The third company, in sports clothes, lined up on the parade ground. It was pouring down, and the raindrops slid across the troops’ stiffly raised faces. The third company was a perfect machine. Even after they were discharged, the soldiers could not permit themselves the vengeful act of hanging their locks on the steel wire that supported the telegraph pole on the side of the bridge over the river Urumea. This pleasure was forbidden to them for the simple reason that the third company’s private booths didn’t have locks.
Mid-afternoon, life in the barracks entrenched itself behind the windows. But nothing in the world, not even accursed water, would alter the third company’s training programme. Impassive under the flood, Captain Aguirre barked orders that echoed imperiously down the colonnades. According to Captain Aguirre, there were two kinds of men in the barracks: the soldiers of the third company and the others, a confused mix of skivers, idlers and queens.
Having been assigned to the telephone exchange, I was one of the others. Needless to say, on that filthy afternoon, from behind the window of the exchange, I thanked my lucky stars that I was only half a man. Until the bell rang, a noisy buzzer that warned of an incoming call.
‘Infantry barracks, how can I help you?’
‘Is José there?’ asked the distant voice of a woman.
‘José? What José?’
‘José, is that you? Can you put José on the line?’
‘What José, madam? There are lots of Josés here.’
‘I wanted José to be given leave. It’s for the cotton, you know. For harvesting the cotton.’
‘I can’t transfer your call, madam. You’ll have to call later, after half past six.’
‘My husband’s sick. Please let José come. It’s for the cotton.’
‘Which José do you want to talk to, madam? I’ll take a message and, if you call back later, you’ll be able to talk to him. But you have to give me his surname. We have lots of Josés.’
‘It’s for the cotton, you know. We need him.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, madam. I’m the telephone operator.’
‘A fortnight. It’s for the cotton.’
‘Just a moment, madam, just a moment.’
The buzzer had sounded again, and the colonel’s light was flashing on the electric switchboard.
‘At your orders, colonel!’
‘Put me through to headquarters in Burgos.’
‘Yes, colonel. At once, colonel.’
I pressed outside line number 5, secretly hoping they’d have hung up. But they hadn’t.
‘Listen, listen. Don’t cut me off. I walked miles to make this call. Please just let José come. It’s for the cotton.’
‘Madam, I already told you I’m the phone operator. I can’t grant him leave. If you call back after half past six…’
‘You sound like a nice person. Have a heart. Let him come. He’ll be back in a fortnight.’
‘Please, madam, listen to what I’m saying. I…’
The buzzer kept sounding. The colonel’s light flashed wildly on the switchboard.
‘At your orders, colonel.’
‘What happened to that call to headquarters?’
‘The line is engaged, colonel. I’ll keep on trying, colonel.’
The light on line 5 was still lit, fluttering its wings like an uneasy butterfly. I pressed down hard on it, hoping to silence it for ever.
‘Madam? Are you still there, madam?’
‘Don’t cut me off, please. I walked for miles.’
‘For goodness’ sake, madam, this is the telephone exchange. I am the phone operator. Do you understand? I’m just the phone operator.’
‘It doesn’t matter to you. One more or less won’t make a difference. But we need José to harvest the cotton.’
‘Tell me his name, madam. His whole name. Do you understand? His full name. Tell me your son’s surname.’
‘Will you let him out?’
‘Listen, you have to tell me what José is called. I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me what he’s called…’
‘Yes, José. What else? What else, madam?’
‘José García García?’
‘That’s right, José García. Will you let him come? He needs to be here on Wednesday. When will you let him out?’
I could see her face, white hair, about fifty, clinging to the phone, staring at the metal plate in the booth. The colonel’s light brought me back to reality.
‘It’s engaged, colonel. It’s still…’
‘What the hell is going on with that call, soldier?’
‘It’s still engaged, colonel. I’ll try again, colonel.’
He grunted and hung up. I decided to forget about line 5 and dialled headquarters in Burgos. Heavens above, it was engaged. Out on the parade ground, the men of the third company were splashing about in the puddles, their legs all covered in mud. My finger trembled when I pressed line 5. She was still there. I could hear her breathing.
‘Madam,’ I whispered.
‘Can José come?’ she asked anxiously.
‘Madam, I have to know what company José’s in. Tell me what company he’s in.’
‘Infantry, don’t you know my José? He’s in infantry.’
‘We’re all in infantry, madam. These are the infantry barracks.’
I was about to shout. My head was dizzy. That was when the door of the exchange burst open. I jumped to my feet and saluted nervously.
‘What’s going on with that call to Burgos, soldier?’
‘It’s engaged, colonel. I swear it’s engaged. It’s not usual, colonel, but it’s been engaged all this time. I’ll try again.’
He prepared to wait next to the telephone, glancing distrustfully at the switchboard. I dialled from memory. The call connected.
‘At last, sir. Headquarters. Shall I put it through to your office?’
He took the receiver without a word. He decided to talk from there. He discussed what had happened at the races, and his bad-tempered face grew happy, while I stood to attention, watching the light on line 5 slowly fade like a bird.
Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne