‘I keep telling you not to take it personally. I do, Luisa, I tell her all the time. He works too hard. He’s tired, that’s all. It’s hardly surprising, really. He’s just exhausted. Look, at least have a cup of tea.’
These last words coincided with the phone ringing. Mariano went to answer it. He hadn’t yet taken off his raincoat.
‘It is a very unforgiving profession,’ said Aunt Luisa.
‘…and then there’s his heart condition too.’
‘I’m sorry? I can’t hear. Can you be quiet a moment, Mama. Who’s speaking?’
The voice at the other end was very faint, drowned out by a confusion of noises, as if trying to make its way past many barriers.
‘Is Dr Valle there?’
‘Yes, speaking. Can you speak up? I can barely hear you. Who is this?’
Mila was standing almost wedged into the corner, underneath the shelves crowded with liqueur bottles, her back turned to the men in the bar. She pressed her lips to the phone.
‘Hello, is that you, Dr Valle?’
‘Yes. Who is this?’
She took a few moments to answer; she found it easier to talk with her eyes closed. She was gripping the black receiver hard, and her hands were sweating.
‘I don’t know if you remember me, but my name’s Milagros Quesada, from the clinic in San Francisco de Oña,’ she blurted out.
‘How often do I have to tell you? Call your local GP. Why ring me up at this hour? Isn’t there a GP you can call?’
‘So why are you calling me?’
‘He says my little girl is dying, that he won’t see her again because there’s no point.’
‘And what do you want me to do?’
‘He doesn’t understand. You made her better last year, don’t you remember? A little eight-year-old girl, fair-haired, you must remember, she was almost as ill then as she is now. She had something wrong with her ears. I can pay whatever you normally charge.’
‘But who gave you my phone number? Sister María?’
‘No, sir. It’s on a prescription I kept from your last visit. The other doctor doesn’t understand what’s wrong with her, and if you don’t come, she’ll die. She took a real turn for the worse this afternoon. It frightened me to see her like that. She’s dying and…’
She kept shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she talked, still with her back turned on the men in the bar, still wedged into the corner, as if pressed up against the grille of a confessional. A young man in a blue safari jacket, who had the look of a taxi driver, was hypnotized by her swaying buttocks. Another man said: ‘Shut up, will you, Príncipe Gitano’s on the radio.’ And someone turned up the volume. Mila started to cry, her forehead resting on the tiled wall. The doctor’s voice was saying:
‘Yes, yes, I understand, but it’s always the same. People call me at the last moment, when there’s nothing more to be done. If the other doctor said he can’t do anything, that isn’t because he doesn’t understand. I’ll just say the same. Don’t you see? Don’t you see that if everyone did what you’re doing now, I’d have to move to Puente de Vallecas permanently? I have my own patients to deal with, and I can’t see everyone.’
‘…little golden rose, little rose of Jericho,’ shrilled the radio immediately above her. Mila covered her free ear.
‘But I’ll pay you, I’ll pay you,’ she begged falteringly. And a tear slipped through the holes in the earpiece and possibly onto the doctor’s face, because he suddenly adopted a bored, routine tone: ‘Look, don’t cry, I’ll see if I can fit you in first thing tomorrow morning’ and perhaps he said something else as well, but she experienced those words, so disconnected from her and her problem, like a slap in the face.
‘What do you mean “tomorrow”?’ she said, almost shouting. ‘I’m telling you she’s dying. Don’t you understand? I said I’d pay the same as one of your private patients. It has to be now, you have to come and see her now. If one of your paying patients called you, you wouldn’t be asking her for explanations, would you?’
Mariano couldn’t help but smile. He glanced at his watch. She went on:
‘Well, it’s the same with me. Don’t worry, I’ll find the money somehow.’
‘That’s not the point. Don’t talk nonsense.’
‘I’m not talking nonsense!’ Mila retorted.
However, her voice immediately grew depressed again.
‘Forgive me, I don’t know what I’m saying. Please come.’
‘All right. Where are you?’
