You feel at ease here. You’re in an old-fashioned café, with marble-topped tables and decrepit waiters, finishing an ice cream, watching the people go by on the other side of the glass window, occasionally glancing at the ancient clock on the wall. A quarter to eleven, eleven o’clock, ten past. Until suddenly–and you can’t explain how it could possibly have happened–the only thing you know is that you’re in an old-fashioned café, finishing an ice cream, watching the people go past the window, and occasionally looking at the clock on the wall. What am I doing here? you catch yourself thinking. But a cold sweat makes you realize that the question is absurd, deceptive, false. Because what matters least at this point is remembering what you’re doing here; rather, it’s something much more basic. Knowing who you are.

You’re a woman. You’re sure about that. You know even before you glance sideways and catch your reflection in the faded glass of a mirror advertising a French cognac. The face seems neither foreign nor familiar to you. It’s a face which looks at you with astonishment and confusion, but which also obeys you, prepared to wink, wrinkle its brow, or allow its cheek to be caressed should you wrinkle your brow, wink or, still somewhat uncertainly, stroke your cheek with your hand. You recover your upright posture at the marble-topped table and open your handbag. But is it your bag? You look around. There are no more than four or five tables occupied, and a couple of waiters serving them with a mixture of ceremony and reluctance. Suddenly, the café reminds you of the dining car on an express train, but you don’t stop to wonder what you might know about dining cars or express trains. You return to the handbag. The color of the leather matches that of your shoes. Ergo, it must be yours. And the raincoat lying on the seat next to you must, logically, be yours as well. A crumpled piece of paper lying next to the ice cream dish, on which you can read faint numbers, suggests to you that you’ve already paid the bill. That detail soothes you. You rummage in the bag and come across a makeup bag which contains lipsticks, blusher, a broken cigarette . . . I’m an unorganized person, you say to yourself. You open a silver-plated case and powder your nose. Now your face, reflected in the little mirror, seems more relaxed, but, curiously, you’ve paused at that expression “to powder one’s nose.” It sounds ridiculous, old-fashioned, absurd. You close the makeup bag and confront the wallet. The moment of truth has arrived and you’re on the verge of signaling the waiter and asking for a strong drink. But you don’t dare. Will they speak the same language as you do? Or, more to the point, what language do you speak? How could you prove that the glass in the mirror you first looked into is advertising a French cognac? Something deep inside you warns you that you’re heading down the wrong track. You shouldn’t be asking yourself more than the absolutely essential. You’re in a café–this isn’t the moment to find out how you know it’s a café–you’ve had an ice cream, the clock’s showing ten past eleven, and you haven’t the faintest idea who you are. In this type of situation–because you suddenly feel that you’re prepared for “this type of situation”–you decide that the best thing is to stay calm. You breathe deeply and open the wallet.

The first thing you find is a credit card in the name of Elena Vila Gastón. The name seems neither strange nor familiar to you. Next is an ID card with a photo which looks like you. The document was issued in ‘87 and is valid for ten years. How old might you be? And what year is it now? What day is it? In a corner of the café you spot some shelves with newspapers on them, and you head over there with determination. There are newspapers in various languages. Without asking yourself too many questions, you haphazardly pick two. The dates aren’t the same, but the year is. 1993. You return to your table next to the window, compare dates and do some calculations. Born in ‘56. So, thirty-seven years old. Again, a voice asks you how it is that you can count and you haven’t forgotten your numbers. But you don’t pay any attention to it–you mustn’t–and you keep digging. The wallet also contains some money and another ID, with the membership number for a gym, and again, a phone number and an address. At first you don’t realize how important it is to have your own phone number. The fact that you like going to the gym has taken you by surprise, as has the strange feeling that the name you have now come across for the third time, Elena Vila Gastón, is missing something. Helena, you think, yes, I’d much rather be called Helena. And then you remember–but you don’t stop to consider if “remember” is the right word–a game, a distraction, a talent from way back. When you were young, you used to see words, phrases, names. Words had a color. Some shone more than others, some, very few, were decorated with ribbons and borders. “Elena” was a transparent color, luminous. But “Helena” shone even more and had ribbons. Like “Absence.” Suddenly you see the written word “absence.” The letters are pointed and lean slightly to the right. Absence, you say to yourself. That’s what’s happening to me. I’m suffering from absence. And for a while, you continue with the game. “Café” is brown, “Amalia,” red, “Alfonso,” lead-grey, “table” somewhere between beige and yellow. You try to remember yourself as a little girl, but you only manage to make out the word “little,” way off in the distance, in faded colors and shadowy letters. You repeat “Amalia,” “Alfonso” . . . And for a second, you believe those names mean something.

