Bernardo Atxaga

Teresa, poverina mia
The following is an extract from the short-story Teresa, poverina mia. Translation by Margaret Jull Costa. Published in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories M.J. Olaziregi (compiler) (University of Nevada-Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004).
Teresa had something wrong with her right knee, which meant that she had a slight limp, a fact that had been the cause of great sorrow to her ever since she was an adolescent. Although there was nothing very noticeable about the way she walked, and although, with time, her body had grown pretty and her face, 'with the golden eyes of a goat', had become particularly attractive, she was unable to rid her memory of the words which - on 12 August 1978, her fourteenth birthday - had emerged from the mouth of an Italian tourist who was a regular guest at her parents' boarding house: 'Teresa, poverina mia!' Those three words had been spoken with such feeling, sympathy and pity, that Teresa - finding a new, darker meaning to the mocking remarks made by classmates and by her playmates on the beach, and suddenly fully aware of her situation - burst into inconsolable tears, just as, when a jug shatters, the water spills out onto the floor.

When those around her asked what was wrong - her mother, if her knee was hurting; her brother (two years older than her), if her tears were due to the excitement of the moment and the fact that she was still a silly little girl; her father (glancing at the Italian woman who spent every summer at the boarding house), if this was any way to behave with their friend and guest, Signora di Castri, making such a fuss; Aunt Magdalena (looking angrily at her father and at the others), if she felt like going away and never seeing any of them ever again - she spoke of a school friend who had drowned in the sea that spring after slipping on the rocks below the jetty, and who, had she lived, would also have been fourteen, and how when she had thought of her, she had all of a sudden felt terribly cold and that this was the reason for her tears. They all accepted or pretended to accept this explanation and went out onto the balcony with the slices of cake hurriedly handed round by Aunt Magdalena.

There were lovely views from the balcony: you could see the jetty, part of the beach, and beyond it, the blue of the sea. That night, Teresa added a new chapter to the five - entitled 'The Boarding House', 'The Workshop', 'My Parents', 'Aunt Magdalena' and 'My Brother' - that appeared in her secret diary, and at the top of the page, she wrote Signora di Castri's words: Teresa, poverina mia! Teresa devoted four pages to analysing the problem of her lameness from a point of view which was intended to be totally objective. She should not feel resentful towards Signora di Castri, but, on the contrary, she should be grateful to her for revealing so clearly, in just three words, the true extent of her misfortune.

It was true, there was no hope. Because of her disability, she would have to renounce many of the good things in life. Love, of course, would be denied her. She had already noticed that the boys at school took no notice of her or, if they did, it was only in order to make fun or to play cruel jokes. But what did that matter? Wasn't the misfortune of the girl who had slipped on the rocks and drowned in the sea far greater? Besides, if things got worse, she could always take that way out - wait until the tide was in, climb down into one of the gaps in the jetty and let herself slip into the sea.

Fifteen years later, this melodramatic confession in her diary was almost forgotten, but not Signora di Castri's words. These continued to live in some fold in her brain, and sometimes, like a nagging refrain, like the cricket's song as it moves its wings in the darkness of its nest, they would suddenly appear in her thoughts - Teresa, poverina mia! - with exactly the same pitying tone and intention of fifteen years before; it could be anywhere, at any time: when she was having a shower, going through some invoices at work, or when she was sitting on one of the benches along the jetty, smoking her last cigarette of the day. At such moments, her mind noticed what she described in her diary as 'a resurgence of the message', and she dreamed of being able 'to drive away once and for all' the cricket that had crawled inside her when she was fourteen; although, sometimes, with barely contained sarcasm, she would forget about the anxiety provoked by this memory and would, instead, admire its durability, its vividness and perpetual freshness, qualities notable by their absence in the other chapter titles in her diary.

These - 'The Boarding House', 'The Workshop', etc. - had lost their real meaning and were now like entries in an antiquated dictionary, sad voices, names that spoke of the precariousness of life. The boarding house, for example, the seven-room house in which she and her brother had been born, was now a modern hotel with two hundred bedrooms. As for the workshop, the place in the Old Harbour where Aunt Magdalena once repaired the fishermen's clothes and nets, had become one of a chain of cafés. 'We'll show them we're no fools, Teresa,' her aunt had said to her on the day when Teresa had been told she would inherit the workshop. 'As soon as I reach retirement age, and I no longer have to work for the fishermen, we'll take all this junk and throw it in the sea. Then we'll talk to some big company about setting up a restaurant here or a café, and ask for twenty per cent of the profits in exchange for the site. We might as well take advantage of being in the Old Harbour. It's a favourite spot for tourists to come and sit.' And that is exactly what they had done.

The changes to Aunt Magdalena's workshop and to her parents' boarding house had, ultimately, been positive ones. True, she had left behind part of her life so that some truck could come and carry it off to the dump, along with the chipped partition walls and the broken-down furniture; on the other hand, that loss had put her in a most unusual economic position, one that allowed her to be different. For, thanks to her money, she, who knew she was different - irredeemably, eternally different - had found another more gratifying way of demonstrating this difference, in the way that she dressed and adorned herself. She didn't wear a lot of jewelry, but what she did wear was always of exceptional quality. She got through about forty outfits a year and had an amazing collection of shoes. 'You've got a real treasure house stashed away in your wardrobes and drawers. Aren't you forgetting that true beauty comes from within?' her brother said mockingly when they were still living with their father in an apartment on one of the top floors of the hotel. But she was immune to such remarks. Even the word 'brother' was no longer what it once was. It lacked the glow it had had in the early pages of her diary.

'Some years ago, when I was still a little girl,' said the entry for 2 September 1977, 'I saw a little orange bottle near the stone steps of the harbour and I went down the steps to try and catch it. But the water kept carrying it just out of reach. Then my brother appeared and, when he saw what was happening, he jumped into the water, got the bottle and swam back to me with it. It wasn't worth anything, it was just a discarded bottle of sun lotion that the sea had brought from Biarritz or some other French beach, but for me, at the time, it was something precious, and I thought my brother was the best boy in the world.' That childhood incident, however, was a long way off, in every sense. Her brother was very different now. He had become a mean, materialistic person, incapable of imagining a situation in which money did not play a central role. 'I've been told that you're to have the workshop in the Old Harbour,' he had said to her very aggressively on the day when she and Aunt Magdalena had been making plans for their future. 'Why are you so upset? And what's so very odd about it, anyway?' she had retorted. 'You didn't say a word when Father sold you the shares in the hotel for a nominal price, wit with the one proviso that you should give me a job in the office. It seemed fine to you then that you should get everything and that I should be your employee!' Her brother replied: 'That's got nothing to do with it. Father had very fixed ideas about the business. I had no alternative but to accept his proposal!' Before this discussion ended, she said to him: 'Do you know what we're going to build in place of the workshop? The best café on the coast!'

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