PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell Cover illustration: Willi Gray
Grandmother bent her head over her sewing and shuffled her feet nervously. Papa turned back to the sideboard, pretending to be looking for something. Aunt Matilda retreated into the shadows of the dining-room. My mother's cry was enveloped in heavy silence. With a vigorous shove, but without letting go of my hand, she pushed me in front of her. I was still wearing my round, white fur hat with the pompons and my new red coat, which just about covered my buttocks, leaving my skinny legs and patent-leather shoes for all to see.
I was four years old. My mother lifted up her breast in indignation and breathed in. The silence continued.
'He had the nerve to call my daughter a mushroom!'
Then papa, in his shirt sleeves, slowly stirred himself and looked at me, a smile on his face. He was holding his tobacco pouch and his long fingers were thrusting mysteriously into the mixture.
I was too afraid to speak, but I found his presence reassuring. 'Do you hear?' my mother cried, her cheeks ablaze with rage.
Aunt decided to come into the room. She went over to her sister and tried to help her off with her coat.
'Yes,' replied my father in a voice that was scarcely audible.
Mama exploded. She banged her bag down on the table, spilling the contents, dumped her coat on the floor and set about throwing a screaming fit.
I took advantage of the momentary slackening of her attention to make my escape and dash over to the low chair by the window, where grandmother spent all day sewing, because she didn't think much of electric light.
'Is that all you can think of to say? "Yes, yes, yes"! Your daughter's been insulted and you say nothing! A mushroom . . . my daughter! My treasure! For all to hear! A mushroom!'
'Mushrooms are nice,' said aunt. It just slipped out.
She swung round, seething. Her voice became hoarse.
'That doesn't surprise me, coming from you! No consideration whatsoever! What do I get in this house? Nothing but ingratitude! That's all the reward I get for everything I've done for you and that miscreant son of yours! Trust you to take their side! My daughter, the prettiest, the, the . . . insulted by a pervert, a pederast . . .'
'Carmencita!' Grandmother shot to her feet, her glasses slipping off her nose. 'For the love of God! The children!'
My mother bit her lips.
'What's that, a pederast?' demanded a thin, reedy voice, the voice of my eleven-year-old cousin, Arturo, who had been living with us since the death of his father, the late husband of my Aunt Matilda.
'Your son! Your son!' screamed my mother, taking a step towards Arturo, who quickly retreated and slipped behind aunt. 'That criminal's spawn! That murderer!'
She placed a hand to her chest, gave a terrible shriek and fell on her back.
Arturo started jumping up and down, chanting triumphantly, 'A mushroom! A mushroom! Milagrosa's a mushroom! Milagrosa's a mushroom!'
Only now did I feel involved and burst into sobs which quickly mutated into strident cries.
Grandmother stood up, a look of determination on her face. Aunt Matilda put the corner of her apron in her mouth. Down on the ground, Mama opened a coal-black eye. Papa struck a match with the tips of his fingers.
The doorbell rang loudly, transfixing Arturo, Aunt Matilda, grandmother, and switching off my tears.
It was almost nine o'clock. Night had fallen two hours ago, even if papa did keep saying the days were starting to get longer. We weren't expecting anyone. The bell sounded again, insistently.
Mama emerged from her faint, pushed herself up on one elbow, and addressed her husband harshly, as the doorbell chimes jangled away furiously at the end of the corridor.
'Why don't you open it? Can't you hear?'
'"Yes, Carmencita" . . . O Lord, what have I done for you to give me a husband like this? Tell me, what have I done? . . . And what are you doing there, Matilda, rooted to the spot? Come and help me get up. You know very well that with my problem I can't . . .'
Aunt rushed over to help her sister.
We were all waiting in silence, hanging on the rhythm of papa's steps in the corridor, on his brief pause by the door, on the swish of the heavy drape of burgundy velvet and, finally, the unbolting of the door.
The sound of voices came to us, an indistinct murmur, pierced by the occasional angry outburst. Mama was beginning to fidget, a sure sign of her impatience.
'Well, what is it? What's he doing? I'm going to go and see . . .'
Grandmother had taken a step forward. Her imperious tone brooked no demur.
'I have to know!'
'You can't go. Do not forget that you are a lady, and a lady . . .'
The silent reappearance of a visibly shocked papa cut short the discussion.
'It's the police, the Guardia Civil.'
Mama opened her mouth and placed her hand on her chest, a sign announcing another fainting fit.
'Oh no you don't! You're not going to swoon now!' said grandmother, moving towards the corridor. 'Sit down.'
Mama obeyed meekly.
'What do they want, Luis? Have you put them in the drawing-room?'
'Well go and do it now. Respectable people don't keep gentlemen like that standing' She broke off, as if what she had just said had revealed to her some hitherto concealed fact.
'It must be some mistake . . . mustn't it? What did they say?'
