? She knew who it was, but what was the point. Until they granted her a performance license she should stop her late evening singing, but it was what brought the customers to La Cocina, and without the extra income she couldn’t afford the rent – or the fines. The German canary would have to sing again.
The local paper landed on the flagstones in the open doorway and Mecki raised her hand as the boy sped onward, skateboard thundering over the cobbles. Forget those scheisskerl at the Town Hall, see what else is happening in the Andalucian village she’d tried to make their home.
One topic dominated the front page.
‘Freedom to forget! Another memorial destroyed. Where now the Law of Historical Memory? Once again, the people choose to keep their long silence about Franco’s post-war atrocities as the disgraceful case of the murders in the cemetery is once again suppressed by those who would rather … ‘
The phone rang in the kitchen. Another cancellation. She put the dirty cups in the dishwasher, started it up, stuffed the paper in her bag and set off for the school, thinking about the headlines. So they had smashed it up, the library woman’s memorial. Only last Tuesday evening, walking home past the cemetery, Mecki had noticed her in the small group of black-shawled women and bare-headed men, had stopped and listened to the priest’s dedication and afterwards read the plaque. Three young men herded into the cemetery and shot, one not much more than a boy… it had been a reprisal murder in the village in the 1950s, one bystander told her, carried out by the Francoists after a Civil Guard got killed.
# Hanno’s hand was hot and tense in hers.
‘May we go to the playground, please, Mama?’
‘Of course. Don’t we always go to the playground?’
She watched him run to the queue of children jostling for a place, waiting to climb the steps of the big slide. His smile was quick, tentative, and she saw the flush that came as quickly when he was pushed aside. He tried again, twice, and turned away, head down, moving towards the swing. A girl ran ahead of him and captured it, her eyes on his face, laughing at him.
‘My turn!’ she said, and Hanno stood back from her thrusting feet.
‘It’s ok. I can wait.’
He spoke the language with the fluid ease of childhood; that was not the problem. She could just hear what the other child was saying.
‘After me, it will be my friend’s turn.’
‘Where is your friend?’
‘She is coming. Goodbye.’
Mecki saw him look down at the ground, shuffling his feet, then look towards her. She bent her head over her phone, her thumbs busy with a text that would go nowhere. Above her head a serin filled the carob tree with its insistent song. Close by a child began to cry. A woman’s voice, angry. She felt his hand on her knee.
‘We can go,’ he said. ‘Let’s go home now.’
He moved swiftly, pulling her along, the sobs of the child in the playground merging with the song of the caged birds on the balconies.
‘Perhaps we should try the other playground? What do you think, liebchen? Maybe go there tomorrow?’
He did not reply.
Saturday morning. Antonia took the pan of boiling water from the gas and poured it into the glass, enjoying the hiss and spit of the liquid as it left the hot sides of the aluminium pan, breathing in the steam. The mint shifted in the hot water, fine bubbles forming on the hairs of the leaves and rising to the surface.
Her mother’s quavering voice brought her back to her task. She dug a spoon into the jar of honey, stirred a spoonful into the infusion and watched the spiral of dissolving sweetness rise.
Patience, mother. Would she doze off again? Last night had been bad, weeping, weeping. The pills only made her worse. Last week Antonia had caught up with her half way down the calle to the cemetery, sitting on the butcher’s front step in her nightgown, singing a saeta to the passersby. Would the constant searching never end? She put the glass in the silver filigree holder and made her way upstairs.
Old Isabel was half-sitting on the bed, reaching underneath, her nightgown sagging off one bony shoulder.
‘Come, mother, you will get cold.’
Isabel shrugged her hand off.
‘Maleta,’ she said, swivelling her head sideways and up to look at her daughter.
‘Tranquilo, I will get it out for you.’
Antonia knelt by the bed. Her groping fingers encountered rounded metal, and she pulled out the table brazier. A spider scuttled for cover.
‘Idiota! La maleta.’
She reached again, her shoulder pressing painfully against the metal frame of the sagging matrimonio. If her mother would only agree to sleep in a single bed the laundry would be easier. Heaven knew, there’d been no man in her bed in Antonia’s lifetime. No man in either of their beds.
Her fingers met with something firm, a corner, smooth like leather. She scrabbled to gain purchase, moving her hand farther along the side until she found the handle, pulled it out and sat back, coughing. It was a small leather suitcase.
‘Aquí! ’ Isabel’s clawed hand reached down, raking at Antonia’s shoulder.
‘Wait, mother, you will fall out of bed.’
She rubbed away some of the dust with a corner of the rug and now she could see the black embossed letters a little more clearly. Not her mother’s name, nor hers. A.T.O. Her father’s initials. Angel Triviño Ortega.
It was not easy to open, the lock more rust than metal.
