A Stitch in Time

The mossos came this morning. I’d been expecting them for days.

When I opened the door, they were still out of breath. That’s not unusual. Visitors get to my seventh-floor attic apartment on their last legs, as there’s no elevator. The stairs have high steps and are an effort to climb, and rather than taking them calmly, like Carmeta and me, they must have rushed at them hellbent for leather, like a couple of lunatics. I expect their uniforms set the neighbors’ tongues wagging; there are a number of pensioners with nothing better to do than to look through their spyholes at my stretch of stairs. I only hope the mossos don’t decide to question them, because the neighbors love to stir things up. In any case, I don’t think they suspect any funny business.

In walked a man and a woman, nice and polite they were, and she was much younger. My hair was a mess, I wasn’t made up and was wearing the horrible sky-blue polyester bathrobe and granny slippers I’d taken the precaution of buying a few days ago at one of the stalls in the Ninot market. The bathrobe is similar to the one worn by Conxita, the eighty-year-old on the second floor, but it looked too new so I put it through the washing machine several times the day before yesterday so it looks more like an old rag, which is how I wanted it to look. The bathrobe was now frayed and flecked with little bobbles of fluff, and, to round off the effect, I spilt a cup of milky coffee I was drinking on my bust. The woman mosso tactfully scrutinized me from head to toe, dwelling on the stains and tangled hair, and it was a piece of luck one of the police belonged to the female sex, since we ladies take much more notice of the small details than the menfolk do. She seemed very on the ball and I expect she drew her own conclusions from my shabby appearance.

Her colleague, who was fortyish, with Paul Newman’s eyes, was the one in charge. He introduced himself very nicely, asked me if I was who I am, and said he just had a few questions he wanted to ask me. A routine enquiry, he added, smiling soothingly. I’d nothing to worry about. I put on the astonished expression I’d been rehearsing for days in front of the mirror and invited them into the dining room.

As they followed me down the passage, I made sure I gave the impression I was a frail, sickly old dear, who finds it a struggle to walk and draw breath. I exaggerated, because I’m pretty sprightly for my age and, thank God, am not in bad health, although I tried to imitate the way Carmeta walks, dragging my feet at the speed of a turtle, as if every bone in my body was aching. Both homed in on the sacks of cement, the tins of paint, and the workmen’s tools that are still in the passage, and asked me if I was having building work done. I told them the truth: that after all that rain, the kitchen ceiling had collapsed and it had been chaos.

“If only you’d seen it . . .! It was as if a bomb had dropped!” I told them with a sigh. “And lucky I was watching the TV in the dining room . . .!”

The young policewoman nodded sympathetically and said that’s the drawback with top-floor apartments, though an attic has lots of advantages because you get a terrace and plenty of light. “What’s more,” she added shyly, “in spite of all the traffic in the Eixample, you don’t hear the noise from the cars or breathe in so many fumes.” I nodded and told her a bit about what the Eixample was like almost fifty years ago when Andreu and I came to live here.

Visibly on edge, her colleague interjected and asked me if I’d had any news of my son-in-law. I adopted my slightly senile expression again and said I hadn’t.

The policeman persisted. He wanted to know the last time I saw Marçal and if I’d spoken to him by phone. I told him as ingenuously as I could that I’d not heard from him for some time and politely enquired why he wanted to know.

“He disappeared a week ago and his family thinks something may have happened to him. That’s why we’re talking to everyone who knows him,” he replied softly. “I suppose you don’t know where he’s gone, do you?”

“Who?” I said pretending to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“Your son-in-law.”

“Marçal?”

“Yes,Marçal.”

“Sorry . . . What did you just ask me?”

Like old people who really don’t cotton on, I changed the subject and asked them if they’d like a drink, a coffee, an infusion, or something stronger. When they asked me if I knew that fellow and my little girl were negotiating a divorce and was aware my son-in-law had a restraining order out on him because she’d reported him for physical abuse, I simply looked at the floor and shrugged my shoulders. Reluctantly, I confessed I suspected things weren’t going too well.

“But all married couples have problems . . . I didn’t want to harp on about theirs.” And added, with a shake of the head, “Nowadays women don’t have the patience . . . In my time . . .”

I didn’t finish my sentence. There was no need. The young policewoman looked at me affectionately and gave me one of those condescending smiles liberated young females of today reserve for us old wrinkly-heads with antiquated ideas. Out of the corner of one eye, I registered she’d had a French manicure and wore a wedding ring. To judge by her pink cheeks and smiley expression that young woman was still in the honeymoon phase.

