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I cast her to the bottom of a well
And on top of her I piled
All of the stones of the parapet.
- I will forget her, if I can!

"The Murderer's Wine"


      He opened his eyes, like every morning, long before the alarm clock went off at eight. He whiled away the time contemplating the white ceiling, and when at last he heard the damned noise, his finger pounced, inexorably, on the alarm button. He sat up and remained sitting a few minutes, looking at the floor, looking at his feet and feeling the cold of the tiles on his calloused soles. He got up and walked towards the bathroom.

      He pissed. He rubbed his chin, where a mass of incipient grey hairs would never manage to become a beard, and examined his yellow teeth, just the ones that were still healthy, the rest were not worth bothering about. He splashed a couple of handfuls of water onto his face and went out.

      He liked his coffee strong, but not too hot, so he had to add a little milk and doctor it with the blackmarket anise which Zailachi supplied him with every week. He downed the mixture in one gulp and went back to his room to get dressed. It smelled of mint tea.

      As every morning, he was ready at about half past eight, and after dousing his neck with Cologne, he turned the key in the lock twice just as a neighbour was rushing off to work.



      They greeted each other from politeness, as always. The neighbour went down the stairs two at a time while he clung to the railing and started his unhurried descent.

      It had turned out to be a nice day. Although it was March, the clouds were white and the intense blue of the sky, brilliant with sun, hurt the eyes. He began to stroll along, looking about him this way and that, uneffusively greeting the occasional acquaintance, searching for his packet of Hoggar and a lighter in his jacket pocket.

      He lit one cigarette after another, smoking them rhythmically: every six steps, one drag. He stopped at the newsstand and bought the day´s Moroccan paper with last week´s Spanish paper tucked inside.

      The Spanish paper was blackmarket, too. Kabil managed to get it through some friends who worked in Ceuta and spent the weekend in Casablanca. For fifteen dirhams or so Julián could find out what had been happening in his own country the previous Monday or Sunday: accidents, corruption, racism, Madrid's drawn or lost matches....., as well as what was happening (according to Hassan) in the disconcerting country where he now lived. Sitting at a table outside one of the cheap little cafes in Plaza Mirabeau, endeavouring to ensure that no one discover his stratagem, breathing in scents he hadn´t even dreamed of ten years ago, he would smile or grimace in pain as he imagined the scenes which, letter by letter, his eyes took him. On page fourteen, for example, a Basque politician who had called the military bloodsucking layabouts; on page thirty-three a columnist determined to pour cold water on the voyeuristic navel-gazers; on page twenty-four, in the sports section, a girl who had beaten another girl at tennis, thus overcoming the last obstacle. If he weren't careful, twelve or one o'clock would come around amid the nostalgia, the risk and the disillusion.

      Then suddenly, on page nineteen, he came across something which caused his mouth to fall open as if to scream, although he could not. He leaned forward and then sank with all his weight against the back of the chair. He left the papers on his left thigh (no longer taking precautions) and brought his hand up to his forehead. The news had struck him like an axe from above. When he uncovered his face in order to breathe, he saw a boy watching him, his backpack full of books, his hair short and curly, his smile widening. And he remembered that the first time he saw her they had only been ten or twelve.


     My mother is in the kitchen chopping up a chicken when I come home from school. The plant pot overflowing with parsley is on the table and I complain about its disgusting smell. Mother says that I´m exaggerating and asks me what sort of day I've had. I lie. I tell her it was fine, and not that Father Andrés caught me reading a book I shouldn´t have been and that he turned my fingers into red chili peppers with the iron ruler. Then father comes home. I grab him round the neck to give him a kiss and say something, and I realise that he is sad. Mother asks him what has happened and father asks me to go out for a while, they will tell me when lunch is ready.

      I sit in the doorway and think. I keep wondering what has happened and if I'll find out one day, perhaps when I'm grown up. I´ve got some marbles in the pocket of my trousers, but I don´t get them out. I click them together beneath the cloth while I keep on thinking and thinking, going over the same thought, remembering my father´s face when he said "go out into the street for a while, as soon as lunch is ready we'll call you".