The old woman’s fingers were at the clasp, pushing at it until it sprang open. Antonia lifted the lid, had to hold it up as the frayed ribbon hinge was too short. She could see a bunch of dried flowers, a press cutting with several columns of yellowing print and the grainy photograph of a young man with the same face that looked out from the pewter frame by her mother’s bed. Her father’s face. So that was where old Isabel had been keeping their past.
‘Basta,‘ said the old woman, pushing her hand away. ‘Adio!’
Antonia released her hold on the lid and it closed with a soft thud. How many more such suitcases lay under beds, on top of cupboards, locked away in drawers in this village?
‘No, mother,’ she said. ‘I’ll need to take a look at this.’
An idea was forming in her mind.
On Sunday morning Hanno found the old woman on their doorstep.
Sunday was usually Hanno’s worst day. School was not great but at least there was something to do and Mama was mostly there when he got back. If not, he would find her at the café. He was allowed to walk back on his own, like the other boys, except they mostly went off together, so he walked home alone.
Today he’d got up early, slipped back the bolt quietly so as not to wake Mama and almost stepped into its bony back. You couldn’t see what it was at first. There was a skinny neck sunk down into the collar of a red dressing gown, a head sticking forward like Acosta’s parrot does when he’s going to give you a nip. The hair straggling on the back of its neck was separated out like the feathers of the dead baby seagull he had once found at the end of Oma’s garden where you could step out onto the river bank.
Hanno squeezed past it to have a look from the front. It was an abuela, all hunched over, her nose like a beak, her mouth folded in and skin that looked like a spider had spun his web over it.
‘Hola,’ said Hanno. ‘Why are you sitting on our step?’
The mouth went thinner. Try the polite way of talking to abuelas.
‘Buenos días. Why do You sit on our step?’
‘Why not?’ The voice creaked like an old door.
‘I don’t mind but it must be quite hard for your …’
The eyes closed. Hanno waited, to see if there would be any more. One, two, three, four ….
She opened one eye.
‘Home now.’ She pulled a stick out from under her bony knees and put a hand on his shoulder.
Taking her home was slow. Hanno counted eight steps that she sat on, before they got to an alleyway full of pots and scratchy plants. At the end was a green door and the abuela banged on it with her stick.
‘Go with God, chico,’ she said, and sat down on the step.
So late now, so dark, such a day it had been. Dolores the sitter would be long since asleep in the chair and what if Hanno woke with one of his nightmares? Mecki’s footsteps echoed on the cobbles and the night-grey house walls gave back the sound. Each footstep seemed hollow – was it only her feet that she could hear? She stepped into Torreón and waited. No-one. A cat screeched, its lingering cry returning again and again. Du spinnst, you are an idiot. You hear footsteps, voices, where there are only echoes and cats. She began to walk on.
Stop! Another sound – someone weeping? She moved along the passageway, jasmine strands clutching at her wool cape. A smell of decomposing fruit. Now the weeping was louder. Was it coming from behind that window grill? It was like the sundown lament of the estuary birds at home, a low keening, here and there a word. Jamás olvidar. Never forget.
A light went on behind the grill, another voice now, complaining, someone drawn unwillingly from sleep. The evening chill was seeping into her and she turned for home.
Dolores was sleeping in the chair with her mouth open.
‘Dolores, it is time.’
The older woman fumbled a silver thread of drool from her chin, gathered up her knitting and departed.
The bedroom was cool. She eased the casement windows together before looking at her sleeping son, his face turned almost into his pillow and his long straight hair across his eyes; with tentative fingers she smoothed it to one side and as she did so his hand came up, brushing hers aside like a troublesome fly. He turned onto his back, flinging out one arm, his eyes wide open.
‘My turn!’ he said. ‘Meine, bitte.’
He rolled over and his breathing became even. She tucked the quilt in along his back and closed the door with a hand over the catch to stop it clicking. Her bed was on the narrow landing – but that was better than trying to live in the two rooms over the café with the packing cases. Their lives measured out in cardboard boxes. She fell asleep.
On the way to school the next day they had reached the covered passageway when Mecki felt a tug at her hand.
‘Mama, why are the people here so sad?’
‘What people, Hanno?’
‘The people behind the windows.’
‘Why do you think they are sad?’
‘I hear them, when it is quiet in the street. They have sad voices.’
Mecki pushed his hair back from his forehead.
‘Liebchen, when do you walk here on your own?’
‘After school. You know.’
He squatted down on his haunches, watching a stag beetle labouring up a cobblestone.
He looked up.
‘Mama, I think the old lady is one of the sad ones.’
Ah. So he had seen her too.
‘The one who sits on our doorstep?’
‘That one, yes.’