Before they could start grilling me about Marçal and his relationship with Marta again, I quickly began to babble on about stuff that had nothing to do with them. An old dear who lives by herself, has nobody to talk to, and spends her day sitting on her sofa in front of the TV watching programs she doesn’t understand. My grouses made them uneasy and the man finally glanced at his watch and said they ought to be leaving. Their visit (because it wasn’t really an interrogation) had lasted less than ten minutes. When they were saying good-bye, they repeated I shouldn’t worry. That it was probably just a misunderstanding.

Marta, my little daughter, will soon be thirty-six. I’m seventy-four, and it’s no secret Andreu and I were getting on when I got pregnant with Marta. Now it’s quite normal to have your first baby at forty, but it wasn’t in my day. If you didn’t have a bun in the oven before you were thirty, people scowled at you, as if it was a sin not to have children. The kindest comment they’d make was that you weren’t up to it. If you were married and childless, you suddenly became defective.

Marta is an only child. As she was such a latecomer, the poor dear never had a brother or sister. Apart from Carmeta and Ramon, who are kind of substitute aunt and uncle; my little girl doesn’t have any real ones, or cousins. From the day we buried her father, may he rest in peace, Marta has only had Carmeta and me, as you can hardly count Ramon, Carmeta’s husband, after he had his stroke. Carmeta has to feed him a kind of puree she buys at the chemists; she administers it with a syringe through a rubber tube that goes in through the nose and down to his stomach, a torture that’s only prolonging his agony because his doctors say he’ll never recover. They insisted to Carmeta that Ramon isn’t suffering; we spend the whole blessed day with him and we’re not so sure.

Carmeta’s my age, and, though I can’t complain about my health, she’s rather the worse for wear. A cancer she can’t see the back of. She and Ramon didn’t have children, and both doted on Marta like an aunt and uncle from the day she was born. My daughter loves them and they love her. If it hadn’t been for his stroke, I’d cross my heart and swear Ramon would have given my son-in-law a facelift and things would have turned out differently.

A pity none of us was in the know a year ago.

We knew nothing at all.

We sometimes said our little girl seemed to be behaving a bit strangely. Sluggishly. As if she were suffering. But we all have our bad moments, don’t we?

Our little girl put on a brave front. Partly because she didn’t want us to worry, and partly because she was embarrassed to acknowledge that her husband beat her. If I hadn’t decided to buy some pastries and pay her a visit one day, after accompanying Carmeta to her chemo session, I expect we’d still be in the dark and it would be life as usual.

That morning, when Marta opened the door barricaded behind a pair of giant sunglasses, our alarm bells immediately started ringing. Something was amiss. She pretended she had conjunctivitis and that’s why she was wearing dark glasses inside, but Carmeta, who’s a suspicious sort, didn’t swallow that and snatched them from her face. Our hearts missed several beats when we saw that black eye ill-concealed under layers of makeup.

 At first she denied it. Carmeta and I are no fools and gave her the third degree until she finally caved in. In a flood of tears she confessed her husband drank too much and occasionally beat her. A punch, a slap, a shove . . . He’d blame it on stress at work when he calmed down. He’d also say he would kill her if she ever told anyone.

I saw a bruise on my little girl’s left arm and told her to strip. The poor thing couldn’t bring herself to say no and agreed, though reluctantly. Then Carmeta and I burst into tears. Our darling Marta was black and blue all over. From that day on we never referred to him by his name again. My son-in-law became the Animal, the Son of a Bitch, or the Bastard. We got weaving. We persuaded Marta to report him and the three of us went to see a lawyer. Marta was afraid nobody would believe her and that the judge would take her child away, but the lawyer did a good job reassuring her and, in the end, made a start on the paperwork. And it was true, with his executive suits and silk ties the Bastard did seem like a normal person.

A cunt of a normal person who beats his wife and threatens to kill her.

And our little girl, quite naturally, was scared.

But now she had us on her side.

The Bastard went to live with his sister and disappeared from our lives for months on end. Marta, who’d been reduced to skin and bones by all the unpleasantness, even began to put on weight. Until the evening he appeared out of the blue at her place and said he was going to kill her.

That it was only a matter of time.

Just a question of patience.

Carmeta suddenly saw the light.

