Authors: Jason Webster
The first thing he saw was a pair of female buttocks poking through the back opening of a regulation hospital gown.
‘Oh. I’m sorry,’ Cámara said, looking away. The other bed in the room must finally have been taken, he thought. But as he glanced over he saw that in the bed where Hilario was supposed to be, another woman was lying down, peering up at him from over her oxygen mask.
He looked back at the door: he was in the right room, unless . . .
‘Who are you?’ a male voice asked. A man had stood up, perhaps the husband of the young woman whose backside he’d just inadvertently seen. The woman herself was now climbing back into bed, looking over at him suspiciously.
‘I . . . er, was looking for someone,’ Cámara said. ‘Hilario, an elderly man. He was here . . .’
‘We just got here this morning,’ the man said. ‘And she was already here,’ he said, pointing over to the old woman, who was lifting her mask from her face.
‘Been here since earlier,’ the old woman in the other bed gasped.
‘There was a man,’ she added. ‘Bit grumpy. He left as they were bringing me in. Is he a relative of yours? It’s nice to have visitors.’
Cámara made his excuses as quickly as he could and headed out the door.
‘Hilario Cámara,’ he said to the nurse at reception. ‘My grandfather. He was here last night.’
‘And he discharged himself about two hours ago,’ the nurse said, taking her reading glasses away from her nose.
‘What?’ Cámara spluttered. ‘You can’t . . . he can’t . . . What about Pilar? Wasn’t there a woman with him? Short, middle-aged. Didn’t she stop him?’
The nurse shook her head.
‘There was no one,’ she said. ‘He was on his own last night. We tried to call, but there was no reply.’
‘I was tied up,’ Cámara said.
‘Disgrace if you ask me,’ the nurse said. ‘Leaving the elderly alone like that. Anything could have happened.’
‘Look . . .’ Cámara hesitated. ‘Yes, you’re right. It was my fault. So please, let me get this straight. There was no one with him last night, and then this morning, what? He just got up out of bed and walked off?’
‘Yes. That’s about it. Of course we tried to stop him, but there wasn’t much we could do.’
She gave him a tired stare.
‘He was on his own. If you had been here we might—’
‘And he could walk?’
‘He didn’t roll away in a wheelchair.’
‘He’d just had a stroke.’
‘I know. He should still be here. He needs medical attention. But he got some movement back in the affected side of his body – only partial, mind you – and declared that the doctors were a group of amateurs who didn’t have a clue what they were doing and that he was going to cure himself. I know he’s a relative of yours, but he’s a liability, mentally unstable. You might want to think about having him declared unfit to look after himself, then we could treat him properly, stop him from wandering off. There’s only so much we can do.’
‘OK,’ Cámara said, trying to take it in. ‘Did he at least say where he was going?’
‘Well, I’m assuming he went home. But no, he didn’t leave a forwarding address, if that’s what you mean.’
Back outside he called Pilar’s mobile.
‘Yes?’ came the cold reply. He’d known her since he was twelve, and the tone was unmistakeable: he’d been naughty.
‘Pilar, it’s me?’
‘Look, I’m sorry about last night. I got . . . caught up. Police work.’
‘Oh, it’s you.’
‘I’m really sorry. I just couldn’t get away.’
‘But listen, what happened? I’m at the hospital.’
‘Well, I appreciate you’ve got more important things to do. But I thought you were on leave. Or has that finished now? But I wasn’t going to wait for you all night, was I? I mean, a promise is a promise. Or at least it still is for some of us.’
‘Pilar, he’s not here.’
‘So after a while I thought, well, I’m off. I’m not going to wait up all night.’
‘Pilar, please. You’re not listening.’
‘Hilario. Where’s Hilario?’
‘He’s at the hospital.’
‘No, he’s not. I’m trying to tell you.’
There was a silence at the other end.
‘He discharged himself. This morning. Where are you now? Are you at the flat?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I came back home. I’m out shopping now, I’m in the supermarket. I can, oh, I . . .
!’ Oh, blast!
‘Forget it. Don’t worry. Just carry on. I’ll head home straight away. I’m sure he’ll be there.’
‘Oh, I hope so. I hope so. I should never have left him. I’m so sorry.’
