I bent down, cupping my hand over my eyes, as if shielding them from the sun, and I whispered to him, “I went to see her, Pa. I went to see her.”
The last time I visited him, he didn’t look so good. My younger sister had just left, and as usual, she had kept on harping about how he seemed to be getting worse. I felt I should keep things light and so I asked him about the women who had marked his life. That’s how we ended up talking about the Spanish woman.
He used to enjoy talking about the women he had known. In those moments he would seem to forget his pain, his eyes would sparkle and suddenly focus. Because since he had gotten ill and been taken to the hospital, the women he had loved during his life had become for him a photo album, which he never tired of thumbing through. And beneath every photo there were another fifty hidden. There wasn’t one single detail that had escaped his memory. Sometimes I used to think he was making it all up, but when a month or two later, he would repeat it all with the exact same details, the same conviction, the same look and smile, my doubts would disappear. “Thank God I have them,” he would tell me when we were alone. “Tell me how else would I get through these interminable nights?” and then he would usually go on reflectively, “Sometimes I wonder, what do they think about, those other old men like me—alone—if they’ve never known the thrill of loving another woman?” And when he’d be strong enough to argue, I would tell him that maybe they would think about the countries they had visited, old friends they had had, adventures they had lived through, stories they had heard, the work they had done, dogs they had raised, days they had spent swimming in the sun, beautiful moments they had shared. And he would stop me with a wave of his hand, typical of people his age, “No, no, my son. It’s not the same. Oh the number of jobs I had in my life! What do I remember about them all? Nothing. And the number of countries I visited and walks I took . . .”
“How she’d love to see you,” he told me when we got back to the Spanish woman. “Listen, will you promise me to go and visit her before I die?” And he went on without giving me time to reply. “Go tell her everything and bring me news of her.” He was adamant about my going, and when he saw I was seriously toying with the idea he pleaded earnestly with me to go.
“Go talk to her, my son, before I die.”
He reminded me of myself when I was young. How I used to ask my mother to deliver messages that I lacked the courage to deliver myself. And he directed me to her house in the same urgent tone of “listen carefully” that he had used before, when in my young days he would explain the way to my grandparents, or to the grocer to buy milk.
“Listen carefully. When you arrive at Alicante airport, rent a car,” he’s saying through pursed lips, his shaking hand hidden in his sleeve and with a smile halfway between mischievous and slightly mysterious.
“Leave the airport and follow the signs, written in big letters, saying Murcia.”
Then he looks at me and realizes I’m not taking any notes. “Write it down, dammit!”
And I take out a pen from my blazer pocket and start writing on the first piece of paper that comes to hand—the receipt for the biscuits and water I bought for him on arriving at the hospital. “Drive in that direction until the highway splits in two, and on the other side, you’ll be able to see new big signs saying Grenada Almeria. Put on the indicator lights, watch out for the cars behind
You, and cross over to the other side. And drive carefully.”
I smile but he doesn’t see it because in the meantime he has closed his eyes and lost himself driving toward his Spanish lady.
“Now keep going straight ahead till you see the sign saying Mazarron.”
I notice his hand. It looks like the arrow on my GPS.
“Go where it directs you. By now you should start seeing the buildings, apartments for rent and for sale, and the sea is close by, but you still can’t see it. Do you understand?”
“With every few kilometers, you’ll see more signs, and on each one you’ll notice Puerto de Mazarron. Drive in the direction of the port until you see the first arrows that point the way to Aguilas.”
He opens his eyes and I can see them shining and much clearer than they had been before.
“Are you writing it all down?”
“Yes, yes, I am writing. Go on.”
“If you get to that point and you can’t see whole kilometers of white greenhouses full of tomatoes, then somewhere you must have taken a wrong turn. If you can see the glasshouses then you have no problem. Straight down the road till you come to a crossroad and on the right you see a small sign which says Puntas de Calnegre. Drive down that narrow road, take your foot off the break, and let the wheels roll. Open the windows so you can feel the breeze from the sea fresh on your face . . . What beauty.”
“Pa, cut the poetry. Focus on the signs.”
He squints his eyes, smiles, and goes back to giving directions.
“Slow down. Be careful of children crossing the road. And from there you should see it—at the end of the road—a villa set apart from the others. Drive up to it. Park. Go out. Move to the sidewalk where you’ll probably find a cat licking clean the skeleton of some fish, and ring the bell.”
My father was sending me to meet the woman he had secretly seen for ten years. And I’m not doing it to please him. I am doing it because I wish to get to know this woman who had made him so happy. I’m going so that I can wordlessly thank her. I wanted to meet this woman who, every time, had filled him up with enough joy to keep him going for months. Then, when every hint of that joy disappeared, he’d go back to Spain on the pretense of business. And we would wait for him to come back carrying a drum, a top, a pair of cymbals, a bag of beads of a thousand colors, and the joyful smile of someone deeply sated.
And with the receipt from the hospital canteen stuck to the steering wheel of the Ford Ka that I rented, I am driving and smiling. Marveling at my father’s memory. Because even if I had left the driving in the hands of a monkey it would probably have arrived at the villa without mishap.
And now I’m driving down the road to the villa, and I’ve wound down the car window and I am laughing like an idiot, because the breeze from the sea is so fresh on my face … and I’m listening to the excitement of the barefoot children running after a ball on the beach, and their mothers’ muttering at the grocers and the slam-bang noises of their fathers coming from the bar at the other end of the road. And I’m thinking that if I hadn’t cut him short when he came to this part of the trip he would have added these details as well.
