“Caps” (originally “Chavales con gorra” or “Boys with Caps”) by Fernando Aramburu, evokes the unease and uncertainty still present, sometimes prevalent, in Spanish society more than 40 years after the transition to democracy. Despite massive tourism, new infrastructure, the allure of Madrid and Seville, the prosperity of Barcelona, and the fame of Basque gastronomy, there is an undercurrent of malaise, not only from deep economic depression in rural Spain, especially Andalucia, but from the fact that political tensions both intraregional, and more obviously between left and right, are never far from the surface. Spain is restive in part because of the tacit agreement in recent decades that in order to move forward the past must be silenced; but other voices, other people, some who survived the Civil War (now mostly their descendants) and the hard subsequent years, demand that those times not be buried, and call for a literal exhumation of what’s been covered over—bodies, records, archives, and the need to confront the grim truths of political tragedy. “Caps” dramatizes the shadowy tension of a supremely capable nation at odds with its national identity, and the quiet menace one can sometimes feel in the poor back streets and quiet plazas of Spanish, Basque, and Catalan cities, the old stones pocked and pitted from bullets and bombs.
— Brendan Riley
The morning light comes flooding into the room where he’s just thrown back the curtain. Motionless in the bed, the woman doesn’t notice a thing because, according to her habit, she’s sleeping with a mask over her eyes. They arrived last night, late. The town (eighteen thousand inhabitants, according to the pamphlet on the night table) is not such a popular tourist destination as the other cities scattered along the same coastline. That’s exactly why they picked it out on the map when they decided to get out of Malaga as fast as possible.
“If we can’t hide out here, Josemari,” the woman said as they rode up in the elevator, “then tell me some better place, unless you want to leave the country.”
The view from the hotel window embraces a landscape of white facades, rooftop terraces, television antennas, and the occasional silhouette of a palm tree. Save for a thin sliver of the sea glimmering in the distance, the houses block any view of the beach. Directly across the street is a funeral home. Two hearses sit outside, parked alongside a row of oleander bushes.
An hour earlier, he’d gone downstairs by himself to have breakfast. As he was giving his room number to the girl in the business suit in charge of writing down the guests who arrived to eat, he’d heard young voices and laughter coming from the dining room. With poorly disguised uneasiness he’d suddenly told her that he had to make an urgent telephone call and that he’d be right back, but he didn’t return.
He sits for a long time waiting for his wife’s sleeping pill to wear off. Among other things, the room’s minibar contains two small tablets of chocolate and a bag of salted almonds. These suffice for breakfast, and he washes them down with a few gulps of mineral water, not chilled quite enough by the little refrigerator. Then he drinks an airplane bottle of brandy, taking little sips; he usually doesn’t touch alcohol in the morning.
The bottle empty, he writes in the small Moleskine notebook that his son once brought back as a gift from London: My father, may he rest in peace, would be spinning in his grave if he knew that I’m planning to sell the family machine shop. It’s the end of an era, but I know full and well that at sixty-three I’m far too young to be dead and buried. But I also want someone to know all this just in case those people find me.
The day they left Alicante to try their luck in Malaga, she’d suddenly had a different idea, that they move to London for a while instead.
“Until they forget about us.”
“Those guys? Forget? I really doubt it. Besides, I don’t think our daughter-in-law would be too thrilled to have to put us up again.”
“Put us up, that’s ridiculous, Josemari. We’ve helped them out so much. They’ve had no shortage of financial benefits. And we don’t have to move in with them if they could just help us find a flat to rent.”
“Alright. But let’s first have a look at Malaga while we’re at it. It’s a big city. We might have some luck there.”
The funeral home abuts a small plaza whose surface, from the fifth floor window, seems to be hard-packed sand. In the plaza he sees an old brown-skinned man seated on a bench. Across him stretches the shadow of a palm tree whose crown is thick with bunches of dates. Near the old man, three little girls jump rope. On another bench two young women are talking, each one with her baby stroller.
He jots down in the Moleskine: Peace and quiet, for the moment.
A few minutes later, the woman wakes up. As she claws off her sleeping mask, she becomes aware of her husband sitting by the window. Smiling, she asks him:
“What do you see, another boy in a cap?”
“This place is alright. It’s got plenty of light. The seaside and palm trees. I was thinking about maybe opening some little luxury hotel like you were talking about the other day. That would keep us busy. Just twenty beds, no more. And to hell with everything else. We could put it in your name just in case. And then about half a dozen employees to look after it, only from Andalucia, and we’ll just keep out of sight, all right?”
