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Cristina Fernández Cubas | from:Spanish

THE ANGLE

Translated by : Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles

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Julia knocked on his door for the third time, looked through the keyhole without managing to see anything, and strode moodily up and down the roof terrace. She now realised that she should have done something several days earlier, when she found out that her brother was keeping something secret from her, before the whole family got involved and began a round of  cross-examination and recrimination. Because Carlos was still there; locked inside a dark room, pretending to be feeling slightly unwell, only leaving the solitude of his attic room in order to eat, always in a bad mood, his face hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, taking refuge in a peculiar, exasperating silence. ‘He must be in love,’ their mother had said. But Julia knew that his strange behaviour had nothing to do with the vagaries of love or disappointment. That was why she’d decided to mount guard on the top floor, next to his bedroom door, looking through the keyhole on the alert for the slightest sign of any movement, waiting for the late summer heat to force him to open the window that looked out over the roof terrace. A long, narrow window that she could slip through like a cat being chased, like the shadow cast by one of the sheets hanging up to dry in the sun, and appear so suddenly and unexpectedly that Carlos, caught unawares, would have no option but to talk to her, or at least to ask her, ‘Who gave you permission to burst in here like this?’ or ‘Go away! Can’t you see I’m busy?’ And she would see. She’d finally see exactly what mysterious things her brother was getting up to, understand why he was so very pale and offer to help him straight away. But she’d been keeping a very close eye on everything for two hours now and she was beginning to feel ridiculous and embarrassed. She left her vantage point next to his door, went out on to the roof terrace and, as she’d done so many times already that afternoon, began to count the number of broken and cracked tiles, plastic pegs, wooden pegs, the exact number of paces up to the long narrow window. She rapped on the glass and heard herself say once more in a tired voice, ‘It’s me, Julia.’ What she should have said really was, ‘It’s still me, Julia.’ But what did it matter now! This time, however, she pricked up her ears. She thought she heard a far-off moan, the creaking of rusty bed springs, the sound of dragging feet, a metallic sound, more creaking and then, unexpectedly, in a crisp voice, ‘Come in. It’s not locked.’ And at that moment Julia felt a shudder very similar to the strange tremor which had run through her body several days earlier, when she suddenly realised that something was happening to her brother.

A couple of weeks had already gone by since Carlos had come back from his first study trip. September 2nd, the date she had inked in red on the calendar in her bedroom now seemed ever more distant and improbable. She remembered seeing him beside the British Airways jumbo jet, waving his arm at the bottom of the steps, and she could see herself, impressed that at the age of eighteen he was still getting taller. She was jumping for joy on the airport terrace, waving and blowing kisses back to him, pushing her way through the crowd to greet him in the arrivals hall. Carlos was back. A little bit thinner, quite a lot taller and decidedly pale. But Julia thought he was even more handsome than when he’d left and she paid no attention to her mother’s remarks about the inadequacies of the English diet and the incomparable qualities of the Mediterranean climate. And nor did she join in with the family banter when they all got into the car and her brother seemed delighted at the prospect of spending a few weeks at their house on the coast and their father bombarded him with innocent questions about the fair-haired young English girls in Brighton. She felt too emotional and her head was buzzing with plans and projects. The following day, once her parents had stopped pestering him with questions, she and Carlos would share their news about the summer, sitting on the roof terrace, as usual, with their feet dangling over the edge of the eaves, just like when they were small and Carlos would teach her to draw and she’d show him her collection of picture cards. When they reached the garden, Marta came out to meet them skipping and jumping and for the second time Julia marvelled at how tall her brother had grown. ‘Eighteen years old,’ she thought. ‘How ridiculous!’ But she didn’t say anything.

Carlos was lost in his thoughts as he gazed at the front of the house as if he were seeing it for the first time. His head was tilted to the right and he was frowning, with his lips drawn back in a strange sort of rictus grin which Julia didn’t know how to interpret. He didn’t move for a while, staring straight ahead with his eyes glazed over, as if hypnotised, remote from the rest of the family who were coming and going with suitcases, and unaware too of Julia’s own proximity. Then, barely changing his posture, he tilted his head to the left, with a dazed look, the strange rictus grin on his lips evolving into an unmistakeable expression of weariness and despondency. He ran his hand over his forehead and carried on across the garden, along the pebbled path, with his head down, eyes fixed on the ground.

Over dinner their father still wanted to hear all about Carlos’ conquests and his mother was still worried about his sallow complexion. Marta came out with a couple of comments that made Carlos smile. He seemed tired and sleepy. Perhaps it was the journey. He kissed everyone good night and went to bed.

