I wanted to sit in the shade and drink beer but Rosa wouldn’t have it. We were taking the bus despite her hatred of buses. And it was my fault the car hadn’t been fixed. The mechanic was sick I told her. But no. That too was my fault somehow. And we were going to the village come hell or high water. The old people were already queuing. Because that’s what they do best, she jeered. Look at them. She made no attempt to keep her voice down. She pushed me forward in front of a small man with a neatly-ironed short-sleeved shirt. She said most of the men looked like they’d come from an ironing competition. I asked her to speak in English at least. She ignored me and continued in Spanish. She stared defiantly at the man‘s immaculate wife.
People huddled around bags or baskets or boxes. It was more like a market than a bus stop. They argued and shouted. There was a lot of talking about the new administration and the bus fares. Rosa waved me on. Give me the tickets, she said, stepping onto the bus. She had the mobile in her other hand. She rang her mother to say she would have to pick us up when she came down for the milk. The driver checked our tickets and called her guapa. He didn’t disguise his lechery but I let it go.
I was trying to get Rosa seated when the fat woman got on. She came sideways past the driver. From the middle of the bus, even through the din, you could pick out the sound of her gasping. The driver had shouted about the door closing as she came laboriously up the steps. She came down the aisle complaining loudly about the driver. The driver complained about latecomers mucking up the schedule for everybody. Rosa could tell he was a socialist. The fat woman, like the rest of these bloody villagers, is a fascist. I hoped she wasn’t going to start about Franco. Those fascists, she explained, think they can hold everyone to ransom. Franco is dead, she said loudly. I asked her to pass me the water. That driver has his job to do, she added. I took the aisle seat. The fat woman brushed against me. Her perfume intoxicated. I was relieved when she kept moving. She didn’t stop complaining about her arm getting caught in the door, and there was a litany of officials who would be receiving a full account. An old man near the back was visibly impressed by several names mentioned and nodded continually in her direction. When the driver pulled away and turned the radio on the teenagers applauded.
The village was about an hour from the city and it was the first stop. We came along the valley close to the stream and the quilted alfalfa. The parched slopes rose on either side. Already, at noon, the heat was establishing a firm grip. People were mopping their brows, conversation became subdued. One woman fumbled with her beads. I leant forward so Rosa wouldn’t see her and initiate a commentary. I put my face close to hers and we looked across the treetops, waiting for the point where the river would make its reappearance, always, though I’d often made this journey, with the hint of surprise. Once the river returned you could look up to the distant spire and count the twists and turns to the village perimeter.
When the bus stopped and the doors opened we could hear the band practise way above on the square. The salsa sounds got everyone talking and moving. The driver, pulling his sunglasses down, swung out of the bus. He greeted the woman coming out of the bar onto the patio. She wore a white blouse and a dark skirt. Her long black hair was tied up. She swung a bar towel in the air and took several provocative turns on the patio, amongst the tables. A wonderful smell of fish and herbs came from the bar. The savour of charcoal. The driver gave the towel a twirl. The waitress evaded him deftly. Someone on the bus made a comment and there was a lot of laughter. I watched Rosa on the step of the bus, unperturbed, looking towards the hills. She exuded a regal indifference. She waited for me to help her down. We took the bag and the cardboard box from the hold. The waitress cracked the bar towel like a whip and went back into the bar followed by two of the passengers. The doors closed and the bus sunk away from them, with a blast of exhaust fumes and a smell of diesel, into the belly of the hill.
I was still gasping for a beer but Rosa said we should wait. I shrugged. An old woman with a stiff perm came out of the bar and stared at us. It made me uneasy. I always complained about the way people stared. It made Rosa laugh. If someone stared at Rosa she was all the more likely to do something outrageous. She took a few steps in the woman’s direction and looked past her to the farmhouse north of the village where smoke curled through the still air. That’s where they are making the giant paella, she said. A few weeks before she had shown me the large pan that spanned the width of a truck. The woman with the perm backed away. She sat on a stool looking defeated and turned her back to us.
Rosa picked up the cardboard box and crossed the road to the bus shelter. I followed her and placed my bag on the seat. From that side we had a better view of the mountain track to her mother’s place. She scanned the roads that etched the side of the mountain and connected all the new houses in bands. There was very little movement, and people round their houses were obscured by trees or walls, or simply distance. After a little concentration I could pick out the white dot of her mother’s house. I followed the line of the road to the inevitable dust cloud, the black object that could have been a cockroach, quivering in the heat. Rosa had already spotted the jeep. She was looking at her watch. She’s coming down for the milk, she said.
