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The River

Author: Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa   Cover illustration: Ben Mitchell  

From Coslada, the most direct route was to follow the railway track as far as the level crossing. He didn't care about his shoes. When they were new, he had cared. And now that he had just cleaned them, he cared a little about any damage that might be done by the sharp stones along the track. Sometimes, when he thought no one was watching, he would walk along the rail itself, balancing. The little girl who lived in the crossing-keeper's house had a red dress on and was shooing away the chickens that kept walking all over the washing she had spread out on the ground. The leaves of the vine growing above the door were black with soot from the trains. The girl saw him coming and stopped to look at him. She didn't laugh to see him balancing on the rail, but she did suddenly shout out:
'There's a train coming!'
The man with the white shoes spun round; it was a joke. The girl scampered back into her house like a small cat. At the level crossing, the man left the track and turned to the right. Here too he placed his feet carefully, so that the dust from the road didn't dirty his white uppers.
He passed Justina and her mother, who were just leaving, both carrying baskets. The girl looked him up and down and walked past, putting a coloured scarf over her head as protection from the sun.
'So, what's new?'
'Not a lot, as you can see.'
'A glass of wine?'
'Yes, please.'
He looked out of the door. He could see the two women walking along the road. He rested the tips of his fingernails on the counter. When he heard the sound of the glass being set down, he turned to Mauricio.
'Was Julio in last night?'
'Which one?'
'The foreman.'
'No, the foreman wasn't in. The other one was though.'
'Will he be in tonight?'
'The foreman? Yes, probably.'
The man with the white shoes put his lips to the wine and looked out of the door again.
'Pretty hot, isn't it?'
'It certainly is. It seems to wait for Sundays to reach its peak.'
'Yes, the heat's certainly no respecter of the Sabbath,' said Lucio. 'Imagine what the river will be like now; it'll be packed.'
'I can believe that,' said the other man, turning again to Mauricio. 'Are you sure he'll be here?'
'As I say, I would imagine so. It's a Sunday, so I should think he will.'
He studied the man with the white shoes, then went over to the sink. The man said nothing more. It was as if the three of them were waiting.
'What fools some of us have made of ourselves all our lives,' the man with the white shoes said at last. 'Pour me another glass, will you, Mauricio?'
Mauricio picked up the bottle and looked at him with interest. In a cautious voice he said:
'What makes you say that?'
'What makes me say it? Well, everything really. I mean, for example, why did I come to Coslada? Why on earth did I come here?'
He fell silent again.
'You tell me.'
'All I'm saying is that I should have stayed where I was. I would have been much better off. But you always find these things out too late, of course.'
Lucio and Mauricio were both watching him. Mauricio asked:
'Are things really that bad? What's happened exactly, if you don't mind my asking?'
The other man looked up from his glass; he gave Mauricio a calculating look from beneath his eyebrows. With a snort he said:
'Oh, something and nothing really. A lot of village foolery that can get you into a lot of arguments. But I'm the fool for paying it any heed.'
He swallowed; there was a pause; he looked out at the countryside and spoke again:
'And it's all just politics, small-time stuff, you understand. Piffle. But still politics. Some support one thing, others another. And there's always a lot of talk in a barber's shop, too much really. And you just have to put up with them saying this, that and the other; if you don't, they leave; if you do, they think you're on their side. It's as if they come to you specially just so that they can pour out all the bad stuff, all the poison, all the things they've been storing up inside them. You just have to wet their face and apply the razor, that's all, and you immediately find yourself embroiled in some mess or other. They get you all ways.' He was gesticulating as he spoke; he kept glancing restlessly out of the door; he stopped; the words were coming thick and fast now. 'Anyway, this morning Abelardo comes to see me, you know Abelardo,' the other men nodded, 'him, right, well, he comes and tells me that a few of them are thinking of boycotting my shop, so that no one ever comes to my shop again, because it turns out that, according to them, it's my shop that's creating bad feeling amongst certain people in the village.' He stopped speaking and looked at them, holding his breath; then he recovered himself. 'I mean, it's hardly in my interest, is it, from the business point of view I mean, to encourage any kind of bad atmosphere… Even this chair here can understand that! What do they want me to do? Haul them out of the barber's chair and throw them out in the street, with half their face still covered in lather? Or stuff the towel in their mouth perhaps?'
'There's nothing worse than barber-shop gossip,' said Lucio. 'It's the sort that does the most damage.'
He sounded as if he were talking about some insect, a bedbug or a flea… Mauricio asked:
'And what was it this time?'
