Untying the Knot in the Handkerchief

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I think some people used to go and spend hours there, with a secret conviction that on the unlikeliest of days someone would arrive and change their lives. That one afternoon a car would draw up, doors would open, a bootlid would be raised and lowered, then the expectant crunch, on the gravel, of shoes approaching purposefully to make them get up off the seat of that chair for ever. And it’s odd that this phenomenon should occur in a pretty unremarkable place, a place which would be very ordinary if it weren’t for a magnetism which not everyone could perceive, a magnetism it must still retain and that it gets from the spot on which it’s built: above a large underground water source. And this bountiful subsoil, this rich spot on the water table, unseen but singing and singing from below, this hidden source magnetises the landscape above it, and by extension surely it must magnetise the minds of the people who go about their lives there, possibly their hearts as well (it’s said that around there they beat a little faster). I speak of the airy ugly space which lies between the country road and the expanse of reeds, the starting point of an idle lane, now famous, which leads off, goes up and down, comes upon some vegetable plots, then crosses a green irrigation channel and dies by some deserted crop terraces. It is a site of gravel and poorly laid tarmac, I think I’ve already said ugly, and it is, if one can say this, the property of the Roadways Department. At the southernmost point of this ugliness, as if as a monument to abuse, there is a piece of a levelling machine (a kind of roller abandoned there years ago, rusted and broken, enveloped in nettles and thistles) which has become a favourite subject of urban legends, fireside tales and idle gossip, the fault, needless to say, of boredom. And almost at the very top of the site, just within view of the tiny village of La Bestreta, right by the main road itself, is the white-walled, large-windowed establishment I mentioned, the place where some people, amid the boredom of the monotony, wait for something to happen.

A rank of lush acacias provides the shade that all waits require. Petunias, lilacs and cactus decorate and brighten a long stone stoop, the place for chatter, reading, daydreaming, the stoop where more than once, recently, my memory has been shattered. Beyond the stoop there is a little stretch of pink—maybe more wine-coloured—pavement, then a gravel car park and a broken white line which marks the edge of the main road. Then the fields of barley and in the distance an endless landscape of mountains, aerials, clouds, birds and vapour trails. The living area—with its beds, its sideboards and its writing tables, and also one shouldn’t rule out some inflated spirit or other wandering around, opening drawers, penetrating wardrobes—is on the first floor, and has three windows with pale curtains, often shifted by imperceptible breezes, and green shutters with sufficient cracks to be able to watch the comings and goings into the bar, the movement of the traffic, the ceaseless sway of the barley fields and the changes in the sky. At the rear there are also windows which look onto the patio, a pleasant patio with a veranda, a tool store and a small room off it, half store, half junk room; the place where I slept, did my homework and meditated for four or five years of my adolescence. Beyond the patio a well-watered garden and a lovingly tended vegetable patch which are separated by a pathway of stone slabs, probably the path taken by the lady who ran the bar—the elegant Matilde who tried to mother me—when she went off for her last walk. It was she, before her brain turned her into a crash scene, who recommended I grab memory by the horns and put it in order, “Put order to confusion, my son; order perhaps will provide us with, at the end of the day, the meaning of life which we don’t find while we are here.”

Matilde, after the ignominious episode she had to go through in Prague, where she went to entrust herself to Baby Jesus, could not quite find sense in life, and that’s why she had stewed in despair until the day arrived when she needed to follow the stone pathway between the garden and the vegetables and had to face all alone the last walk, which ended in suicide. However, part way along this path, there is a man-made spring where water runs—out of the substrata once it’s been pumped—which is considered by some to be miraculous and might have meant Matilde could have avoided a sticky end if providence, in the shape of thirst, had made her bend down to wet her gullet at that last moment of weakness—perhaps also a moment of greatness— allowing her to be able to change her mind and save her skin. We will never know for sure if she did in fact bend down to drink but it seems she didn’t, because that day and the following the yellow hosepipe remained connected to the fountain’s tap, attached by a ring clip screwed tight, and no one believes that elegant Matilde, in the state she must have been in as she went on her way to misadventure, could have been capable of undoing and removing the hosepipe and then putting it back on and screwing it up again. People aren’t up for such practicalities when they have fixed between their eyebrows the big idea, the definitive solution, the only freedom left to us, one which is however viewed so badly by the people who afterwards have to recover the body, assume a minimal amount of guilt, and then sort out all the paperwork generated by an unnatural death.

The roof of the establishment is smooth, of the thinnest of red tiles, with a nickel-plated chimney which rises a few feet above the gable and, at lunchtimes when the wind blew a little from the north, distributed the smell of frying over the length and breadth of the site. Linking the upstairs with the ground floor is a section of stairway over a wood-lined arch, and below the arch is a secretaire: the secretaire with the little drawer which once must have gotten warped through neglect and damp and later dryness will have made it creak, like old people’s bones creak (and it still has had time to warp again with the further dampnesses of tears and rain). Next come the kitchen’s saloon doors; further on the toilets, clean and disinfected, and the rest, as in all bars, a really big room with tables and chairs and lights hanging from the ceiling, a wood-burning stove, a Coca-Cola clock, a bar with stools and a coffee machine, coat hooks on each stretch of wall, and on shelves a lot of opened or sealed bottles, of Mono anis, Fundador brandy, Guet mint, Malibu. Every three or four bottles a trophy, a figurine or a pot of dried flowers; or a mirror, like the one which ended up broken at the feet of Matilde, back in the early days, demonstrating the scarcity of luck which destiny had put aside for her. That’s how the place was in its heyday, like a clearing in the middle of the jungle, a clearing with bottles, flowers and mirrors. I was the king of the clearing, the barman of the Main Road Bar (an establishment also known as the La Bestreta Parador, or more vulgarly as The Drinkador). But one day my reign came sharply to an end, like the breaking of a glass, and the business, for all its attractions, fell into decline. Who knows, maybe that was a stroke of luck!

A little over two years ago now, on a day when the stars were in disarray, a gorgeous day in May, the grass tall and the sky spotless, I had a car accident down the road; my face was disfigured and inside me a knot was formed. The owner of the bar, the kindly Joaquim, husband of the departed Matilde, told me that very regrettably work was over for me; with that face and those scars, with that bent brow, I couldn’t be there serving people because I’d scare them away. I had to say goodbye to a way of life which I had always found very fulfilling, with passing cars unloading customers, customers striding in shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, talking away incessantly with the traveling salesmen who passed by once a week; and the women, also traveling once a week, who entered to the sound of heels, in flowered blouses and with a touch of pride, trying to survive in a world of paunchy men with sweaty armpits and black suitcases. And all the others who kept the same seat warm all day going on and on over the dregs of a coffee, waiting for the person who would change their way of being to arrive. I had to say goodbye to all of it.

Leaving the hospital with my face all scarred, my nose all mangled and an enormous knot in my stomach, I had to go and put in a complaint against Joaquim, who had always made so much of how he treated me as his son, but had left me stuck with my hands in my pockets. From then on I started to receive a pension, a sad consolation, a shovelful of earth on my youth. I found myself with all the time in the world to analyse the accident, to try and rewind the last few seconds on the road and avoid the mistake, save myself from the mistake, but this only served to nourish my feelings of guilt, a feeling which spreads and tars everything with the same brush, colonising other parts of the brain. In my case and quite involuntarily, for example, the guilt fed the horrible sensation—not a completely new one—that I had wasted half my life working at a job which wasn’t made for me. Once this part of my brain had been activated, the feelings of guilt fattened it up until it became a rumbling between stomach and throat, a rumbling of regret for something resembling a vocation choked, choked, choked. With all this within me, I withdrew to the flat in Vilamalva (the very one I am in now, two years on, bashing away merrily enough at the noisy keys of an old Olivetti Dora as I don’t have a computer, grabbing deceitful memory by the horns and watching the rain as it sounds and rebounds on the window). During those first few months of inactivity, however, nobody helped me, and no one would have been amazed if I’d thrown myself out of the window and plunged into the void with my head being ripped apart on the edge of a pavement. There would then have been a huge debate in Vilamalva as to whether I had or not the right to kill myself. You know what I mean: the feelings of guilt, recovery of the body, the paperwork…

