When the bus left the passengers from the airport at Plaza Espana, Carme Giralt wondered what she should do. It was almost midnight. The heaviness, the murkiness in the air, the fetid smell from the drains and the absence of any wind, made her understand that, whether she liked it or not, she was home. She had spent two frenzied days in London throwing out clothes and papers and giving away furniture and books, and then making the basement in Islington tidy so she could get her deposit back. She had put no thought into this part, what she would do on her immediate arrival in Barcelona with her family nearby, her parents maybe getting ready for bed in the old apartment, her sister somewhere in the city with a husband and two children whom Carme had never seen, and her grandmother newly buried in the cemetery in Montjuïc not far from where Carmen now stood.
It was eight years since she had left the city, since her father had silently taken her to the airport; his rage against her then was palpable and elemental as he stood watching to make sure that she made her way through the departure gates. To spite him, she remembered, she had waved and flashed a smile. She had imagined that she might never see him again but, she thought, as she prepared to cross the desolate street, she had been wrong. She would be seeing him soon.
First she decided that she would find a small hotel or a pensión and stay the night there. In the morning, when the air was fresh in the city, and she had slept, she would consider how long she might wait before she called to tell them that she had come back.
Somewhere in the police station in Via Laietana there was a file on her. Or maybe, she thought, with the arrival of democracy they had removed the files and even destroyed some of them. But not that much had changed. They had legalized the Communist Party—Carrillo was back in Madrid and so were La Pasionaria and Rafael Alberti—but there still must be, she thought, a need to know who the Communists had been. She imagined an underground space, a bare bulb and a long row of tightly packed folders. One of these would have photographs of her and an account of her interrogation. They might even have noted her deep revulsion for the southern accents of the two policemen who asked the questions, a revulsion she made no secret of during those two days. And they might have snaps of her, she thought, in the year or two after her arrival in London, demonstrating outside the Spanish embassy for the end of the dictatorship and the return of democracy, or someone might have written an account for them of the party she organized in London to celebrate on the night after Carrero Blanco was blown up.
Now the old regime had died and she had been away. She had not been here to toast the death of the dictator. When her grandmother had called to mark his death, she had announced jubilantly that the bottle of cava they had been saving all the years had just been opened. As Carme moved slowly along the Gran Via, her suitcase becoming a burden, she still did not regret that she had missed that night, or that she had missed voting in the referendum for a new constitution or in the first election; she had heard enough from her sister, who had come to London alone just a year earlier, and from her grandmother once or twice on the phone, about old friends and former comrades who had joined the Socialists, or others who were now talking about Euro-communism and jockeying for position. All of them had avoided the demonstrations unless they saw a need to be photographed. They were, she knew, filled with the sly knowledge that they would soon be taking power in Barcelona and Madrid, serving under a king who had happily served under the dictator.
The lobby of the hotel she found was opulent and bright but the room was grim, the furniture dark and too big, the curtains depressing, heavy with dust. There was something dingy about everything including the bedclothes and the bedside lamp, which gave off a light too faint to read by. She would stay here just tonight, she thought, and then she would move. She had never stayed in a hotel in the city before. In the silence as the night wore on, a silence broken intermittently by gurgling pipes and noises in the corridor, she did not know if the gloom that came over her arose from the dismal atmosphere or from the fact that she felt no desire to make contact with anyone, no one she had left behind in London, and no one here among her family or former friends.
In the morning, once she had showered and put on fresh clothes, she felt more courageous, more prepared to deal with them, but when she phoned her sister’s apartment there was no answer. On an impulse then she phoned her parents, holding the receiver out as though it were in danger of exploding, but there was no reply there either. It was strange, she thought, how easily the two phones ringing without response came to seem like large defeats, made her feel powerless, depressed and unable to decide whether she should check out of the hotel now and leave her bags at reception or go for a walk, buy a newspaper, have breakfast somewhere, and return later and phone them again.
She walked towards Rambla de Catalunya, allowing herself at first to feel that this was aimless, that she was merely straying, but then becoming determined that she would actually go towards her parents’ apartment, and stand outside it and look at it, or have a coffee in one of the granjas nearby.
Democracy, she thought, had not affected the morning here—the men in dark suits, the buzz of traffic in the wide, ordered, grid-like streets, the shops where they always had been, the sense of an old, stable wealth. Slowly, as she began to notice the women and the clean, elegant, conservative cut of their clothes, she felt that what she was wearing was wrong, and it would take her a long time to find out again what was right. She must appear to these women, she thought, like a tourist with cheap English clothes who had wandered into the city from the coast.