The woman slips out of her bedclothes before stepping into the bathroom. She has a scar where she once had a breast. The worst part of her treatment is over. During her last consultation Doctor Arbulu assured her that save for some unlikely new complication she was, essentially, cured. Her husband suspects that they must have spotted her on the way home from the clinic; and that made it easy to follow them to Alicante.
Even though it’s Sunday, white smoke drifts up from the funeral home chimney.
He writes: We’ll have to do what Maite suggests. If there’s no way to settle down here then we’ll go abroad.
A boy with gypsy features comes walking along in front of the funeral home. His long hair hangs down to his shoulders, and his hands are sunk deep in his trouser pockets. He walks with long rapid steps, and never turns his gaze towards the hotel. A good sign. Also, he’s wearing leather boots. Only the locals would wear boots like that in such hot weather. The kid waves to the old man on the bench without stopping. The old man replies by gently shaking his cane.
He hears the shower running in the bathroom. He writes: All this would make Dad so very sad. You’ve got to hang on, son. You’ve got to hold on, like I did during the war and the hard years after that. It’s what he always said. But the old man lived through different times. I can’t keep the business going from six hundred miles away. If you’re not right there keeping an eye on things they’ll just ruin you. The trucks, well, I’ll sell those, and if I have to get back into shipping then I’ll buy some more and reopen the company in Seville. With a new name, of course. Well maybe it’s because of Dad that I’ve still not gone abroad. I have to write this down so someone at least will know.
An hour later they go downstairs, out into the street. She wears a special bra, with a foam rubber insert that allows her to disguise the fact she’s missing a breast. They both hide their eyes behind new sunglasses.
“Whenever we see a church,” she says, “let’s stop to see if there’s a schedule of masses.”
No sooner do they step out onto the street than he thrusts his chin towards the funeral home.
“They burn them on Sundays.”
“How do you know?”
“Shit, don’t you see the smoke?”
“Fine, Josemari, let’s change the subject. Left or right? Which way are we going?”
“The water has to be that way.”
They cross the street arm in arm. It’s a habit from when they first started going out, many years ago. Lately, they don’t do it so much anymore, not since that evening when they had to abandon their house and leave everything behind. Maybe they’re doing it now from the need to feel united in a new place filled with strange faces.
At first, Maite was convinced that her husband’s fear caused him to see a ghost on every corner. They’d be walking down the street in Alicante or Malaga, and suddenly he’d say to her:
“Turn but pretend you’re not looking. You’ll see two boys next to the stoplight. See them?”
“I see a lot of people, Josemari.”
“The ones wearing caps. I don’t know about you but they’re giving me a bad vibe.”
Maite didn’t really pay much attention to her husband’s jitters until that day in the rented flat in Alicante, when the telephone rang at three-thirty in the morning and a garbled, half-whispering voice mumbled some weird things about a dog and some shotgun shells and something about going hunting. Maite had arrived by train that afternoon. She’d showed up in a good mood because of everything that Doctor Arbulu had told her, but they must have been following her. Who else, if not one of them, would call at that time of the night with the excuse of asking about a dog?
He didn’t have the slightest doubt.
“They’ve found us.”
“C’mon, Josemari! How could they know we’re here?”
“What do you mean how could they know? I’ve got no idea. But obviously the way they pronounce their s’s is not the way people from Alicante talk. That guy on the phone was one of them. First thing tomorrow I’m saying that I’m not signing the lease. I’ll think of some excuse. We’re getting out of town as soon as possible.”
They make their way through a neighborhood of narrow streets, low houses with white walls, windows with wrought iron bars and balconies flush with geraniums. Here and there, locals sit just outside their front doors gossiping, lowering their voices as the couple strolls past. Also the children stop playing to stare at the strange pair. As they turn a corner, Josemari whispers to Maite that all these brown-skinned people must take them for aliens from outer space. Walking by, they nod their heads timidly, because they feel peculiar to be the object of so much curiosity. After all, they’ve got to do something because they surely don’t want to make anyone suspicious. Some people respond to them with customary greetings that sound strange to their ears:
Vayan ustedes con Dios, and other such expressions.
Fifteen minutes later, after following a steep, narrow street thick with the smell of frying calamari, they reach the avenue along the bay. From the open window of a high-ceilinged flat comes a woman’s musical voice. They see a grungy cat perched in a window gnawing on a fish head.