He nudged the beetle over the cobble with the careful tip of one finger.
‘Why do you think she is sad?’
‘I just do.’
The beetle disappeared into a drooping tangle of rubber-plant roots.
‘Mama, do you think she would like some marble cake?’
‘We could take her some. Do you know where she lives?’
‘Yes,’ said Hanno. ‘She lives here.’
Antonia walked down to the library early, taking advantage of Conchi’s day to care for old Isabel. The cool air felt good. She should have at least an hour of peace to pursue her search, now she had the micro-fiche for 1950 from Central Library. This time it would be all right. The fascisti might destroy a plaque in the dark of the night, but a library exhibition would not be so easy. That ferret-faced Juan from the Town Hall would issue a permit to mount it, what was it to him? He’d always been one to watch the bullfight from the barrier as long as his boss took no interest.
Someone was already there, seated on the low wall of the old fountain, one leg crossed over the other, skirt too short for decency. That interfering German woman from the café. Big mouth – la bocazas, they called her in the shop. Give her a nod of acknowledgment, no more. She had not forgotten their last exchange – opinionated foreigner, what did she know about their lives here? She’d probably come to gloat.Your pathetic memorial! – smashed by the fascisti, what did I tell you?
The woman was following her into the building. The massive key shifted the mechanism in the studded door and it swung back, heavy on its hinges. Antonia stooped to retrieve the post that had been pushed underneath then walked up the stairs, the smell of beeswax mingling with the perfume of new wood. She tried to turn the key in the lock – why wouldn’t it go? The unseasoned frame must have warped in the heat. Impossible with one hand, put the post down. When she turned back the door was open and la bocazas was smiling at her.
‘I have a similar problem with my new back door,’ she said. ‘You have to – persuade it.’
Her Spanish was good, the voice a little husky – ah yes, a singer, some fuss about a performing license. Well, she too had reason enough to mistrust those hijos de puta in the Town Hall.
‘Do you remember me? You used to come into my café.’
‘I remember you. What can I do for you?’
‘I want to ask you something.’
Here it comes, questions, always questions. The papers, the TV reporter and now this woman. The phone began to ring.
‘You will need to answer that, I think. I come back.’
Antonia picked up the receiver. An enquiry about a book order from the library in Málaga, good, easily dealt with, and now la bocazas had disappeared round the back of the reference section. She had some time to herself.
She took the microfiche from her bag, pulled out the viewer handle and slid the film under the glass. Push it back – there. The first few pictures were of the village as it had been, so different, the studded shelves of the olive terraces stepping down a hillside where today the cavernous new car park squatted. Move on, check dates, too early – what about this one? Whoever captured this image had taken a risk. Was that a body on the ground? A mule with something on its back, a bundle like clothing – hard to see. She pushed the viewer wheel but zooming in made the image more indistinct. Another lens? That one should do it. Release, push up, away and – click – good. Now the image was clearer. So clear. A body lying by the cemetery wall, another near the gate and beyond that a mule, already laden with – a bundle of garments? No, the body of a man, flung carelessly as you would throw an old carpet, his arms hanging down, his face turned sideways, the face that looked out of her mother’s pewter frame.
The telephone was ringing again.
‘Antonia, how are you?’
That slimy voice.
‘Buenos días, Juan. You have spoken with Don Xavier? About my exhibition?’
‘I … did not need to. Antonia, you know how much we value your judgement in matters to do with library events, but after reflection … ‘
And so on. Antonia put the receiver down and stared through sudden tears at the wavering images on the screen. ‘ … village not quite ready for such a venture.… that tiresome law … not disputing the importance of historical memory, in its place … but to go to such lengths? Uncover old quarrels, old wounds? Let the dead bury the dead, Antonia … ‘
Muerto y bien muerto. The village motto. Scrawled on the bullet-scarred cemetery wall where the plaque had been, whispered on the calle, in the church, the shop, those harpies chewing over her affairs …
Antonia’s gaze refocused on the face of la bocazas.
‘I do not listen on purpose, but I too know that scheißkerl Juan in the Town Hall and – could we talk a little?’
‘About – a ballad I need to write and …’
‘And I know that here in this village it is not only the potatoes that are buried. I need you to share your story with me. Will you do it?’
‘That depends … ‘
‘I may come by tomorrow?’
On Tuesday afternoon Hanno was sitting inside an empty packing case, looking out of the top window of the café. It was like being in a cave. He could smell the cake now, so it must be almost ready, though it would take a little while to cool. Socrates arrived, arched his back and jumped on the windowsill, curling his tail around his front paws.
‘I am hungry,’ he said.
‘I will go down in a minute,’ said Hanno.
The cat rubbed his head against the window frame.
‘Why did you push that girl off the swing?’