Teresa was far too small for the Russian jeep and she made it look like a tank. Rosa declared that she drove it like a tank. Mama, she gasped, when the jeep lurched onto the pavement thirty yards away. Shouting was often their way. Teresa was shouting back before she even got out of the jeep. She got entangled in the seatbelt, though she never wore it properly. It could choke you, she said. She cursed the Russians, her bronzed head barely visible, like a classical bust on the dashboard. Without ceremony she climbed out and bustled around to the back. Rosa and I strained to kiss her on the cheek. She carried on talking about one thing or another. A description or a complaint would remain unfinished because some other thing crossed her mind. She might return to it later in the middle of something else. It was a feature that Rosa shared, one that made communication difficult, and shouting necessary. So it seemed.
Teresa took the milk containers and crossed to the bar, still talking loudly. Rosa followed her to the door, shouting within, oblivious of the two couples at the table and the woman with the perm who looked more defeated. My tongue was hanging out. I had to use my sleeve to mop my brow. I heard Manolo’s name bandied back and forth. That was the gist of her agitation. Manolo the jack-of-all-trades had delayed her with his woes. The stories of his wayward wife which always roused my suspicion. The way he confided in Teresa, insinuating. Always saying too much, looking for that sympathetic shoulder. If it wasn’t his wife it was some battle with the mayor of the village, guaranteed to get her onside, because Teresa, he knew, had her own battles with the mayor. She was likely to launch into one of her tirades about the fascists.
She came out to me bursting. She put the milk on the table much to the old couple’s dismay. You know what that bastard did, she was telling me. Even she realised that her tirade would have to be tempered in that bar. They were friends with the mayor. Unable to contain herself she came to me, to unburden. I wasn’t sure which bastard but I didn’t interrupt. I was accustomed to picking up these threads at random. I had given up any expectation of things being evident. Things would crop up in conversation that would illuminate something whispered days before. I leant forward encouragingly. Rosa sighed. Let‘s have a beer, I suggested and walked into the bar. Teresa had to have her say so she followed bottling it up as best she could until we stood at the end of the counter near the empty tables. Most of the customers were parked up the other end near the drinks fridge and the jukebox, apart from four sour-looking men in their twenties. They were at the corner table. I thought they were from another village because the locals only sat at the tables if they were eating. One of them looked at Rosa as if he knew her but didn’t say anything. I stared at him for a second but Teresa had my elbow and started talking again. I ordered three beers.
She was unrelenting with her story. I had heard it before. How the mayor and his family had cheated her over a piece of land. Rosa knew how to derail her. She asked if the animals had been fed, and Teresa was back again complaining about being delayed by Manolo. Her whole day would be thrown into disarray. She couldn’t even finish her beer. I picked up the baggage, as I always did, and placed it carefully in the back of the jeep, knowing that one or both of the women would come and rearrange what I had done. I was determined not to be put out. The men at the table were watching us leave. Rosa studiously ignored them. The woman with the perm walked up the steep incline towards the square with a pig’s leg on her shoulder. I looked at the black feet in her scrawny grip. Teresa was moving the bag round like a sleepwalker. That woman was so fat, Rosa said suddenly. Both of us looked at her and climbed into the jeep. Teresa had no idea she meant the woman on the bus. It was another way for Rosa to distract her mother. That’s how they carried on.
The jeep bounced around on the stony road. Teresa found it very hard to find the right speed, and when she did she couldn’t maintain it, couldn’t stop herself jerking the accelerator. She was fretting about the chickpeas and the cod that she had soaked overnight and cooked that morning with the spinach. I told Tanya to lift the pot, she moaned. Rosa bit her tongue for once. We both knew that Teresa never let her mother near the kitchen for some reason. All the women in the family were great cooks but fought like hell when it came to the details. Her voice began to soar again when she described Tanya trying to add a little extra paprika to the dish. She looked at me. I shook my head. Rosa put her arms round my neck and pointed to the Alsatian at the gate. Tito, the three of us exclaimed in unison, and broke up laughing as the dog started to bark.