It was ten to eight. He would have time to warn Isabel. She wouldn’t like it, but this was sure to be a simple case, easily resolved. He’d say: ‘I won’t be long, my love. Make yourself pretty. I’ll be back in no time.’
‘Chabolas de la Paloma, number 5.’
‘What, before the petrol station?’
‘No, you keep straight on at the crossroads, then, further on, take a left … but, wait, I’ll tell you what, will you be here soon?’
‘In about twenty minutes, that’s how long it takes by car.’
‘Well, I’m calling you from the bar on the opposite corner from the petrol station. I’ll wait for you here and then I can direct you. Because if you don’t remember where the house is, you’ll get lost.’
‘I’m in the bar opposite the petrol station, right?’
‘Something to do with money,’ thought the man in the blue safari jacket. With the radio blasting out, he had only managed to catch her last few words, when she was talking more loudly; he watched her pause with the receiver still in her hand, like the empty sleeve of a jacket, then replace it unhurriedly on the cradle and turn to reveal a flushed, slightly tear-stained face. God, she’s pretty. Probably a lovers’ spat. He’s put the phone down on her. Gorgeous figure too! Now she was moving away from the bar. ‘Thanks, Señor Julián,’ she said to the barman, who didn’t even look at her; then she stood for a moment in the middle of the room, hesitating, staring out at the street through the rectangle of the door. There was a different light out there, shading from dark into bright. A thin rain had begun to fall; there must be a rainbow somewhere; and suddenly there was a crowd of people milling round the cigarette machine, girls in brightly coloured cardigans. There was a table next to the first window, and the waiter was wiping it with a damp cloth.
‘Can I get you anything?’
She sat down. Her legs felt weak, and she still had the echoing sound of the phone inside her head.
‘Yes, a glass of red wine, please.’
The petrol station was just opposite. It was a good place to wait.
‘Hello, sweetheart, do you mind if I keep you company?’
She glanced up at the man leaning his hands on the marble tabletop. She didn’t know him. She shrugged and continued to gaze out of the window. The man in the blue safari jacket sat down.
‘Bring my bottle over from the bar, will you, and two glasses,’ he said to the waiter. ‘Will you let me buy you a drink, love?’
She looked down at the table. She had a few grey hairs. She said:
‘If you like.’
Twenty minutes by car, he had said. It was better to have a bit of company than sit there alone. Anything was better than being alone. She needed a drink, especially after the impudent way she’d spoken to the doctor. She drank the first glass down in one. The man sitting opposite was studying her curiously.
‘What’s your name?’
‘That’s a nice name. Here, have some more wine.’
He felt intimidated for some reason, which was ridiculous when it was all going so smoothly. She never took her eyes off the rain and the blue-painted petrol station.
‘What are you thinking about, sweetheart?’
‘Nothing. Choose an answer: Yes or No.’
‘Yes, of course, yes. I could only ever say “Yes” to you.’
He had said ‘Yes’. He had said it three times. Andrea was going to die. And yet she didn’t want to cry, she wasn’t unhappy, as if someone else were feeling all her pain. After three nights without sleep, she was exhausted. The wine made her warm and drowsy.
‘You’re not very chatty, Milagros. Say something.’
‘I’m tired. I don’t feel like talking.’
‘Tired? Work’s the only thing that makes a person tired.’
‘So what work do you do? I wouldn’t have thought you needed to work.’
‘Well, I do.’
‘With a face and a figure like yours, I mean.’
‘I only have two options in this part of town. Either scrubbing floors or the other thing.’
‘So you scrub floors?’
‘For the moment, yes. God, look at that rain.’
