Authors: Jason Webster
‘Your grandfather hasn’t mentioned anything?’
Cámara shook his head.
‘Between you and me, he’s not very well right now,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’ve just come down from Madrid. Got in yesterday.’
‘Well, as you’re family I think you have a right to know as well,’ García said.
‘A right to know?’
García looked around, as though checking for anyone overhearing.
‘I would ask you in, but . . .’ Cámara said. ‘Perhaps you could tell me what this is about.’
García opened his folder and pulled out a couple of sheets of paper.
‘Have you heard about a mass grave that’s being opened up at the cemetery?’ he said.
Cámara took the papers, glancing at the title – something about the Civil War and people buried in unmarked pits.
‘I saw something in the newspaper. Yesterday or the day before, I think.’
‘The Town Hall has finally decided to go ahead and open it up. We’ve been pressing them to do so for several years now.’
The grave, he said, occupied an area near the centre of the cemetery, what was now a weed-filled patch of land that no one had taken care of for decades. This, according to their research, was where people executed by the Franco regime had been buried during the reprisals following the end of the Civil War, in
. It was thought that as many as fifty or sixty men and women were there, their graves unmarked, their bodies thrown in a pit. It was only now, after a new law had been passed, that some of the graves could be opened and the dead finally given proper burial.
‘Most of the shootings came in the immediate aftermath of the city being taken over by Franco,’ García said. ‘But the executions continued well into the
Cámara was silent as he listened, glancing down at the papers with their black-and-white photos of the supposed grave site.
‘This is interesting, fascinating, really,’ he said. He wanted to get back to Hilario inside the flat, and for some reason he couldn’t quite explain he was feeling uncomfortable. He’d heard others talking about this; it had been on the news a couple of times, and he’d caught the tail end of a television documentary about it a while ago. Back in Valencia he remembered a few colleagues making comments about it, about how it was better to leave all this Civil War stuff undisturbed. Let people mourn their dead, yes, no one was against that. But was the country really ready to rake over all that Franco business? Better to get on with things, otherwise the old enmities could resurface.
‘So Hilario said he was interested in this?’ Cámara asked. What was it? Another political act, another way to hit out at the establishment? Except that Hilario’s anarchism had been less political over the past years, and more ontological, more about fighting the tyrannies within than without, he felt. So why get involved in this of a sudden?
‘He hasn’t told you anything, then?’ García said.
‘Well . . .’ He paused. ‘We have very strong reason,’ he said, ‘to think that Hilario’s father, Maximiliano Cámara, is buried in that grave. He was an activist in the Civil War in the anarchist CNT trade union.’
Cámara felt a coldness rushing through him.
‘He was executed in
,’ García continued. ‘Hilario got in touch with us last week when he heard about the dig. Said he wanted to help, give us a description of his father, perhaps some photos, even a DNA sample. Then if we find him we can properly identify him, and he can finally have a decent burial.’
‘My great-grandfather,’ Cámara said. ‘You’re talking about my great-grandfather.’
‘You didn’t know,’ García said.
Cámara shook his head.
‘I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.’
Cámara glanced back over his shoulder; he felt certain that Hilario was still asleep, but he wanted to go and check.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’d better go. But I’d like to talk to you more about this. Yes, you can count on my support as well. Whatever you need. It’s just . . .’
García pulled out a card.
‘Call me whenever you want.’
Cámara gave him his number as well and they promised to be in touch.
‘Keep those papers,’ García said, heading back down the stairs. ‘Perhaps you could show them to your grandfather when he’s feeling better. They might help him remember a few things. We can’t let these things slip away with time. Horrendous crimes were committed here and hushed up by the government. We owe it to the victims to tell people what really happened.’
HE NEEDS TO
see the doctor.’
‘Call him, then.’
