Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
They ate candyfloss at the amusement park. They shot at silhouettes in the shooting gallery. They climbed into the bumper cars. They strolled like a couple of lovers from ride to ride. Santiago made suggestions, and Montse went along with them. On the rollercoaster they held each other so tight that their arms ached. They lost themselves in the crowd, trying to go unnoticed among the few tourists. She kept on talking nervously. ‘I’d like to smoke,’ she said. And Santiago ran to a tobacconist’s to buy a packet of Chesterfields. Every time he had to pay for something he took out a roll of one-hundred-peseta notes which he wielded as if he were a bank teller. ‘Now tell me, are you really rich?’
‘Of course, richest man in the world, with you here.’
At noon Montse called home to tell the maid she was having lunch at Nuria’s.
‘Don’t you have to call your parents?’ she asked Santiago.
‘Never. I don’t owe them any explanations. I’m independent.’
They ate at an expensive restaurant. Santiago tried hard to make Montse feel at ease. Later, when she opened the door to her building, with the books pressed to her, it seemed as though the world was spinning. She turned to say goodbye and felt him push her gently against the door. ‘What are you doing?’
‘What do you think?’ They kissed. Montse felt a pair of hands reaching where no one had ever reached before. Her books fell to the floor with a thud. She had to make an effort to tear herself away. In spite of her tiredness she found it difficult to fall asleep. She thought she wouldn’t brush her teeth, so as to keep Santiago’s kiss in her mouth, but the taste of cigarettes was too strong. Daydreaming, she scribbled in her diary. In the morning she only hoped her family wouldn’t find out.
Montse phoned her father early the next morning. She spoke to her sister Teresa and her mother as well. She told them she found the classes at the Academy boring and, lying, said she wanted to come to Cadaqués. At half past nine she was standing by the shoe shop, nervously holding her books. Santiago appeared in a white car, though not the convertible. Montse got in as if this were part of a daily routine, smiling, wanting to be near him.
‘I don’t believe for a second that you work in a bank, or that your father is the general manager.’ The boy tensed up, stepped on the accelerator, and drove into the traffic. ‘Santi, you’re a liar, and I haven’t lied to you at all.’
‘Nor me, Montse, honest. I’m not a liar, I swear.’ She realised she was putting him on the spot. She leaned back on the headrest and gently placed her hand on his leg.
‘Tell me something, Santi. Have you loved many women?’
Santiago San Román smiled, trying to relax.
‘No one as much as you, sweetheart.’ Montse felt as though petals were raining down on her. Her ears tingled and her legs trembled.
‘You’re a liar,’ she said, squeezing his leg, ‘but I love it.’
‘I swear I’m not lying to you. I swear on….’ He trailed off. Judging from his face, a dark thought must have crossed his mind.
For a week Montse’s books travelled in the back seat of a number of different cars. She had the feeling of seeing the world from above, of gliding over the city, only to put her feet back on the ground when she went back home. Every evening, before saying goodbye, Santiago would push her into the huge central shaft of the spiral staircase, and she would let him explore her body. They would kiss for hours, until their stomachs ached. Thousands of questions popped in her mind, but she didn’t dare ask them for fear of breaking the spell. Santiago’s background was obvious. He sounded like an outsider, behaved impulsively, contradicted himself. Although he tried to hide his hands, his broken, grease-stained nails looked more like a factory worker’s than a banker’s. But whenever Montse hinted at it he would squirm, and she didn’t feel like giving him a hard time. Later, lying on her bed, she tried to take a step back and see things clearly. Every night she promised herself she would speak to Santiago the next time she saw him, but when it came to the crunch she was afraid of frightening him away.
Almost twenty-six years later, lying on that very bed, she was turning the same thoughts over in her mind. The pictures of Santiago in military uniform had sent her back in time. She seemed to have been looking into that gaze of his only a few hours ago as they had said goodbye huddled in the staircase shaft. She looked at her hands and felt old. Remembering these things was like digging up a dead person. She took out the picture she’d found in the hospital and placed it on the blanket, next to the other photographs. It was him, no doubt about it. She tried to recall her feelings when they told her that he had died. She could perfectly remember the faces of the tobacconist and her husband. Had it been Santiago’s idea? Had he tried to take his revenge on her by faking his own death? Had it been some macabre joke or a rumour no one bothered to confirm? Montse’s eyes stung from staring so hard at the pictures. She decided to go through with her plan, and took her mobile out of her bag. She looked up the number she’d quickly scribbled in her diary and dialled it. Her stomach was a bundle of nerves. It felt like lifting a tombstone to make sure the body was still there. She waited impatiently as the rings went on. Eventually someone picked up. It was a man’s quiet voice.
‘Mr Ayach Bachir?’
‘Who is this?’
‘My name is Dr Montserrat Cambra. May I speak to Mr Ayach Bachir?’
‘It’s me. I’m Ayach Bachir.’
‘Oh, hello, I’m calling from Santa Creu hospital.’
‘The hospital? What now?’
‘Nothing, rest assured, nothing’s happened. I just wanted to have a word about your wife.’
‘My wife is dead. We buried her two days ago.’
‘I know, Mr Bachir. I signed the death certificate.’
There was a silence at the other end of the line. Montse found it almost unbearably painful. She took a deep breath and continued.
‘You see, I only wanted to tell you that, when they gave you back your wife’s belongings, something was left behind in the hospital. It’s a photograph. I’d like to give it back to you in person and have a word with you.’
‘A photograph? What photograph?’
‘One of the ones your wife was carrying in her bag.’
‘They gave me those back.’
‘I’m sorry to insist, but one of them was mislaid,’ lied Montse, still firm. ‘I know this is not a good moment, but if you don’t mind I’d like to give it back to you. I can come to your house if you like.’
Again there was a pause.
‘To my house? What did you say your name was?’
‘Montserrat Cambra. I got your address from the hospital files. I’ve got your file right here,’ she lied again. ‘Carrer de Balboa. Is that correct?’
‘Yes, that’s where I live.’
‘So if you don’t mind…’
‘I don’t, that’s very kind of you.’
Montse breathed out, relieved, as though she had just walked over quicksand.
‘I’ll come by tomorrow then, if that’s convenient, of course.’
‘It is convenient, yes. Any time. You’ll be welcome.’
Montse hung up and put the phone in her bag. She tied the letters together with the red ribbon and returned them to their place. Her hand touched something inside the drawer. It was a blackened silver ring. She took it out and looked at it against the light, as though it were a prism. Her heart quickened once again, and she realised that a tear was rolling down her cheek and into the corner of her mouth.
From See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante
Translated from the Spanish by Martin Schifino (Marion Boyars 2009)
Luis Leante teaches classics in a high school at Alicante and has written six novels and two novels for children. See How Much I Love You won the 2007 Alfaguara prize for fiction.
Martin Schifino studied Comparative Literature at the University of Buenos Aires and for an MA in Medieval English at King’s College, London. He works as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and as a literary translator.