The Red Notebook

Extract from the novel The Red Notebook. Translated by Kristin Addis. Published in Transcript, 2005. Originally published as Koaderno gorria, Erein, 1998

L puts a small red cross on the Caracas map, at the place where the children live. The neighborhood is on the south side of town, on the southeast side to be exact, even though the road she had to take to get to the hotel suggests otherwise.

It's late, dinner time, but she isn't hungry. She has taken off her trousers and is wearing just her T-shirt. She sniffs her armpits and takes her shirt off over her head. The jacket and skirt from the other day, but nothing more, are still in the wardrobe. She starts toward the bathroom, but finally stretches out on the bed after making sure that the door is locked. When she picks up the notebook from the small table beside the bed and puts it on her naked belly, she notices that her skin is moist. She removes the notebook from her belly and puts it on the sheets. She would like to write, but doesn't have anything to say, except that the kids kissed their father and she found the address. It doesn't seem like much. For an instant she entertains the thought that she could ask for help at the address to which she sent the letter earlier, please, I'm alone and far from home, or something like that, but the thought goes no further than that. It stops there, hanging in the heavy, ever simmering Caracas air. She has always been talkative, or at least that's what she's been told since she was little, and maybe they were right. At this moment that's the most urgent need she feels, the need for somebody to talk to. She picks up the notebook and begins to read again.

"We were married the year Franco died, just then, one week later. Your father wanted to live with me, he wanted to form a new family, and your grandmother took this to be a reason for us to get married. The poor woman wouldn't have understood our reasons for not getting married. What did it matter to me to give in to the state in this as well? Marriage for me was similar to filling out the paperwork to get an identification card. Well, by now you know how convincing your father can be, all the more when he's lying through his teeth.

"So, a week after Franco died we were married with hardly any ceremony. I was twenty-eight and your father was thirty. We lived in a neighborhood of San Sebastián, in the house that I was renting at the time. Your father was a mechanic and I was a teacher. And we had been involved in the same fight for a long time, the fight against the dictatorship and for the freedom of our people.

"Those were happy years, completely happy, and maybe I got drunk on that flood of happiness. I was in a hurry, wanting to live every day as if it were my last. Now it seems to me that rather than hurrying, I was fleeing, that I was afraid of normality. But that occurs to me only now, now that I long for ordinary life.

"So we got married and at the same time we decided that it was too early to have children, that those months were giving us the opportunity to change the direction of history and that was our first priority. Don't think it was easy; our reasons were heavy, crafted and debated, not just any old slap-dash reasons.

"But a year after we were married, I got pregnant. One morning, on my way to work, I felt ill. A couple weeks would pass before I would be able to determine the source of my illness, but that morning in the bathroom, as my body was trying to expel even more than it contained, I realized that I was pregnant. It was you, Miren, or the seed of the seed that would be you.

"Until the doctor confirmed my suspicions, I didn't tell your father anything. I thought he wouldn't appreciate the surprise and he would blame me and hold me responsible for what had happened, I thought he wouldn't take the news well. At that time your father planned everything, he tried to control the craziness around us by making plans, and even though those plans failed for the most part, he didn't give up, not at all. As soon as one scheme was frustrated, he'd come up with a new one without losing heart.

"I remember how and when I told him I was pregnant. We were waiting for a meeting to start, at the main entrance of the town hall of San Sebastián. The winter wind had driven us to seek shelter under the arches, and there, shivering with the cold, he said I didn't look so well. At once, I told him why, my right hand in my pocket, clutching the paper that said I was pregnant. As soon as he had heard what I said, your father hugged me. We'll look after it together, he said, placing his hands on my belly under my raincoat, and his mother would also help. If the old sayings are true, he said then, it'll be a girl, that's why you look so terrible, darling.

"Then they opened the doors and the meeting started. Soon we'll be a real family, he said that night on the way home. Days passed, weeks, my belly started to expand, but our life didn't change in any fundamental way. Work, meetings, sleep, work again, meetings, sleep, and once in a while, not often, dinner with friends.

"Except for those first few weeks, Miren, you didn't give me any trouble in my whole pregnancy. When it was still impossible to guess that I was pregnant if I didn't say so, the morning sickness stopped and from then on you peacefully took over my body: you governed my breasts, my waist, my belly and even my face. Naturally, you arose naturally, I can't think of a better word. Like the beech trees in front of the window that need only time to grow.

