“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, who’d just left, had kept going on about how he seemed to be getting worse. So, feeling I should keep things light, I asked him about the women in his life. That’s how we ended up talking about the one in Spain.
He used to enjoy talking about them. He’d seem to forget his pain, his eyes would sparkle and suddenly focus. Because since he’d got ill and been taken to hospital, the women he’d loved during his life had become for him a photo album he never tired of thumbing through. And hidden beneath each photo, another fifty. No detail escaped his memory. Sometimes I used to think he was making it all up but a month or two later he would repeat it all with the exact same details, the same conviction, the same look 22 and smile and my doubts would disappear. “Thank God I have them,” he’d say when we were alone. “How else could I get through these interminable nights?” and then he’d go on reflectively, “Sometimes I wonder, what do they think about, those other old men, alone like me, who never knew the thrill of loving another woman?” And when he was strong enough for discussion, I’d say they might think about the countries they’d visited, old friends they’d had, adventures they’d lived through, stories they’d heard, the work they’d done, dogs they’d raised, days they’d spent swimming in the sun, beautiful moments they’d shared. And he would stop me with that wave of his hand, so typical of people his age, “No, no, son. It’s
not the same. Oh, the number of jobs I had in my life! What do I remember about them? Nothing. And the countries I visited and walks I took …”
“How she’d love to see you,” he said when we got back to the Spanish woman. “Listen, will you promise to go and visit her before I die?” And, without giving me time to reply, he went on, “Go tell her everything and bring me news of her.” He was adamant and when he saw I was seriously toying with the idea, he pleaded earnestly with me to go.
“Go talk to her, son, before I die.”
That reminded me of the way I used to ask my mother to deliver messages I didn’t have the courage to carry myself. And then he started giving me directions to her house in that same urgent listen carefully tone he’d use when I was young to tell me how to get to my grandparents’, or to the grocer’s to buy milk.
“Now listen. When you get to the Alicante airport, rent a car,” he says through drawn lips, his shaking hand hidden in his sleeve and with a wry smile, almost mysterious.
“Leave the airport and follow the signs to Murcia.”
Then he looks at me and realises I’m not taking any notes. “Write it down, damn it.”
So I take a pen out of 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 him when I arrived at the hospital. “Drive in that direction until the highway splits in two, and on the other side, you’ll see big new signs for Almería and Granada. Put on the indicators, watch out for the cars behind you and cross over to the other side. And drive carefully.”
I smile but he doesn’t notice because in the meantime he’s closed his eyes, lost in the vision of driving towards his Spanish love.
“Now keep going straight ahead till you see the sign for Mazarrón.”
I notice his hand, all fingers now pointing at me.
“Follow it. By now you should start seeing the buildings, apartments for rent and for sale. The sea is close by, but you can’t see it yet. Are you following?”
“Every few kilometres, you’ll see more signs, and at some point you’ll notice Puerto de Mazarrón. Drive in the direction of the port until you see the first arrows pointing the way to Águilas.”
He opens his eyes and I can see them shining, much clearer than they were before.
“Are you writing it all down?”
“Yes, I am. Go on.”
“If you get to that point and you can’t see kilometres and kilometres of white greenhouses full of tomatoes, you must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. If you can, then you’re all right. Go straight down the road till you come to a crossroad and on the right you see a small sign saying Puntas de Calnegre. Drive down that narrow road, take your foot off the brake and
just 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, 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. Get out. Step onto the pavement – where you’ll probably find a cat licking clean the skeleton of a fish – and ring the bell.”
My father is sending me to meet the woman he’d seen in secret for ten years. And I’m not doing it to please him. I’m doing it because I want to get to know this woman who’d made him so happy. I’m going so that I can wordlessly thank her. I want to meet the woman who, every time, would fill him with enough joy to keep him going for months. Then, when every hint of that joy had disappeared, he’d go back to Spain on the pretence of business. And we’d wait for him to come back carrying a drum, a top, a pair of cymbals, a bag of multi-coloured beads and the joyful smile of someone deeply sated.