No well-intentioned law could protect Marta. If he put his mind to it, the Bastard would sooner or later do the evil deed. As he said, it was only a matter of time. A matter of waiting until one of us lowered our guard or the judge decided there were more serious cases to see to and our little girl no longer needed protection. That she could manage on her own.

It’s not hard to intimidate someone. Or kill them.

And, in the meantime, the Bastard would sour her life.

Hers, and everybody else’s.

It’s so lucky that I have an attic apartment and that it’s got a terrace. The mosso woman was right. Attics can be very inconvenient but they have lots of advantages. And if you don't agree, just ask the Bastard.

Andreu and I rented this flat on the Eixample just before we got married, and the only item my husband insisted on when we were partying and looking for an apartment was that it should have a small terrace. My parents didn’t have a terrace because we lived on the third floor, but when the weather was good we’d go up to the flat roof and enjoy the cool of evening and gossip with the neighbors. I’d go up with my friends in the summer. We’d put our swimsuits on, lay our beach towels on the red tiles, and imitate the film stars from our magazines and listen to the radio and drink fizzy lemonade or warm Coca-Cola pretending it was martinis. Then we’d have to fight off sunstroke with aspirins, water packs, and vinegar, but it was worth it. When you’re young, there’s a solution to everything.

It’s not that my little terrace is any great shakes. All the same, twenty-two square meters are enough for pine, lemon, and orange trees, a magnolia, a decent-size jasmine and a bougainvillea, not to mention the dozens of pots of roses, petunias, daisies, and chrysanthemums I’ve put in every cranny. When Andreu and I set foot there for the first time, I could hardly imagine how this little terrace would turn out to be so providential.

I don’t know how I could have helped my little girl without it.

And I reckon that’s what a mother’s for: to be around to give a helping hand to her children when they’ve got problems. Whether they like it or not.

In fact, it was Carmeta who came up with the solution. She’s always been very imaginative. The terrace and kitchen the downpour had ruined gave her the idea, and no sooner said than done. Neither of us was prepared to stand by, our arms folded, and abandon our little girl to the vagaries of an obsolete legal system and a lunatic who wanted to bump her off. We had to do something and do it quick, before we rued the day. As Carmeta said, a stitch in time saves nine.

I called the Bastard on his cell phone a couple of weeks ago from a phone booth and told him we should have a chat. I hoodwinked him by saying I had to tell him something that would make Marta slow up on the divorce, and, as I knew he was short of cash because he was drinking over the odds and had got the sack, I threw in that I wanted to give him a present of a weekend away with Marta. Three or four days in a good hotel with a swimming pool, all expenses paid, would help them to make peace, I told him. My call and sudden interest in saving their marriage had taken him by surprise, but, as Carmeta had anticipated, the financial bait hooked him.

Early next morning, Carmeta came to my flat carrying a gym bag. Her face looked rough and she admitted she’d had a bad night. I told her I could ring the Bastard and give him an excuse if she’d rather leave it for another day, but she’d have nothing of the sort. The tranquilizers she’d taken were beginning to take effect and she already felt slightly better, or so she said.

“What do you reckon? Should we have a little drop of something to put us in the mood?” I suggested hesitantly.

“No alcohol!” replied Carmeta, most professionally. “What we need are anti-stress pills. We’re far too nervy.”

Carmeta took out the anti-depressants the doctor had prescribed her when he told her she had cancer and offered me one. As Carmeta’s the expert when it comes to pills, I meekly swallowed it and said nothing. Out of the corner of an eye I registered that she took two. I went to the kitchen and made two cups of tea while Carmeta was changing in the bedroom. Carmeta had brought an old tracksuit top and slippers. I was also wearing old clothes I’d have to throw away anyway.

The Bastard arrived at around eleven. Grudgingly, I pecked him on both cheeks and led him into the dining room. With a studiedly senile smile, I offered the idiot a cognac he accepted in a flash while he lolled on the sofa. I seized my opportunity to go into the kitchen.

“Marçal!” I shouted, trying to ensure my voice didn’t sound rude. “Could you help me get the bottle of cognac from the top shelf. I can’t reach it . . .”

I’d left the knife under a tea cloth on the kitchen top, and Carmeta was skulking behind the door and holding her breath. As soon as I heard his footsteps, I shut the window and switched on the radio.

