Just missed – a short story
Too late to meet a man who had fascinated me
In my desk I keep a small wooden box, light in colour and highly polished. It contains small souvenirs, a Benfica cigarette lighter, a few sepia photographs and a set of old hotel keys. My grandfather, killed six years before I was born, used these keys, handled these keys. Now they are mine and, occasionally, I handle them, but I cannot use them. They were given him in the summer of 1939 when his ship delivered supplies to the Republican forces in Barcelona. Franco and his Nationalists were about to enter the city and the captain was given twenty-four hours to get his ship out of the port. Grandfather, the engineer raising steam, had no time to return to his room in the Ritz and surrender his keys.
Three years before this, in January 1936, my friend Benigno was born in the Asturias, in the mountains of northern Spain. By the time he was six months old, his father had left home and gone into hiding in his mountains. He was a landowner, a forester, a bourgeois, and the red miners of the Asturias had put a price on his head. It was a further six months before he could return home. Now, fifty years on, I was going to meet this old man.
Our progress across France was slow, travelling on alternate days then setting up camp and letting the children play and the car rest. We travelled on back roads, long and straight and shaded by lines of poplar trees. We watched the sunflowers and sang along with the children’s tapes. After a week, a long grey shadow replaced the horizon in front of us. All day long it rose slowly, and came to dominate the land around us. Quietly, we were drawn steadily towards the peaks and high valleys which appeared as a warm sun cleared the haze. Gradually we approached the Pyrennees and Spain.
Two days later, after a day of rest in the town at the foot of this towering mass, we left St. Jean Pied de Port and started the long haul over the mountains. As we climbed, the mountain road imposed a discipline on our progress. At times it impressed us, and at times alarmed us as we fought the zig-zag bends and forced our way up into Spain and then the long descent towards Pamplona.
From the border, we drove along winding roads, free of traffic. Behind us lay the orderliness of French camp-sites and the small-town busyness of the country’s back roads. In front lay a land that resembled the setting for a western and the children looked out for cowboys. We phoned our friends to tell them that we had reached Spain. Once we had reached the northern coast and made progress west towards Oviedo we would be in touch again.
As the plains below the mountains enveloped us we felt the Spanish day impose itself. Despite it, despite the heat and the glare, we travelled on, through Pamplona with its high buildings and long, straight streets, then onto a motor-way and north to the coast. Not for us the never-ending plains of Castilla to the south, plains that had rolled interminably by the first time I had travelled to Madrid, on a train that had taken a whole day to snake its way down from the border. Not for us the raucous hedonism of the south-east coast and the world imposed on that part of Spain by its guests.
No, we were not tourists. The children were on holiday with Mum and Dad and contented themselves with whatever beach or swimming pool came to hand. My wife was part parent, part navigator, part companion. And me, my business lay to the north with this elderly gentleman about whom I had had heard so much, a man who was going to tell me about an important part of his country’s recent past.
I had first learned about the Spanish civil war from the left, from sources that remained passionately sure of their particular views. Now there was a chance to hear something different, from a man who had felt that suffering at first hand, whose family had shown me more of Spain’s fascinating reconciliation with itself. His son, my friend, had married a woman whose family had fled with many others, once it became clear that they would not be able to live in a Spain dominated by Franco. For years, Maria’s aunts and uncles had had to remain outside Spain, trying to maintain family links from faraway Mexico. It was Benigno, the son of a hunted bourgeois, who had taken me to Franco’s grave in the Valley of the Fallen and explained calmly and patiently, in his engineer’s dispassionate and objective way, the significance of totalitarian architecture and the enormity of this project for which the Caudillo had used prisoners of war as slave labour.
At the end of out first day in Spain we sought a campsite up on the coast near Santander. We welcomed the early cool of the evening and relaxed up on Spain’s wonderful green coast, La Costa Verde. There was no hurry to do anything, and the children were happy to escape from captivity in the car. They played around us. We watched, fascinated, while a Dutch family pulled up near us and unravelled a trailer tent, the first which we had encountered. We leant against our car, feeling the heat draining out of the sun; we felt relaxed, despite the stickiness and stiffness of the day’s travel. The site owner had carefully put us with other families at the back of the site, in a walled garden. We were away form the back-packers and Hell’s Angels who had sprawled themselves and their possessions around the reception area in ways that did not endear them to parents of small children; gone were the certainties of camping in France.