And so I’m driving my rented Ford Ka, with the receipt from the hospital canteen stuck to the steering wheel and a smile on my face. Marvelling at my father’s memory. Because even if I left the driving to a robot, I’d probably arrive at the villa without mishap.
On the road to the villa now, I’ve opened the car window and I’m laughing like an idiot because the breeze from the sea is so fresh on my face. And I can sense the excitement of 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 ring the bell and suddenly I’m struck by a hundred doubts. Maybe the woman’s died, or moved somewhere else. Maybe she’s living with another man and has completely forgotten my father, or wishes she could. Maybe the house is unlived in now, or has been bought by someone who knows nothing about my father’s Spanish affair. Or maybe she would open the door but not welcome me. Or maybe her son would open, and then what would I say?
The door opened 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’d done a good job. Green. With a hint of yellow. Beautiful.
And her face! A woman ageing gracefully.
“When she comes to the door, tell her you’re my son, and that you’ve heard a lot about her. Tell her I’m dying but that she’s still in my heart, keeping me company. And then she’ll invite you in and ask you thousands of questions. Because she’s like that – for your every word she has a question. And then she’ll pour you a little of the 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 just stand there on the doorstep. Come in. Come inside.” Then she turned to a white cat who was staring at me
from between her legs. “Away with you! Tenemos visita.”
After we’d eaten 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 down a spiral staircase and, in the cool of the basement, there they were – one bottle after the other, each of them labelled by hand with the number 45. She’d been storing bottle after bottle since the last time he drove away.
“I was certain he’d come back one day. It wasn’t the first time he’d told me that this would be the last time I saw him. He’d said so many times. But I never believed him because – well, yes – sometimes months would go by, but he always came back. And
since the last time I saw him, I’ve kept going down to the garden, gathering the apricots, wearing the same gloves he used to wear when he’d gather them himself.”
It had become a ritual. She’d come in laden with a box full of apricots and empty them onto the huge kitchen counter. And with the same knife he had used, she would cut them in half, one by one, and throw them into a large pot. And she would leave them to bubble 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 scalded and disappear. “Just as he did,” she says with a half-smile, without the slightest hint of anger. “No letter. No phone call. Nothing. That was your father. Either brightly lit or pitch dark.” Then with a large ladle she’d scoop up the hot wet apricots and throw them into five litres of cognac. And she’d leave them to steep 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 to strain out the apricots, he’ll be there, by her side, in her kitchen, surprised that she’s continued to make his liqueur. Then she’d pour the sieved cognac into glass bottles. On each she’d stick a yellow label, 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 once 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 date.
“Do you like it?”
“No one leaves without tasting some. And every time we raise a glass, I think of him.”
“You see, I’ve spent whole months like this,” she says now with a glass of 45 in her right hand and 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 he remembers. Whether I might have disappointed him the last time he was here. Whether I said something I shouldn’t have or something 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, I’d hear that same bell you rang and 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 kept gathering the apricots from the garden, box after box, in the hope that by the time I filled another bottle, he’d be here by my side.”
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. I thought maybe the anger could fill 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 harbour. I accepted the arrangement to see him at his convenience. I’d thought that maybe I could see and enjoy him without giving him my heart. But by the time I realised that he was my heart and my heart was him, it was too late.” At this point, 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?”
At dawn on the third day I spent with her, my father died. My sister called early to give me the news. No one had expected him to go so fast. And on my way back 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 asks 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.
Now he’s smiling his special smile.
And I’ve 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 and you’ll see what I brought you – she’s right here in the crowd.
By Pierre J. Mejlak
Translated from the Maltese by Antoine Cassar
Pierre J. Mejlak was one of 4 EUPL winners who were guests of the first Euro Stars event on 17 April 2015 in Europe House in London.
Pierre J. Mejlak’s ‘Having Said Goodnight’ has been published by Merlin Publishers in Malta. The book will be launched at Waterstones (Brussels) this Thursday, 23 April 2015 at 7pm.
You can buy the book online.