‘She wouldn’t give me a turn.’
‘Why should you have a turn?’
‘All the other children have turns.’
‘Why do you want to be like the others?’
‘I don’t know. Because. Go away, Socrates.’
He had not meant Emilia to fall off the swing, had tried to pick her up but she had pushed him away. If the cake was a big one there might be enough left over to take some to the playground.
‘Why do you want to give that girl cake?’ said Socrates.
‘So she’ll talk to me again.’
‘She might prefer fish,’ said Socrates. ‘Do you have any fish?’
‘Hanno, wo bist du?’
Hanno went downstairs.
‘ ’Ready, schätzchen? We can go now.’
Mama had put one of the cakes in the round snake basket with the fat handles.
‘To the play park?’
‘After, maybe. First we go to see your friend, the old lady from the doorstep.’
Emilia wasn’t at the playpark.
The next day after school Emilia wasn’t there again and they couldn’t wait for her as Mama had to get back quickly. She would be very busy and so Hanno was to finish his art project in the top room, ready for Monday.
Hanno’s pencil was blunt. He remembered that the sharpener was in the drawer under the counter. Downstairs, Mama and the woman from the library were sticking pictures onto a big white screen. He crept round the side of it and went to the drawer.
‘Vorsicht, schatz,’ said Mama. ‘It keeps wobbling. Could you get Doña Antonia the blu tack, please?’
The pictures were boring, just black and brown and white with a lot of printed writing. Hanno went back up to the top room.
When he came down again the sun had almost gone and the screen was outside on their terrace. The library lady was sitting at the window table and Mama was at the little keyboard piano, wearing her special dress, the yellow one. Hanno went and stood next to her and she gave him a squeeze and began to sing. Some people stopped to listen and soon people were eating cake and looking at the pictures on the white screen and talking.
Then everything happened very fast. First it was the police light flashing down the road and then the dark blue policemen came and one told Mama in a loud voice to stop singing but she didn’t and they picked up the screen, one on each side and Mama stopped singing and tried to hold on to it and she was crying so Hanno ran to the other side and kicked the policeman’s ankle hard and then the screen was falling and Hanno tried to move but the terrace step got in the way. Then he was in a white bed with Mama sitting next to him holding one hand and his other hand sticking out of a plaster and Mama crying and laughing all at once and still wearing her yellow dress.
On the day after he got back home from the hospital Hanno got up quite late and went to find Mama but there was only old Dolores asleep in the corner. In the middle of the room were their suitcases, full of clothes, so he got his jeans out and put them on. He would have to stay in his pyjama top because of the plaster cast but the black sling was good, it made him look like a pirate.
When he got to the café there were photos all over the closed entrance door. Someone touched his shoulder.
‘Hola, Hanno. Como estás? ‘
It was the man who cut hair from the bottom of the long steps who never usually spoke. He was smiling and nodding his head a lot and he took two photos out of his back pocket and fastened them to a shutter with sticky tape. After that, lots more people came by and said hello and put photos on the café shutters and walls. The parrot abuela came and sat next to him on the terrace step.
She was pointing up and now Hanno could see Mama, she was on the cafe balcony, tying up one end of a sheet that stretched across the calle. The sheet had red painted words on it.
‘JAMAS OLVIDAR NOS DESAPARECIDOS.’
The people walking past began chanting the words and clapping. Hanno knew what it meant. ‘Never forget our disappeared’. He asked Mama if there was going to be a magician and she said she thought that one had been there already but Hanno never saw him.
It took Mecki and Antonia a couple of days to transfer the material to a newly dedicated section in the library where, as the Town Hall notice board now proclaimed, an exhibition entitled ‘NEVER FORGET!’ was to be on permanent view after its formal opening by His Excellency the Mayor next Friday afternoon.
When Mecki reopened the café on Saturday morning she found another pale envelope pushed under the door. Her third fine, no doubt. Well, it could wait – she had baking to do and some decisions to make. It was only after she had cleared away the lunch dishes that she came across the envelope again, kicked under a table. The ‘Permit to Perform in a Public Venue’ was a modest document, but the signature, stamp and date seemed official. There was also a handwritten note.
The one lying by the cemetery wall was my grandfather. Thank you.
Liane Smith’s early writing was for children; she published a themed fiction collection and her short stories appeared in several child anthologies, were dramatised on radio by the British Broadcasting Corporation and televised in Ireland. Her professional career inspired a change to non-fiction writing, when she published papers in psychology-of-language journals and a feature article in The Independent. More recently she has been writing poetry and adult short fiction and her recent collection tells the stories of ordinary people in a village community who still struggle to reconcile divisions dating from the Spanish Civil War and the post-war Franco years. Her writing embraces themes of alienation, oppression, survival and love.