The next day Julia got up very early, went over the reading list that Carlos had recommended before he’d left, gathered together the notes she’d made on her thoughts and impressions and headed up to the roof. After a good while, tired of waiting, she jumped on to the flat terrace. Her brother’s window was half-open, but the bedroom seemed to be empty. She peered over the balustrade and out over the garden.

Carlos was there, in the same place as the night before, gazing at the house part in amazement and part in dismay, his head tilted first to the right and then to the left, staring at the ground, walking dejectedly up the pebbled path that led to the house. That was when Julia suddenly realised that something was happening to her brother.

The theory about an impossible infatuation started gaining ground during the family’s strained lunchtime discussions. An English girl, a pallid blonde young thing from Brighton. The melancholy of first love, the heartache of a long distance romance, the apathy that young people of that age tend to display towards anything that is not the object of their passion. But that was at first, when Carlos was simply aloof and withdrawn, jumping at any question, avoiding eye contact, rejecting little Marta’s hugs. Perhaps that was when she should have acted decisively. But now Carlos had just said, ‘Come in. It’s not locked.’ And, summoning up her courage, all she could do was push the door open.  

At first she was only aware of suffocating heat and the sound of pitiful laboured breathing. After a while her eyes got used to the gloom. Carlos was sitting at the foot of the bed and the only specks of light which had managed to penetrate his fortress all seemed to be concentrated in his eyes. Were they really his eyes? Julia opened one of the window shutters slightly and sighed with relief. Yes, that morose young man, his eyes hidden behind a pair of impenetrable sunglasses, his forehead spattered with shiny little drops of sweat, was her brother. Only now his pallor seemed too alarming and his behaviour too inexplicable for her to carry on making excuses for him to the rest of the family.

‘They’re going to call a doctor,’ she said.

Carlos didn’t flinch. He stayed there for a few minutes with his head bent down, his knees knocking together, drumming his fingers as if he were playing a children’s tune on the keyboard of a non-existent piano.

 ‘They want to make you eat. And make you leave this squalid room for once and for all.’

Julia thought she saw her brother shudder. ‘This room,’ she thought. ‘What’s so interesting about this room to make him stay in here so long?’ She looked around and was surprised to see that it wasn’t quite as untidy as she’d expected. Carlos, over on the bed, was breathing heavily. ‘He’s going to say something,’ she thought and, finding it hard to breathe in the stifling atmosphere, she gingerly pushed back one of the window shutters and half-opened the window.

‘Julia,’ she heard. ‘I know you’re not going to understand anything I’m about to tell you. But I need to speak to somebody.’

Her eyes lit up with a flicker of pride. Just like old times, Carlos was going to share his secrets with her, make her his closest confidante, ask her for help which she wouldn’t hesitate to give. Now she realised that she’d done the right thing mounting guard next to that gloomy bedroom, behaving like a ridiculous amateur spy, enduring long silences, measuring out the dimensions of the torrid, solitary roof terrace again and again to the point of tedium. Because Carlos had said, ‘I need to speak to somebody.’ And there she was, beside the half-open window, ready to listen attentively to whatever he decided to tell her, without daring to interrupt, not minding that he spoke in such a low voice, making it difficult to understand, as if he were scared of hearing the secret underlying reason for his anxiety from his own lips. ‘It all comes down to a question of . . .’ Julia couldn’t make out the last word, spoken at half volume through gritted teeth, but she preferred not to interrupt. She took a crumpled cigarette from her pocket and held it out to her brother. Carlos, without looking up, declined the offer.

‘It all started one day in Brighton, just an ordinary day like any other,’ he said. ‘I lay down on the bed, closed the window to shut out the noise of the rain and went to sleep. That was in Brighton. Did I mention that?’

Julia nodded and gave a little cough.

‘I dreamed that I’d done brilliantly in my exams and was showered with diplomas and medals, and then all of a sudden I wanted to be home with you all and without a second thought I decided to turn up and surprise you. So I got on a train, an incredibly long, narrow train and, before I knew it, I was back here. “This is a dream,” I said to myself and, feeling very relieved, I did my best not to wake up. I got off the train and started walking to the house, singing as I went. It was the crack of dawn and the streets were deserted. Suddenly I realised that I’d left my suitcase on the train, together with the presents I’d bought for you all, and the diplomas and medals, and I knew that I had to go back to the station before the train left again for Brighton. “This is a dream,” I told myself again. “Let’s just assume I sent the luggage by post. Let’s not waste time. Otherwise things might get complicated.” And I stopped in front of the house.’