The smoke from the frying pans of the Parador has never reached Vilamalva. This place Vilamalva, the “mauve town” for those who don’t know it, is fairly big and soulless and about six kilometres down from La Bestreta and the large area where the easygoing ladies go and place themselves to display their meat and fat. Although some of these professionals as well as a part of their clientele make their homes in Vilamalva, in actual fact their presence in the streets of the town is not evident and you don’t notice the smell of cheap toiletries emanating from their hair or cheeks. It’s odd but in Vilamalva the predominant smell is of burnt diesel. Many afternoons in Vilamalva you can see skies take on dark pink hues, almost lilacish, which must obviously have something to do with the name of the town and is attributed by experts to the barrier formed by the mountains that stops the clouds and humidity coming in from the sea. My window on the third floor is a perfect observation point over the beginning of Ruyra Street, over two of its major side streets, those of Sant Roc and Les Basses, and with diminishing visibility over the entire length of the street, as far as the roundabout with the wild chestnut trees. Nearest to me, as in right at my feet, when I am at the window, there are overgrown gardens, neglected flower beds with oleander, rhododendrons and rosemary, the spot where I would fall if I ever decided to finish myself off (something I now know I won’t do). One autumn afternoon, one of those end of September days, breezy and bathed in a golden rather than mauve light, just a few months after the accident, I noticed the comings and goings of two women new in the neighbourhood, one in a cardigan the colour of a pool table who looked too young really to be the mother of the other, but the other had a much more unkempt look about her, that of an adolescent with carefully thought out and strategically placed tears and rips in her top and her trousers, and she did very much look like the daughter of the first; these two women, often holding hands but rarely smiling as they went, were the ones who saved me from the great absurdity of throwing myself out of the window and landing with my head split wide open in the middle of the flower bed. They did however make life much more complicated for me.

The older one, who I was later able to confirm as the mother, did not walk in a straight line, instead swaying slightly bow-leggedly, and her jeans and high heels accentuated this staggering gait. The daughter followed reluctantly, as if she needed to be dragged along, like kids who don’t want to go to school. The elder one’s hairstyle was part ponytail part bob with two long tufts framing—and they continue to frame, much to everyone’s delight!—a look which even today I couldn’t say was of happiness, desperation or something approaching stupidity; the face of the girl, meanwhile, was dotted with pimples, and breasts were starting to become discernible under her studiously ripped white tee shirt (she’s changed a lot in a short space of time: she hasn’t got any pimples any more, maybe it’s make-up but what do I know! And her breasts have grown and let her settle and the whole of her seems to have everything she wanted). One of the two, and it’s irrelevant which, brushed her hand over the rosemary that golden day in September, and a few seconds later the bitter but medicinal aroma of the plant reached my window bringing the clearest message of good times ahead.

The mere existence of these women brightened up life because the rest of the neighbours, all of whom were distant and kept themselves to themselves, had nothing to do with me: they avoided my scarred face, hurried past when they saw me on the stairs or became extremely interested in their toecaps and I, quite automatically, would lower my head which ended up giving me trouble with the cervical vertebrae in my neck. Many months later, as the good weather was beginning to return, must have been mid-March, I bumped into the younger of the two women I have described above, on the bottom landing. When we met I was humming some tune to myself as I came down and she was singing Message in a Bottle as she made her way up. While this springtime chance encounter never in fact took place, it did seem we wouldn’t ever establish any sort of contact. I followed them from my window, quite harmlessly, the same way as I watched other people going about their business or the flight paths of swifts. The bandy-legged stride, the clickety-clack of heels, the hauling of bags which filled an entire autumn of greenish-copper within garden walls, moss appearing in corners, crunching piles of dried leaves on pavements, and they also extended the winter days which smelled of garlic toast, lemon-flavoured chewing gum and cold bleach. It was also a period I made use of to read much more than I ever had before: although I knew that somewhere inside me dwelled a frustrated bookworm who I suffocated, suffocated and suffocated, I must acknowledge that until then I had read very little, so to avoid the familiar disjunctive of the juxtaposition of reading and living, I had always put getting on with my life before all else. But what life? Which life do I mean when I say life? In my youth I didn’t travel much, never had any children, didn’t play any sport, didn’t join any clubs or supporters’ groups. If it weren’t for a fairly active sex life, some amorous adventures with older women, smoking a few joints in the woods and the odd skid in the car, I think I can say without blushing that up to the age of forty I had lived, basically, the lives of others, those related to me by the customers.