That impression of not belonging here made her feel braver than if she had dressed up. Thus she found herself in the hallway of the building confronting Gloria, the portera, who had been there for as long as she remembered.
“They are not here,” Gloria said, even before she greeted her.
“Where are they?”
“They’re not here.”
Gloria seemed almost insolent. In the tense silence that lay between them, it struck Carme that Gloria must know that since her grandmother’s death Carme owned a third of this entire building, that she was no longer the girl who had caused all the trouble, the Communist, the one who was arrested, that she was equal to her mother and her sister now. She stood to her full height and stared directly at Gloria, allowing her gaze to contain all the arrogance and effortless aura of entitlement that her mother and her grandmother had exuded all of their lives.
She made to speak and then thought better of it as she realized that Gloria was still not going to let her pass, or offer her the key to her parents’ quarters.
“They’re not here,” Gloria said again, as though it were an excuse or an alibi.
“I think I heard you the first time.”
She was aware how Catalan she sounded and how fully in possession of herself she appeared. She would not ask Gloria the question again. She had asked it once, that was enough. The power she had in this hallway, a power she had never felt, not even once, in all her time in England, gave her a surge of energy. She knew it would not be long before Gloria said something.
“They have gone to Menorca.”
Carme did not smile or even acknowledge that Gloria had spoken.
“Your sister has gone too, and the children. They’ve all gone. They’ll be there until Sunday. They’ll be there for San Juan.”
Carme nodded and turned back towards the street. She should, she thought, have realized what the date was and remembered where they would be.
“Do you want me to . . . ?” Gloria called after her, but she did not reply. As soon as she saw a taxi, she hailed it and asked the driver to stop at the hotel, where she collected her bags before telling the driver to go on to the airport.
There was a wind over the sea that day that she had not noticed in the city. It meant the plane was late departing and, once airborne, seemed almost too small and weak to make its way across to the island. It was normally a smooth, short journey. When they were children, she remembered, they had always gone by boat, and she could feel now the pure excitement of the car being driven by her father down through the city and then slowly into the belly of the boat and then herself and her sister being led by their parents to their berth, all neat and air-conditioned, and then on deck to watch the city gradually recede.
She tried to think now: the journey out at the beginning of the summer began at dusk and took all night, and then the journey home when the summer ended lasted all day, they docked in the port of Barcelona when it was almost dark. The city was alien to them each time they returned because the summer was long and had no rules, and her grandmother’s presence had softened her mother’s impatience, had eased her father’s inability to settle or relax.
She and Nuria looked forward more than anything to those weeks in August when their parents went sailing with friends and the two girls were left alone with their grandmother and the guests who came and went. Everything in the house was shaded and cool and austere. There was a long table under the balcony at the back that was set perfectly three times a day for meals. The garden was scorched by the sun and the sea wind; the beach close by was empty in the mornings and sometimes even in the heat of the day. She remembered the smell of burning citronella to keep the mosquitoes away as they dined late; she remembered the salty heat as she fell asleep at the table while the adults talked and then was carried quietly to bed.
She had not left Ian, who was her last English boyfriend, because of what he said about Spain, but his remarks had not encouraged her to stay with him. It was an evening when she had too much wine in a Spanish restaurant in Camden Town. She had not meant to talk about the house and the summer and the sea; it was something she had never done before. But once she began, she found that she had summoned up too much emotion and she could not stop herself talking more, describing how the adults always took the rooms that did not have a sea view, how the view of the sea was for the children, how her parents and her grandmother each had a bedroom with its own terrace, a private boudoir, a bathroom and dressing room, and how much the women kept out of the sun and away from the beach.
And Ian had interrupted to say that he had been in Spain too, that he had gone to Lloret with his brother and his parents, and he said how much he had disliked the food; it was too oily, and how there was hardly any beach there at all and the apartment they had was dingy.
She looked across the table at him, remarking once more the fineness of his face, its paleness, the greyness of his eyes, the thinness of his lips. She desperately wanted to go on describing the house where she had spent every summer until she was twenty, the shutters and doors painted dark blue, the old tiles on the floor and the high ceilings with exposed wooden beams, and some of the old furniture, including the rocking chairs and the piano that had come back from Cuba where her grandmother had been born. But she stopped herself and sipped her drink and hoped that Ian would stop too, and would have no further reason to mention the oily food and the dingy apartment and his time in Spain.