The thin September rain had become a downpour. In Atocha, it formed an aggressive curtain of water, falling so hard and fast that Mariano almost had to stop the car. Then he gradually accelerated again. The wipers flicked aside the raindrops, which then gathered on the glass to form rivulets of water. On the radio they were playing a song that had been popular in summer. Mariano was keeping time, clicking his tongue and moving his head from side to side. He thought about Isabel, about the last few golden August days they had spent together in Fuenterrabía. Isabel in a swimsuit on the yacht; Isabel in evening dress and wearing that sleeveless white sweater and that coat. He yawned. It would soon be winter again. Before him lay Avenida del Pacífico, louche and malodorous, with its rows of run-down houses. He reached Puente de Vallecas and continued straight on. The rain had eased now; people were gathering around the entrance to the metro and the cinema where a vast painted image of Marilyn Monroe stood out like a figurehead. He was nearly at the outskirts of the city, at the point where it disintegrates and bifurcates. He headed uphill, where the houses along the main road still clung on to a certain discreet dignity, but emerging from every side street were men and women whom he knew on sight; he knew their caves and their lairs; he knew that their shoes were letting in water and would still be letting in water come December. He knew, too, that there were many of them, whole swarms, and that they multiplied with each passing day, migrated from other poorer areas and grew in numbers, inhabiting earth and adobe dwellings that lay hidden behind the main street, like a contagion. Occasionally, they came out. There were so many of them that they could march on the heart of the city, invade it, contaminate it. Mariano turned off the radio. The people from the side streets watched him drive past in his car. Some stood still, hands in their pockets. He thought: ‘They’re getting ready. They’ll start walking towards me now and corner me. Like in a Western. Like in High Noon.’ Then he got out a cigarette and lit it with his left hand.
‘God, I’m stupid,’ he said, exhaling smoke. ‘Especially seeing as I’ve cured most of them of something or other.’
He drew up next to the petrol station. At first, he saw no one there, then the door of the bar was flung open and a girl came running over to him, clutching her cardigan tightly about her. She turned round halfway to say something to a man who had followed her out. The man caught up with her, tried to grab her arm, but she pulled away and ran to the car, where Mariano leaned across to open the passenger door for her.
‘In the front with you?’
‘Yes, of course. Is it far?’
The man was staring at them in amazement. He had come a little closer. As Mariano set off, he heard the man say:
‘Bloody hell, girl, you’re doing all right for yourself.’
But neither Mariano nor the girl looked at him.
‘Very far? No, sir. It’s the second on the left.’
‘How’s the patient?’
‘I don’t know. I was waiting for you, so I haven’t been back. I left her with a neighbour.’
‘What about your parents?’
‘The little girl isn’t my sister, she’s my daughter.’
‘And the father?’
‘I’ve no idea. He’s in Jaén or somewhere.’
Mariano turned to look at Mila. She had her head bowed and seemed lost in contemplation of her own hands, which lay on her lap, fingers interlaced. She was wearing a flowery skirt.
‘Now I remember. You were ill yourself last year, weren’t you? Or was it the year before? Didn’t you have some fluid on your lungs?’
‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry I was a bit short with you on the phone.’
She hadn’t raised her head. She was now studying the nickel-plated knobs, the clock, the mileometer.
‘Don’t be silly. Do I turn off here?’
They passed the coalyard and the last low houses. They entered open countryside.
‘And you’re better now?’
‘Oh, yes. I don’t get tired like I used to.’
‘Drop by the clinic one morning anyway, so that I can X-ray your chest.’
‘All right. The house is just round the corner. You’ll have to leave the car here though.’
There were no houses in sight. They parked on the road. A dog was standing on a pile of rubbish, watching them. They walked along a dirt track. The rain, in the form of a brown liquid, was streaming down some steps worn concave with use. Below, a few small children were collecting the liquid mud in empty tin cans. They didn’t bother to move out of the way.
‘Get off, Rosen,’ said the girl, kicking one of her companions.
‘Look, Mila, hot chocolate,’ said the boy, showing her his mud-smeared hands.
At the bottom of the steps was a kind of hollow surrounded by doors cut out of the ground, unevenly distributed along narrow alleyways. The light was fading. The whitewashed walls glowed in the encroaching gloom.
‘Be careful where you put your feet,’ the girl warned Mariano. ‘As soon as there’s a bit of rain, the whole place turns to mud.’ Then she went on ahead of him and drew back the curtain covering one of the doors. Mariano stumbled over a pot of geraniums.
‘Just a minute. OK, you can come in now.’
