The time has come, I shan’t put if off any longer. I never thought I would end up fulfilling my uncle Carlos’ wish, I never imagined I would be capable of smashing the invisible barrier which prevented me from writing down all that happened in the summer of 1995. A summer which is more and more removed in time and in my memory, I was still quite young, and now I see I’m nearing the milestone of thirty. I suppose I needed all this time to acquire a certain distance, for the facts to gain solidity in my mind and to shed their more disturbing aspects. It’s been more than ten years, the necessary period to be able to confront this moment when, with fear and trepidation, I undertake this journey to the past, guided only by my words.
Perhaps all I’m trying to do is settle scores, or break with the family ghosts, as Carlos kept asking me. Perhaps these are the reasons which motivate me, any other justification is unnecessary. And yet I’m aware I’ve also been influenced by news which might appear to have nothing to do with me. When I read in the newspapers, as I’ve been doing repeatedly over the last few weeks, the effort people have been putting into locating the resting-places of their loved ones, abandoned in anonymous graves after the Spanish Civil War; when I witness their deep desire to recover their remains and rescue them from the abyss of oblivion which devoured them after they were murdered; when I see so many people demanding the opening of common graves from a war which seems so distant, so much part of the twentieth century, but which is still so alive, I feel I cannot remain indifferent.
And then I also experience an urgent need to relate how, albeit involuntarily, I contributed to opening up a grave which everyone wanted to stay closed. It’s time to record here the memory of that dead man who could have remained forgotten until the end of the world, were it not for chance, that strange chance which directs our lives and caused me to be in the exact location that morning in July 1995. Even we, the descendants of the victors in the Civil War, can contribute a grain of sand to the collective memory, while others who emerged victorious get on comfortably with lives built on the crime and theft committed during those years. A traitor, a traitor to my class, some would say. They may be right, but that’s not how I see it. I cannot change my past, it’s true, but nor do I have to let that past end up conditioning the rest of my life.
Memory is powerful, but it’s also fragile and tricks us into going where it would like us to. ‘Memory opens for us light / corridors of shadow,’ wrote José Ángel Valente, a poet I heard Carlos quote so many times he soon became an essential point of reference for me. I’m lucky I still have my diaries from that time, they will be the thread of Theseus which leads me into the labyrinth. They will enable me to reconstruct what happened during those few weeks, they will help me to avoid succumbing to the distortions of memory after so many years. I admit I feel a mixture of shame and tenderness when I read these notebooks which were so important to me during my teenage years. I was just starting to discover life and I used solemn, hackneyed words to describe my feelings, it would take a lot longer for me to master my own language. But I recorded the facts with precision and, if I brush aside the sentimental overlay, the diaries will act as a reliable guide so I can direct my footsteps accurately.
There is a huge distance between me now and the girl I was then, I find it difficult to recognize myself in the words I wrote in the diaries. What I can discern, however, is that this was a period of change. The end of one period and the beginning of another, even though I was scarcely aware of the underground shift taking place within me. I lived it all as an adventure, a breaking of family rules, and didn’t notice the seeds of change sprouting inside me, which would direct me towards a new life.
And how not to remember Miguel in this adventure of retracing my footsteps? It was with him I discovered love, the love which can sometimes flood our bodies and illuminate our whole lives. Even if time then proceeded to show me no relationship lasts for ever, except in the novels we invent to hoodwink death, and all have a date of expiry from the very moment they begin.
There was no way of knowing all this back then. I was just a girl of sixteen, with lots of fancy ideas, though I realized there was something inside me which set me apart from the superficiality of most of the other pupils at Santa María do Mar, the school I attended. A school I remember with fondness, not the hatred others of my generation feel towards theirs. This is something I have to thank my mother for, since, had it been down to my father, I would have gone to Adoradoras or somewhere like that, a school attended by the children of the more established families and the nouveau riche. At my school, however, were all the children of what a sociologist would call Coruña’s upper-middle class: liberal families who wanted an education far removed from the shackles of the past and religious obscurantism.
I’ve barely started and I’m already straying from the point, I have to be more rigorous. Now is not the time to talk about my parents or my life at school. But before I open my diary and get carried away by the events of that sixth of July, I should say something about Soutelo Manor, the place where it all happened.
Soutelo Manor is in the district of Vilarelle and has belonged to my father’s family since it was built in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Soutelos have always been the lords of the manor, the nobles who owned most of the land and lived comfortably off the sweat and toil of tenant farmers. A family which was already powerful before the manor was built, linked to some of the major Galician families, such as the Montenegros or the Andrades.
Vilarelle is inland, a far cry from the milder climate of the coast. The town is some thirty miles from Coruña, which is where my parents settled after they were married and where I was born six months later, as some people insisted on reminding me when I was young, though it took me some time to understand what the short distance between these two dates meant.
The manor is situated a little before the town, on top of a hill which slopes down gently to the river. The building has two wings in the shape of an L, but what’s really impressive is the walled enclosure which surrounds it, in particular the garden in front of the south façade with its circular fountain and goldfish I liked so much, the orchard stretching as far as the river and, most of all, the wood which began after the allotments behind the building, a wood I loved to roam in when I was a child, it seemed to go on for ever, like the forests in the Grimms’ fairy tales I used to read in that beautiful edition Mummy gave me one birthday.
Today I can appreciate the special character and artistic value of the house, but not back then. For me it was always the place where Grandma Rosalía lived, a happy place where I could free myself from the limitations of city life. As long as she was alive, we used to go there often, always for a few days during the holidays and longer in the summer months, when my parents would travel and leave me and my brothers in the care of Grandma and a few maids who treated me like a princess. A privileged treatment I noticed as well in girls from the town’s more well-to-do families, who sometimes came to play with me and displayed a submissive attitude towards me which at the time I considered normal.
Grandma Rosalía died in 1993. I’d recently turned fourteen and was less and less interested in spending the holidays in Vilarelle, since life in the city had started to appeal to me. The summer after she died, we went for just a few days and I thought the manor house’s time, a time I associated with a childhood I was leaving, was over and done with. What I didn’t expect is that, when the family’s inheritance was divided, my father would buy Uncle Carlos and Aunt María’s shares in the house. He wished to renovate it, he told us when he informed us of his decision, to give it a new lease of life and to have it as a second home. This way he’d avoid the property falling into the hands of anyone who wasn’t a Soutelo, a possibility he couldn’t accept.
Now, with the distance of years, knowing my father better, I think his reasons were quite different. He may have felt nostalgia for his childhood or have wanted to safeguard the family’s property, but more than that was the desire to feel he represented a lineage which, though times had changed, continued to wield influence in the local area. Above the gate, and on the building’s main façade, was the family coat of arms, a granite shield, which defied the passing of time. Stone banners and crosses topped by the crowned ‘S’ of the Soutelos, all symbols of an impressive past, which must have served to confirm to my father a prestige which in the city, though we weren’t badly off, was lessened by the power of the traditional families and the large fortunes amassed by those in the construction sector.
As soon as the documents were prepared which made him sole owner of the property, my father undertook repairs to the building. The truth is some parts had deteriorated and others didn’t function very well, they belonged to an old way of life, since Grandma Rosalía, after Grandpa died, had not seen fit to modernize anything. So began an intense period of renovations which lasted more than a year and gave the manor house back some of the comfort it had lost through neglect and the passing of time.
In the summer of 1995, the renovations were well underway. In fact all the main wing and the first floor of the side wing, the prettier part, with the veranda I liked so much, were ready to be lived in. All that remained was the ground floor of the side wing, which was formerly used for stables and for storing all sorts of things, and which, after the alterations, would hold a gym and various smaller rooms. In the spring my father decided we would spend the months of July and August in the manor; this way he could keep a close eye on the renovation work and we could breathe new life into the family home.
My mother was pleased by the idea; she planned to devote herself to painting, and the peace and quiet there offered her the ideal conditions. My brothers, the twins, were delighted at the prospect of having free range of the fascinating grounds which surrounded the building. They were also pleased that Daddy had invited our cousins, Aunt María’s two children. Although my cousin Alfredo was older than they were – he’d recently turned fourteen – they felt sure he would share their games and adventures, as he had done on previous occasions.
I should have felt the same about my cousin Ana, but the truth is the mere thought of putting up with her made me sick. I suppose it wasn’t her fault, she was exactly what you would expect of a seventeen-year-old girl in her social position. She loved to discuss clothes, make-up and boys, topics of conversation I cared little about. I was going through a phase of rebelliousness and self-affirmation, and was drawn to music – Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Clash, the group I most identified with – which was a far cry from the sugary melodies she listened to at all hours.
Which is why I spoke of chance. That summer should have passed by as was expected, those months had been arranged so that we could all enjoy the luxury and pleasures due to us as owners of the manor house: huge rooms, every imaginable comfort, maids to cater to our every whim, days spent in conversation and having fun. But, luckily for me, it wasn’t like that. Chance irrupted into my life and changed it so much I was never the same again.
I am well aware a story never has a concrete beginning and starts long before, as is especially the case with the one I’m about to describe. But I have to begin with that sixth of July, going by my diary, because that was the day a skeleton turned up in the side wing, the first skeleton I’d ever seen. How could I suspect this discovery would have such a profound influence on me?
Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne