Antònia Vicens

Extract from 39º à l'ombra
39º à l'ombra Antònia Vicens
Mallorca, Editorial Moll, 1990
(1st ed. 1967).

This extract from 39º à l'ombra was translated by Graham Thomson.


And every day it was the same. I woke up just in time, and there was no way of hurrying up. First I opened an eye, then I stretched out a foot, gingerly, cagily, as if I had a nerve caught in the bedsprings. Then I had to brush my hair at top speed. If I put on eye-shadow and looked at it again later, I always had more make-up on one eye than the other. The fact is I wanted to look like a girl on a magazine cover, and every night when I went to bed I told myself I'd get up an hour earlier next day to do myself up properly. Useless. And even on the way to work I let my mind wander, looking at the mountains, far off, in the distance, putting limits on the landscape.

The souvenir shop where I worked was opposite the El Galió hotel, next to Andreu's café. When I got there in the morning, around half past nine, Andreu would be in the doorway, knotting his fingers in the plastic cords of the curtain. I often used to say to him:
'Have you seen the mountains today? What shades!

Andreu wasn't one for mountains or colours. Andreu would rather have a nice plate of roast chicken and a plump foreign woman. The sports page was the only bit of the paper Andreu read, and all he listened to on the radio was raucous music. Even so, I was attracted to him a little, I dont really know why. He was tall and as solid as a fortress, tanned as brown as the earth; and perhaps that's why I sometimes felt an impulse to take refuge in his hairy arms and tell him little secrets. But him! He wouldn't have understood a thing. He was an old rogue.

To tell the truth, I liked my job in the shop. I was on my own with no-one to bother me. And it was fun to watch so many strange people going by, to imagine their stories. As I sold soft drinks and ice cream, the waitresses from El Galió would often drop in, run off their feet and gasping with the heat, for a cold drink, and take advantage of the break for a gossip. Most of them were single girls from other parts of Spain, not all that bright, perhaps, but hard workers, good girls. At night they danced more than they slept, and in church on Sunday they used to liven up the mass singing psalms in their sugary, out-of-tune voices.

And in the café next door there was a constant stream of gentlemen who talked about their lives, and used to confide in me. Sometimes they talked about politics, their faces flushed red and purple, banging their fists on the table. I would have my head firmly in the clouds; but afterwards they used to reminisce about childhood, and tell stories about their wives and their children. And standing on the pavement I would sweat as I sold a bottle of sun-tan lotion, and glimpse a happier and more tragic world than the one I had left behind.

Because my parents had died when I was barely out of nappies, and I grew up with an aunt and uncle who were very good to me and a cousin who was like a sister to me. But then as I got older I felt an almost insane need to seek out new things. To go far away. To be free, above all from myself. And I thought I could do it by going somewhere else. But I didn't even manage to forget or to have fun. Because I'm a cold fish.

And Andreu, all the time telling me I was gorgeous, and things like that. He tried to pinch me, he stared at me, but all he managed was to make me blush like an orange, and then he told me I was a flower. The fact is I grew up shy and discontented. I started analysing things too young. Of necessity. When we came out of sewing, my aunt would sit Maria and me down in front of her to show us how to mark out the men's clothes she made up. She used to say to us:
'To be hard-working is the greatest virtue a girl can have. At your age, my hands were already calloused from so much digging. When a man wants a wife, he looks for a hard-working girl. A flighty girl is all right for a bit of fun. Come on, hurry up and sit down! There's needles here, thread here, and you'll find thimbles in the drawer of the sewing-machine. Come on, and I'll tell you a story: 'Once upon a time there was a boy and a girl who loved one another and they used to meet in secret, and one day she risked her good name to run away with him, and they were married. Almost at once they had a baby girl; but one day the wife found out that before they were married the man had had a lover, and her jealousy burst out like a torrent'. No, girls, happiness doesn't exist; but all the same, a girl, when she's grown, has to find a man and get married. That's the law of life.'
'Well, I'm not going to marry, mother.'
'No? And what will you do, all on your own? You know the saying: 'nothing in nature is single'. So tell me, what will you do?
Maria lowered her eyes. She didn't answer.
'There are always moments of happiness, Oh, yes! There are moments of pleasure that count for more than whole years of suffering.
'And what are they, these moments, aunt?
'You won't know until you're grown. And you won't have them until you're married.
'And why is that, aunt?'
'Come on, come on, let's see if you can't move those fingers a bit faster! There's nothing to beat hard work.
'Well, the teacher says we should just play and study.'
'Work, work!'