Rosa’s grandmother observed us from the balcony. Come away, Tito, she shouted unconvincingly, and the dog ignored her. Tanya made no attempt to move. She never moved suddenly, not because she was old, but she was groomed at odds with the bustle of her family. There was always an air of preservation about her, a faded hardbitten grandeur. Her skin too was lighter in tone. She was proud of her peachy skin. She came from a family of wealthy landowners in Segovia and paler skin, she once told me, conveyed status. It meant you didn’t work the sun-baked fields. When her father lost everything through gambling she became a seamstress and never forgave him. She waved like a queen as I opened the gate and struggled with the dog. She went back inside before Teresa found something to shout about. I knew she would be sitting in her corner, bracing herself, taking her tablets.
One day that dog will break some bones, I said. No one listened. I stood at the bottom of the stone stairs and let them fall through the door with the dog herding them. All three talking at once and the dog barking. Tanya had moved to the sink to give herself an air of usefulness. She had picked up an old cloth from beneath the sink, clutching at it, with no real idea what she was going to do. Teresa grabbed the cloth and put it back in its place, going straight to check the pots like someone who’d been burgled. You’ve been eating again, Rosa taunted her grandmother, and the old woman flapped despite all her resolve. I walked over and kissed her on both cheeks. I was surprised by her soft and perfumed skin.
She was relieved at my intervention, and took the opportunity to get back to her seat in the corner, the safest place in the room.
Rosa thrust one of the milk containers at me. I pretended for a moment that I didn’t know what to do with it but she paid no attention. I did what I usually did and took it down the backstairs to the storeroom below. I put it in the second fridge beside the long freezer. The outer wall of the basement was made of glass doors that folded open on days like these. A series of broad terraces composed the slope towards the boundary saplings. The coops and chicken huts filled the bottom terrace. Vegetable drills occupied the one above. A series of flat stones formed steps from one terrace to the next. The chickens were agitated and brought the dog to investigate, but he came tearing towards me when I lit a cigarette. He waited for me to throw something but I managed to get him to sit quiet. I liked to look down over the valley. It still gave me a sense of wellbeing every time and I wondered if the others felt the same, or maybe it wore off. I could see the church in the tree-lined village square. The village was carved like a conch on the lower slopes beyond the river and the road, a few people scattered like ants. The village stage was like a matchbox. This evening, in the shade, the place would swarm and the band would echo all the way up here. The matchbox would shake. I tracked the sky for any sign of the eagles. They soared as a pair. But there was nothing, not a speck on the endless bright canvas.
Teresa called out to Rosa. I could hear her ask Rosa to remind me to bring up the firewood. I shouted back before Rosa had time to say anything. There was some comment from Tanya and laughter above. At the sound of their voices the dog got excited again and I couldn’t persuade him to sit. Ye have this dog ruined, I shouted, but they ignored me. I resisted shouting again. I came from a family of whisperers, Rosa told me. Even the trees used to whisper around the old family house. It was an uneven, windswept place in the Shannon basin, sprawling out from the original grey render, a room extended to one side, then another out the back towards disintegrating sheds. It was an outworn, sacrificial place, and my brother couldn’t understand why I sold it only a year after my father died. He could only see it as a betrayal, and not the escape from an inevitable extirpation. For a second I imagined my brother standing beside me, only for a second, because I knew he never would.
The dog scrambled for the gate. He gave it a ferocious rattle. Someone, not yet visible, must be walking up the road, or maybe one of the hunters was crossing the field. I put the cigarette out and dropped the butt under a stone. I half expected to hear Rosa tell me not to do that. I gathered some logs and went upstairs. The smells of food and spices were everywhere. The women moved around like jugglers. Rosa chopped the garlic into thin slices and mixed it with the parsley. Teresa lifted the pan of sliced potatoes from the flame so her daughter could sprinkle the garlic. Tanya beat the egg mixture in a bowl. The pot with cod and chickpeas was on a low heat. Teresa took the egg mixture from her mother and added a dash of milk, beating it to her own taste. Rosa passed me a bottle of Valdepeñas to open. I popped the cork and Teresa was adamant about keeping it for the cod. The other two complained. Rosa passed around some sherry. She insisted I try it. Then she took me by the hand to the balcony as if she had timed it to perfection. Look, she pointed with the sherry glass. The sunlight sparkled on the glass. Two small specks oscillated between the peaks. The eagles appeared.