Inside, a shadowy shape got to its feet.
‘How is she, Antonia?’
‘Worse, I think. She’s started getting delirious. Have you brought the doctor?’
‘Yes. Turn on the lamp so that he can see. Come in, Doctor. She’s here.’
By the light of the lamp, he saw a small stove and, to the right, the bed in which the little girl was lying. She was fair-haired, and her skin had a greenish tinge to it. She was breathing loudly. They went over to her.
‘Let’s see now. Sit her up.’
‘Look, Andrea, it’s the man who made you better last time.’
The little girl half-opened two very pale eyes and said:
‘More than you … more than anyone. All in gold.’
‘There’s another pillow if you need one.’
‘Hold on to her, that’s it. Support her back.’
The little girl struggled. She was panting.
‘It’s frightening. Bang … bang.’
‘Keep still now, keep still.’
More women came to the door. They started whispering among themselves. The neighbour who had been watching over the girl joined them.
‘Be quiet. The doctor gets angry when people talk, he takes his work very seriously.’
‘I know. He’s the one who got my husband better. What does he say?’
‘I don’t know, he hasn’t said anything yet. He’s checking her ears. I don’t know why. She’s half-dead as it is.’
‘Poor little thing.’
‘Better dead than starving.’
‘I know, it’s hard to know what’s for the best.’
Mila kept absolutely still, holding the lamp.
Mariano looked up at her illuminated face, then went over to the dim light of the door. She followed him.
‘You say she had the last injection of streptomycin at five?’
‘Do you want to wash your hands?’ asked the neighbour, who had come back in and was standing a little apart.
‘No, it’s all right. You say you have no parents, no relatives.’
Mila started crying. The faces of the other women reappeared at the door.
‘I have an aunt in Ventas, but we’re not in touch. Is she going to die, Doctor?’
‘She’s gravely ill. She needs an operation on the brain, but it’s very risky. If she can be operated on immediately, there’s some hope she might survive. It’s up to you. I can take you to the hospital in my car.’
‘I don’t know what to do. Please, tell me what I should do.’
‘What more can I say? I’ve told you all I know. If you leave her here, she’ll die for sure.’
‘Let’s go,’ said Mila.
Mariano glanced at his watch.
‘Come on then. Put a coat round her. Don’t bother getting her dressed properly.’
Mila’s hands were shaking. She had uncovered the little girl’s thin body and was trying to put some socks on her.
‘That blanket over there will do.’
The neighbour approached, holding the blanket, and said:
‘Of course, she might die in the hospital too.’
The child’s breathing had grown hoarse. Her skin was scalding hot to the touch. Mila raised a face disfigured with grief.
‘What difference does it make if she dies in the hospital or here. Surely she’d be better off there, wouldn’t she? You heard the doctor, if she stays here, she’ll die anyway.’
She wrapped the child in the blanket and picked her up.
‘Give her to me. I’ll help you.’
‘No, no, leave me.’
‘Bring an umbrella or something. Quick.’
A woman brought one from her house. A very large grey umbrella. She opened it behind Mila. They went out. It was raining hard. The neighbours who were gathered at the door made way for them, then followed behind. Andrea’s face was visible above Mila’s shoulder: a pale smudge in the shadow of the umbrella.
‘Poor little thing.’
‘You can almost see the whites of her eyes.’
The doctor hurried on ahead up the steps to open the car door. The children who had been playing there before had gone. It was scarcely possible to make out the faces of the women following the cortège. Mila had stopped crying. She laid the child down on the back seat, and got in next to her, with the child’s head on her lap.
‘Do you want me to go with you?’ asked Antonia, peering in.
‘No, thank you, I’ll go on my own. I’ll be all right.’
The door closed. It was very dark inside the car.
‘Isn’t this nice, Andrea, travelling in a car,’ she said bending over the child, who was quiet now.
Mariano started the engine, and the women stood at the top of the steps, waving. When they drove out onto the main road, the street lamps were lit, and away in the distance, beyond the hill, they could see the purple haze of Madrid, the neon signs and the shapes of the tall buildings against the leaden sky. They drove past the bar opposite the petrol station.