Then I rang the bell and suddenly I was struck by a hundred doubts. Maybe the woman had died, or moved somewhere else, maybe she’s living with another man and has completely forgotten my father, or wishes to, maybe the house was unlived in now, or had been bought by someone who knows nothing about my father’s affair with the Spanish lady, or maybe she would open but wouldn’t welcome me, or maybe her son would open, and then what would I tell him?
The door opens and there in front of me was my father’s Spanish lady. I had no doubt it was her. He had painted her eyes for me. And he had done a good job. Green. With a hint of yellow. Beautiful.
And her face! A woman aging gracefully.
“When she opens tell her you’re my son, and that you’ve heard a lot about her. Tell her I’m dying but that she is still in my heart, and keeping me company. And then she’ll invite you in and ask you a thousand different questions. Because she’s like that—for your every word she has a question. And then she’ll pour you a little 45.”
“I know you,” she said at the door. “You’ve got your father’s eyes. You haven’t changed much from the pictures he showed me. But don’t stay on the doorstep. Come in. Come inside.” Then she turned to a cat who was staring at me from between her legs. “Get away with you! We’ve got guests.”
And after we ate in a kitchen full of pots and pans hanging all around, I mentioned the 45, and suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She asked me to follow her. We went down a spiral staircase, and in the cool interior of the basement, she showed them to me, stored one next to another—bottle after bottle—all of them sporting the number 45 written on them by hand. She had been storing bottle after bottle since the day he left never to return.
“I was certain he’d come back one day. It wasn’t the first time he had told me that this would be the last time I saw him. He told me many times that one day he’d stop coming. But I never believed him because—well, yes —sometimes months would pass but he always came back. And since the last time I saw him, I kept going to the garden, gathering the apricots, wearing the same gloves he used to wear when he would gather them himself.”
It had become a ritual which she followed to that day. She would come in laden with a box full of apricots, and empty them onto the huge kitchen bench. And with the same knife he had used, she would cut them in half, one by one, and throw the lot into a large boiling pot. And she would leave the apricots bubbling in the boiling water for a minute, so that, just in case there happened to be a small black worm hidden inside any of them, it would be scorched and disappear as if it had never been. “Just like that he disappeared,” she’s telling me with a half-smile which excludes any hint of anger. “Not a letter. Not a phone call. Nothing. That was your father. Either a brightly lit façade that dazzles your eyes or nada.” And then with a large ladle she would scoop the hot wet apricots and throw them in five liters of cognac, and there she’d leave them for a month and a half. Forty-five days. Not one more, not one less.
“As he used to do.”
Forty-five days, during which she hopes that by the time she’s passing the cognac through the sieve while leaving the apricots out, he would be there, by her side, in her kitchen, surprised that she had continued to make his drink. Then she’d filter the sieved cognac into a glass bottle. On it she’d stick a yellow note, and in a black felt pen, she’d write 45—as he used to do—for each day that made the drink what it was. “Because the drink is like us,” he used to tell her, probably in the same tone he used to give me directions on how to get to school on my own. And then—just as he used to do—in the lower corner of the yellow sticker, she’d write the day’s date.
“Do you like it?”
“No one goes out of here before tasting some of it. And every time we raise a glass, I think of him.
“You see . . . I’ve spent whole months like this,” she is now telling me with a glass of 45 in her right hand, and with her eyes fixed on the apricot trees outside. “I look at the garden and wonder about him, wonder what he’s doing right now, whether he’s forgotten all about me or what memories he’s got of me. If maybe I had disappointed him the last time he was here. Whether I had said something I shouldn’t have, or if maybe I had said something which he misunderstood. Whether he was thinking of coming back one day. Whether he was hoping that somehow, somewhere, we’d meet again. And whether one day, the bell you rang would ring and I’d open the door and find him there.”
She stops. Looks at me. Understanding that I have nothing to say, she continues. “It took me a long time to accept the fact that I’d never see your father again. A long, long time. I continued gathering the apricots, box after box from the garden, in the hope that by the time I filled another bottle, he’d be here by me.”
I feel I should say something but I can’t find anything worth breaking the silence for.
“At first, when I understood he wasn’t coming back, I tried to feel angry at him. I thought maybe the anger could fill up the emptiness in my heart. But I couldn’t be angry at someone like him.
There was nothing to forgive. Your father never lied. Things were clear from the first time we met down at the harbor. I accepted the arrangement to see him at his convenience. I had thought that maybe I could see and enjoy him without giving him my heart. But by the time I realized that he was my heart and my heart was him it was too late.” Now the cat came in and jumped onto her lap.
“Your father taught me a lot. And made me laugh a lot. And loved me. I’m sure of that.”
My glass is now empty. She fills it up again. Then she looks at me.
“Are you staying long?”
My father died on the dawn of the third day I spent with her. My sister called me early and gave me the news. No one had expected him to go so fast. And on my way to Alicante I cried. And she cried with me.
“I went to see her, Pa. I went to see her,” I whispered, my eyes hidden behind my hands pressing the cold shiny mahogany of the coffin.
“Does she still love me?” he’s asking me.
“She’s crazy about you, Pa. She’s still crazy about you. And guess how many bottles of 45 she has? A cellar full, Pa! A whole cellar full!”
And he’s smiling his special smile.
“And I brought you something with me, Pa. I got you something.”
“A bottle of 45?”
“No, not a bottle of 45. Something else. Wait a minute. You’ll soon see what I brought you . . . she’s here among the crowd.”
Translation of “Mort naraha, pa.” Copyright Pierre J. Mejlak. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Antoine Cassar. All rights reserved.