      Maybe I´ll never find out, not even when I´m grown up.

      As it is, a week later, when I come home from school, my father and mother say "we´ve got a surprise for you". I ask, "What, what surprise, what have you bought for me?" (because the day before I saw some huge cakes in Sra. Lupe´s shop and I said "delicious" out loud so my mother would know what I meant) and my father answers:

      'Your cousin Almudena.'

      Almudena? My cousin Almudena? I had never heard of this cousin, of cousin Almudena, but I don´t say so. She is in my room, putting away her things.

      'She's going to live with us from now on,' says my mother.

      And I'll sleep in the dining room. For the moment.

      At last Almudena appears. She is ten or twelve, too. She was born two days before me. In Guadalajara. I always thought that Guadalajara didn´t exist, so many a´s together seemed difficult to believe.

      'Give your cousin a kiss,' my mother says.

      'Aren´t you going to give your cousin a kiss?' my father asks her.

      We kiss. I have found her mouth without meaning to. She looks at the floor after this greeting and I keep on looking at her face because I still haven´t got over my surprise.

      'She will go to another school, for girls,' they tell me, and they suggest that I should help her in all that I can, because she has been some time without studying and might find it difficult to get back into.

      I am to sleep in the dining room, which I don´t like.


     One afternoon after school, while we are busy with our homework and smiling at each other every so often, my father, who is reading the newspaper, tells my mother that some man called Lenin has died in Russia. Mother has never heard of him, and my father says, "the one who killed the Russian kings and all the priests, Carmen". When we are alone, Almudena tells me that she had heard of that man, because her parents had mentioned him on several occasions in front of her and everything. I ask her about her parents and she tells me they died. I ask her what of and she says she doesn´t know. I ask her if they both died at the same time and she says yes. Then I ask her if she has finished the sum which she couldn´t get right.

      'I don´t like adding up,' she replies.

      But she did like to go up into the loft and fight with the rusted fencing swords which my great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather had used. We tried not to make too much noise, since my father would have beaten the dust out of our clothes if he had ever found out about those harmless duels. Harmless? One day I stuck my sword-arm out too far by accident and she didn´t step back far enough. The jab was not that deep. However, completely shocked, I let go of the squalid sword, and the hilt shook for a few seconds, tearing her flesh a little more.

      'It´s nothing, don´t worry,' Almudena said, and she herself pulled out the bloodstained point. A little red circle started to spread over the pink cloth of the dress she was wearing. She told me to go and wet a handkerchief with water and bring it back to her as soon as possible, and to make sure no one saw me. I went down the stairs holding my breath: I was afraid she would be dead when I got back to the loft. I went into my parents' room and opened the drawer where they kept their clothes. I took out the handkerchief, I went to the kitchen. I wetted it in the bucket of water from the well and started to run. My mother was knitting in the dining room.

      'Do you want to have tea now?' she asked.

      'Not yet,' I said

      Bread and chocolate.

      When, at last, I opened the door of the loft, Almudena still hadn´t died. She had taken off her dress and was pressing her right hand against the wound on her chest.

      'You see, it´s nothing,' she said.

      I gave her the handkerchief, she wiped away the blood. Then she took my wet hand and put it on her breast.

      'It's hot,' she said. 'A little more and you would have killed me. Do you want to kiss me?'

      Yes, yes I did: I did want to and, the way things were, I could, she let me. So I did, once again I searched for her mouth and found it. Love and death, blood and saliva. The last sun of the day slid through the skylight.

      'Do you want to kiss me?' I asked.

      What I didn´t want, not for all the gold in the world, was to go to the war.


     But Almudena said over and over again that "the country needs us" until the only thing I could do was to enlist as a volunteer, for us both to enlist. They sent me to the south, and her to the north. My parents almost had a heart attack, repeating, while the trains moved off in different directions, that we were barely twenty. And so what? The war didn´t give a shit how old our corpses were.

