It was dawn, at last. The third class compartment smelled of weariness, cigarettes and soldiers’ boots. They were emerging from the night as if coming out of a long tunnel and you could see people huddled up, men and women asleep on the hard seats. It was an uncomfortable carriage, with the corridor crammed full of baskets and suitcases. You could see the countryside and a silvery streak of sea through the windows.
Rosamunda woke up. She still had a pleasant picture of herself in her mind as the light filtered through her half-closed eyelashes. Then she realised that her head was leaning backwards, pressing against the back of the seat and that her mouth was dry from hanging open. She composed herself, sitting up straight. Her neck was aching, her long, scraggy neck. She looked around the compartment and was relieved to see that her travel companions were still asleep. Her legs were stiff and she needed to stretch them. The train rattled along, blowing its whistle. She left the compartment with the utmost care, in order not to wake anyone up or disturb them. ‘Fairy steps,’ she thought to herself, as she walked towards the open platform at the end of the corridor.
It was a glorious day. She scarcely noticed the cold, early morning air. She glimpsed the sea through the orange groves. She was almost hypnotised by the lush greenness of the trees and the clear blue watery horizon.
‘Horrid, horrid oranges. Horrible palm trees. The marvellous sea …’
‘What did you say?
There was a soldier standing beside her. A pale young lad. He seemed very polite. He looked like her son. A son of hers who had died. Not the one who was still alive, no, not like him in the least.
‘I’m not sure that you’d understand what I mean,’ she said, somewhat snootily. ‘I was remembering some lines I wrote. But if you like, I don’t mind reciting them.’
The boy was astonished. The person beside him was a thin, elderly woman, with dark rings under her eyes. Bleached hair and a very old, green outfit. She was wearing a pair of old dancing shoes – fabulous, silver dancing shoes – and a silver ribbon in her hair as well, tied up in a bow. He’d been watching her for quite a while.
‘So, what have you decided?’ Rosamunda asked impatiently. ‘Would you like to hear me recite them or not?’
‘Yes, I’d …’
The boy didn’t laugh, because it made him feel sad to look at her. Perhaps he’d laugh about it afterwards. And also, he was interested because he was young and curious. He hadn’t seen much of life and he wanted to experience more. This was an adventure. He looked at Rosamunda and noticed that she looked dreamy. Her blue eyes were half-closed. She was gazing at the sea.
‘Life’s so difficult!’
The woman was astounding. Her eyes were brimming with tears as she spoke.
‘If only you knew, young man. If only you knew what this new day means to me, you’d forgive me. This rush to the South. Back to the South, back to my home. Back to feeling smothered in my own backyard, back to my husband’s lack of understanding. You wouldn’t smile then, my son. You don’t have a clue what life can be like for a woman like me. This endless torture. You might ask why I’m telling you all this, why I feel like confiding in someone, when I’m actually a very shy person. Well, it’s because right now, talking to you, I’ve realised that you have a big heart, full of compassion and because this is my confession. Because, after you, all that’s left for me, so to speak, is the grave. Not being able to talk to any other human being, to any other human being who’d understand me.
She stopped talking for a moment. Perhaps she was tired. The train ran on and on. It was getting warmer and brighter. It was going to be a scorching hot day.
‘I’m going to tell you my story, because I think you’ll be interested. Yes. Picture a young blonde with big blue eyes, a young girl passionate about the arts. Her name, Rosamunda. Did you hear me? Rosamunda. I said, did you hear my name? Do you like it?’
The soldier blushed at the imperious tone of voice.
‘Yes I do, it’s a really nice name.’
‘Rosamunda,’ she continued, a little hesitant. Her real name was Felisa but, for some reason, she hated it. Inside, she’d always been Rosamunda, ever since she was a teenager. Being Rosamunda was a magic formula that saved her from the strictures of her home life, the monotony of the days. Being Rosamunda transformed her coarse, weather-beaten fiancé into a fairy-tale prince. Rosamunda, to her, was a name to be cherished, a name with exquisite qualities. But how could she explain all that to the young lad?
‘Rosamunda was a very talented actress. Her performances were brilliantly successful. And she was a poetess, too. She was already quite famous at an early age. Just imagine her, little more than a young girl, lavished with praise, a charmed life and then, suddenly, disaster. Love. Did I mention that she was famous? She was barely sixteen, but she was surrounded by admirers everywhere she went. At one of her poetry readings she met a man who led to her downfall. It was … my husband, because, you understand, I am Rosamunda. I married a brutal, sleazy, jealous man, without realising what I was doing. He kept me locked up for years and years. Me! That beautiful golden butterfly. Do you understand?’
