“I remember it was a Wednesday. I remember which day it was because later we had to go back to the chapel. Classes all day with Father Alberto then listening to Franco’s broadcast to the nation at night. The Church had one of the two radios in the village. It was 1945, nobody had anything in those days. Father Alberto wasn’t much of a teacher, he talked about Jesus mostly and the scriptures just like he did on Sundays. And the war, he talked a lot about the war, all the men did. But with the main road through the mountain pass closed by the snows most of the winter, the church hall was the only place we could have lessons. When class finished all us kids ran outside. It was beautifully sunny that day; it was the first day that I’d felt the warmth of the sun all winter. I closed my eyes and let it soak into me, my face glowed and it made me smile. We were in a good mood, the younger ones screamed and shouted as they ran off in different directions towards their homes. Conchi ran ahead of me, seeking out patches of unblemished snow that we hadn’t already stood in and jumped on them. Every time she jumped in the crisp snow she squealed, she loved it. She was such a contented girl, my little sister. It wasn’t a long walk from the village to our house. I could see Mami up the hill standing in our doorway, lit up by the sunshine like an angel, letting the sun warm her, as I had done. She waved at us and we hurried on. Grey clouds had started to form over the hilltops around our village, it wouldn’t be long until the sun sank into them and our valley would become dark and wintry again.” Maria Dolores took several pauses whilst talking but as usual emotions stayed buried. Her voice grew in strength but her tone prosaic and unwavering. She avoided talking directly to Father Antonio. She occasionally glanced at him but seemed unconcerned if he was listening or not.
“Our house was like most of the others dotted around the valley, it was small and cosy. It had very thick walls and small square windows; which kept it warm in winter and cool in the summer. All the houses were whitewashed with lime paint and some had a small frame of colour around the windows and door. Our house didn’t. Close to the house was a pen for the animals, it was bigger than the house but only had three stone walls, the south-facing wall was held up by two massive tree trunks. The new roof and gates looked more solid than the walls. Papi built them with wooden beams he and some other men salvaged from the old Jimenez house and barn. Poor Señor Jimenez had been killed in the fighting the summer before. I didn’t even know the men were still fighting. Ha! What did I know? A week or so later Father Alberto announced after mass that Señora Jimenez and her daughter had gone to live in Seville with her cousin. Rocio, her daughter and I were the same age and I was so sad that they disappeared one day. We were best friends. Papi told me it wasn’t doing the Jimenez family any good so it might as well keep our animals warm. Like I said no one had anything in those days.”
“We lived mainly in one big room which had a stove and a fireplace. We moved the table and benches around depending on which was burning, we never had them both lit at the same time. We didn’t have enough wood. There was one big armchair; Papi sat there. One bedroom for us with the bed we shared and the one next door for Mami and Papi. They were the only rooms. There was no toilet, no running water and of course no electricity. At night, we peed in a pail and took it outside in the morning. A large dispensa at the other end of the house stored what food we had. At the end of the winter, it was usually pretty bare but there were always dried beans, lentils, almonds and nuts, some rice and home pressed olive oil. Every now and then Papi would kill a chicken or even a goat and we would have some meat and a stew that would last a week. We would make sausages that hung there to dry, dripping fat on the floor of the dispensa. Mami used to put a plate down to catch it and we spread it on bread. The sheep were too valuable to butcher for food; Papi needed the lambs to sell in the spring.”
‘How was Father Alberto today?’ Every day Mami asked the same questions when we arrived home. She stood by the stove stirring some blood sausage and beans, homemade bread sat on the table but we were never allowed to touch it until Papi got home. I sat with my elbows on the table, looking at the bread, tempted by its freshness and beautiful smell. Conchi giggled behind me.
‘Father Alberto made Pepe Gonzalez kneel on some dried chickpeas because he didn’t know the capital of Extremadura. It’s Merida. I know it. And when Pepe got up his knee was bleeding, then Pepe peed himself and Father Alberto slapped him on the head for making a mess on the floor.’ Conchi giggled again, excited to be telling Mami the gossip. ‘All of us kids were laughing at him.’
“I saw Mami wince, I wasn’t sure if she really liked Father Alberto, everyone knew him and how cruel he could be, but she respected him too much, he was our priest. He was only our teacher because señora Alavá left suddenly and they didn’t send us another one. But Mami was very religious and she said we had to respect him. ‘Conchi, don’t laugh,’ Mami scolded her. ‘Poor Pepe.’ Conchi stopped jumping around and came to sit with me at the table. We sat in silence for a while, Mami by the stove, lost in her thoughts, the only sounds coming from the simmering pot and Conchi scratching at something on the table. The calmness was broken when Papi opened the door and our dog, Pirri, rushed into the house. The freezing air from outside swirled around the room changing the atmosphere, it gave me goosebumps. Beside me, Conchi shivered. The dog paced around the table a few times sniffing, making sure the room was secure, then jumped up on me, licking my hands. ‘Hello, Pirri. Where have you been all day? Did you catch any rabbits?’ I bent down towards him and rubbed him vigorously behind his ears, it was our little ritual, he loved it. I could see it in his eyes. Behind me, Papi said something to Mami then he came over to say hello to us. He kissed Conchi on the head and messed her hair. She wriggled and squealed; another little ritual. Then he walked around the table, telling Pirri to go to his basket. Pirri ignored him, he was playfully digging his teeth into my forearm; we both knew he would never bite me. With no further warning, Papi’s huge hand reached across me and grabbed Pirri by his nape and threw him across the room. ‘Basket’ Papi yelled. Poor Pirri landed on his side, rolled once, scrambled to recover himself and cowered into his basket, ears pinned back, head bowed. Conchi jumped in her seat, startled, catching her breath, her eyes wide like plates. ‘PAPI!’ I shouted and I stood to face him. He turned to me and raised his hand, raised his hand like he was going to hit me. ‘Papi,’ I repeated but the look in his eyes warned me not to say anything else. I still remember the smell of brandy on his breath. Papi’s anger often flared up, but he had never beaten us. Then the house was still again, the only noise the crackle from the stove and the four of us standing there. Papi hesitated, I looked around to Mami, but she was staring at the floor. Then I looked back to him. Without lowering his stare, without breaking the silence he put that massive hand around the back of my neck and pulled me towards him. He kissed me on the forehead, and still without saying anything, turned and went to sit in his armchair.”
Maria Dolores is part of something bigger.