This story is dedicated to Alfons Cervera
A few weeks later, the case was closed when a message from the Canadian Embassy in Madrid officially notified the findings of the forensic autopsy: John Ulysses McBain had a radiologically malignant brain tumour in the right hemisphere. The announcement was accompanied by a letter with the letterhead of the Royal Victoria Hospital in which the medical director certified that it had been discovered one month before, in September, 1992, when the patient started complaining of headaches, but that he refused any type of treatment, either medical or surgical. They tried to convince him, continued the missive, but he disappeared and they had not had any other news from him until then.
I met him briefly on a Saturday at the end of October, when he knocked at the door of the farmhouse. It was three o'clock in the afternoon and the hammering he made with his knuckles awakened me from the siesta I was having on the sofa. I opened the door a bit surprised and annoyed, because the Marjana hills are so solitary that rarely someone comes here, except the occasional Sunday day-trippers who penetrate in the Serranía.
He was a tall and skinny man like only Anglo-Saxons can be without losing elegance. He had a sharp face, white hair, grey eyes and corkscrew eyebrows. He looked like the Prince of Wales. But more than his face, what disconcerted me was his aspect of calm genuineness. He dressed in sober autumnal clothes and was wearing comfortable moccasins. He helped himself with a cane and was panting a bit because of the trek.
“Good afternoon,” he said, “I’m John McBain, I am Canadian and I was in this house fifty years ago, after the war. Can I come in, please?”
He spoke Spanish with a slight English accent, but his diction was correct, without any hesitation. He inspired confidence in me, so I stood aside and he came in.
I invited him to sit down and while he recovered his breath I prepared coffee. I was curious to know the nostalgic reasons that the elderly man could have to return to a lost place like this after so many years. At the same time, I was interested in knowing some ancient details of the farmhouse that I bought in 1987 in order to move away from the noise of Valencia on my free days.
I am a busy man. The world of advertising needs constant attention and produces much stress, so every Friday evening I take the highway towards Los Yesares and I get away from the bustle. Here I do not even have TV, only books, music, pure air, the fireplace and a pair of mountain boots, good for walks through the hills.
“You speak very well,” I said trying to be nice while I filled two cups with coffee and then sat in an armchair opposite to him, “almost without an accent.”
“I was a Spanish teacher. I retired some time ago.”
“So you were here in the forties…”
“Well, the house was not like this,” he answered glancing around, “but much humbler, although with the same distribution. It’s obvious that you have modernized it with taste, preserving the original appearance. What’s your name?” he asked me.
I told him my name and then he told me that he was from Ottawa and that he had come to Spain during the civil war with the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade to enlist in the republican army. He had been one of so many youngsters from around the world who answered the call of that common cause and, when everything finished, he stayed in the Serranía fighting under the command of the maquisard Blue Eyes, around the hill of Los Curas.
“They liked me very much and used to call me Juan the Canadian. They were good comrades,” he said. “We shared the few things that we had.”
“I never thought that I would know a real maquisard,” I said.
“We used to come down every now and then to the villages looking for food and the women acted as liaison, but the Guardia Civil was tightening the net around us and surviving became very difficult, because the fascists invented the trick of the counterparts, they faked being guerrillas and infiltrated us. They damaged us very much. You, who are young, won’t be able to understand a situation like this.”
“And how did you join the maquisards?”
“After losing the war, like everybody, I tried to escape by ship through Alicante, but it was impossible, there were no ships. So I went underground and later came to the mountains. A comrade from Segovia brought me here, his name was Florián, a very brave man, who knows what has happened to him?”
“Life was hard.”
“Yes indeed. In 1942, after so many months of crawling as a vermin, from camp to camp, sleeping by day and walking by night, I had very few hopes in the future. We never crossed the rivers by the bridges, but through the water, and later we had to rub ourselves with Sloan liniment to warm up. It was terrible, terrible.”
His semivowel r’s sweetened the hardness of the adjective. I nodded in silence.
“And you say that you were in this house?”
“Yes, it was in the spring of 1943. Blue Eyes, our chief, sent me with another fighter to explore the zone. We were looking for a new point of support and we came here when the sun was breaking. My comrade’s name was Achilles. The dogs did not bark and for us it was a good sign, because in some farmhouses they used to teach them to distinguish our smell and not to make a row. We stank. The couple who received us were fearing reprisals, but the husband said that we could eat a warm meal.”
John McBain directed his gaze to the desk at my right and pointed at it with his finger:
“I sat down on that corner. I was just twenty-four, was dirty and wore a beard of several weeks’ growth. Then, while Achilles and I were eating a broth, the door of that room got opened,” now he pointed to my office; his finger was trembling, “and the couple’s daughter showed up.”