‘Drive fast,’ Mila said to him. ‘Will they be able to operate at once?’
‘I hope so. I have to say, you’re being very brave.’
The child was quite calm now. Mila didn’t dare look at her or change position and remove her hand from the child’s cheek.
‘No, not really,’ she said in a faint voice.
Then she closed her eyes and leaned back a little. She felt slightly queasy from the wine she had drunk earlier; her legs were so weak she could barely feel them. Sitting like that, with her head back, aware of the weight of Andrea’s body on her lap, she felt suddenly quite calm. If she opened her eyes, she could see the street lamps and the doctor’s shoulders. How comfortable she felt. It was nearly dark. The doctor was taking them out for a drive. A very long drive to somewhere far, far away. Andrea really liked cars. The doctor was driving and taking them where they needed to go. She didn’t have to do or think anything. The worst thing was when you had to make decisions and people pestered you to sort matters out on your own. Not now though. Now she just had to let herself be driven along the streets.
She suddenly opened her eyes. A pedestrian crossing. The brakes jammed on. The car filled up with bright lights. Mariano turned his head.
‘How’s our patient?’
And then he saw Mila’s face and her terrified eyes staring at him. She was sitting absolutely rigid, her hands in the air.
‘You look, will you,’ she said in a choked voice. ‘I daren’t. I daren’t look at her. You look and tell me. I don’t even want to touch her. I can’t. I can’t!’
Seized by a terrible trembling, she turned her head to the window, as if trying to avoid all contact with that other body. She was biting her thumbnails. Beside them, waiting for the lights to change, was another car, inside of which sat a black poodle, watching her, its nose pressed against the glass.
‘Just tell me the truth,’ she begged, almost shouting.
Mariano turned and knelt on the driver’s seat. He saw the child’s lifeless face, the blank eyes fixed on the roof of the car. He reached out to touch her. Mila had begun sobbing convulsively and the shuddering movements of her legs made the dead face move too. Mariano closed the child’s eyes and pulled the blanket up to cover her. He folded down the back of the front passenger seat.
‘There’s nothing we can do now. I’m sorry. Come and sit in the front with me. I’ll drive you back. Please. We can’t stop here for long.’
Mila jumped into the front seat. She was shaking violently. She clung to Mariano and buried her face in his chest. He could feel her clinging frantically to him, imprisoning him; he was aware of her body under the thin blouse. The other cars started to move off. He tried to free himself.
‘Come on now. Try and pull yourself together.’
‘My daughter. Don’t let her fall on the floor, will you?’
She stammered as she spoke, refusing to remove her head from its hiding place. Her whole body shook with her sobs.
‘Don’t you worry about anything. I’ll drive you home. I’ll get your daughter out of the car. I’ll do everything. But let me go. I can’t drive like this.’
Mila drew back, her face distraught, but she still grabbed his arm, even though he was now driving.
‘No, don’t take me home. It’s dark now. No, please, don’t take me home, I couldn’t bear it. Take me somewhere else, anywhere.’
‘But where? Don’t talk nonsense. We have to take the child home. You’re getting me worried now.’
‘That’s precisely it. I don’t want to be alone with her tonight. I don’t want to see her. I never want to see her again. I won’t go home! We can leave her at the morgue or wherever, and you can take me somewhere else.’
She had hold of his right sleeve and was kissing it, smearing it with tears and lipstick. Her teeth were chattering.
Mariano placed his hand on her shoulder for a moment.
‘Calm down. You won’t be alone at home. Your neighbours know you and will keep you company. Please. I’ll have an accident if we’re not careful.’
They had turned round now and were heading back in the direction from which they had come.
‘No. Not home. There’s no one there I care about. I have no one. How can I go back to that house? Take me with you.’
‘With me? Where?’
‘You must have somewhere you can put me up. You’ve probably got a big apartment. Even if it’s just for one night. Sit me in a chair and I’ll be fine. I’ll explain things to your wife or your mother or whoever. It’ll only be until tomorrow. And tomorrow, who knows, they might decide to take me on as a maid.’