As soon as Marçal stepped into the kitchen, Carmeta stuck the carving knife into the small of his back. The attack took him by surprise and he started to howl. Before he’d time to react I grabbed the knife from under the tea cloth and stuck it in violently. Blood spurted from his neck and through the air like a liquid streamer splashing everywhere.

Still screaming, the Animal lifted his hands to his neck and tried to stop the hemorrhaging, but from the way the blood was bubbling out, I knew he had no chance. I’d stuck it right in his carotid artery, and that thrust, driven by a mother’s fury, was his death sentence.

He collapsed in under a minute. Carmeta and I left him agonizing on the kitchen floor and disappeared into the bathroom. We washed our hands and faces, changed our blood-soaked tops, then went into the dining room. We wanted the Bastard to die alone, like a dog. And he did. A Beatles song on the radio drowned out his screams.

By the time we went back into the kitchen my son-in-law was dead. The floor had turned into a red puddle and blood was everywhere. The big son of a bitch had created a hell of a mess. We pulled on rubber gloves, grabbed the bucket and cloth, and started cleaning up. The two of us were at it for a good hour but even so it still wasn’t spotless.

After confirming his body had stopped bleeding, we stripped off his clothes and put them in the washer on a cold-water wash, adding a squirt of one of those stain removers advertised on TV. We wiped him with the cloth. Then I took rolls of bandages out of a drawer and Carmeta and I bound him like a mummy. As we were intending to cut him into small chunks, we thought it would be less stressful if he were bandaged. I started on his head and Carmeta on his feet.

It took us a long time because the Bastard weighed more than two hundred pounds and wasn’t easy to lift. When we’d finished the bandaging, we left him and went back to the dining room. The effort had exhausted us. We saw it was lunchtime and though neither Carmeta nor I were hungry, we behaved ourselves, ate a banana and drank a glass of sugared water, to re-energize. We also took another anti-depressant each. Carmeta was worn out and dozed off straightaway and I decided to let her sleep and take a nap myself. When she woke up, she swallowed another dose of tranquilizers and we both returned to our task. Our day wasn’t over.

Carmeta went to fetch the electric saw and brought it into the kitchen. Luckily one of her neighbors is still into do-it-yourself and the storage rooms in her building aren’t locked. We pulled our rubber gloves back on and plugged in the saw that was working perfectly. We sawed his head off first and placed it whole inside a trash bag, and then his arms and legs, in small chunks. We distributed the pieces in different sacks and left his torso till last. As that’s where all the entrails are, Carmeta and I thought we’d better empty them out first and reduce the eventual mess.

I took my courage into my own hands and carefully made an incision from the top to the bottom of his mutilated corpse, trying to tear only the skin. I must have burst his gut, because all of a sudden a horrific stink filled the kitchen and I had to open the window and squirt air-freshener around. We each pulled one side of his torso and succeeded in separating his ribs and wrenching out his heart and lungs. His heart slipped out of Carmeta’s grasp and the moment it sloshed on the ground I started to retch and vomit. As I’d practically been fasting I only brought up yellow bile, but I felt queasy and my stomach was churning.

Carmeta quickly took me into the dining room and forced me to stretch out on the floor with my legs in the air. When she saw I was showing signs of life, she went back to the kitchen.

“Don’t move. I’ll gut the Son of a Bitch,” she said.

There was still some sun on the terrace. The pale rays of spring barely gave out any heat but were a pleasant reminder of other happier evenings when with Andreu, may he rest in peace, Carmeta, and Ramon we’d improvise a bread, tomato, and mountain ham supper on the terrace and stay late into the night chatting about this and that, not suspecting that one day this small terrace of mine, with its views of Montjuic and its flowerpots, would become an improvised cemetery. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say.

We buried the head next to the lemon tree, the one with the biggest pot, and stuffed his hands and feet into the ceramic pot with the pine tree. We stuck his entrails in with the magnolia, his heart with the bougainvillea and his liver with the orange tree, and divided the rest up among the remaining pots, taking care not to damage the flowers. We’d scarcely finished when we realized there were still seven or eight pieces of meat in a bag and we had no receptacles left, but at that time of night after toiling the whole day, we were fit to drop, so I suggested to Carmeta we should wrap them in tin foil and put them in the freezer.

“We’ll think of something tomorrow after we’ve had a rest.”