      In February thirty-seven the Italian blackshirts entered Malaga, they stank of death. The executed bodies piled up by the wall, the starving dogs sniffed human offal while the victors made those who wanted to put off their execution for a few hours sing their fascist songs. I ran away, yes, but inside my head the poison shifted its shape. I would die later, or sooner: but I was already starting to die.

      It took me fifteen or twenty days to arrive in Alicante. I went on foot, by cart, by mule, and not without listening more than once to the whistle of enemy bullets over my body. Then I travelled to Valencia by lorry, together with twenty other fighters who had managed to escape from the places already lost. No sooner had I set foot in the city than I met up with a beautifully militia-like Almudena, giving orders to right and left as if she were Enrique Lister.

      'You will stay here, don´t worry,' she told me.

      She had been in Navarra and in Zaragoza and in Bilbao. She had got to know half of Spain, she said, "thanks to those sons of bitches". She had joined the communist party and would have given anything to embrace La Pasionaria*. That very night, as we made love somewhere or other (she talking about Lenin, father´s friend, me delightedly sucking her nipples), the radio announced that the upstart government in Burgos had banned throughout its territory all American films starring Charlie Chaplin, Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and other actors and actresses who had declared their sympathies for the Republic.

      'We have to win this war,' she said, 'or we´ll never see Chaplin again.'

      'We have to win this war,' I replied simply, my mouth busy with a kiss.

      But the war went on and making love was almost as difficult as not dying. General Mola had been killed in a plane crash, and the following month anti-fascist writers from all over the world got together with the object of defending culture. Almudena was one of the people responsible for organising the opening session. And I, always at her side, didn´t want to miss that.

      'Look, there's Machado,' she said. 'Look, Vallejo, Tzara. Look, Spender, Neruda...'

      At the beginning of August she had to go to Barcelona and I was on my own again. The last news I had had of my parents dated from April (our town had already fallen) and they weren´t at all good: my mother was ill, my father had lost the shop, hunger and the rats had been the real victors. The northern front needed defenders and I, without thinking about it, said, "me". On the sixteenth we lost Reinosa, on the eighteenth the port of Escudo. The cancer did not take long to spread towards Asturias.

      I got to Barcelona in October. I looked all over for Almudena, but I couldn´t find anyone who could tell me anything. The atmosphere in the city was far from optimistic: the Spanish and the Basque governments (faced with the imminent fall of Bilbao) had transferred there and were sharing space next to the Generalitat. So I thought the best thing to do was to disappear, and I started to go down to the port everyday in the hope of soon being able to leave .

      'Are you looking for something?' the captain of a French ship asked me.


      The captain smiled at me, he signalled to me with his hand and said "come on board". I came on board. He slapped me on the back twice and offered me rolling tobacco and paper. We made a couple of cigarettes, we smoked them.

      'Things are fucked,' said the captain, and I nodded my head. 'We´re leaving tomorrow,' he said.

      'The sooner the better,' was my reply.

     I sold second-hand cars, shoes, watches I worked in a match factory, in several restaurants, in a slaughterhouse. My mother had died in thirty-eight, two months after I settled down for good in Paris, for good for a number of years. I couldn't go to the funeral. My father died in forty. An old school friend who didn't get involved in politics and worked in a bank told me. The letter arrived a month after he was buried. I wrote to him asking for news of Almudena, but I never got a reply.

      Around nineteen fifty, after wandering about the streets looking for new jobs and boarding houses where they took people with no money, I was lucky enough to meet monsieur Goya, a Galician who hadn´t gone to Cuba or Argentina. Monsieur Goya had a grocery shop in the Latin Quarter which was always full of Spanish and South Americans. I asked him for a job and he gave me one.

      'What the hell do I want with a French assistant if no one from Paris ever comes in here?'

