First Part

Cèlia Suñol

Artwork by Olaya Barr

Helena sits with a stack of blank paper before her, and a fountain pen in her hand. For some time now she has wanted to recount the first part of her life, the story of small, rebellious Helena, young, fearless Helena. She isn’t quite sure why she’s begun to write it now, and not before, when she had more time and more strength.

Now, that strength of hers is slowly declining. Still, in some fleeting moment, as she speaks, she comes alive. Her eyes become bright and a slightly ironic smile floats on her lips; a streak of enthusiasm kindles her words. Later, everything peters out a bit and what remains is a woman who is not yet truly old but still a bit wilted and fatigued. She is living through this difficult period with distress, but without impatience, because she has learned—finally!—that no circumstance is ever definitive.

She had been a pretty child, full of determination; later, a dynamic young woman, full of life. This—those first days, that intense period—is what she wants to tell you about. She ran, thirstily, and she found . . .

But let us let her tell you herself. 

First chapter: Childhood

My father was most certainly a man of his time. Naturally, you must imagine him with a beard and moustache. When I came to know him, his beard, his moustache and his hair were no longer black, but gray. Over the years, indeed quite early, they turned completely white. And his forehead and his temples were so attractive that it was there, on his right temple, that I would kiss him goodnight.

He was always reading at that time of night. At one end of the dining room table, he would arrange his armchair at an angle, so that the light from the lamp fell full on the book he held before him. I would approach him from the side of the chair not touching the table and say good night. He would stretch out his right hand and grasp mine. And at that point I would give him a light peck on his luminous temples.

If some harsh word from him had separated us during the day, my approach would be wary. But Papà would look at me with a lighthearted smile and, pressing my hand tighter, he would say:

Soyons amis, Cinna. C’est moi qui t’en convie . . .

My two older sisters would stay up and read a little longer. Mariona, the third daughter, would get up and, after storing her book in a drawer of the buffet and giving Father a kiss, similar, very similar, to mine, both of us would go into the kitchen, where Mamà was going over the last of the day’s accounts with the servant and giving her instructions for the following day’s meals.

We would find her sitting on a low chair, with her daily ledger in her lap. The accounts were almost always done already, and Mother would be listening to the cook’s observations or speaking amicably of a variety of things. We would hug her and give her lots of kisses, which she gave back, often casually putting her hand to our foreheads or her lips to our temples, without letting on. But we were well aware that she was never entirely free of the fear that some treacherous unexpected illness might await us, and we would say:

“But Mamà, I feel perfectly fine!”

“Yes, my dear . . . But I just thought . . . Go off to bed now, do . . . ” she would add, as she gave us the final kiss, “It’s late, and tomorrow we have morning prayers . . . ”

Mariona and I would go up to our room and lie down to sleep in our twin beds. We would speak softly to each other for a good while, until my sister began to respond with monosyllables, ever more vague and nonsensical. When, in the end, she no longer responded to my last question, I would remain awake, my eyes wide open, watching the crack of light that came in under the door.

The assorted sounds of the house died down. The servants went off to bed; then my older sisters, Aurèlia and Mercè, did the same. And, often, even before them, so did Mother.

But the crack of light under the door did not disappear. Father was still reading. You could hear the whisper of the pages of the book as he turned them, and the tick-tock of our black marble clock. The quarter hours and the half hours that rang out were silvery on our clock, slow and deep on the clock next door, distant but different in the two apartments upstairs. Our bedroom, in the very center of the house, picked up all these sounds. It wasn’t quite the ideal I dreamt of, but it was a comfort to sleep in the heart of the house, surrounded by walls, knowing that next door and above and below a lot of good and familiar people were reposing.

My ideal—when I was very small—would have been to sleep in a large bedroom, a very large bedroom. A room that practically never came to an end. With my little bed right in the middle. On either side, within touching distance, a bed with my father on one side and my mother on the other. And then, also on either side, in this order, my sisters, my aunts, my cousins, my friends . . . with me in the middle, well-protected, infinitely accompanied, and my father and mother within arm’s reach.

Like so many ideals, it was too grand and complicated, and it never came to pass. So then, my sleepy eyes fixed on the light under the door, I awaited the fulfillment of another, much more modest, goal: to fall asleep while my father was still reading. I would have such a great feeling of safety if I fell asleep in the knowledge Papà was still awake! But this rarely happened, and a long while later I would hear him get up and put his book away in the same drawer where we had put ours. His measured footsteps always followed the same path. First, to close the door to the apartment, with latch and key, then to shut the gas valve. And the light in the dining room would go out and the footsteps would become more distant, until you heard the door to his bedroom close. Darkness and quiet throughout the house; only Mariona’s breathing in the bed beside me.