She knew during her time in England, especially on sweltering days in the London summer, that she was missing the best years of her life in the best place she had known, the years when she would have most relished the salt water, the calm waves in the early morning, and enjoyed the ceremony her grandmother had made of family meals at that long table in the shade. She imagined herself sitting on one of the rocking chairs with a cat on her lap and the sound of crickets and the smell of food cooking. That was all lost to her now, and it was hard not to feel as the plane landed and she waited for them to open the doors that she had made a mistake with a decade of her life, that she had started too many college courses in London and finished none, that she had been with men she did not love and lived in houses and in streets that she hoped now never to see again.
When she had rented a car and had her bags in the boot, she was tempted again to find a hotel, but she had postponed things once already, she felt, and she should be courageous now, she should drive across the island and find them in her grandmother’s house, the house that she and her sister had inherited between them, which would, she supposed, always be theirs now. Her family would, she presumed, have been alerted by Gloria the portera with the news that Carme had arrived and that she knew they were in Menorca, but they would hardly expect her to arrive so soon.
She opened all the windows wide in the car and felt the heat in the air and the breeze from the sea and the smell of something almost spicy, something that she could not identify, mixed in with the smell of melting tar. This was all she wanted, she thought, the whitened light, the air blowing directly from the sea, the smell, whatever it was, and the straight road like a ribbon across the flat island. If she had realized fully how much she loved this place, she thought, she would have come back years before, she would have flown back to the island on the first day it was safe for her to do so.
As she turned left, she was surprised for a moment by the way the road had been paved when before it had been a road of dried mud and dust in the summer, almost a track, and further surprised by the sight of rows of new houses and then single houses with gates. But she was too light-headed to care about this, and too filled also with excitement about seeing the house again to care about having to face her parents after all this time.
Soon she came to a fork in the road which she did not recognize. She took the road that veered left and brought her closer to the beach. At first she believed that she had simply not remembered this fork, but it struck her then that the road was new. On the right-hand side were small bungalows with tiled roofs and gardens in front, each one planted with bougainvillaea. She presumed that if she drove beyond them there would be a turn to the right that would lead to her grandmother’s house but soon she saw that the road led to a group of bars and restaurants facing the beach and there was no road to the right. As she turned the car, she saw people sitting at outside tables with bright umbrellas over them, having drinks or being served food. She studied them for a second as though she might recognize them, but by their skin colour and a sort of distant, strained look on their faces she saw that they were tourists.
The house could not be gone. It was just a few minutes’ walk from the beach, so it must be, she was certain, at the end of the other road, which veered to the right. She turned and drove along it, noticing more bungalows on the left-hand side of the road that must back on to the ones facing the sea. These had bigger front gardens, all manicured, each one the same. After a while she saw her grandmother’s house, which looked desolate and strange, almost ungainly after the pretty, perfect, miniscule bungalows.
When she parked the car under the shade of an awning beside two other cars, she saw that one of them seemed hired like hers; the other had all the dust of the island on it. She wondered if it had belonged to her grandmother.
As she moved into sunlight, she felt the hard, bright heat of the afternoon. She heard music coming from the beach and listened carefully now in case there were any sounds coming from the house itself, but there was nothing. It was difficult to work out what to do, whether she should fetch her luggage and walk around the corner to the entrance, which faced away from the sea, as though she belonged here and was casually returning, or whether she should appear around the corner timidly and call out their names to see where they were and return later to the car and get her bags.
Suddenly, she found that she was nervous; she would have loved it had the house been empty, the key hidden where it had always been, and the rooms inside closed up and shaded, waiting for her to enter so that she could open them and let in the summer light. These were rooms that she remembered now and longed for as no other rooms she had known in her life. But she wanted them emptied of the people who might be in them. She felt, as she moved towards the entrance to the house, with just the car key in her hand, an immense hostility towards anyone she might meet.
The first thing that struck her as she turned the corner was a long modern swimming pool where there had once been a grove of olive trees. Her mother and two children were swimming and splashing in the pool. Her father was lying in his bathing trunks on a long green plastic easy chair with a plastic table beside it. He was the first to see her. As he stood up she noticed that he had become much heavier; she tried as she approached to look him in the eye to avoid glancing at his bare bulging belly.
“We were expecting you,” he said and moved as though to embrace her. “Gloria called.”
She stood her ground.
“All of this?” She pointed at the pool as her mother, aware now of her presence, began to swim towards the edge. The two children were wearing inflated swimming supports; they did not pay any attention to her arrival.