'It's that Julio guy… According to him, Guillermo Sánchez is renting a shop from him and now he's refusing to move out, and so Julio's spreading all kinds of rumours that make Guillermo either look a complete fool or just generally discredit him; anyway the other day, Julio was gabbing on while I was shaving him, and calling Guillermo all the names under the sun, not realising that there was another gentleman sitting in the chair behind who, it seems, is one of Guillermo's best mates. And he, of course, goes straight to Guillermo and tells him everything. So you can imagine…'
Daniel raised the bottle in the air and lay down, still drinking. He ended up choking and had to sit up again, his face bright red with coughing. Alicia said:
'Serves you right for being so greedy.'
Miguel was slapping him on the back.
'It's OK, Miguel, don't worry, I'm all right now. It just went down the wrong way.'
'I don't see why you have to drink wine now anyway,' said Paulina. 'Isn't having a drink with your meal enough? It's as if you boys can't survive without drinking.'
Daniel turned to her and said:
'Look, you can talk like that to Sebastián, if you want, but just leave me to get on with my life, all right?'
'I was only saying it for your own good, and so that you don't put a damper on things for the rest of us. But, don't worry, I won't say another word. Suit yourself.'
Sebastián intervened:
'There's no need to speak to her like that. What did she say that was so terrible?'
'Look, Sebastián, I'm not going to put a damper on anyone's fun. If I have to put a damper on anything, it'll be me.'
'I don't know about putting a damper on things, Daniel,' Miguel said, laughing, 'but I think we might have to consider putting a stopper in that bottle.'
Everyone laughed.
'He's right you know. It wouldn't be a bad idea.'
'Never a wiser word spoken, Miguel. There speaks the voice of experience.'
'He's got an answer for everything, he has! The gift of the gab…'
'Here they come. You know, I fancy having a swim too.'
The others were walking back through the trees in their swimming trunks.
'Wait a bit and let them try it first. The longer we wait, the warmer the water will be.'
'No, we've all got to go in together. It's no fun otherwise.'
'Yeah,' said Sebastián. 'That's the best part. Everyone together.'
'Are you ready?' Miguel was saying to the two who had just rejoined them.
'Yes, but if we go swimming, someone's got to stay here with our things. We can't just leave them.'
'We can take it in turns to come back and check. It's not a problem.'
'Don't worry,' said Daniel. 'I'll stay. I don't feel like swimming just yet.'
'Right, then, let's go and get changed. Come on, Sebastián.'
Fernando, Sebastián and Miguel went off. The heat was growing more intense and those lying under the trees had to keep moving because the sun penetrated the criss-cross of branches, and the shadows kept shifting on the ground. Someone said:
'Where does this river go to - anyone know?'
'To the sea, like all rivers,' answered Santos.
'Oh, very funny. That much I knew. I mean where does it pass through?'
'I think it joins the Henares below San Fernando, and I know it joins the Tajo miles away; it must go through Aranjuez and Illescas I suppose.'
'Is it the same river that goes through Torrelaguna?'
'I'm not sure, but I think so. I know it starts in the mountains.'
There were no trees on the other bank. From the warm shade, they could see only a few bushes on the shore itself and, beyond that, the blank plain, like the hide of a hare, drying in the sun. The water flowed only through the two central arches of the bridge now. The first two, on the other side, were dry. The shade cast by the arches sheltered more groups of people, camped on the beach, beneath the immense vaults.
'A lot of people died in this river during the war.'
'Yes, further up, in Paracuellos del Jarama, that was where the fighting was worst, but the whole river was the front line, as far as Titulcia.'
'Haven't you heard of it? An uncle of mine, my mother's brother, died in the offensive, in Titulcia itself, that's why I know about it. I'll never forget. We heard the news while we were having supper.'
'Fancy this being the front line,' said Mely, 'and all those people dying here.'
'I know, and there we are happily swimming about in it.'
'Just as if nothing had happened; you could be stepping on a place where a corpse used to be.'
Luci interrupted them:
'Stop it! You're just imagining things now.'
The other three were back. Miguel said:
'What are you talking about?'
'Oh, nothing. Luci doesn't like stories about dead people.'
'What dead people?'
'The ones from the war. I was just telling them that there were quite a few people killed here, including my uncle.'
'I see… Anyway, meanwhile…what time is it?'
'Five to twelve.'
'Right, then, you girls could be thinking about getting changed too. And you, Daniel, have you decided what you're going to do? Are you staying here to look after the things or what?'
Daniel turned round:
'Er, yes, I'll stay here for the moment. I'll have a swim later on.'