We did not contact our friends again during this stop and there was to be no unseemly rush to their home. No, one more day would make little difference. The next morning we turned our back on the site and found the beach, clean, wide and almost un-peopled. Our energy returned and our English family’s day there was transformed by the warm water so that we could swim, then return to sandcastles that had yet to be finished, or hunt for interesting debris and keepsakes. Keeping dry, keeping warm were matters that concerned us not. The day was simply to be enjoyed.
And it was. When we were hungry a nearby shop provided bread, cheese and salami. I watched the children and read a book. From somewhere else two bottles of beer put in an appearance. There was ice cream when we needed it and space around us still as later people arrived and settled down. After lunch, a vague uncertain time here, we swept across the smooth sand, hunting treasure, and unearthed a brightly striped t-shirt. We dug and pulled at the thing, then took it down to the water and restored it. By the end of the afternoon it was dry and fitted my wife beautifully – a real souvenir that was to last for years.
Later, tired and cheered by their day on the beach, the children had succumbed quickly and were sleeping soundly long before it got dark. From time to time the sound of the unwashed campers next door reached us with the distinctive aroma of their particular cigarettes. On our side of the wall, we sat around our tent, eating, then reading quietly as the sun reached round to the west and prepared to die.
We slept well – our holiday was meeting expectations. Next morning we were all up early; our daughter sat sleepily in the back of the car and buried herself in a book. Our son found a wall and kicked his football back and forth against, it, time and time again. Soon we had packed the tent onto the roof-rack and stuffed the rest of the bits into the rear of the car. Outside, on the road west, we found a phone box and rang our friends. During the night, Benigno’s father had died in his sleep.
Would they want visitors with a death in the family? We had already arranged to stay in a campsite two hundred yards from their holiday home and knew that they would insist on offering hospitality. We turned off the main road and drove down towards the sea and the village. We found their house and parked outside. Their children swarmed over ours – they had met before – and took them off outside.
I cannot remember just how it all started, but we suddenly found ourselves involved with this family. In the family home, the old man lay where he had lain for so many years and the wives and daughters of neighbours lined the stairs and said their rosaries. Cautiously, we picked out way past them until somewhere, in the upper stories of the house, we found Benigno’s sisters with their mother. It was the first time that I had seen just how the simple, physical presence of those we love can absorb shock and pain. It was so clear, so understated, so effective, like a silent weight pressing out the pain. The physical closeness, the gentle touching conveyed so much that it could be felt by an outsider, a visitor, immediately. And it allowed an outsider a role, a very modest one, allowed as an intruder to contribute something to this tangible holding together of a family. We spoke a few words to the widow then joined the silent supporters outside.
Two days later, there was the funeral of this man we had missed. I remember the acres of cars that brought some five hundred people to the funeral, not to the funeral of a political notable or the head of some huge corporation, but to the funeral of a very old man who was loved and respected. After the service and the formalities, we returned to our tent and the children and resumed our holiday.
The next Sunday, Benigno led us up a mountain to mass. It was a stiff climb and I watched his tall frame, upright and straight as a ram-rod. Step by step by step, he lifted himself up the mountainside, setting his feet down amongst the loose stones and pushing himself up towards the tiny chapel. Behind him, I scrambled upwards with our wives and our children. High up in his father’s mountains, away from the world, there was time to think
That was it. The funeral, the obvious sadness over, the children played for a week and we spent time with our friends. My wife discovered an antipathy to Spanish bean soup that endures and we decided that an orreyo, a small barn-like structure on stilts, with a dry play area underneath, would make an excellent addition to our garden back at home.
We did manage a trip back up into the Pyrenees, to Covadongo from where Spaniards undertook the Reconquista, the centuries-long business of taking back their country from the Moors. We found ourselves at a site of pilgrimage high up in the mountains, a site as far from the distraction and intimidation and threats of modern life as it is possible to get. We found a small place where Spaniards had taken heart centuries before, and had found the strength and determination to face an impossible-seeming task without succumbing to the enormity of it.
We travelled back to England on the ferry from Santander to Plymouth. I watched from the top deck of the boat as the coast of northern Spain receded. The disappointment of not meeting the old man was left behind and the sense of something bigger and more important grew. What would he have been able to tell me about his country, that his family had not already revealed or that I had seen now for myself?