From the highest point, against the sun, they eased from the face of the mountain, and floated down through the valley, riding invisible currents from one side to another, passing way above the house where they held for an instant, before dipping to the lowest point near the river, scaling a hill on the other side. They continued the length of the valley until they became specks again, and vanished.
Teresa shouted to shut the door and keep the dog out. We remained for a second staring at the emptiness where the eagles had been, savouring the elation. Teresa placed the chunks of bread beside the plate of red peppers arranged in a star. She drizzled oil over the peppers. She added crispy bacon to the wild mushrooms and beckoned everyone to the table. Rosa took small beers from the freezer. Teresa refused one. She flicked the heads off two of them and gave one to me. Teresa smiled when she placed the tortilla in front of me. The pot with the cod and chickpeas was placed in the centre of the table. When we were all seated Teresa waited for me to pour her some wine. Tanya sipped her iced water like a martyr. I looked at Rosa. She had her eyes closed briefly. I knew she was thinking of the eagles. There was still a sense of flight and mystery in the pit of the stomach. You’re not saying grace, Teresa said disparagingly. She had no truck with religion or its remotest trappings. No, Mama, Rosa snapped, and started putting salad on the plates. Only a little for me, Tanya said meekly, like a stranger in the house. Only a little, Rosa scoffed, putting a large portion on the old woman’s plate. I poured her a tot of wine. Her lips puckered, the smallest of protests.
You’re lucky to have a grandmother, I told Rosa. Everyone has one, she said. Alive I mean. Sometimes it was hard to tell if she was serious or what she was thinking. She had a way of disappearing suddenly, before your eyes, and someone I didn’t recognise took her place. That was always a scary moment. Like a recurring dream I had where she walked through a doorway and didn’t come back. That thought left an aftertaste. If she wasn’t herself, if one day she didn’t return, then I would no longer be able to sit at this table, amongst these people. I, too, would disappear.
When Tanya had cleared her plate, and the others had long finished, she reached for another chunk of bread. No bread, Teresa barked. No more bread, Rosa chimed. I resisted defending the old lady. It would serve no purpose, change nothing. Tanya clicked her tongue and put the bread back. Rosa always said it was an insult to the cook to eat bread after your meal. She took the remainder of the bread from the table and placed it on the sideboard under a cloth. Teresa began making coffee. The dog barked and rattled the main gate. I saw Rosa glance at the clock. Rosa didn’t look out the window like Teresa did. Instead, she moved to the door like someone expecting a visitor. We could all see the man coming up the hill towards the gate. Teresa recognised him before I did. One of the sour young men from the bar. She became very agitated and spoke too quickly for me to understand. It brought Tanya to her feet. Those drug dealers should be run out of the village, Tanya said. Both women looked accusingly at Rosa, but she went quickly down the steps, out of view. I felt an irrational fear when I couldn’t see her anymore, like the feeling of loss I had in the dream, a dread of old ways.
I ran down the steps, past Rosa, towards the gate, shouting. I couldn’t get past the dog quickly enough. I cursed the man as he turned back and I struggled to hold the dog. I almost let him loose but I was distracted by a line of people with flags and banners, moving along the bank of the river. From a distance it looked like parts of the riverbank were slowly shifting. People were banging drums. I dragged the dog back and went inside.
The women upstairs hadn’t moved. Teresa sipped her coffee. Tanya wiped her hands with a napkin. She didn’t look at me for several seconds, but when she did there was a faint smile, a kind of acknowledgement. Teresa poured calvados into two small handcrafted tumblers, quirky shapes. She offered me one.
Through the balcony window I could see Rosa down by the pool. The anxiety circled, like the dream when I watched her going through the door, not knowing if she would return. Her head was tilted upwards, undeterred, scanning the heights of the valley. I savoured the calvados, its bite and its heat, the rawness dissolving into warmth. It was like an invisible hand soothing my body, touching my eyes so I could see those distant specks again, the eagles spiralling closer.
I could see them come towards her through the valley. She lifted her head, without turning, aware of me approaching. I put my arms round her as they flew overhead. I smelled her skin, and that wild mix of pine and verbena blown up from the river. We both inhaled. It’s like lemons, she said.