Sebastián had started capering and jumping about, placing the palms of his hands on the ground and attempting to perform cartwheels; he gave a Tarzan-like bellow.
'What's got into him?'
'Oh, don't worry, he's just gone native.'
'He's got a few screws loose, if you ask me.'
He had gone bounding and cartwheeling down to the water, where he dipped in a toe; he returned looking very pleased with himself.
'You should feel the water.'
'Why? What’s it like?'
'Gorgeous. Fantastic.'
'No, not warm, just right, ideal. How come you haven't all changed yet? Come on! I want to get in there!'
The girls began to stir; they got languidly to their feet. Sebastián was off capering about again; he got into trouble with a dog he had stumbled over. It was lunging at him, barking furiously. Sebastián kept drawing back his legs, as if he were afraid the dog might sink its teeth into his bare flesh. The others laughed, and Fernando urged the dog on: 'Go on, go for him!' A fat gentleman, with the belly of a Buddha and a deep, hairy navel, came over, draping a brightly-coloured towel over his shoulders as he emerged from the shade. He called to the dog:
'Oro, here, boy. Come on, Oro, there's a good boy. It's all right, he won't hurt you. He's never bitten anyone. Oro, do as you're told. Sit, Oro!'
He swung the lead over the dog's head, though with no intention of hitting it, and the dog eventually gave in. The man smiled at Sebastián and rejoined his own group.
'He should have bitten you, I think. I would have been pleased if he had.'
'To teach you not to play the fool.'
'I don't think anyone minded. Besides, it was the dog who started it.'
'Well, I mind. It bothers me that you always have to have people looking at you.'
'Don't be so silly. Go and join the other girls and get changed, will you, then we can go swimming.'
Sebastián sat down again, breathing hard, while his girlfriend went over to join the others. Miguel neatly folded his trousers and arranged his things at the foot of the tree.
'I'm leaving all my stuff here, Daniel, OK?'
Daniel looked round without much interest.
Now Santos and Tito were sparring together under the trees. Miguel was looking at the untidy patch of ground, with his friends' clothes and shoes all over the place.
'You could put your things here, if you like, Sebas, next to mine.'
He pointed to the place at the foot of the tree.
'What for?'
'Well, if you don't want to, fine; I just thought they'd be better there… I think so anyway.'
'It doesn't make much odds, does it? Besides, I can't be bothered to get up just now.'
Miguel made a resigned gesture and continued looking at the things scattered on the ground; he couldn't decide what to do. Then, suddenly, without a word, he started picking up the clothes left by the others and carrying them over to the tree where he placed them in neat piles, just as he had with his own.
'It's better like that, don't you think?'
Sebastián turned distractedly.
'H'm? Oh, yeah, much better,' then in another tone: 'Hey, look at Santos!'
He was pointing towards the trees where Santos, who was boxing with Fernando and Tito, had almost fallen on top of a family's belongings. 'You could have broken that water jug, then what would I have done?' the woman was saying to him.
'Gosh, you're brown. How did you manage that?'
Two of the girls were holding Santos' bathrobe, like a curtain, while the others got undressed behind it.
'I've hardly been in the sun at all.'
'You obviously catch the sun easily. It takes me so long to get brown that, by the time I do, summer's over.'
The girls holding the bathrobe were looking behind it at the bodies and swimsuits of the others, as they appeared from beneath their discarded clothes.
'Oh, I like that, where did you buy it?'
'In Sepu's. How much to you think it cost?'
'I don't know, about two hundred?'
'Less, a hundred and sixty-five.'
'That's cheap, and it looks like wool too. Grab hold of this, will you? I'm going to feel really embarrassed now, because I'm so white.'
Mely and Paulina had emerged in their swimsuits and were studying each other.
'Hurry up, you two!'
They wanted to go back down to the boys together. Luci was wearing a black woollen swimsuit. The other two girls were browner and were wearing ruched suits made of printed cretonne. Mely's was green. They didn't know quite what to do next and stood, uncertain, looking at each other, picking up their clothes. They exchanged appraising glances, comparing; they laughed and giggled and adjusted their bathing suits again and again.
'Wait! Wait for me!'
They were moving off, laughing and giving little shrieks, and Alicia and Mely were whispering to each other and the others wanted to know what was so funny. Then Carmen and Luci hid behind the others, and Alicia, when she realised this, stood to one side, grabbed Luci by the wrist and thrust her forward. Luci then bolted and hid behind a tree.
'Don't be so silly. Come here.'
'What's up with Luci?' asked Fernando.
'She's embarrassed because she's so white.'