At other times, if Maria and I were in high spirits, she would start shouting at us, a bundle of nerves:
'No jumping, no singing! Is there a party in the square? Well, you two are not going. No, because your uncle (she always said 'your uncle' when she was speaking to both of us) is in prison. And all so as you two could have new shoes, and new dresses, and buy rag dolls. No party!
And Maria and I would huddle, trembling, in a corner of the room, not daring to say a word. Sometimes we would slip out to go for a stroll, but even so we didn't dare jump or laugh, and we came home downcast, side by side, leaving the revelry behind, while the other girls of our age were jumping and laughing and making fun of the boys.
I remember the day when, as we sewed, and my aunt was carrying on with her story ('and the poor newly-wed girl asked her husband to tell her about his past, and then the arguments started. She reproached him that she had risked her honour for his love, and he said she shouldn't have been such a simpleton. It got to the point that they ate their meals separately and completely ignored each other. And they were both suffering torments, because they loved one another, but they were stubborn, and neither would make a move'), they said there was a telegram to say my uncle had been set free. Maria and I didn't respond, but it was as if an electric current had suddenly passed through my aunt: she stretched out, stiff and trembling like a sheet of metal. Maria and I held her tight so she wouldn't fall from her chair, but then she went all heavy and we gradually got her to loosen up.
'My father's been set free!
'Uncle's been set free!'

We started to jump and laugh, at last. And a couple of days later my uncle appeared, long and dry. I think it had been about three years he had been locked up in England for smuggling. When he came home he was a bag of bones, and it looked like he had haricot beans stuck in his small, sunken eye-sockets, like two slits. My aunt was sobbing like a little girl who's just been smacked. My uncle, after hugging her, pulled out a neckerchief, all silky, with horses' heads on, and he gave Maria and me a bracelet each, with silver-coloured links and trinkets of little fishes and little pots. Maria and I ran off at once to show our bracelets to the girls down the street, shouting out in our excitement:
'My father's come home!
'Uncle's come home!
And when we got back, my aunt showed us my uncle, sitting at her side, and I couldn't work out whether her face was all pulled out of shape by a sort of smile or whether it had been turned by some harsh stroke of the weather.
'He went away so that you two could go to dressmaking and wouldn't have to wear darned socks.'

Maria burst out in a loud fit of tears. There was nothing we could do to console her. When she managed to extricate herself from all the encircling arms that were trying to calm her, she ran off to the bedroom. I stood there a little while, still and stunned. My aunt was telling my uncle:
'Never mind, it's nothing. The girl is becoming a woman, and of course her nerves get rattled at the least thing.
I felt a bit awkward, and demurely went off to the bedroom, too. Maria was sitting on the rug, still sobbing. Her blue eyes were furious.
'She never stops flinging it in our teeth that he went away for us! As if I cared a fig about wearing darned socks or not!'

I lay down on the bed. I wondered about what my father was like. And if maybe he, too, had gone away so I wouldn't have to wear darned socks, and misfortune had overtaken him, or hadn't overtaken him. One day, as we were marking out, my aunt told us that there was a time when they used to kill a man for nothing, and I began to see that my father must have been killed in those times when they killed men for nothing.
'To love, to love!'
'What do you mean, Maria?
But Maria didn't answer.
Even so, the days that followed were completely happy. Maria and I did as we pleased, we went wherever we chose, but we didn't feel like jumping and laughing.
Because my uncle had come back, my aunt made nice meals and did her hair a special way. She was lively, animated, excitable. In the street she would say to everyone she met:
'Did you know, my Toni's come back?
My uncle told us things about Queen Elizabeth and about English artists he had found out from magazines. He also talked about his cell-mates. He said there was one who had killed and robbed and made up songs. Another one used to talk about his trial in his sleep and shout out that he was innocent. There was one who always hung his head and never spoke, and it was said that he was a priest, but no-one knew what crime he had committed. And a whole load who were in for life, who all came to look like one another in the end, and had gone simple from having been bad. One day my uncle gave us a kind of lecture, that must have been very important for him, because he made us sit with our hands clasped, and he sat up very straight against the chair-back. Accentuating his seriousness, he began:
'You're getting big now, and I know there are boys running after you. That's neither good nor bad. What you have to do is be good. If you're good, I'll do everything I can to look after you and see you want for nothing. But if you're not good, this house we have, when I die I'll leave it to one of the neighbours. And another thing: when I get old, I want you to love me and take good care of me. There's nothing worse than not taking care of your old folk. You can go now if you like.