You look again, mechanically, at the photo on the ID card, and you compare it with the image reflected in the little mirror of the silver-plated compact. You reread: “Born in Barcelona, May 28, 1956, daughter of Alfonso and Amalia . . .” Are you starting to remember? Or have Alfonso and Amalia, whom you’d overlooked at the start, only just registered in your mind, and hence it’s merely a question of a recent recollection a scant few seconds old? You mutter softly: “Alfonso Vila, Amalia Gastón . . .” And then you start to perspire again. “You’re lost,” you seem to hear. “Absent.” Yes, you find yourself lost and absent, but–and here you suddenly feel a surge of hope–you do have a phone number. Your phone number.

“Are you feeling all right? Is something wrong?”

You realize that the tables have stopped spinning around, and the waiter’s voice has managed to penetrate a buzzing. You shake your head. You smile. You’ve no idea what’s happened, but you don’t care.

“It’s nothing. I was feeling a little dizzy. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

You are filled with admiration at the sound of your own voice. In real life, your real life, whatever that might be, you must be a resourceful woman. Your words have come across as friendly, firm and calming.

“It’s not ice cream season yet” adds the waiter, looking at the ice cream dish. He is an older man, almost elderly. “Ice cream in the summer, and a nice hot coffee in the winter.”

You tell him he’s right, but all you’re thinking is: It’s winter. Winter. You stand up, pick up the bag and the coat, and ask the way to the ladies’ room.

The attendant in the toilets is nowhere to be seen. Relieved, you take in a table covered with a white cloth, an empty ashtray, a small plate with some coins on it, a telephone. You wet your face and murmur: “Elena.” It’s the fourth time that you’ve contemplated yourself in a mirror and perhaps only for that reason, the face is beginning to look familiar. On the other hand, “Elena” still seems short, incomplete, unfinished. You put on the coat and you look at yourself again. It’s a well-cut garment lined with silk, very pleasant to the touch. I must be rich, you tell yourself. Or at least have good taste. Or perhaps I’ve just stolen the coat from an expensive shop. The word “stolen” materializes before you as a lead grey color with shades of green, but almost immediately it gives way to “number.” “Number” is brown–like “telephone,” like “café,” but if you say “my phone number,” “my” shows up as white, hopeful, powerful. You look for some coins, lift up the receiver and you know, as surely as you know anything, that you must proceed with caution.

You can disguise your voice, ask for Elena Vila Gastón, invent something when you have to say who you are. “She’s out. She’ll be back tonight at ten. She’s at work . . .” You’ll pay particular attention to the tone. Natural? Surprised? Alarmed? Perhaps the phone will be answered by a child (do you have any children?), an adolescent, a man (are you married?), a maid. That would be the best option. A maid. You’ll introduce yourself as a cousin, a childhood friend, the head of a company. There’ll be no need to specify which one. A foreign name, said quickly. You’ll insist that it’s imperative that you contact Elena. Urgent. And if you’re told “She no longer lives here. She moved some time ago,” you’ll express an interest in finding out her new address. Or perhaps–that’s why the call might be horrendous: “She died ten years ago.” Or even: “Yes, I’ll get her right away, who’s calling?” Because right now, although you’re beginning to feel certain of your physical appearance, you’re still not sure about your identity. “Elena Vila,” you murmur. And, breaking out in a cold sweat again, you dial the number, hang up, dial again and swear to yourself that, no matter who answers, you won’t chicken out in the face of the first solid clue that destiny offers you. What’s more–and this probably gives you courage–the phone guarantees anonymity. You pinch your nostrils with two fingers and try out a “hello.”

