Thursday, 8 November 2012


I'm not blogging much at present (Please tell me you noticed!) I've decided to post the story that gave me runner-up slot in the 2012 VS Pritchett Award for best unpublished short story. On Monday night I had a great free dinner with some literary luminaries at the Royal Society of Literature event. Dead chuffed. Here it is:


            The flash flood that blighted Rosario Alcántara’s life was like many human events: only the last in a chain of consequences whose cause, far upstream, remains impossible to predict or comprehend.

            On a day in late spring, well past the season of rains in the Sierra Nevada, the sky was its customary piercing blue, with just a hint of cloud near the peaks. The earth was heaving its fat life upward to the sound of birdsong and cicada drone, and José Alcántara, husband of Rosario, was crossing the small river at a place where a poplar grove met a bank of loose shale. With him were his six fat cows, splendid black and white beasts of Dutch ancestry.

            It may be that, being animals and therefore more in tune with nature than José, the cows hesitated momentarily as they neared the ford.  Or perhaps the birds ceased their singing as they are said to do before an earthquake.  We will never know, because there is now no one alive who saw the wall of brown water roar down the canyon like a locomotive, a churning filthy wave of uprooted trees, boulders and mud that swept away everything familiar and altered the geography of Villaflores and Rosario’s life forever.

            Afterward, the sun was still shining.  The clouds that spawned the disaster so far up in the mountains could not even be seen.  The flood was gone as quickly as it came, and those who looked down upon the vega were shocked to see a lunar tableau of wreckage where moments before there had been cultivation. After days of numbed and futile excavation, one black and white foreleg was found in a river bank halfway to the next village.  The remains of the cow were exhumed with difficulty and brought to Villaflores in instalments. No trace of José or the other five animals was ever found.

            Life went on in Villaflores, though it was difficult to accept the absence of José Alcántara.  This was not because he had been especially beloved.  To the contrary, evenings in the bar seemed less fraught without his continual carping about village life, about rainfall, agricultural prices and – above all—the cultural inadequacy of life in Villaflores. Not that José had ever lived anywhere else, except for a brief stretch in the military, when he had been posted to Catalonia. That would have made his criticism more realistic, if not less irksome. His choice of profession demonstrated his perverse dislike of everything local: there was hardly enough flat land in the valley for milk cows to graze on, after all.  But José, faithful to some real or imagined memory of life on the slopes of the Pyrenees, built his small herd despite the derision of others. He wished to be a dairyman, and so he was.  His wife, Rosario, known for her patient temperament, had been the only girl in the village who could have married him. But with all that, his acerbic presence seemed to leave an even greater hole in the shape of village life when he was gone, and many said they could not believe he was dead.

            Rosario mourned respectably, though the absence of a body to carry up the hill to the cemetery robbed the act of a certain finality. For the full seven years she wore black clothing and refrained from public hilarity, never a great failing of hers in any case. This seemed doubly noble, because Rosario was an attractive woman with a broad brow and intelligent eyes. At the end of this time, when word came from the magistrate in Granada that José had been declared legally dead, she received her insurance money without show. Within weeks she had converted a part of the corral of a house bordering the plaza into a hermita, or shrine.  She arranged for delivery from Sevilla an icon of the Virgin which rivalled the church’s statue in fineness of sculpture, but, modestly, not in size. An electric lamp made to look like an array of candles was kept burning day and night, and each day she laid fresh flowers on the little altar. The hermita was dedicated to her late husband, a fact that perplexed the village, because Jose Alcántara had not set foot inside a church since his wedding day. Even the priest who made a brief committal for Jose confessed that he could not place him, though, of course, God could.

            Through these years of mourning Rosario was consoled by her friendship with Enrique, a vine grower and neighbour. He was a large man who spoke little and lived alone. Some thought that Enrique had always wanted to marry Rosario, but if this was so, nothing was ever seen to confirm it. Rosario’s propriety was never in question, and if Enrique was sometimes seen returning from her home after midnight, this was not the occasion of gossip. Sometimes, after the hermita was constructed, Enrique would stand outside respectfully while Rosario swept and changed the flowers, though he never entered himself. In all things to do with Rosario Alcántara, respectability reigned.

            Even mourning becomes routine, and it is possible that the steady rhythm of their lives might have continued forever, if Encarnación Rodriguez had not made a journey to visit her in-laws in Loma de Cabrera, a village in the Province of Almeria. It was the time of fiesta there, and along with the curious traditions of the village that bemused Encarnación, such as the ripe tomato fight with which the inhabitants ended the time of party before the procession of the Virgin of Pilár through the streets, it might have passed off as merely an interlude of no significance. But on the final afternoon, while standing with her cousins near the church, she saw something that sent her scurrying in shock back to Villaflores. The next afternoon she went with her mother and sister to Rosario’s house.  The women had something to tell, and the ritual preliminaries of coffee and Serrano ham were marked with that combination of fear, embarrassment and perverse pleasure that always accompanies bad news.