"So in those months, we kept up the same pace as before, maybe with even more energy than ever. We were two, that was clear from the beginning, but each there for the other. Sometimes, in the middle of a meeting or at school, I felt a kick, always up high, but normally you moved when I was lying down, as if you didn't want to cause any trouble. You were there, Miren, snug and comfortable inside me, and sometimes I even forgot I was pregnant.

"That was the summer of marches for freedom and you were due in two weeks on the day of the last march. I forget exactly what we were doing when the police burst upon us, but I see the people running like in a black-and-white movie, surrounded by the dirty fog of smoke canisters, fleeing in any direction, and me running downhill, alone, down a hard and unfamiliar hill, holding my belly with my hands and arms, but not afraid, no, not a speck of fear. When the smoke started to disperse I ran into your father and I've never forgotten that hug. You started kicking and I brought your father's hand to my belly. We were three.

"'Girls, two; boys, one,' said the doctor when you emerged from my belly, big and strong, more than three and a half kilos, totally bald. You even cried elegantly from the very beginning. Blue eyes from the beginning and chestnut hair not long after."

L closes the notebook as if her curiosity were satisfied. I'm in your hands, Mother had told her, and that she would then have to decide for herself whether or not to read the notebook.

Before falling asleep she thinks that maybe, because so many years have passed since she lost her children, Mother has lost her reason, that the love overflowing from the notebook is too much, an obsession. But this idea doesn't last for long. She immediately tells herself that she's not a judge, but Mother's advocate. An honest person, she adds, and immediately hears the sweet voice of a man asking what is this all about, taking a vacation alone, who knows what you've gotten yourself into. She didn't tell him where she was going or why, of course, but under the obvious irony she feels calm, as if the man would take care of her. She can almost imagine that she sends a message to him, I'm in Caracas and in danger, for example, and like Superman, the man comes to offer help.

The next day she doesn't wake easily, even though she realizes where she is and what she's doing before she opens her eyes. The trace of a nightmare she doesn't remember doesn't disappear when she reviews the plan of the day. So she dresses in the clothes she brought on the plane and gets the car without eating breakfast, the city map folded on the seat next to her.

It's ten-thirty by the time the place where the children live appears before her. She enters the building with a black folder in her hands, no doorkeeper in sight. Without seeing anyone she takes the elevator to the eighth floor, having read the number on the mailbox. Eighth floor, apartment B. As soon as she sees herself in the mirror, it occurs to her that she should change her appearance a bit, and without hesitation, she takes a black ponytail holder from her purse. By the eighth floor she has pulled back all her hair, gathered it at the nape of her neck.

As soon as she gets out of the elevator, she sees apartment B on the right and as soon as she takes two steps in that direction, she hears the children's dog barking. Apartment B is open and in the place where the wooden door should be, she sees a strong iron gate. The rat-like dog barks at her from the gate, and she thinks the house might be empty, but no, on the other side of the gate she sees the woman who was driving the old van the other day, carrying a small child in her arms.

A tuft of the woman's hair is escaping, the cloth that held it coming loose down her back, and she is startled to see L before the door. L tells the woman she has come from the town hall to ask a few questions, and the woman answers that she should come back in the afternoon, her husband is at work and she won't be able to answer. Come back in the afternoon. The dog has gone quiet and the child wants to be put down, but the woman won't let go. Come back in the afternoon, she repeats, and L spreads an apparently believable smile across her face even though it's completely false. After this expression, she explains to the woman that the questions are simple, she's conducting a questionnaire to find out what the neighborhood needs. The woman hasn't gone away, but before answering the first question she closes her naturally small eyes until they are nothing but two black slits in her face. She has three children the woman answers, the oldest is thirteen, the middle one ten and the little one almost two, and yes, she was born in Caracas and so were her children. When L asks about her husband the woman gets scared again, and returns to her earlier refrain, better to speak with her husband. Then she places her hand on the open door and, excusing herself, says she's going to close it.

L doesn't even have time to say thank you, and shouts that she'll come back in the afternoon. Then, without waiting for the elevator, she takes off down the stairs, infected by the woman's fear. Thank God the woman didn't ask for proof that she was with the city government. She calms down once she's in the car again, and on the way to the hotel thinks that maybe Mother is right, maybe they really did steal her children, and the doubt revealed by this thought surprises her. Surprises her and then shames her. And the shame lasts long hours, holding tight to her mind. It is still there after her lunch of rice at the Chinese restaurant across the street when she sets off for the school. She achieved more than a little, but she didn't prepare well, and too much was put at risk.

© Koaderno gorria: Erein