      The wage was no treasure trove, but it was enough to buy clothes and Gitanes. What was more, eating and sleeping were no longer a problem: I had food and a bed in his house, and madame Goya was "a good cook and a clean woman", as her husband said. So I started to sell herrings, jars of artichokes, white wine and whatever was put in front of me, and I did it as if I had been born to it: God tests you..........

     ...tests and breaks you.

     The transformation of the shop started a couple of years later. Antonio ("this monsieur Goya irritates me", he told me) always went around with his nose stuck in the books he had brought from Vigo, and he would often refuse to serve a customer until he had finished his chapter. One day a Uruguayan came into the shop and, after asking the price of about a hundred things and seeing in the palm of his hand that he didn't have enough money, fixed his eyes on Las Noches del Buen Retiro by Baroja, only moving them to ask "How much?".

      'The bread? Half a franc'

      'The book.'

      'The book? No the book is not for sale, it belongs to the boss.'

      'How much does he want for it?'

      'I´ve told you, he´s not selling it. It's his. It´s not for sale.'

      I picked it up casually and hid it among some old newspapers.

      The Uruguayan looked at me either in hatred or pity and went out without saying another word. When I told Antonio what had happened, he burst out laughing:

      'No, in the end we´ll have to open a bookshop.'

      And that´s what we did. After poor monsieur Goya, spurred on and almost threatened by his wife, had sold all of the existing stock (a Celestina, a Quixote, various works by Calderón, the Baroja... even some poems by Curros Enríquez and stories by Rodríguez Castelao in Galician), we got in touch with a small publisher of books in Castillian and, in little more than a week, Lope de Vega and Galdós were rubbing shoulders with fruit, vegetables, cheeses and croissants, although not for long. Only a few months later we realised that Epicerie Goya urgently needed to change its name and its spirit, and it came to be called Goya Librairie.

      It was in nineteen sixty, in July, I think, when the old couple decided to go back to Spain. Quite a long time before that they had given up their hope (I don´t know why, but I never had it) that Europe and the United States would force Franco to give up power. They felt too old, too tired. In Galicia they still had quite a lot of family (four of Antonio's brothers and two of Victoria's) and to die in Paris, as monsieur said, was not exactly a pleasant prospect. They left, and left me with the bookshop and the flat, but also alone. I didn´t even know if Almudena was alive or not.


      "My youth was no more than a great storm crossed in gusts of wind by blinding eyes; the winds and showers did so much damage that in my vegetable garden there is hardly one ripe fruit left."

      In the end, surrounded by books as I always was, I had no choice but to read them. It´s not that I became a bookworm, it´s not that, but I did open from time to time one of the books which, one day and the sooner the better, I would get rid of in exchange for ten or twelve francs, and I whiled away the time with the words that joined together before my eyes. Baudelaire´s poems were good. Not all of them. I liked "The Enemy", and also that other one, "The Murderer's Wine", which starts: "My wife has died and I am free! I can drink until I explode. When I came back without a penny, she destroyed me with her screams".

     Sixty-eight got off to a lively start. In Spain, in Poland, in Rio, in Maracaibo protests broke out which were settled with deaths, injuries and detentions. The United States bombed Saigon and Hanoi and lost their hydrogen bombs over Greenland. In Russia, Yuri Gagarin, the first man to arrive in space, crashed in a test plane, and in West Berlin Rudi Dutschke, leader of the left wing students, was victim of a bomb attack. And May arrived. And with it the events at the University of Nanterre, the Sorbonne, Cohn Bendit, the barricades in the Latin Quarter, the procession in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier singing "The International", the General Strike on the thirteenth and the demonstration which swept through the City of Light from the Plaza de la République to Denfert Rochereau, the occupying of the Odeon It was wonderful, like coming back to life, even though I was now a veteran, with more than half a century behind me. How could I shout out against the Empire, whistle against Pompidou, against De Gaulle, barricade myself in Gay-Lussac against the police? Yet I did it. Not physically, of course, my strength would have failed me, but with my heart, with all my heart. I remember the morning of the eighth, the morning when some young people came into the shop with fifteen or twenty copies of Action, the paper of the revolutionary movement, folded over their arms. They asked me if I would mind if they left them there. They left them. I gave them some books and they went away. They never came back. I wish they had.