Pilar was feeling guilty for having left Hilario alone at the hospital – doubtless her priest would be told of it when next she went to confession – and now she was moving nervously around the house, cleaning, cooking and watching over Hilario, as though to make amends by doubling her efforts on household chores.
Cámara was still concerned about his grandfather, but becoming less so: Hilario had slept well, and looked more relaxed than he’d seen him for some time. If anything it was Pilar’s anxiety that was causing him more alarm as she scuttled about, chatting incessantly with her nonsensical, operatic delivery.
‘We need more cloths for the kitchen, they get ever so dirty you know, the grime in this place, I don’t know how you mess the place up, oops the coffee’s burning, forgot to switch the gas off, then I’ll do the bathroom, he’s looking paler don’t you think?’
Hilario had blocked her presence out, like a horse with blinkers, and stared at the screen of his computer in concentration.
‘Everyone should be made to do these brain-training exercises,’ he said in a momentary lapse while Pilar vacuumed at the other end of the corridor.
‘You can actually feel the neurones being forced to work, like muscles. This is what I need. Not a bunch of pills. This, and some sunshine. If they just made everyone do this for half an hour a day from the age of forty – no, make that thirty – they’d cut the health bill in this country by half.’
The apparent contradiction of a sworn libertarian imagining a scenario where others were ‘forced’ to do something wasn’t lost on Cámara, but it wasn’t the right moment to pick his grandfather up on the inconsistencies in his thinking. Besides, it often seemed to him that for Hilario ‘anarchy’ could mean whatever he wanted it to at any given moment. Which was anarchistic, in its own way.
‘It’s all about neuroplasticity – I read it in a book. Your brain can adapt and change for ever. The only reason people get ill is because they stop using it; they get old, they atrophy. That’s the problem. New challenges, new brain exercises, that’s what people need.
Para aprender, nunca es tarde
.’ It’s never too late to learn.
‘I’m going out,’ Cámara said.
But Hilario wasn’t listening, too focused on testing his reactions by moving and clicking the mouse.
It was a Saturday morning and the street was busy with shoppers buying food for the weekend: short, middle-aged couples with brightly coloured trolleys filled with tomatoes and chicken breasts; mothers with children skipping around their feet as they tried to squeeze into the huddle at a butcher’s counter.
He’d pick up a few bits and pieces later. For now he needed to walk, to get out of the flat and wander.
The same graceless streets as ever. Developers in the sixties and seventies had ensured that any charm that had remained to Albacete had been all but annihilated. A large square that had once been a focal point now resembled a run-down yard in some characterless suburb. The city felt as though it had been gutted by some loveless god, reducing it to a dried-up husk, its nutrients, its breath, all gone.
He should leave, get back to Madrid. Yet there was more than just Hilario’s illness keeping him here. Unexpectedly he was being confronted by stains and dirt from the past, rising like scum into his life. He almost felt like a character in a gangster film, returning to his home town to collect some debts, or avenge an earlier loss.
He’d been getting on with life; he’d never chosen this. Yet Albacete, the place he’d always run from, was pulling him back into its hard, blackened bosom.
And what was he meant to do? Avenge which loss? His sister? That was over thirty years ago. Even if they’d never found her killer, the chances were the man, or men, who’d done it were already dead. Or almost dead.
His parents? They’d killed themselves. How do you avenge that?
And now his great-grandfather . . .
Maximiliano Cámara – they shared the same name. A family name. It was a link, of sorts. And it was strange how he did feel something. Yet three generations separated them. They’d never met. He was Hilario’s father. That was link enough. Hilario was more of a father to him than anyone else in his life. So who had
father been? What kind of a man was Maximiliano? Another anarchist bore? They’d shot him for that.
He’d never known. Like in so many families across the country, the events of the Civil War and how it had affected them were a murky, unwanted, half-buried memory. Nobody talked about it, nobody had ever said anything more than that Maximiliano had disappeared when Franco’s troops had marched triumphantly into the city in April
. After three years of war the Republic had simply given up by then, the fight kicked out of it, and Albacete – the former headquarters of the International Brigades – was absorbed into Franco’s Spain.