“Yes, we were just saying that you would notice changes.”
Her mother climbed the ladder out of the pool.
“Don’t come near me,” she said. “I’m wet.”
Carme looked at her and then back at her father.
“Nuria is inside somewhere,” her mother said.
She wondered what she should say, if she should suggest going into the house in search of her sister, but she remained silent and did not move. Her mother turned away from her and went to the shower at the side of the pool as her father put on a sleeveless shirt. The children were still splashing in the water.
“How did you get here?” her father asked.
“I hired a car.”
“We thought you might not come until tomorrow.”
He attempted a smile but she did not respond.
“The olive trees?” she asked.
“Your grandmother wanted a pool for the children.”
When her sister appeared, they embraced and kissed. Carme noticed how tanned and slim Nuria was, how elegant, even though she was wearing just a thin skirt and blouse and simple sandals. Something had changed in women’s clothes in the years she had been away, she thought, and she wished that she knew what it was.
Her mother moved towards them and began to dry herself with a large beach towel.
“It’s so much better now that we have the pool,” she said. “You see, we don’t know who’s on the beach any more, it’s all changed. It’s so much nicer to be private. No tourists here.”
She smiled at Carme.
“Would you like a drink, or a coffee?” her father asked.
“No,” she said.
“But do sit down,” her mother said. She moved a chair towards her as Carme looked around to see where the rocking chairs were but saw no sign of them.
“Gloria was amazed to see you. And then she called because she was worried that she hadn’t invited you in,” her mother said.
“I stayed in a hotel,” she said. She remained standing.
“You should have let us know,” Nuria said.
As the two children came out of the pool, they were introduced to their aunt. The older one, a boy, shook her hand but his sister glanced at her shyly before they both found towels and retreated into the house.
“They really do love it here,” her mother said.
There was silence for a moment. Carme watched her mother trying to think of something else to say.
“We should organize a room for you,” Nuria said.
“It’s not like it used to be here,” her mother said. “With the children, we’re much less formal and we don’t really have guests, at least not to stay.”
Carme was about to point out that she was not a guest, that, according to her grandmother’s will, she now owned half the house, but caught her sister’s gaze, which appeared to warn her off saying anything. She presumed that Nuria was in one of the suites just above where they stood and that her parents were in the other. She almost smiled to herself at the thought that this would soon change. Her grandmother must have considered that, she thought, when she made her will and decided not to leave any part of the house to her only daughter, the girls’ mother, who was now busy putting on a long summer dress. It must, she thought, have been her grandmother’s revenge for something her mother had done or not done.
“Nuria, why don’t you arrange everything,” her mother said, “and then we’ll all meet for drinks before dinner down here. I need to have a shower and I might even have a small rest.”
Carme found it strange that no one had set the table properly for dinner and that no one told the children to sit up straight and be quiet during the meal. Neither of the children was wearing shoes. Everything seemed confused. She wondered if it was always like this as Nuria spent all her time trying to calm the children down, or encouraging them to eat their food. She waited for someone to ask her how long she was staying or what she intended to do, but noticed as the meal ended and Nuria brought the children to bed that her parents found ways of keeping themselves apart from her. Her father went into the sitting room and made phone calls while her mother moved into the kitchen and then emerged and began tidying around the pool.
Carme sat on her own at the table, listening to the noises of the crickets in the grass and snatches of her father’s phone conversation through the open window. He was talking about flights and buses and timetables. She heard him calling the airport then and checking times of incoming flights. She was tired and thought she might soon disappear to the bedroom at the other side of the house that she and Nuria had prepared before dinner.
As she began to clear the last things from the table a man came around the corner looking for her father. He did not look like a friend and spoke to her in Spanish. She was surprised because it was now after eleven o’clock and the man’s tone seemed casual, as though he often called at this time. When she told him that her father was on the phone, he walked past her and into the house. He obviously knew his way around.
She listened at the window again as her father spoke to the man about keys and numbers of cottages and which cottages were empty. She wondered what her father had to do with incoming flights and keys and cottages. Then she collected the few glasses that were left and brought them inside, putting them beside the sink in the kitchen. She went to the bedroom without saying goodnight to either of her parents. Once upstairs, she was tempted to find Nuria, but decided instead that she would wait until the morning and ask her questions then.
Colm Toíbín’s latest collection of essays is New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. His novel Nora Webster is published by Emblem Editions.