'The Mayor's here too,' papa remarked casually.
Mama was back on her feet at once. 'I'll kill him!'
'Sit down! That's an order! What do you think you're saying?'
Mama, standing up, was breathing heavily, in the grip of an indescribable fury. 'Him! Coming here! He dares to do that to me then come to my house, my own house! He doesn't realise who he's up against! I'll have his guts for garters! I'll murder him!'
With that she shot out into the corridor. Under the close-fitting green satin of her dress, her rump bobbled like a fish imprisoned in a net.
Grandmother barred her path. A brief struggle between the two women ensued, Mama threatening to kill the Mayor, grandmother repeating again and again, in a voice she was trying to keep low, but which reached the little committee waiting in the hall, 'For the love of God! Carmencita! For the love of God!'
Arturo, fascinated by the whole affair, had managed to slip into the corridor and was progressing towards the hall. Aunt Matilda's cry interrupted the struggle.
She shot off in pursuit of her son, whose disappearance she had only just noticed and who, having reached his goal already, was pulling horrible faces in the mirror, whilst listening to the policemen.
'Arturo, you little devil!'
Arturo started to run back along the corridor, which echoed with the crash of his leather boots on the wooden floor. He appeared, disheveled and bubbling over with mirth: 'Aunt Carmen hit the Mayor! Aunt Carmen hit the Mayor! She's going to go to prison! She's going to go to prison!'
Without really understanding what this involved, I took Margarita in my arms and, kneeling down beside grandmother's needlework, started to rock her, softly singing, 'Mama's going to prison, Mama's going to prison.'
I looked up at papa, who was smiling and saying 'Shh.' Grandmother crossed herself. 'Oh God! Help me!'
Her strength giving out, she had let go of Mama for a moment, and the latter was already heading down the corridor, a murderous glint in her eye.
The Guardia Civil backed away involuntarily. The Mayor, seeing Mama, shouted, 'That's her! Arrest her! Thats her! That's the madwoman!'
Recovering, grandmother yelled, 'Luis, for the love of God, stop your wife!'
With one leap, papa had grasped Mama round the waist. She started shouting insults at the Mayor who, a bloodstained bandage across his cheek, had taken refuge in the kitchen, convinced he wouldn't escape with his life a second time.
'Matilda, go and get St. Anthony. Quick!'
Ashen-faced, aunt turned on her heel like an automaton and went to get the plaster statuette from the sideboard.
Grandmother set off down the corridor where my parents were grappling.
'D'you think he'll be able to lift her up?' cousin Arturo asked, always ready to bet two sweeties that . . .
I stopped rocking Margarita. 'Oh no, papa'll never be able to lift her up.'
He gave me an astonished look. 'Why?'
'Because Mama is much too big. Enormous.'
Grandmother signaled to one of the Guardia Civil. Since the damage was done anyway, she might as well ask for help, otherwise Carmencita was capable of tearing off the other half of the Mayor's face, even if he did stay hidden in the kitchen. In the kitchen . . . Lord in Heaven, she only hoped the maid had tidied up properly before she left . . .
'Officer, could you help my son-in-law? My daughter . . .'
'Certainly, madam, at your service. Juan Mateo, come and . . .'
The dim light of the corridor was obscured by the two shiny tricorn hats. Mama was overpowered in no time at all and unceremoniously flung onto the matrimonial bed. Since she was trying to get up, and since her screaming was starting to give him a headache, papa, having finished his cigarette, went over and gave her a terrific punch which shut her up and laid her out once and for all.
'You'll take a glass, gentlemen . . .'
The two policemen exchanged admiring glances and followed him into the kitchen, where grandmother was apologising profusely to the Mayor.
Impelled by curiosity, I went into the kitchen as well, followed by Aunt Matilda clutching the statuette of St Anthony.
'Does it hurt a lot?'
An eloquent silence wrapped itself round my question. Proud of the effect I had produced, I plunged into an extensive explanation. 'It was Mama who slapped the Mayor and even dragged him along the ground, by his hair. She's big, Mama is, enormous!'
'My God!' aunt wheezed.
The Mayor piped up, 'She's mad! She almost killed me! She's mad!'
The excuses started up again, but did not pacify the dignitary who, doubtless, was beginning to get tired. He set off for the door, accompanied by the two policemen.
Then papa asked, 'But why did she . . .'
The Mayor gave a non-commital shrug of the shoulders and continued on his way down the stairs. 'Who knows! I did nothing . . . I just said the little girl looked like a mushroom.'
It had not occurred to anyone nor had they had the time to take off my outdoor clothes. Red with the excitement and the heat, I was still wearing my coat and my fur hat with the pompons.
Papa looked at me and smiled. 'He's right, you know. You do look like a poor little mushroom.'
No. of pages: 224
Publication date: 25.04.2002
978 1 903517 07 9