            The story came out between gasps, and so quickly that even those who had heard it before had to ask Encarnación to repeat herself. On that last day of the fiesta at Loma a large van bearing Barcelona plates pulled into the plaza. The approach scattered revellers like chickens. Three men got out. They were dressed in city clothes. Two of them were local, or relatives of locals, but the third had the unusual singsong accent of the villages near Villaflores. The men were laughing drunkenly, with hams and jeroboams of wine slung over their shoulders.  One of them, the foreigner, passed nearby and Encarnación looked full into his face. Ten years of history had eroded his features, but there could be no doubt: she was looking into the face of Jose Alcántara.

            The chatter ceased. Rosario’s composure wavered only slightly, though she did use both hands to replace her coffee cup in the saucer. Disappointingly to the excited visitors, she thanked them for their concern and sat rigidly until all three had left.  Afterwards she remained seated, eyes closed in thought.  Then she got up, took a basket as if to tend her garden in the countryside, and, greeting every passing child and horseman as usual, went to the vineyard of Enrique.  Only then did she reveal any emotion, and that only a slight paling of her cheeks.  She sat calmly on a bench by the door of the cortijo.

            “Enrique,” she said levelly, “Have you and I behaved with propriety since José’s death?”

            “You know that we have,” was his reply.

            “We have given respect to my dead husband, representing his soul properly to the village?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “Then why…” Rosario’s voice broke only slightly, “Has his ghost returned to haunt me?”


            Enrique’s family was large. That evening, four taciturn men sat late in the family home, moderately taking olives and wine. Rosario was not there, having exhibited serene control of herself during a short visit to all four of them. Her conviction and her voice had been firm as she spoke to the brothers. The logic, as she presented it, was impeccable. If José had indeed been seen, this must be a sign that his soul was uneasy, either because his remains still had not been unearthed, or because he was unsatisfied with Rosario’s mourning. This made it all the more important that his remains were found and laid properly to rest, but because Rosario was merely a woman, and alone, she needed the help of her friends.

            If José’s bones could not be found by their searching, Rosario had said calmly, then his ghost must lead them to them. If this was not possible, then it would be a sign that the haunting was of brief duration and that she could rest at last. Looking long at Enrique, she said that it was now time for life to begin afresh, and that the appearance of José’s ghost might herald this change.

            For some time after she left, the brothers sat quietly. There was not a lot to be discussed. All four knew what was right to do. Then they rose together and walked to Enrique’s truck in the Plaza.  It was going to be a long drive to Loma de Cabrera.


            There had been nothing unusual about the morning except for a few welcome drops of unexpected rainfall. The slight sheen of moisture on the streets gave a lush appearance to the village streets, like the oil on men’s hair in church.

            No one watched as Rosario entered the hermita for her morning routine.  She carried a bunch of carnations picked from the old man’s garden near the fountain.  She had noticed that as his arteries stiffened and the gates of Heaven grew nearer that he had grown progressively more generous with his flowers.  A neighbour woman heard the iron door creak as Rosario opened it and then the faint whisks of her broom.  There was a sudden silence and then a crash as a vase fell to the floor.

            Rosario emerged.  If she had been rattled, she was now composed. She paused to collect her things, then locked the door and went home. In a few moments she was joined by Enrique.  Her door remained shut until afternoon, and then the two—now clearly a couple—walked together into the plaza.  Enrique had oiled and combed his hair, and Rosario had on a red dress that had hung unused for a decade.  It fit her, said the village later, as if she had bought it that very morning. Later some would attribute her sudden beauty to the miracle, others, more cynically, to unleashed desire.

            Standing near the fountain Rosario waited until the priest emerged from his lunch at the home of a parishioner.  She held him by the sleeve and dispatched a small child to rouse the mayor from siesta.  When the two men were together she spoke quietly to them.  No one else heard what she said, but the priest looked grave and the mayor genuflected.  Then, with the calm of a saint, she turned to the rapidly swelling crowd of wives, drowsy pensioners and children and held aloft a small object. It was a ring of pale gold, not in itself remarkable, but because it had been worn by her late husband José, and because it had appeared on the stand of the hermita this very morning, it seemed to glow like the Virgin glimpsed by moonlight.

            Years after the wedding of Rosario and Enrique, an event which drew hundreds from neighbouring villages, someone would from time to time ask what had happened to the ring, which would have had the status of a minor relic, at least.  No one was able to answer, not even Rosario.  As for Enrique, he spoke little anyway.  Things just happen, and what causes them, so far upstream, is impossible to predict or comprehend.





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