A couple of taxis were at the rank by the hospital entrance, the drivers smoking and chatting. Cámara signalled to one and jumped in. Less than five minutes later they’d crossed the city centre and arrived outside Hilario’s flat.
Cámara pushed the key into the lock and sprinted up the stairs.
Opening the door he was hit by a smell he hadn’t come across for many years – the scent of saffron, mixing with fish heads, onion, garlic and a healthy slug of white wine. It was the way Hilario always made his fish stock.
The door clicked behind him and he walked down the dark corridor to the kitchen.
Hilario was standing with his back to him, an apron tied roughly around his waist, stirring with a wooden spoon as the blue gas flame burnt underneath.
‘You’ve made it at last,’ he said, turning around. ‘I was beginning to get worried.’
WHAT ARE YOU
doing here? You’re supposed to be in hospital.’
‘So you’re a doctor now, as well as a policeman.’
Hilario turned his back on him, giving the fish stock another stir and then taking his apron off. He was humming a tune merrily.
‘You do remember you had a stroke, right?’ Cámara asked.
Hilario picked up a knife from the counter, spun on his heel and waved the blade in his grandson’s face.
‘I haven’t got bloody Alzheimer’s, you know. Here I am, back home, getting better by the minute, and you’re trying to tell me there’s something wrong with me.’
‘You were in hospital,’ Cámara countered. ‘You had a bloody stroke.’
‘And now I feel fine.’
Still holding the knife, Hilario brushed past. Cámara followed him to the patio – a triangular patch of terrace where their apartment block butted against another. The bathroom windows of half a dozen neighbours looked out on to the same area from higher up, but years before Hilario had built a little gazebo with a translucent corrugated roof, allowing the light to get through while preventing prying eyes from seeing the less-than-entirely-legal crop he cultivated in a range of large terracotta pots. There were no marihuana plants now, though. This year’s harvest would already have been collected and would be drying in the spare room.
‘Didn’t get round to pulling the roots out,’ Hilario said. ‘Been meaning to do it.’ And he started hacking at the soil in the pots with the knife, cutting at the tendrils in order to loosen the root balls from the earth.
‘Bring me a rubbish bag, will you?’
Cámara sniffed, then headed back inside.
‘They’re in the kitchen, in the second drawer,’ Hilario called.
He’d ceased to be amazed years before by the strength of Hilario’s willpower. So dismissing illness and simply getting out of bed was, if extraordinary by anyone else’s standards, relatively routine with him. There was a story that, as a boy, he’d come down with pneumonia – a life-threatening illness then – and been effectively written off by the doctor. The young Hilario’s response had been to get out of bed and do twenty press-ups, to everyone’s surprise except his own. And the next day he’d woken up at the regular time and gone to school as if nothing had happened.
Nonetheless, as he started rummaging in the drawer, Cámara couldn’t help being worried; his grandfather should still be in that hospital bed. It would be impossible to get him back there, though: a stubborn refusal to give in to any weakness made certain of that. And so here he was, at home, as though nothing had happened. Perhaps Cámara should call a doctor. But springing a medical man on Hilario like that might make him worse. At the very least it would enrage him, and Cámara’s instinct told him that emotional stability as much as anything else would be important if they were going to get him through this.
Besides, you didn’t tell a man like Hilario what to do. You allowed him to get on with things his way, and if possible tried to persuade him to take this course or that. Although now that he thought about it, he couldn’t say if he’d ever managed to change his mind on anything. It had always been Hilario influencing him, never the other way around.
The rubbish bags weren’t in the second drawer, or even the third. He opened the cupboard to check the shelves, eventually spotting a roll of black plastic on the upper shelf.
‘So what happened to you last night?’ Hilario called from the patio. ‘Had a bit of an adventure, did you?’
Cámara headed back outside, rubbish bag in hand.
‘Something like that.’
‘Being coy, are you? That’s good.’
He cut away a little more with the knife, before reaching over and taking the bag, stuffing it with the marihuana-plant roots.
‘The thing is, I know exactly where you went.’
He shook the soil off his hands, wiping the knife clean on his trousers.
‘I was there myself this morning. Passed by before coming back home.’
