We have the same memory.

It’s very early. The sun has just come up. The three of us – father, mother and son – are yawning sleepily. Mum’s made some tea or coffee, and we duly drink it. We’re in the living room, or the kitchen, as still and quiet as statues. Our eyes keep closing. Soon we hear a lorry pull up outside the house and then the deep blast of the horn. Although we’ve been expecting it, we’re startled by the din and suddenly wide awake. The windows rattle. The racket must have woken up the neighbours. We go out to the street to see our father off. He climbs into the truck, sticks his arm out of the window and attempts a smile as he waves goodbye. It’s clear he feels bad about leaving. Or not. He’s only been with us a couple of days, three at the most. His two mates call out to us from the cabin and wave goodbye too. Time passes in slow motion. The Pegaso sets off, lumbering into the distance as if it doesn’t want to leave either. Mum’s in her dressing gown and a tear rolls down her cheek, or maybe not. We, the sons, are in pyjamas and slippers. Our feet are freezing. We go inside and get into our beds, which are still slightly warm, but we can’t go back to sleep because of all the thoughts buzzing round in our heads. We’re three, four, five and seven years old and we’ve been through the same scene several times before. We don’t know it then, but we’ve just seen our father for the last time.

We have the same memory.

The scene we’ve just described took place about thirty years ago, and the story could begin at three different points on the map. No, four. The removal truck might have been disappearing into the morning mist that enveloped the Quai de la Marne in the north of Paris, leaving behind a row of houses on rue de Crimée across from a canal that, in the dawn light, seemed to have been lifted from the pages of a Simenon novel. Or perhaps the truck’s engine shattered the clammy silence of Martello Street, next to London Fields in the East End, as it headed under the railway bridge to find a main road leading out of the metropolis to the motorway, where driving on the left doesn’t present the same headache for a continental trucker. Or maybe it was Frankfurt, the eastern part, at one of those blocks of flats they put up in Jacobystrasse after the war. Here, the Pegaso lurched towards the motorway, faltering at times as if dreading having to cross a landscape of factories and woods and join the convoy of trucks that were likewise ploughing through the arteries of Germany.

Paris, London, Frankfurt. Three distant places linked by our father driving a truck that moved furniture from one side of Europe to the other. There was one more city, the fourth, which was Barcelona. Point of departure and arrival. In this case, the scene takes place without the truck and without the other two truckers. One of us – Cristòfol – with his father and mother. Three people in the poorly lit kitchen of a flat in carrer del Tigre. But here, too, the farewell takes place with the same calm he has counted on – to the point that it almost seems rehearsed – with the same vague concern that has always worked for him before, in other houses and with other families. That expression on his face, striving for composure but brimming over with sadness which seeped into all of us. Hours later, the next day, or the next week, we’d look in the mirror while brushing our teeth, and see it in our own eyes. A wistfulness we all recognised. That’s why we now have the feeling that our emotions were scattered far and wide and why, now, all these years later, our childhood sense of betrayal is multiplied by four. We also like to think of our mothers, the four mothers, as if they were one. Pain not shared but multiplied. Nobody was spared. Certainly not we four sons. What? You don’t get it? It’s too complicated? Well, this is going to take some explaining. We are four brothers – or, more accurately, half-brothers – sons of one father and four very different mothers. Until about a year ago we didn’t know each other. We didn’t even know the others existed, scattered around God’s dominions. Our father wanted us to be called Christof, Christophe, Christopher and Cristòfol (who was known by the Spanish version of Cristóbal until the dictator Franco died). If you say them out loud, one after another, the four names sound like an irregular Latin declension. Christof, German nominative, was born in October 1965, the impossible heir of a European lineage. Christopher, Saxon genitive, came almost two years later, his birth suddenly enlarging and adding colour to the definition of a Londoner’s life. The accusative, Christophe, took a little less time – nineteen months – and, in February 1969, became the direct object of a French single mother. Cristòfol was the last to appear: a case of circumstance, completely defined by place, space and time, an ablative in a language that doesn’t decline. Why did our father give us the same name? Why was he so single-minded about calling us that, so obstinate that in the end he managed to persuade our mothers to go along with it? Was it, perhaps, that he didn’t want to feel we were one-offs? After all, none of us has brothers or sisters. Once we talked about it with Petroli, who, like Bundó, was a fellow trucker, friend and confidant and he said, no, when he talked about us he never got us mixed up and knew perfectly well who was who. We tell ourselves it might be some sort of superstition: Saint Christopher is the patron saint of drivers and we four sons were like small offerings he left behind in each country, candles lit to protect him as he travelled around in his truck. Petroli, who knew him very well, disagrees, saying he didn’t believe in any hereafter and suggesting a more fantastic but equally credible possibility: maybe he just wanted four of a kind, a winning poker hand in sons. “Four aces”, he says, “one for each suit.” “And what about Dad?” we ask. He was the wild card, the joker needed to make five of a kind.