The third ring is cut short by a metallic click followed by silence. You don’t have time to think of anything. A few seconds later a female voice, measured, well-modulated and speaking like a professional announcer, repeats the number you have just dialed, asks you to please leave your message after the tone, and adds: “Thank you.” You clutch the receiver a few moments longer. Then you hang up, wet your face again in front of the mirror and leave. The waiter, a fan of coffees in the winter and ice creams in the summer, and with a limp, catches up with you at the café door: “You’ve left something behind,” he says. And he holds out a magazine. “It was on the floor beside the chair. It must have fallen when you got up.” Robot-like, you take it and mumble: “Thank you.” But your mind is not on whether or not the magazine belongs to you, on the minor moment of forgetfulness, but on the woman at the other end of the phone. “Thank you,” you repeat. And this time your voice sounds weak, insecure. It may be that your name is Elena Vila Gastón, but how unlike the Elena Vila Gastón–if that’s who it was–who, with such inexorable confidence, has just finished ordering you to “leave your message.”

You walk a few hundred meters, stop in front of a church and go in. You don’t stop to ask yourself how you know that it’s a church. As happened earlier in the café, you’re reluctant to ask yourself anything but the absolutely essential. You’re in a church, you have no difficulty recognizing the faces of the saints. Even though you might still not have the remotest idea who you are, nevertheless, perhaps only to calm yourself down, since what’s happening to you is serious, you tell yourself that things could be worse. You sit down in one of the pews and you imagine yourself, you, Elena Vila, totally confounded because, though you know that you’re Elena Vila, you have virtually no concept of any of your surroundings. There  you are, terrified, contemplating the bloody images before you, bodies lying in repose, tombs, monks or nuns–but Elena wouldn’t even know what a nun or a monk is–kneeling in supplication, in a trance, pointing at stigmata and wounds with one hand, showing a martyr’s palm on the other–Elena would not know what a martyr is either. But this is all so absurd. It could only happen to an inhabitant from another galaxy, or to a savage brought straight from the jungle. Certainly not to you. You know perfectly well who these saints are, why they’re here. And you’re not afraid. That’s why you get up from the pew and, feeling protected by the shadows, walk towards a confessional and wait until an old woman on her knees finishes reciting her sins. You also kneel down. You say: “Hail, Mary, full of grace” and then you remain silent for a moment. You have no idea whether the formula which your lips automatically mouthed is still the one that’s used. Then you realize that you haven’t knelt in a confessional for quite some time and, for an instant, you see yourself as a little girl, you actually manage to see yourself as a little girl. It’s no longer the word–brilliant, with ribbons–but you yourself thirty, maybe more, years ago. “I have told lies. I have fought with my sisters . . .” The priest must be deaf, or blind. Or perhaps he is only pretending to listen, and his thoughts are miles away. But you need to talk, to listen to your voice, and for want of a list of sins more appropriate to your age, you invent them. You’ve committed adultery. Once, twice, up to fifteen times. You’ve held up a bank; you’ve stolen the silk-lined coat from a shop. You speak slowly, secretly asking yourself if you’re not giving way to a whole host of hidden desires. But your voice, slow and measured, suddenly reminds you of the voice of a professional announcer, an actress. And so you do it. You recite a number, and then another and another. Then, when you say: “Please leave your message after the tone. Thank you,” there’s no longer the slightest doubt that you’re the woman who answered the phone earlier on.  You abandon the confessional in a hurry, without bothering to glance back to check if the priest really is deaf or blind. Or if right now, peering through the curtains of the little door, he is watching your flight with consternation.

The fresh outdoor air feels good. The church clock shows ten past eleven. But there’s no way it can still be eleven ten? A kindly passerby notes your confusion, looks upwards, shakes her head, and informs you that the church clock hasn’t worked for years. How pleasant to have someone speak to you so naturally, to you, the least known of all the unknowns. You take a few more steps and with unexpected joy, you stop before a street sign. The name of the street you are standing in fortuitously coincides with the one on the ID card, the membership card for the gym. I must be brave, you tell yourself. Elena Vila is undoubtedly a brave woman.