‘It’s almost exactly the same place,’ Cámara said.
‘I know. Which is why I know where you went.’
‘And the same MO.’
‘Don’t use that silly police talk with me.’
‘So why were you there?’
‘Same reason as you. You deal with these things, you manage them. But that doesn’t mean they go away. You can’t buy peace of mind. Not with money or by solving all the crimes and murders you run around investigating. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for years, if you’ve been listening. So yes, I was there as well at first light.’
He took a deep breath.
‘It’s amazing what you find on rubbish tips these days.’
‘Were there any police there?’
‘Of course there were police there. Came just after I arrived.’
‘And they didn’t bother you?’
‘Who’s going to bother an old man like me? Anyway,’ he carried on. ‘I wasn’t going to stick around for long once they got there. You know how I am around policemen.’
He looked at Cámara, as though scrutinising him, a question in his eyes.
‘Is that what happened to you, then?’ he said. ‘Had a bit of a brush-up with the local law enforcers? Didn’t like you sniffing around their murder scene? You’ve been fighting, I can tell. You always get that stupid look on your face afterwards.’
Cámara held his hands up in submission: he was guilty as charged.
Hilario chuckled, proud to have proved to himself, once again, that his grandson held no secrets for him.
‘I saw Yago,’ Cámara said.
Hilario gave a grunt of only partial interest.
‘He’s back in Albacete. Head of the Judicial Police now.’
‘Still not grown up, then.’
‘Maybe not. Perhaps none of us are.’
‘Speak for yourself.’
‘Of course. How could I forget.’
‘So Yago’s spent his life kissing police arse around the country so he could come back home one day and be leader of the gang. Do you want me to be pleased with him? Are you pleased with him? Is that what you want for yourself?’
‘Said he was in Seville for a bit. Madrid . . .’
‘Ah, Madrid. So that’s it. You’re thinking about her, about Alicia.’
Hilario crouched down.
‘Those doctors don’t have a clue,’ he said, casting a glance at his plant pots. ‘
Donde entra el sol, no entra el médico.
’ Where the sun shines the doctor never enters.
He stood up and held the knife out in front of him, his eyes fixed ahead.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Steady as a—’
The knife fell out of his hand, clattering on the ground by his feet. Cámara laughed; it was typical of his grandfather to play around like that.
Until he saw the expression in his eyes, and sensed the sudden lack of strength in him. He stepped forwards, just in time to catch Hilario’s arm as he tottered over.
Hilario felt behind him for the edge of a plant pot, and sat down on it, shaking Cámara’s hand off his arm, breathing heavily through his mouth.
‘I’ll be all right,’ he said. ‘I’m all right.’
We need to call someone, a doctor, Cámara thought. But Hilario was a step ahead.
‘Don’t you start,’ he said. ‘There’ll be no doctors in this house. Just get me some of those pills they gave me. They thin the blood.’
In the end the fatigue was too much. Cámara helped him inside and he went to lie down on the sofa.
‘Bloody springs,’ he said as his head flopped down on to the cushion. ‘Remind me to take a look at it later.’
And he fell into an instant doze.
The local health centre was three streets away. He could call and try to get someone to come round . . .
The doorbell rang as he was looking for the phone number. Hilario didn’t stir, so he walked the length of the corridor to the front door.
‘It’s Eduardo García,’ said a voice on the intercom. ‘I’ve come about our meeting.’
Cámara buzzed the main door open, then stepped out into the stairwell to look over the bannister. A small, dark-haired man wearing jeans and a thin leather jacket was coming up the stairs, carrying a folder.
‘Señor Cámara?’ he said, looking up. ‘Oh!’
‘Are you looking for Hilario?’ Cámara asked.
The visitor came up the last few steps to the landing.
‘Yes. My name’s Eduardo García, from the Historical Memory Association. We arranged to meet.’
‘I’m Max,’ Cámara said. ‘Hilario’s grandson. I’m afraid this isn’t a very good time.’
He held out a hand and they shook. García was about the same age as Cámara, hair beginning to thin, with fine features and sideburns that stretched down the length of his cheeks. His hands looked pale and somehow unused.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘I can come back another time.’
‘What’s this about?’ Cámara asked. ‘Historical memory?’