Maria and I stood up. Behind us was my aunt, with a touch of pride in the set of her full, bluish lips. It was as if she had placed herself there to listen to something momentous. But within two weeks everything had changed. My aunt was very pale, and every now and then she would lean against the wall and sigh. Maria and I once caught her crying out:
'This man who's come back isn't my Toni!

One evening, Maria and I went out for a walk. It was so windy even the stars seemed to be rocking in the pitch black sky. From the houses came music and the smell of food. Maria was holding her skirt down and I let mine fly up.
'You, go back,' she said to me.
'And you?'
'You, go back.'
'Go, I tell you!'
I stood there. She kept on walking. But I didn't want to go back, and I followed her, slowly. All at once she turned round and saw me. But she didn't tell me off, and without saying a word we went back to my aunt's house.
Apparently, life was just the same for the two of us. My uncle worked in the harbour and my aunt taught us to sew:
('Once upon a time! Ah, well, those poor lovers had got married, and they didn't have a penny, and they owed money on all sides, and they lived on watery soup. He got a start in a good enough business; but he didn't take much notice of his wife and he kept his money for his lover. That poor girl suffered more than words can tell. Not that she had discovered anything, but she had her suspicions. And there's no worse suffering than a suspicion. In the end!'). Let's see if you can't move those fingers a bit faster, for goodness sake! Work is where the profit comes from. Do you want to be seamstresses when you grow up?'
'I'd like to do something else, aunt.'
'I don't know.'
'And you, Maria?'
'And that girl, aunt?'
'Ah, that girl was never happy, never. Men don't really know how to love. They're blind; they rush at everything, like a bull. A girl can throw herself at their feet, crying her heart out, and they can just walk all over her and kick her and trample her. They don't appreciate anything. The only thing that poor girl could do was to pin all her hopes on her new-born babe.'
'I'm not going to marry.'
'Yes, you have to get married. And young. You both have to get married. The ones who don't marry young have it hard. And we women are born to marry, to suffer.

'Come on, you, don't be looking at the boys, because of course you're not going to get married. Or maybe you will get married. But it would be better if you didn't get married.'

Maria said that to me once, as we were coming home from sewing and the boys were following us. I didn't understand anything and I was starting to go a bit crazy.
Sometimes we would talk it over in bed, with the light on.
'My father isn't my father.'
Maria opened her eyes wide; she chewed on a fingernail and went on:
'Do you understand? The other day my mother had a fit of nerves. My father had come home drunk.'
'But I want to get married.'
'Do you want to be a poor wretch? End up with a huge belly and have kids who'll be poor wretches too? Hey, go to sleep, I've got to write.'
I stuck my head under the pillow, one eye closed, the other open, and all I could see was vague glimmers, concepts of life that fused with one another before I could even formulate them, oppressing me. Meanwhile, Maria pulled a notebook from under the mattress and started writing.
'Why don't you tell me what youre writing?'
'Things that come into my head. For example, a girl who looks at her father as a man, and the things she feels inside her here.'
Maria passed her hand over her flat breasts, holding the ballpoint between her fine fleshless lips. She was thin and white, but her eyes, which were very big, shone like two blue lamps.
'I would like the whole world to read it, what I write. So as to be happier. But don't you say a word to anyone, or dare to touch this notebook. I feel a lot of things inside me here and I see films on the wall. Sometimes I see what I write in coloured letters along the side of the road. And the people stop to read it, and then they're happy. But don't you ever say it. And if my mother asks you what we're doing with the light on for so long, you tell her the same as me, that we play at guessing things.
Our room was squarish, the walls uneven, with a bulb on the ceiling behind a yellow tissue-paper shade. The beds of pale wood against the walls, a blackened, worm-eaten wardrobe, and behind the door a washstand and a mirror covered in spots of tarnish.

With my head beneath the pilllow, I dreamed of a spacious bedroom. One night I interrupted Maria.
'If the government doesn't want smuggling, why don't they give us a new house?

And then all of a sudden we heard moans. We looked at one another for a moment, and then leapt out of bed and ran to my aunt and uncle's room. My aunt was sobbling in terror, making the whole bed shake. Next to her, silent and distant, my uncle was fanning her. He said to us:
'Go back to bed. It's nothing.'
Maria and I lay awake in our bed, straining our ears.
'You know what? she said, I'm not going to get married. I'e made a promise! Well, nothing.'

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