Coming in sight of the sea, Josemari suddenly feels his spirit sink again, like in Alicante, like in Malaga.
“It’s just not the same.”
“Water and waves, Josemari.”
“I don’t want to argue, but the Mediterranean is not what I call a sea. The Cantabrian has its different seasons, enormous tides and cliffs, now that’s a proper sea. Our sea. There’s no comparison.”
“So, then, what do you call this?”
“I don’t know. It’s something different. A big lake.”
And while Maite heads off to the bathrooms in the café where they’ve stopped for a drink, he writes in his Moleskine: I can get used to anything, but I’ll always miss the sea from my native land. The sea, my sea where I grew up, is fundamental in my life. I realize this now.
He chews another olive stuffed with anchovies and adds: What matters is that I don’t think like a fish.
Then he starts to carefully, slowly observe the passersby strolling past the café terrace, feeling a stab of apprehension each time some young man enters his field of vision. He thinks about how a few days ago, in Malaga, he was followed by a young couple, a boy and a girl, both of them wearing caps with visors. It might have just been a coincidence, given that when he turned up a street and slipped into a pharmacy to hide, they just walked by without a glance. Afterwards he followed them from a distance. And he really didn’t find anything strange. The next day, going for a stroll with Maite along the harbor, turning back after buying the newspaper at a kiosk, he recognized them. Or he thought that he recognized them.
“Josemari, are you sure it’s the same ones?”
“I’m not exactly sure of their faces, but it’s the same hats and I’m sure they were a boy and a girl like those two there. Maybe they work in shifts, because these kinds of people, if there’s one thing they know how to do, apart from fucking up your life, is to be organized.”
The waitress who’s served them their snacks now explains, in a strong Andalusian accent, the simplest way to get to a church situated just a few blocks away. When she understands Maite’s plan, the girl is kind enough to call her mother on her cell phone.
“No, really, it’s no trouble at all.”
So, it seems they celebrate Mass in the church at one o’clock. Now it’s just past twelve-thirty. Maite and Josemari express their thanks by leaving the girl a generous tip. Then, arm in arm again, they walk unhurriedly to the church. Five minutes later, they glimpse the church tower rising above the roofline. The bells are already ringing.
Josemari sits on a bench in the street, under a spreading lemon tree that gives him plenty of shade. Maite tries to persuade him to accompany her to Mass, saying how it will be nice and cool inside the church.
“You’ll roast out here.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Mass lasts about forty-five minutes. A little more than two dozen worshippers sit scattered throughout the pews. Maite sits down in the last row, occasionally glancing towards the door, hoping to see Josemari come inside. The priest is an old man with a raspy voice who speaks in a halting monotone. The church’s poor acoustics make it hard for her to hear his sermon. But, finally, the Mass is ended and Maite has fulfilled her obligation, which is what matters to her.
Coming out of the church she’s startled half to death to find her husband nowhere in sight. The bench where Josemari had promised to wait for her is empty. She looks all around but sees no one whom she can ask about a man in a white shirt, almost bald, who was sitting here just a short while before. In the center of her chest she feels a painful knot that makes it hard for her to breathe and makes her think about her past sufferings from her illness. The faithful who attended Mass walk off, disappearing in different directions. Soon the street is deserted. At this moment, Maite discovers Josemari’s notebook lying on the ground. She opens it and reads the last words her husband has written, and a terrible presentiment fills her with anguish: The same caps as in Malaga. She feels like she’s about to start screaming. Maite walks towards the nearest door hoping they’ll help her call the police. Then she sees Josemari come walking around the corner. Shaking with fright she runs to him and demands:
“Do you mind telling me where the hell you went?”
— Fernando Aramburu, Translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley
Fernando Aramburu was born in San Sebastián in 1959. He has a degree in Spanish Language, Literature and Linguistics from Zaragoza University. He currently lives in Germany, where he has worked as a Spanish teacher since 1985. His work has been granted, among others, the Ramón Gómez de la Serna Prize 1997, the Euskadi Prize 2001, and for his short stories Lospeces de la amargura (The Fish of Sorrow), the XI Mario Vargas Llosa NH Prize, the Dulce Chacón Prize, and the Prize of the Spanish Language Academy. The movie Bajo las estrellas (Under the Stars) based on Aramburu’s novel El trompetista del utopía (The trumpet player of the Utopia) was awarded a Goya Prize in 2008 for best adapted screenplay by the Spanish Cinematographic Academy.
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.