Three o’clock in the afternoon is a good time, discreet. You assume that the doorman–if the apartment building has a doorman–will be shut in his little apartment, having lunch, watching the news in front of a television, totally unaware of who might be going into or out of the building. The gym membership card shows that you live on the very top floor of the building, the attic apartment. You think: I like living in an attic apartment. The mirror in the lift sends back that face with which you’re already familiar, and which you now hide behind a pair of dark glasses you’ve discovered opportunely in your pocket. Yes, you’d rather live on the top floor, than on any other level. But in reality, are you so brave? Is Elena so brave?

No, no you’re not. When you reach your destination and confront a wooden door, you begin to tremble, doubt, pose yourself a host of possibilities, all contradictory, alarming. Your mind is working at a dizzying speed. A benign little voice, which rises from inside you, tries to calm you down. In the eyes of whoever opens the door (remember: she can’t see yours), in the degree of her familiarity, in her greeting, perhaps in her surprise, you’ll be able to find out about yourself, know how long you’ve been wandering the streets, how unusual or how everyday your absences are. A second voice disturbs you. You’re putting yourself in the eye of a storm. After all, who are you? Wouldn’t it have been better to put yourself in the hands of a doctor, gone to a hospital, asked a priest for help? You’ve rung the bell six times and no one has answered. You don’t take long to find the keyring and open the door. After a brief unsteadiness, a few seconds in which you try to encourage yourself, you pause. What are you going to find here? Might it not be precisely whatever is here that caused your flight, be the very thing you don’t want to remember for anything in the world?

You’re on the verge of abandoning the exercise, running down the stairs, and taking refuge in your ignorance, in your lack of memory. But you’ve pushed open the door, and the sight of the sunny attic apartment calms you down. You go through the rooms one by one. The mess in the bedroom reminds you of the one in your makeup bag, the living room has something of your coat, that well-cut item of clothing which you now, without thinking, throw lazily on the couch. You feel at home in the apartment. You wander around it as if you knew it well. On the kitchen table, you find the remains of a breakfast. The bread is fresh–today’s–and all you have to do is reheat the coffee. For a moment it all seems like a dream. How you would love to be Elena Vila, to live in that attic apartment, to have the face that is reflected in the mirrors, to have breakfast just as she is doing right now, at three-thirty in the afternoon, in a kitchen full of sunlight!

You are Elena Vila Gastón. You know where to find the cheeses, the sugar, the jam. You don’t hesitate as you open the cutlery drawer, the drawers where the tablecloths and tea towels are kept. Some framed photographs throw your image back at you. A little younger. An image which doesn’t please you as much as the one that’s reflected in the bathroom, the living room, the bedroom. After a few hours, you already know a great deal about yourself. You’ve opened wardrobes, photograph albums, you’ve sat down at the desk in the study. You are Elena–why, earlier on, would you have preferred Helena?–you’re thirty-seven years old, you live in a spacious, sunny attic apartment . . . And you don’t live by yourself. A man appears constantly in the album. His name’s Jorge. You know instantly that that’s his name, as if the photos which you’re now anxiously leafing through had labels, headings, footnotes. You recognise countries, events. You pause over a smiling group of people sitting around a restaurant table, and you sense that that meal proved indescribably long and tedious. But most of all, you pause over photos of Jorge. The same thing happens with Jorge as with you. He looks better in recent photos than in the earlier ones. You feel something special each time you come across his picture. Just as you do when you open the wardrobe and caress his clothes. There are no wedding pictures in the albums. But then, could you possibly imagine yourself ten, fifteen years ago, in a wedding dress? Absolutely not, you decide. I didn’t get married, and if I did, it wasn’t in a white dress. I’d be horrified if I’d had a white wedding. But you are no longer imagining or assuming. For quite some time now–perhaps from the very moment when, without realizing it, you took off your coat as if you were in your own home, like someone who finally comes home after a particularly busy day – it’s your own mind that’s been making an effort to disguise as revelation what you already know as fact, what you’ve been admitting to yourself little by little. For there’s something wonderful about this rediscovery of yourself, something you’d like to hold on to, suspend in time, prolong. At the same time, there’s the memory of an uneasiness which mingles with your happiness, and which, unwittingly, you sweep into a corner, postpone, fear.