Mariano continued driving straight on. His eyes were fixed on the road, but he knew Mila was watching him, wanting to know what he would decide; and there he was, unable to say a word.
‘Look, I understand what you must be going through,’ he said at last, ‘but you must trust what I say, because you’re not yourself right now. Your neighbours care about you. I saw that this evening. Believe me, going home is the best and most reasonable thing to do.’
In the same rebellious tone she had used on the phone earlier, Mila said:
‘You say you understand, but how can you? You haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going through. How can I go back to that place, that house, to what? To carry on slaving away and keeping myself decent? Who for? If I do go back, I’ll go on the game. If I go back, that’s it, nothing will be the same again, I’m telling you that now. I’ll do it tonight.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense. On Wednesday, I’ll talk to Sister María and see if she can help you out in some way, since you have no family.’
‘Thanks,’ said Mila resentfully, ‘but don’t bother. I don’t need the few scraps of charity they’ll give me. If I go back, I swear on my mother’s grave that I’ll do what I said I’m going to do.’
Without turning to look at her, Mariano said:
‘Fine, you’re a grown-up. It’s your decision. You’ll probably think differently tomorrow. You don’t know what you’re saying right now.’
Mila sat hunched in her seat and said nothing more. She covered her eyes with her hands, drew her feet up onto the seat, and sat curled like a snail, hugging the warmth of her own body, her hands clutching her knees to her belly. She couldn’t stop shivering. The doctor continued to offer advice, but then he gave up talking too. She was aware of him looking at her now and then. Then the car came to a halt and he must have told some child to tell the women, because they arrived at once, talking loudly and excitedly. She, however, waited and refused to budge until they dragged her out. They must have removed the child from the back seat first, judging from the noises she heard. She didn’t want to look. Her hands were icy cold.
Mariano stayed where he was, watching the other women half-carrying, half-dragging her down to the hollow where the whitewashed houses were. He waited in case she should turn and look at him, say one last word, but she didn’t. There was still time to call out to her. The women formed a whole, of which she was a part, a blurred shape moving down the steps, and the words they said to her and the sound of her sobbing, grown quieter now, gradually moved off. It was night. The clouds had parted to reveal pools of stars. Mariano got back into the car. He wound down the windows. It was nearly ten o’clock. Isabel would be furious with him. He drove along the main street at fifty miles an hour, letting the soft, damp air blow in. He was always late. ‘And I bet it was one of those non-paying patients too,’ Isabel would say. But he couldn’t think about Isabel now. So what if she was angry? He wouldn’t phone her tonight. Into his mind came the image of Mila with her face buried in his chest. Take me somewhere. Take me. Take me. He still had time to go back for her. He put his foot down again. Sixty miles an hour. He could take her somewhere for the night. They didn’t have to go to his place. Pancho was in America right now, they could use his studio. She’d like it there. He could stay with her. ‘I won’t be back for supper, Mama.’ God, how stupid. He accelerated again. Seventy miles an hour. He passed the entrance to the metro. He was out of the neighbourhood now. He breathed a sigh of relief. He must be mad. He had already gone beyond the call of duty. Way beyond. And he was under no obligation to do anything. Another doctor wouldn’t have gone to half as much bother. He must be mad. Why was his conscience still troubling him? If she wanted to go with some man, what did that have to do with him? God knows, it was hardly the first time something like that had happened. She might turn out to be a real weirdo, desperate for a way out of there. Fancy thinking he could take her home! What madness. Especially as it was none of his business anyway. He’d talk to Sister María about her on Wednesday. The car was slipping smoothly along, and Mariano was feeling better. He wouldn’t say anything to Isabel about the child having died on the back seat. Given how superstitious she was, she might feel funny about it and not want to ride in the car again. He’d have a shower when he got in, but first, he’d call Isabel. Of course he would. Even if they did have a bit of an argument. Oh, if only they could get married right away.
In Cibeles, he joined the stream of other cars. It was a really beautiful night now.
Madrid, January 1956