Now I’d been denied access to other people’s stories, how was I to feed this frustrated bookworm who insisted on surfacing come what may? Well, as I’m sure you can imagine, by buying all sorts of books and reading them. I started buying one or two books every day and putting them away on the shelves in the living room; I even found myself putting them in alphabetical order before I’d read them. I felt myself pressurised by a kind of aura, a subtle presence and no doubt related to the accident, which became increasingly noticeable as the days went by and made me go to the shelves more and more with a desire to get things in order than read. Despite all this I did read a lot. Novels, mainly—without wishing to belittle poetry or nonfiction— because novels suited me, moved me, amused me, lifted, lowered and lifted again my morale, took me away to places and times, made me feel big and made me feel little. To be quite honest I’m not too demanding with all this: I read everything which was a novel or a bit novel-like that the corner shop had in stock. Gothic, Victorian or Byzantine, historical, miserable or erotic, or romantic, trashy, even pornographic ones, and it didn’t matter whether they were set in the great plains of the American West with screeching savages and women giving birth on river banks, or fetid British India with the smell of curry in the toilets and sandalwood on the streets, or French Polynesia with fishermen snoozing through midday with volcanoes about to erupt; and why not in the middle of the rice fields and mosquitoes of the Ebro Delta, with people in straw hats and rolled-up trousers? Why not? I expect some might get sniffy, but I didn’t discriminate between bestsellers and classics, or between weird and wacky tales and calm description. What do you want, when I had so much to catch up with! What do you expect, when I had that feverish desire to read! Maybe I just wanted to placate that aura, that spirit, which had wormed its way into my home, prowling around the shelves and gradually awakening the sleeping monster that was my vocation.

Luckily—and I would say just in time to save me from quite which form of life’s troubles I don’t know, dizziness, panic, falling into the void—I did have the bumping-into on the stairs with the adolescent with the pimply face and was finally able to get to meet my downstairs neighbours, who I’m sure had never read a book in their lives (not counting catalogues, obviously). From then on, our lives became intertwined and together we began to weather the heavy seas of changing times. Had they been lucky women, I’d say I allowed their successes to put the breeze back into my becalmed sails. But they weren’t very lucky women at all.


Ramon Erra

Ramon Erra (Vic, 1966) is one of the emerging writers of contemporary Catalan literature. He has a degree in Political Science and contributes to various media outlets. He has won book prizes in the short story genre, making a name for himself with his short story collection Gunpowder of the Fourth of July and the successful novel Untying the Knot in the Handkerchief. Selected works include La flor blanca de l'estramoni (White Thorn-apple Blossom), Operació gàbies buides (Operation Empty Cages), A Bòsnia ens trobarem (We'll Meet in Bosnia), and Pólvora del quatre de juliol (Gunpowder of the Fourth of July).

Richard Thomson

Richard Thomson (London, 1959) moved to Catalunya in 1986, where he learned Catalan from friends and FC Barcelona television commentaries.His translation of Jordi Coca's Under the Dust was published in 2007, and Coca's play Black Beach in 2008. Other works published include the play Match Day by David Plana (Teatre Lliure) and short stories by Francesc Serés and Pere Guixà (Dalkey Archive Press). He has also acted as Catalan-English workshop leader at the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia. His translation of Look Me in the Eye by Sílvia Soler will appear in the spring of 2010 (Parthian Books).

Desfent el nus del mocador (Untying the Knot in the Handkerchief). Copyright (c) Ramon Erra, RBA, 2008. English translation copyright (c) Richard Thomson, 2009.