     'Hello, Julián.'

      I turned my head. It was Almudena of course.

     'So?' she asked, opening her arms.

     'Hello' I said

     'Hello? Is that all? After all this time?'

     'I thought you were dead.'

     'More to my credit, no? Give me a hug.'

      We hugged. She had her hair cut short and her face was wrinkled, like mine. She kissed me on the mouth and said that she could hardly believe it.

     'I was just passing this way...'

      A cliché for sure, but this time it was true. She had arrived in Paris a month ago, ready to experience the revolution and...

     'I'm living near here, in the house of some friends. I was out for a walk when'

      She shrugged, smiling.

     'You know that your parents died, don´t you?'

     'They told me, yes.'

     'I went to your father´s funeral. I lived in hiding for a while, you know. I left Spain in forty-one. I came here, and then I went to Chile, to Venezuela. Now I live in Mexico. I write poems. Haven´t you got any of my books?'


     'Seriously? What a poor bookshop. When do you close? I want you to tell me everything.'

     'Right now.'

      We spent two weeks together: two weeks to make up for thirty years of waiting. Then Almudena went back to Mexico and I stayed in my bookshop with my impoverished bohemians. It was only fourteen days, but we had time for everything: we saw each other naked, we slept under the same sheets, we remembered the first time in the loft, we recounted our lives from that day in August in nineteen thirty-six when she held up a clenched fist from the window of a bus going to Barcelona and I cursed God, family and country. She had been married: to an English painter with identity problems who had blown his brains out; I had had two lovers: the last one had thrown herself into the Seine on two occasions and been fished out both times. She had published several books, and then I told her the incredible story of Galdós and the gruyère. She said "I´d like to live with you" and I said "what the hell are you waiting for?"

      She put my volume of Baudelaire in her suitcase and assured me that all she needed was time to find a buyer for her      house in Guadalajara (the other one) and put some other affairs in order.

     'A couple of months at most.'

      She caught her plane: she would come back. I smiled at her: "you won´t come back".

      And she did come back, but at the same time she didn´t. I got two cards from Mexico which said "I won´t be long now, I´m almost there, I´m giving a couple of readings and then Paris". Fifteen years later, I said goodbye to everything and I left: I sold the bookshop, the flat, I chose Casablanca and au revoir.

     'No-one,' I thought when I was closing the Goya door for the last time, 'gets rich waiting.'


     "At the age of seventy-five the writer Almudena Rives has died in Paris. Author of several books of poetry and a number of short stories, Rives divided her exile, after the victory of the Franco faction in the Spanish Civil War, between the French capital, Santiago de Chile, Caracas, Guadalajara (Mexico) and ultimately the city of the Tour Eiffel again. She was married to the English painter Robert Donne."

      Julián closed the newspaper conclusively and stood up. He took a couple of steps and then decided to walk.

      He bit the tip of the umpteenth Hoggar and inhaled the smoke down into the deepest depths of his life. He was trying to recall something that he might have forgotten from down inside there, but the only images which surfaced were the ones he had already summoned: the sword that didn't kill her, the forbidden smile of Clark Gable, her blood on her hand, her breasts crucified with wrinkles, her unread poems, her, Baudelaire....

      Boulevard de la Résistance.

     'Bonjour, Julián,' Kebdani greeted him.


      Julián opened the door and went in. He climbed the steps one by one. He turned another key, went in. He lay down on the bed, lifted his hand to his face, closed his eyes. "I will forget her", he remembered.

     'If I can.'


 © 1993 Rafael González Gosálbez

* 'La Pasionaria' (the passion flower) was the name given to Dolores Ibarruri, a famous Spanish communist; she was a great, charismatic orator, who represented the idea of revolutionary womanhood. Back

English translation by Jane Anderson & Graham Thomson

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