Julia had to make a big effort not to interrupt. This sort of thing happened to her as well and she had never dwelled on it much. Since she was small she’d been aware she could control some of her dreams.  She would realise all of a sudden, in the middle of the worst nightmare, that she and she alone was the absolute mistress of that magical series of images and that, just through autosuggestion, she could get rid of certain characters, summon up others or speed up the pace of events. It didn’t always work, (she had to be aware of her ownership of the dream to do it) and what was more, she didn’t particularly enjoy it. She preferred to let herself embark on strange adventures, as if they were really happening and she was simply the protagonist, but not the owner, of those unpredictable stories. Her sister Marta, even though she was very young, once told her something similar. ‘I was in control in my dream,’ she’d said. And now suddenly Julia remembered a few conversations about the same thing with her school friends, and she even thought she’d read something of the sort in the memoirs of some Baroness or Countess which a friend had lent her.

She lit up the crumpled cigarette which she was still holding, inhaled a mouthful of smoke and felt a rough, burning sensation at the back of her throat. When she heard herself cough she realised that the room was engulfed in complete silence and that it must have been a long time since Carlos had stopped talking and she’d lost herself in a stupid flight of fancy.

‘Go on, please,’ she said, finally.

After a slight hesitation, Carlos continued. ‘It was this house, the house where you and I are now, the house where we’ve spent every summer since we were born. And yet there was something very odd about it. Something awfully unpleasant and distressing which I couldn’t put my finger on at first. Because it was this house down to every last detail but, thanks to some rare gift or maybe a curse, I was looking at it from an unusual angle of vision. I woke up covered in sweat and unsettled, and I tried to calm myself down by remembering it had only been a dream.’

Carlos buried his face in his hands and choked back a groan. His sister thought he was mumbling an unnecessary: “and then I got here . . .” and, to her dismay, the memory of the transformation she’d witnessed a few days earlier at the garden gate came flooding back to her.  ‘So that was what happened,’ she was about to say, ‘that’s what it was.’ But again she didn’t say anything. Carlos had got to his feet.

‘It’s an angle,’ he said. ‘A strange angle which is no less real because of the horror it instils in me . . . And the worst thing is that there’s no escaping it now. I know I’ll never be free of it as long as I live . . .’

His latest round of sobbing made her look away towards the roof terrace. She suddenly felt uncomfortable in there, not understanding much of what she was hearing, feeling decidedly alarmed by the complete disintegration of someone she had always believed to be strong and healthy, someone to be envied. Perhaps their parents were right and Carlos’ affliction couldn’t be cured just by listening, letting him get things off his chest. He needed a doctor. And her job now was simply to escape from that stifling room as fast as she could and join forces with the rest of the family. ‘Right,’ she said, decisively. ‘I promised Marta I’d take her to the cinema . . .’ But she immediately realised that her face gave the lie to her fake air of calm. Carlos’ glasses confronted her with a double image of her own face. Two heads with dishevelled hair and eyes wide open with shock. That’s how she must look through his eyes: a young girl trapped in an ogre’s lair, making up excuses to slip out of the room, waiting for the moment she would cross the threshold, take a deep breath and run down the stairs. And now, worse still, Carlos, from behind those dark glasses, seemed to have become mesmerised, examining her every detail. And, beneath those two heads with dishevelled hair and eyes wide open with shock, she felt two pairs of legs start to tremble so much that she couldn’t keep up her story about Marta and the cinema, as if that afternoon were just an ordinary afternoon when Marta and the vague promise to take her to the cinema actually mattered. The shadow cast by a sheet billowing in the wind meant she couldn’t see her brother for a few seconds. When the shadow receded, Julia noticed that Carlos had come even closer. He was holding his sunglasses in one hand and she could see his swollen eyelids and a stunned expression on his face. ‘How marvellous,’ he said, in a thin voice. ‘I can still look at you, Julia.’ And again this special, preferential status he accorded her for the second time that afternoon put paid to her plans with astonishing speed. ‘He’s in love,’ she said over dinner and she forced down a plateful of insipid vegetables, forgetting to add any salt and pepper.