Carmeta looked in a bad way again. Although she wasn’t complaining, her grimaces showed the great pain she was in. I helped her take a shower and wash her hair, and immediately switched on a washload of tops, towels, and cloths we’d used to clean the kitchen. The foam in the washing machine turned pink.

I ignored her protests and accompanied her home, and on the way, threw the Bastard’s clothes in a trash can. Carmeta could hardly stand straight, so I made her a glass of hot milk and forced her to eat cookies before going to bed. I waited until she fell asleep and, while Carmeta snored, I changed Ramon’s diaper and gave him his supper. Before l left, when I was kissing him on the forehead, I thought how sooner or later we’d have to do something to help him too. Good people don’t deserve to end like that.

The minute I opened the door to my apartment, I realized that, if I continued on an empty stomach, without any input of food, my blood pressure would drop and I’d faint. In the morning, before the Bastard arrived, I’d taken the precaution of leaving sandwiches in the dining room so as not to have to go back into the kitchen. My stomach was slightly queasy, so I had a couple of spoonfuls of anti-stomachache syrup, then ate a ham sandwich and apple while watching the news. The sandwich and apple went down well, and I was soon asleep on the sofa in front of the TV, which was still on. That night I didn’t have a nightmare.

Next morning I got up early and spent the day giving the rest of the apartment a thorough clean. Although they say bleach doesn’t remove traces of blood, I’d bet anything you like that if the police decided to investigate they wouldn’t find a scrap of evidence. I took a mid-morning break and first phoned Marta, who was at work, and then Carmeta, who’d got up and was feeling better. I continued cleaning. When I finished, it was past four and my back was aching.

I took the tops, cleaning cloths, and towels from the dryer, put everything in plastic sacks, and went out. I threw the sacks into four different containers on my way to Ramon and Carmeta’s. Carmeta was in much better spirits and was waiting with a bottle of cava in the fridge, which we drank while we kept Ramon company.

The building workers came the following day and gutted the kitchen. They also chipped out the wall and floor tiles. They worked a good two weeks in my kitchen, so now I have a new ceiling, designer tiles, and built-in appliances. The tiles and cupboards are nothing out of the ordinary because they were bought in a sale, but altogether it looks really neat.

I know I must keep my lips sealed and can’t tell my little girl not to worry about the Bastard ever laying his hands on her again. Marta knows nothing. Nothing at all. She’s still very young and God knows how she’d react if she knew what Carmeta and I have done. Besides, what with her kid and her work, Marta has enough headaches, and it would be the last straw if she had to cope with moral dilemmas or stupid remorse. So mum’s definitely the word! As Carmeta says, if what we did is wrong, we’ll settle our account in the world beyond and with whomever.

Some girls from our yoga group are coming to supper tomorrow. We’ll take advantage of the good weather and dine on the terrace. Just in case, I’ve bought a good supply of incense sticks, I mean, just in case the Bastard starts to get smelly and sour our supper. As Carmeta has to start another round of chemo and is leaving the class, it will be a kind of farewell party. I’m also dropping out of the class, because I’m going to live in her place for a while, starting tomorrow. When she starts being sick and feeling like a wet rag, Carmeta will need someone to accompany her to hospital and give her a helping hand with Ramon.

We both know she’s not got much time left. She knows and I know, so no need to talk about it. Nonetheless, tomorrow’s farewell will be a whale of a party: we’ll eat and drink until our livers give up on us. Our style has never been to turn tragic, and even less so when we’ve both got one foot on the other side. What’s coming our way is coming.

I live very near the Ninot market and shop there everyday. I like to look around the stalls and gossip with the saleswomen and locals from the neighborhood. As I shop everyday and never use the freezer, I’d completely forgotten the packets that were still there. That morning, the visit by the police made me remember I had to do something with all that and I rang Carmeta. I told her I was thinking of going to the florists and buying earth and a couple of big pots.

“Forget about the pots . . .!” Carmeta retorted. “Go to the Ninot and see if you can buy some spongy mushrooms and fairy rings. And buy garlic and onions as well. Tomorrow,” she added in an authoritarian tone, “we shall eat roast pork and spring mushrooms!”

Initially I objected, mostly on behalf of the other girls. But, seen in the cold light of day, I have to agree it’s not a bad solution.

Translation of "Feina feta no fa destorb." From Set casos de sang y fetge i una història d'amor, published 2009 by Edicions 62. Copyright 2009 by Teresa Solana. Translation copyright 2011 by Peter Bush. All rights reserved.