Yes, she had got married, but not at the age of sixteen; she was twenty-three. But at the end of the day … and it was true that she had met him one day when she was reciting her poems in a friend’s house. He was a butcher. But how could she explain such things to this young lad? What was not in doubt was that she had suffered, for so many years. She hadn’t been able to recite a single poem, or boast about her past successes, possibly imaginary, she couldn’t remember clearly, but … her own son used to tell her she’d go mad thinking and crying so much. That was worse than the beatings and rantings when he came home drunk. She didn’t have anyone except that son of hers, because her daughters were shameless dunces and made fun of her and the other son, like her husband, had even tried to keep her locked up.
‘I just had one son. An only child. Do you understand? I called him Florisel. He was very slim and pale, just like you. Maybe that’s why I’m telling you all this. I’d tell him all about my wonderful earlier life. He was the only one who knew that I’d hung on to a chiffon dress and all my necklaces. He would listen to me, he listened to me, like you, now, entranced.’
Rosamunda smiled. Yes, the young lad was hanging on her every word.
‘Then my son died. I couldn’t cope with it. The only thing that tied me to my home was my son. Acting on impulse, I packed my bags and went back to the big city where I’d spent my youth and had my success. Ah! I’ve had some marvellous times and some miserable times. I was given a rapturous welcome, acclaimed again by my audiences, adored once more. Do you understand the tragedy of it? When my husband found out about it all, he began sending me sad, heart-wrenching letters. He couldn’t live without me. He just can’t, the poor thing. And also, he’s Florisel’s father, and behind all my success there was always the bitter memory of the son we lost.’
The young lad could see that scrawny, eccentric figure of a woman getting animated at times. She talked a lot. She described an amazing hotel, the faded glory of the theatre on the day of her big comeback. She described delirious standing ovations and her tired, sylph-like figure, taking the bow.
‘And now, despite all that, I’m going back to do my duty. I gave all my money away to the poor and I’m going back to my husband’s side, like someone going to her grave.’
Rosamunda became sad again. Her earrings were long and cheap; they swayed in the breeze. She felt ill-fated, like a grandedame. She’d forgotten about those awful days in the big city with no food. Her friends mocking her chiffon dress, her glass beads and her fantastic projects. She’d forgotten that long dining room with stripped pine tables, where she’d eaten pauper’s meals along with all the coughing, spluttering street beggars. Her weeping, her abject terror for hours on end, when she’d even missed her husband’s insults. How she’d kissed that letter from her husband written in his brusque, authoritarian style, where he’d evoked the memory of their dead son, had asked for her forgiveness and forgiven her.
The soldier stood there, staring at her. What an odd person, my God! The poor thing was obviously mad. Now she was smiling at him. She had two teeth missing.
The train was pulling in at a station along the way. It was breakfast time, and an appetising aroma wafted in from the station café. Rosamunda looked over towards the doughnut stall.
‘Would you allow me to buy you a doughnut, madam?’
An amusing story began to take shape in the young soldier’s mind. What if he told his friends that he’d met a magnificent woman on the train, and …
‘Buy me a doughnut? Very well, young man. Perhaps you’ll be the last person to ever buy me anything. And please don’t be so formal. You can call me Rosamunda; I wouldn’t object to that.’
Translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts
by Carmen Laforet
A Short Story from Take Six: Six Spanish Women Writers
Edited and Translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts
Published by Dedalus Europe (2022)
Original story in Spanish: ‘Rosamunda from La muerta’ © Carmen Laforet, 1952 y Herederos de Carmen Laforet.
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Carmen Laforet was a Spanish author who wrote in the period after the Spanish Civil War. Her first novel, Nada, continued the Spanish tremendismo literary style. She received the Premio Nadal in 1944. Nada is Laforet’s only novel to be translated into English, and was published in Edith Grossman’s translation in 2007.
Kathryn Phillips-Miles is a Spanish translator, who, along with her husband has jointly translated literary works from Spanish into English across multiple genres. Their latest release is SUR by Antonio Soler, published by Peter Owen Publishers/Pushkin Press.
Simon Deefholts has translated literary works from Spanish into English across a range of genres with his wife, Kathryn Phillips-Miles. Previous publications include translations of Wolf Moon by Julio Llamazares, Inventing Love by José Ovejero and Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernández Cubas. For Dedalus they have edited and translated Take Six: Spanish Women Writers.