'Daft thing!'
But now she felt even more embarrassed at having to appear entirely alone before them all. She was laughing, her face flushed, peeping out from behind the trunk of a poplar.
'You go first. I'll follow.'
Tito suddenly shouted:
'Right, let's get her!'
Fernando, Santos and Sebastián raced whooping after Tito towards the tree where Luci was hiding; she ran a few yards, swerved off towards the riverside, but the four of them finally caught up with her and knocked her over, then picked her up, screaming and struggling, by her arms and legs. They carried her down to the water. Miguel and the other girls watched from the shade of the trees.
'Let me go! Let me go! Don't throw me in! Help! Help!'
It was impossible to know whether she was laughing or crying. They contented themselves with getting her a little bit wet and then depositing her on the bank.
'Oh, you're so rough! You nearly dislocated my wrist!'
Tito went over to her.
'Poor little thing!' he said in a melancholy tone. 'Let me see. I'll make it better, sweetheart. Don't you want me to make it better?'
She withdrew brusquely.
'Leave me alone. It's all your fault. You're nothing but savages!'
Tito imitated the childish voice that Luci was affecting:
'They're nasty rough boys, aren't they? Shall I hit them? I'll hit them, if you like. Take that and that. For being so naughty.'
He was laughing.
'That's right, laugh.'
'Oh, come on, Luci. Joking apart now, don't be angry. Shall we apologise? Come on, you guys, apologise to Luci. On your knees!'
'All right.'
The four knelt down before Luci and she walked away from them. They followed her, still on their knees, their hands together in mock contrition. She looked around at the other people to see if they were being watched.
'You're so silly,' she said, smiling and embarrassed. 'Don't make such a spectacle of yourselves.'
Then she stuck one foot in the river and splashed them with water.
'I'll splash you!'
They got up, protesting, and withdrew. Miguel and the other girls had joined them.
'You and your practical jokes,' said Mely. 'Pick on someone your own size, you bullies.'
Sebastián was the one to give the signal, turning brusquely towards the water:
'The last one in's a…!'
They dived in: Miguel, Tito, Alicia, Fernando, Santos, Carmen, Paulina and Sebastián. Only Mely and Luci stayed on the shore, watching the clamour of bodies, the screams and the splashing.
'It gives me the creeps this mud under your feet,' said Mely,' It feels like there might be some creature lurking underneath.'
Smoke drifted over the various encampments. It dispersed somewhere up near the tops of the trees, with a smell of stew and burning wood. In the neighbouring plot, a paella was seething, and a woman in black kept leaning back from the flames and from the smoke drifting up into her face. Daniel watched her toiling away, saw how she occasionally brushed back a few scorched strands of hair. Every time she bent down to plunge the spoon into the bubbling mass, she revealed the backs of her knees, very white beneath her black dress, as black as the frying pan. Her little girl returned, dripping, in her sky-blue swimsuit. She put her thin arm, shining with water, around her mother's neck and kissed her burning cheek. 'Oh, stop it, love, you'll make me all wet!' Her bare legs pranced around the fire. She picked up the dog's lead and rushed down to the water. Her mother's eyes followed her as she dodged in and out of the tree trunks, until her daughter's scrawny little body was lit up, golden, in the sun.
There, in the hot, blinding light that burned the eyes, a multitude of heads and torsos filled the reddish water, and limbs beat briefly above the surface. The river boiled and churned with fragmented bodies; voices rang out, and from further upstream came shouts that boomed metallically beneath the echoing vaulted arches of the bridge. A very high, white sun burned above, like a small, flickering mirror. Down below, though, the light was red and dense and muted. It stamped on the earth like a giant foot, crushing every raised shape and outline. Daniel was lying on his front now, hiding his face. Then a new noise, unexpected and deafening, reached his ears. Despite his torpor, he sat bolt upright, and in the dazzling light he saw the people in the river all waving their arms. They were waving at the train. It thundered across the bridge, high above everything, with a long, clattering drumroll, with an innumerable, hurrying clickety-clack, that drowned out every voice. Then it was gone, leaving behind it the unheard goodbyes, the arms raised to the fleeting, unknown faces at its one hundred windows. The bridge seemed to tremble afterwards, when the last carriage had passed, as if a shiver had run through it. The stunned silence soon filled up with voices again. Daniel could see a woman standing on the bank, her skirts hitched up to her thighs, washing a naked child with soap. The broad arm of smoke that the train had left hanging over the river was slowly dissipating.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 404

Publication date: 16.09.2004

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 17 8

World English