My mother led just as active and orderly a life as her husband. He was serious and severe. She was patient, gentle, and mildly ironic. An early riser, she bathed and dressed us. In the bathroom she soaped up our faces, necks, and arms, she had us brush our teeth, she combed our hair. Until we were quite grown-up, she herself would set out all our articles of clothing, with quick and sure motions. And when she had us clean and ready, she kissed us on our chubby still-damp cheeks, and off to the dining room for breakfast, before going to school. 

For my parents, children were the most pleasing obligation, and the least transferable to others. It didn’t matter if there were one servant or two, or if they were competent or not. I don’t remember anyone’s ever having washed my face, or my hair, or bathed me, but my mother. Tired or not, she would tend to us, from morning to night.

What do I remember about her? Oh, everything! I remember her blue eyes and her smooth hair. And the tone of her skin, and the smell of her cologne, and the waltzes she played on the piano. And her pearl-gray skirts. And her everyday earrings—small treasures that never leave my ears—and the diamond ones she wore to parties. And her two fox coats, and her pocket handkerchief, always clean, but a touch wrinkled. And her hands . . .

Her hands were our property. And her lap. We would sit in small chairs close by her side when she was reading or sewing or speaking, and take one of her hands in ours, not caring whether she had need of it or not. And she would surrender it to us for a moment. Her hands were smaller, more delicate, than ours would later be, a legacy of our father. Even today, I would recognize hers among a thousand others.

And her welcoming lap was not hers either, but ours. We would fit ourselves into it, who knows how, and she would help us up, instinctively . . .

A feeling of stability surrounded me throughout the first years of my life. Order and material security reigned in my house. But Mother was too charming and imaginative and Father too intelligent and caring for this order to degenerate into monotony. Trips to spas, little outings, season tickets to the theater, concerts, dances . . . There was a little of everything in our childhood and youth.

How can I convey to you the “climate” of the different periods of my life? My father’s strong personality, how might I describe it? Oh, my dear father, who had so many qualities, and only one defect! Ah, that hint of fear that separated us!

During meals, Father would speak and everyone else would listen. To his right sat Mamà, and I sat to the left.

“I need you close by me,” he’d say fondly. “I need you most especially in the summer, because then you wear short sleeves, so every so often I can pinch your chubby little arm . . . ”

My father’s conversation was delightful, varied, and erudite. His explanations were always clear and full of facts and details. He talked about history, enlivening it with infinite anecdotes that he remembered with great precision; about the marvelous inventions of the century; about his sojourns in America. We often went on imaginary voyages at the table.

“If business keeps up,” he would say, “in two or three years we could take a trip. Let’s see, where would you like to go?”

Then we would all say our piece and he would entice us with details of itineraries.

“We will leave Barcelona from the Estació de França and the following day we will be in Paris,” he would say. “Twenty-four hours to the minute. We will stay five or six days. We will make a couple of visits to the Louvre, we will go to Versailles, and to the Opéra. We will walk through the Bois de Boulogne one morning and, naturally—don’t you agree, Helena?—we will go to the top of the Tour Eiffel . . . When we return, we will spend another couple of weeks in Paris. But first we will depart by the Gare de l’Est . . . ”

My mouth watered just listening to him. He would take full advantage of our attention to the conversation to ask us how many people resided in the capital of France, whether the Venus de Milo was the original or a copy, who painted the Mona Lisa, who had planned the Jardins de Versailles. And through our minds paraded François Vatel, frying pan in hand, the great Leonardo, André Le Nôtre, and the Printemps department stores. We would eat slowly as we talked, and, having eaten, the conversation would still go on for a while.

In those days, Erich Kästner had not yet written Emil and the Detectives. But many years later, after reading it, I often recall the dialogue Emil maintains with one of his friends.

Emil says:

“Does your family have money? Are you rich?” 

“I don’t know . . . ” says his friend. “I couldn’t say . . . ”

“It’s not hard to figure out,” responds Emil. “Listen, when you’re at table, do you talk about money?”

“No,” he answers, “my parents never talk about money.”

“Well,” Emil says resolutely, “then you are rich.”

Only occasionally was money a topic over dinner at my house. Very occasionally. Only my father, while listening with satisfaction to our expressions of delight over a beautiful new dress or a gift received on a day of celebration, would say from time to time, gravely:

“You do not know it, daughters, but our position is the most ideal of all. Aurea mediocritas . . . ”

translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

© Hereus de Cèlia Suñol i Pla 
© Adesiara, 2014 
Translation copyright © Mary Ann Newman