Are our mothers physically alike? I don’t think so. Diria que no. Je crois pas. Ich glaube nicht. Do they all fit together to make up some pattern of shared beauty or are they, rather, pieces of some perfection-seeking jigsaw created by a twisted mind, our father’s mind? Neither. In any case, it has to be said that when we tell them about our plan for getting them together in the future, all four mothers show the same lack of enthusiasm. Mireille pulls a face, saying it would be like a meeting of Abandoned Anonymous. Sigrun wants European Union funding for the summit. Rita compares it to a club of ageing groupies – “Elvis lives, Elvis lives!” Sarah has a suggestion: “If we must meet, why don’t we do a production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII? There are only four of us? No problem, if we keep looking we’re bound to find a couple more!”

This caustic response from the four potential widows must be some kind of defence mechanism. Many years have gone by but their amorous experiences are too similar and they don’t want to start talking about them now. From the outside, it’s tempting to imagine four women getting together to reminisce about a man who left them in the lurch one fine day, without any warning and each with a kid to raise. They drink and talk. Little by little, they start sharing a list of grievances. Their memories bring them together. The distress has been left so far behind that time’s removed the poisonous fangs and it’s now as harmless as a stuffed animal. The gathering becomes more of an exorcism than therapy.

They drink and laugh. Yet each of them starts thinking privately that the others didn’t really understand him, and, calling on their memories, they all start polishing up their love. Mine was the real love, the true love. A slip of the tongue, a joke that suddenly isn’t funny and the alliance of suffering collapses. Any minute now they’ll start pulling each other’s hair out.

Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image.”

The thing is, there’s one detail that complicates everything. Right now, we can’t claim that our father’s dead. Only that he disappeared, more than a year ago.

In fact, disappeared isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word. Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. This provisional air became increasingly evident and we’re inclined to believe that, rather than vanishing from one day to the next – Abracadabra! – like a magic trick or some extraterrestrial abduction, our father gradually dissolved. That even now, right now, when all four of us are thinking about him for the first time, he’s still slowly dissolving.

This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. In the foreground were equestrian statues, castles, gardens, churches – horrible provincial monuments that all four of us recall with depressing clarity. These postcards were written and dated somewhere in France or Germany, yet they bore a stamp with Franco’s marmoreal face because they must have languished for days in the truck’s glove box and he only remembered to post them when he was back in Barcelona. In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond the two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.

“The only thing he didn’t do was write them with that funny ink that makes the words disappear a few days after you read them,” Christof remarked.

Although the reason is an absent father, when the four of us start pooling our memories, the experience never ceases to amaze us. At our first meeting we made the commitment to meet up one weekend in five, more or less. With each new get-together we fill in some gap or untangle one or other of our father’s many deceits. Our mothers are helping us to reclaim those years and, though the details aren’t always pleasant, we’re often struck by how rewarding it feels. It’s as if we can rewrite our lonely upbringings, as if those childhoods without brothers or sisters, which sometimes weighed heavily on us in a strange adult way – making us feel so helpless – can be partially rectified because now we know some of our father’s secrets. No one can rid us of the uncertainty of those days, that’s for sure, but we want to believe that the four of us unknowingly kept each other company, and that our father’s life did have meaning because, if he shrouded himself in secrecy, we were the very essence of that.

We spread out all the photos on a table and stared at them as if they were a graphic novel of an unfinished life – in black and white, or the kind of colours that, faded by time, lent the scene a heightened air of unreality.”

Since this solitary fraternity might seem too abstract, we’ll give a practical example to make things clearer. When we four Christophers decided to meet up for the first time, communicating with each other in a cold, distant way that was so ridiculous it makes us laugh now, we agreed that we’d bring along the photos we have of our father. The idea was that we’d choose one, a clear image, one that was not too old, and then place an ad seeking information in our national newspapers. We’d publish his picture across half the continent, asking anyone who might have seen him, or who had any idea of where he might be hiding, to get in touch. In the end, however, after a lot of discussion, we gave up on the idea because it seemed futile. If, as we agree, his disappearance was gradual and voluntary with nothing sudden about it, then nobody would recognise him. Nobody would have seen him yesterday, or the day before yesterday, or last week. His absence would appear perfectly normal to everyone.