That was when Maximiliano had vanished, they said. What happened? They didn’t know. Perhaps he’d managed to escape. No one could say. And no more questions.
Of course, for decades that attitude was necessary to survive. Cámara and his generation had never been taught any of this at school – it was all too fresh in the seventies and eighties, and even though Franco himself had died when Cámara was nine years old, the textbooks at school didn’t change for a long time after that. If any mention had been made of the Civil War, it was still couched in Francoist terminology where the Generalísimo had waged a ‘Crusade’ against the ‘Reds’.
Enough information about what had actually happened was now making its way into popular consciousness, thanks to a plethora of books and a number of television documentaries. Organisations like the one Eduardo García belonged to, trying to preserve the ‘historical memory’ of the events of the period, had been established all over the country.
Much of this Cámara now knew without exactly knowing how: he’d never read anything on the war, but somehow it had filtered in. Enough for his policeman’s brain immediately to realise there was a discrepancy there: the war had ended in
, which was when the family had said Maximiliano had gone missing. Yet García had said he’d been executed in
, presumably here in Albacete, as he was supposedly buried in the mass pit they were now digging up. So what had happened in those four ‘missing’ years? Where had Maximiliano been? Why hadn’t he been executed as soon as Franco’s troops arrived? Why the wait?
He gave an involuntary shrug as he realised he was now mulling over three deaths, three killings: that of Maximiliano, Concha, and the girl who’d been found in the same spot as his sister just a few days before, Mirella Faro. If Albacete was reaching out to pull him in, so the policeman within him was coughing and hacking itself back into wakefulness.
A life outside the
? What the hell had he been thinking?
It was coming up for twelve o’clock and an urge, like a twitch, was beginning to kick in. Turning a corner he spotted a sign for Mahou beer on a wall above a neighbourhood bar that looked just dirty enough to be the kind of place that didn’t overprice you for a
He stepped in and found a stool at one end of the bar where a couple of the day’s newspapers were neatly folded next to the trays of roasted peanuts and anchovies in vinegar. The television in the corner was switched off – a rarity – while an old woman was sitting in the corner, defiantly smoking as she drank a glass of vermouth. In another couple of months the ban on cigarettes in bars would be complete; in the meantime clients were savouring these last precious moments when they could enjoy a drink and a smoke at the same time without having to crowd the pavement outside.
Out of solidarity as much as anything else, Cámara reached into his own pocket and pulled out his Ducados, surprised at himself that it had taken so long to have the first of the day; back in Valencia he’d have got through half a packet by now. That was another strange side effect of not working: he was smoking far less.
He drew the nicotine deep into his lungs as the barwoman eventually spotted him and ambled over.
He nodded at the beer tap.
For a moment his attention was distracted from thoughts of cool lager, and he looked the woman in the face.
A smile broke out as her name flooded into his memory.
They both laughed.
‘Dear, dear Estrella.’
She was older – so much older, but there was no mistaking her: a small pouting mouth with full lips, shoulder-length black curly hair, and fake eyelashes so long they curled and almost touched her eyebrows.
‘I don’t believe it. You look . . .’
‘I know,’ Cámara said. ‘We both do.’
‘But still the same.’
‘Oh, I’m not going to let you out of here in a hurry. Not after so many years.’
She came around the bar and embraced him tightly, and his arms wrapped themselves around her waist.
For over a minute they held each other like this, eyes closed, breathing in each other’s presence. He felt the dampness where her face rested in the crook of his neck, tears streaming into his shirt.
‘It’s all right,’ he whispered. ‘I know, I know.’
She pulled on him harder still.
‘You need to be careful,’ he tried to joke. ‘You’ll loosen those eyelashes of yours.’
She drew herself away, slapping him on the chest, a watery smile on her face.