There are various messages on the answering machine. One is a silence which you recognize as your own, on the other end of the line, in the café restroom, when you were nothing more than an unknown, a question mark. Another is from work. From the magazine. The same magazine that the waiter–that poor man, so elderly, so weary: “You’ve left something behind”–returned to you this morning and which, caught up in other lapses of memory, you didn’t even glance at. The last message is from Jorge. “Helena,” he says–or you, at least, seem to have heard “Helena.” Jorge will arrive tomorrow evening and although in that precise moment, you wish it were tomorrow, you decide that it’s better this way. Even in this you’ve been lucky. You were annoyed over something silly, insignificant, as you always are whenever he goes off on a trip and arrives back later than he’d promised . . . Or perhaps, quite simply, as you always are. Because there was something more to it. That uneasiness which now has to do not only with Jorge, but with your job, with your home, with you yourself. A perennial dissatisfaction, an absurd lack of tranquility with which you’ve been living for years and years. Perhaps the major portion of your life. “Vila Gastón,” you suddenly hear. “Always on the moon . . . Why don’t you pay attention to the class?” But there’s no need to go back that far in your memories. “It’s pointless”–and this time it’s Jorge’s voice, just a few weeks ago. “You could almost say that you’re only happy when you’re not actually present . . .” And then you realize what a fortunate woman you are. “Blessed absence,” you murmur. Because you owe it all to that opportune, inexplicable absence. Those hours that have made you abandon yourself and return, as if a stranger, as if you were seeing yourself for the first time.

The desk is full of projects, drawings, sketches. You grab a scrap of paper and write “Absence” in pointed letters, leaning slightly to the right. With the help of a marker, you draw a halo around it. You’ll never go anywhere without this piece of paper, you’ll carry it in your wallet wherever you go. You fold it carefully and in doing so, you realize there’s no such thing as chance. For, from among a host of possible options, you just so happen to have chosen a scrap of paper with a watermark. You look at the whorls: greys, browns, purples. That’s how you were, sunk in a sea of grey, brown, and purple waves, on the surface of which your life raft is now sailing. Absence. You realize that you’re tired, worn out, night has already fallen, a busy day awaits you tomorrow. But deep down you feel like a newborn woman who’s doing nothing more than congratulating herself on her good fortune. When you finally get into bed, it’s late, very late, you’re exhausted and you’ve almost gotten used to your happiness.

The alarm clock interrupts a cruise through warm, clear, calm waters. You refuse to budge from bed for a while. Just a little while. You’re still on the deck of a boat, lying in a hammock, listing all the things you should get done today, Tuesday, production day, as if you were fooling the dream, as if you were gaining time from the dream itself. It’s always like this. But the little hands on the clock follow their course implacably and, just like almost every other morning, you’re amazed to discover that those moments that you thought you’d gained are nothing more than minutes lost. A small, green leather-bound diary lying on the bedside table reminds you of your obligations. “Nine o’clock, layout”; “Evening, airport: Jorge.” You shower in a flash, dress quickly, and only realize when you hit the street that the day has dawned overcast, the sky foreshadows rain, and that life only continues to be stubbornly stopped at ten past eleven for the church clock. Just like every other day. Although today, you tell yourself, isn’t like every other day. You’re still very sleepy, inexplicably sleepy. But calm, as well, cheerful. You’ll go to the airport in the evening. You haven’t been to the airport to pick up Jorge for years. You stop at a kiosk and buy the paper, just like every other morning. But why on earth have you done it today, if this morning is nothing like the routine of every other morning? You’re in a hurry, you won’t have a free moment until this evening, you won’t even feel like glancing through it at the airport. You can’t find any change so you open your wallet. The women in the kiosks have always disliked being paid with a ten euro note and the one looking at you now, hand outstretched, doesn’t seem to be in a good mood. You finally find what you’re looking for, together with a piece of paper carefully folded over.