The story was starting to interest me even more.
“And how was she?”
He sighed and took a long time to answer.
“I suppose you have imagined before the Virgin Mary when she was visited by Gabriel the archangel. She was like that, still a teenager, the most beautiful woman that I’ve ever seen. I heard her name, Maria. Her mother shouted at her with bad manners to get out of the room. She was undoubtedly afraid that we could harm her, because maquisards walking around the mountains without a female are dangerous.”
I tried to mentally reconstruct the terror of those parents and the surprise of the young woman.
“And she obeyed?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “What else could she do? I only saw her a few seconds, but they were sufficient to be sure then that that day, even if you find it unbelievable, was the first one of my life.”
I observed that the old brigadist, after such a confession, had gotten lost in his evocations, because suddenly he kept silent, staring off into the emptiness.
“And what happened then?” I asked him puzzled, afraid of not knowing the end of the story.
He got off the cloud:
“A little later I went out to look for some firewood, just to show the couple that we were good people. I took the direction of the Diablos’ cave with the rifle on my shoulder, and from there I heard barks and then gunfire. The Guardia Civil had attacked by surprise, Achilles shot back and was killed. Two days later, when I returned with the necessary precautions, I discovered his corpse. There was not even a trace of the family who lived in this house.”
“It was miraculous that you saved your life…”
“So miraculous that I felt very guilty. I took him piggyback and we buried him in the Alto Gaspar. A few months later I could flee from the country and went on to Portugal through Tras-os-Montes. From there I was repatriated to Canada.”
“And that was all?” I asked.
He smiled reluctantly.
“Yes, from then on nothing of worth has happened to me.”
Several minutes passed in silence. I let him ponder. His eyelids were getting red. Finally, with that vigour that makes some senseless human beings’ chimeras everlasting, he fixed his gaze on me and unloaded what he had inside:
“Please believe me if I tell you that since then not a single night has passed that I didn’t dream of that woman.”
He did not speak any more. He was obviously tired.
“Do you want to have a rest?”
I led him to the visitor’s room and came back to deal with my matters. After a good while he appeared again in the living room. He said he was going to continue exploring the zone to retrace his steps and memories. He thanked me for the hospitality and said goodbye. From the door I saw him go away up the mountain.
When you have a job like mine, immersed daily in artificial representations of desire, you get used to neglecting the simplest things, these things that show up free of insincerity when there is nothing else to gain and the future does not exist anymore. I have thought very much about that goodbye and is quite probably that I am deforming it, I don’t know, but memory is made of the same metal as reality and now I am absolutely sure that his warm hand, when it shook mine, intended to transmit to me the serenity of the tired traveller who sights port after a long circular odyssey, in which the illusory dream that was guiding him remained always remote and equidistant to his ship.
Several hours passed. I was serving myself the umpteenth cup of coffee when the clean ripple of birds was suddenly interrupted by the shot’s echo, which went down reverberating from the Alto Gaspar. I did not pay too much attention to it because hunting abounds here in autumn. Before continuing reading the novel that had been absorbing me I went to have a look across the horizon: the bleeding sun was starting to conceal itself behind the line of the sky, all was crepuscular peace in Marjana. The embers added melancholy to the fireplace with their crackling and at my back the sound system was whispering Fritz Wunderlich's unrepeatable voice singing Lensky's aria.
Sitting atop the commode of the visitor’s bedroom I found that night an old photograph of the Canadian maquisard, ten thousand dollars in signed American Express checks, to pay for the legal expenses, and a handwritten note where John McBain asked me to forgive him for the inconveniences he was going to cause me.
© This short story by Manuel Talens belongs to his book Rueda del tiempo (Wheel of Time) , published by Tusquets Editores, Barcelona Spain , 2001. The original text can be read on the net.
Manuel Talens is a Spanish novelist, short story writer and columnist. His columns appear mainly in the electronic alternative site Rebelión, where he is also a frequent translator of both Francophone and Anglophone leftwing writers and activists. He has also translated works by authors like Georges Simenon, Edith Wharton, Groucho Marx, Paul Virilio, Derek Walcott, Geert Lovink, James Petras and Donna J. Haraway, among many others. His website is www.manueltalens.com.
One thousand thanks to Florián García (whose battle name was «Grande») for this first ever published image of real maquisards who fought for freedom after the Spanish Civil War. The author, who imagined John Ulyses McBain’s character based upon the center-front figure, owes to «Grande» many of the everyday details narrated in this story.
English translation by the author, with revision by Mary Rizzo, both members of Tlaxcala (www.tlaxcala.es), the network of translators for linguistic diversity.