It didn’t take long for her to realise that her behaviour had been foolish: not only that night but every other night after her first visit to his attic room, when she’d set herself up as an intermediary between her brother and the rest of the world; when she’d taken it upon herself to spirit away the untouched plates of food from his room; when in her role as close confidante she’d told Carlos about the doctor’s diagnosis (acute depression) and the family’s decision to send him to a convalescent home. But it was too late to turn back now. Carlos received the news of his imminent confinement with surprising indifference. He put on his dark glasses with those impenetrable lenses that he only dared take off in front of Julia, said that he wanted to leave his attic room, wandered around different parts of the house, hanging on Julia’s arm, and greeted the rest of the family, reassuring them. Yes, he felt better, much better, he was over the worst of it, they needn’t worry. He shut himself in his parents’ bathroom for a while. Through the door Julia could hear the click-clack of the metal cabinet, the rustling of paper, a splash of eau de cologne. When he came out he’d combed his hair and freshened up, and he looked much more calm and relaxed. She accompanied him back to his room, helped him into bed and went down to the dining room.

It was some time later that Julia suddenly felt alarmed. Everything came flooding back: the lock on the attic room door that her father had ripped out a few days earlier; her mother’s concern; the doctor’s meaningful look as he said he was powerless against the anguish of the soul; the click-clack of the metal cabinet . . . It was a white cabinet, very neat and tidy, that she’d never thought to examine: the first-aid kit that her mother was so proud of. No one else could have fitted such a vast collection of remedies to deal with any emergency into such a tiny space. She ran up the stairs two at a time, panting like a greyhound, terrified at the prospect of having to name the unnameable. When she got to his bedroom she pushed open the door, threw back the shutters and rushed over to the bed. Carlos was sleeping peacefully, stripped of his inseparable dark glasses, oblivious to fears and anxieties. Neither the sun pouring in through the window from the terrace roof nor Julia’s best efforts to rouse him could make him move a muscle. She was surprised to find herself groaning, shouting, calling down the stairs to the rest of the family. Then everything happened incredibly fast. Carlos’ breathing got weaker and weaker until it was almost imperceptible. At times his face regained the calm, relaxed beauty of earlier days, and he wore the trace of a soft, beatific smile. Now Julia could no longer ignore the evidence: Carlos was sleeping for the first time since he’d got back from Brighton, back on 2nd September, the date that she’d inked in red on her calendar.

There was no time to regret her stupid behaviour or to wish with every fibre of her being for time to turn back on itself, for it still to be August and for her to be sitting on the edge of the roof, anxiously awaiting her brother’s arrival, clutching her wad of notes. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she was still small, a little girl playing with her dolls during the day and collecting picture cards, who sometimes, at night, had terrible nightmares.  ‘I am the mistress of this dream,’ she said to herself. ‘It’s only a dream.’ But when she opened her eyes she couldn’t keep up the pretence. This terrible nightmare wasn’t a dream, nor did she have any power to rewind the images or change events or even manage to make her brother’s handsome, peaceful face take on the suffering caused by his illness again. Once more, the shadow cast by a sheet billowing in the wind dominated the room for a few moments. Julia turned to look at her brother again. For the first time in her life she understood the meaning of death. Inexplicable, incomprehensible, hidden behind the fraudulent appearance of rest. She could see Death, the horror and destruction of death, putrefaction and the abyss. Because that was no longer Carlos lying on the bed. It was Death, the grim reaper, crudely disguised with someone else’s face, roaring with laughter behind those swollen, reddened eyelids, showing everyone the falsity of life, proclaiming her dark reign, her capricious will, her cruel and unbreakable designs. Julia rubbed her eyes and looked at her father. It was her father! That man sitting at the head of the bed was her father. But there was something extremely unpleasant in his features. It was as if a skull had been made up with wax drippings, then powdered up and highlighted with grease paint. ‘A clown,’ she thought, ‘the worst type of clown . . .’ She grabbed her mother’s arm but a sudden wave of disgust made her let go again. Why was her skin suddenly so pale, why did it feel so tacky? She ran out on to the roof terrace and leaned against the balustrade.

‘The angle,’ she groaned. ‘Oh my God, I’ve discovered the angle!’

 That was when she noticed Marta was beside her, cradling one of her dolls and holding a half-sucked toffee. Marta was still a beautiful child. ‘Marta,’ she thought. ‘I can still look at you.’ And although the words resounded in her head like the echo of someone else’s voice, someone else’s intonation, the memory of a loved one she could never see again, that wasn’t what shocked her the most or made her fall to the floor and pound the tiles with her fists. She’d seen Marta, she’d seen Marta’s expectant look, and deep down in those dark eyes the sudden awareness that something was happening to her, to Julia.

 

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