The sight of “Absence” fills you with an unexpected sense of well-being. You close your eyes. Absence is white, brilliant, with ribbons. Like Helena, airport, ship . . . I personally wrote this word on this watermarked piece of paper. Before getting into bed, before dreaming. The outline of the letters seems deliciously childish (“childish” has a bluish tint. You can’t be more specific than that: bluish), and just for a moment, you’d like to be a young girl, you’d like not to have to get up early, not go to work. Although, wasn’t it precisely this job that you’d dreamed of doing as a young girl? Yes, but you’d also dreamed of traveling, boarding a cruise ship like the one in the dream you’ve just had. How good it would feel to be lying in a hammock right now and letting the hours laze by while you savored drinks, exotic juices, ice creams! You think “ice cream,” but you’ve already arrived at the magazine office. You call your assistant and ask for a coffee. It’s winter. Ice creams for summer, coffee in winter. And you look kindly at the girl. She’s taken aback. Perhaps you’ve never looked kindly at her before. Although in reality, you’re looking at yourself, at a whirlwind of phrases which make a space for themselves in your still sleepy mind. You smile, open the diary and cross out “Nine o’clock, production.” The girl has come to a halt. Next to the door. Wondering if behind your smile lurks a new request, an order. “Coffee,” you repeat. “A double coffee.” But all of a sudden, her immobility annoys you. Here you are with a mountain of work, with a host of sensations that you’re unable to put in order, and there she stands, immobile, caught up in herself, beside the door. “Are you still here?” The assistant has already reacted. Your voice sounded sharp, pushy, distancing you from the whirlwind of thoughts and voices you’d been caught up in a moment ago. “Lost,” you say. But the word has no color. Nor does what’s written on the piece of watermarked paper you’re now unfolding again and spreading out on the table. Grey, brown, purple swirls . . .

You complain about some texts, protest over some photographs. You’re in a bad mood. But nobody in the agency seems to be aware of it. Not even you. Perhaps this is how it always is. Perhaps you, Elena Vila Gastón, are always like this. Constantly annoyed. Wanting to be somewhere else. Unappreciative of what you have because you’re caught up in what you’re dreaming about. Absent, an eternally and irremediably absent person who now turns back to her diary and crosses out “This evening, airport: Jorge.” What nonsense! What could you have been thinking of? How could it have occurred to you? Because if one thing is clear on this morning when you are having so much difficulty waking up, when at times you still seem to be sailing in the tropics, lying in a hammock, it is that your life has always been grey, brown, purple, and that the day which is just beginning is just one more day. A day like many others. A day exactly like so many others.


Cristina Fernández Cubas

Cristina Fernández Cubas (Arenys de Mar, Barcelona, 1945) published her first collection of short stories, Mi hermana Elba, in 1980, and has since published five more: Los altillos del Brumal, El ángulo del horror, Con Agatha en Estambul, Parientes pobres del diablo, and most recently, La habitación de Nona (2015, English translation 2017, Nona’s Room, Peter Owen World Series, Premio de la Crítica Española). She is recognised as one of Spain’s best exponents of this genre. She has also written three novels, a play, and a critically acclaimed memoir, Cosas que ya no existen (2001), which has contributed to the ongoing debate about what exactly constitutes a memoir. In 2008, in recognition of her outstanding career, Tusquets published a volume containing all her short stories. Among the awards she has won are the Premio Salambó and the Premio Cuidad de Barcelona (2009) and, in 2016, the National Literature Prize for Narrative. Her works have been translated into ten languages. She adopted the pseudonym “Fernanda Kubbs” for her 2013 novel, La puerta entreabierta.

Lilit Žekulin Thwaites

Lilit Žekulin Thwaites is an Australian literary translator and an honorary research fellow in Spanish at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Her most recent translation, The Librarian of Auschwitz (Antonio Iturbe, Henry Holt 2017; Ebury Publishing 2019), was selected for Publishers Weekly's "Best Books 2017" issue in the Young Adult category and won the Gold Medal (Teen Reader category) in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Awards. She won the inaugural Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize at the 2015 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. In 2014, she was awarded a residency at Art Omi: Writers. Her translation of Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain (AmazonCrossing, 2012) was recognised as one of World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2012. Its sequel, Weight of the Heart, was published in 2016. The Immortal Collection by Eva García Sáenz appeared in 2014. Her translations of Spanish short stories and essays have been published in various journals and anthologies. Lilit also helps to organise visits to Australia by Spanish-speaking writers, and often takes part in events with them. For more information, visit https://scholars.latrobe.edu.au/display/lmthwaites.

Copyright (c) Cristina Fernández Cubas, 1994. English translation copyright (c) Lilit Žekulin Thwaites, 2019.