Although we decided we wouldn’t take any steps in that direction, we kept poring over the photos we’d brought, just for fun. We were in Barcelona and we spread out all the photos on a table. Then we stared at them as if they were a graphic novel of an unfinished life. They were images from the sixties and seventies, in black and white, or the kind of colours that, faded by time, lent the scene a heightened air of unreality. There were some he had sent with his letters and others taken during one of his visits. When they were placed side by side, we could see that his pose was always the same, that way he had of smiling at the camera – Lluiiiiís, cheeeese, hatschiiiii… – as if he was making a big effort, or the recurring gesture of caressing our hair when we appeared in the picture, or embracing whichever mother it happened to be, with his hand placed on exactly the same part of her waist…

This sensation of seeing the four of us being reproduced according to a formula, standing equally still before the camera, as if there were no substantial differences between us, was uncomfortable and disturbing. The backgrounds changed slightly and we did too, of course, but sometimes Dad was wearing the same denim jacket and the same shoes in all the photos from any one season. As we were discussing these coincidences we became aware of a detail that infuriated us at first but which was consoling once we’d digested it. Often the photos we received in a letter, pictures of him alone, had been taken during a visit to one of our homes. Dad would say something about the image but was careful not to write anything that might make our mothers suspicious. At most, he’d situate it on the map of his travels in the truck. “The photo I’m sending you was taken by Bundó last September when we stopped for lunch in some tucked-away corner of France,” he wrote in a letter to Christopher and Sarah at the end of 1970, and the “tucked-away corner” you can make out in the background was actually the white façade of the house where Christophe and Mireille lived in Quai de la Marne. “A petrol stop in Germany, just outside Munich,” he wrote on another photo sent to Christophe and Mireille, but Christof spotted in the background, just behind the image of our father, his neighbourhood petrol station in Frankfurt. Moreover, the photo was from 1968, two years earlier, because we all had some from the same roll of film (and now this coexistence inside the camera also comforts and amuses us).

Given all this evidence, the easiest thing would be to recognise that Dad was a compulsive liar, and we certainly wouldn’t be wrong about that, but that explanation seems too simple. For the moment, we’re not interested in condemning him but just finding out where he is. Who he is. If we succeed some day, then we’ll ask for explanations. At present, we prefer to venture free of prejudice into the shadows of his life because, after all, if the four of us have met it’s thanks to him – and his absence. It may not be easy to understand but we prefer our totally subjective or, if you like, deluded enthusiasm to indignation. The same photos that perpetuated his deceit now serve to bring us together as brothers. We prize them as a sign that, all those years ago, our father foresaw our meeting up as brothers. Yet another dream for us to cling to. Sure, our method of deduction isn’t very scientific but at least it allows us to breathe a little life into these photos.

We must confess: starting from a certainty helped us forge a bond. The first day we got together in Barcelona and laid out the photos of our father, in order on the table, in our attempt to construct a plausible story, we understood that he’d never revealed anything about himself to us. Not a glimmer. Hardly a hint of emotion. Suddenly, those photos all lined up, mute and faded, reminded us of a series of images from a film, like those stills they used to hang in the entrances of cinemas to show what was coming next. You could study them for ages, staring at the motionless actors and actresses, imagining the scenes in which they’d been shot and, if you didn’t know anything about the story beforehand, it was impossible to work out whether it was a comedy, a drama or a mystery. Whether they were about to burst out laughing or crying.

That’s pretty much how it is. Gabriel, our father, is an actor in a photo and the more you look at him the more you fall under his spell.

From Lost Luggage, translated by Julie Wark.

 

Jordi_Punti_featureJordi Punti was born near Barcelona in 1967 and is a writer, translator and a regular contributor to the Spanish and Catalan press. His first book of short stories, Pell d’armadillo (1998), won the Serra d’Or Critics’ Prize. Lost Luggage, his first novel, has been translated into 15 languages and won the Catalan Booksellers’ prize 2010 and the Spanish National Critics’ prize 2011. Julie Wark’s English translation is published in the UK by Short Books. Read more.

Julie Wark is an Australian-Spanish citizen, resident in Barcelona for almost 30 years. A translator of Catalan and Spanish literature, politics and philosophy, a long-term human rights author and activist, and a member of the editorial board of Sin Permiso, she is the author of The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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