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Camí de sirga

Jesús Moncada
The Towpath


The dust forced him to screw his eyes up, so he didn’t notice the Civil Guards walk across the square, clutching their patent-leather hats, their green capes billowing out in the wind. He had felt mortified by the gently ironic look on the café proprietor’s face when he took for the rum. Estanislau had been right to suggest some time back that the best thing was to forget it all, to let it drop; nothing could be done, so the sooner he put it out of his mind the better. But Nelson couldn’t just turn his back. Immersed in his thoughts, he reached the top of Carters Hill and suddenly found desolation staring him in the face.

Since the demolitions began, he had almost unwittingly reduced his movements inside the perimeter of the town. He avoided those places where the ruin was furthest advanced; if he strayed from his usual route, what he saw made him sick at heart. Unfortunately, the stretch between the Quayside Café and the saddler’s was one of the areas most affected by the unstoppable march of destruction.

He reached the shop, took what he needed, exchanged a few words with the saddler on the eternal subject that had been haunting them all for more than ten years by now, and then left. Seeing the devastation on the way down, he was finally overcome by despair. Not a single soul crossed his path and the oppressive silence weighed heavily on him. Memory inevitably took up residence in the ruins; it restored demolished houses, traced streets, rebuilt squares, brought people back to life. But Nelson realized that his mind was playing tricks on him. He became confused by so much dilapidation. The town he re-created in his imagination wasn’t the old town. He brought families together in the wrong place and was misled by piles of bricks, shattered beams, broken door- and window-frames and wrought-iron bars from balconies and galleries. He would muddle up house numbers and shop signs, turning a grocer’s into a tailor’s, or a wine-shop into a barber’s; he would transform a basket-maker’s workshop into a bank, or relocate the presses from the old oil mill on Rudder Street in the dress-shop on Castle Hill. Placing the buildings was bad enough, but it was even worse when he tried to recall and piece together the sounds (cocks crowing, blacksmiths hammering, bells ringing, carts trundling past, the clatter of horses, the chug of tractor engines and coal lorries, the clamour of the sailors on the quayside, the hustle and bustle in the market and the drills in the mines) which in the past had provided the accompaniment to everyday life, split down the middle by the noonday siren which had itself lain silent for many months now. He would never hear them again. Their absence was a measure of the disaster, which had initially caught the town unawares and surprised it by its magnitude.

The first rumours did create a minor stir, the old man recalled as he rested on top of the ruins of Rampart Street, but no one took them very seriously. It would be a nine days’ wonder, a topic of conversation for a few months, as on previous occasions in the past; some heat would be generated and then it would all blow over until the next scare. But this time the predictions got it wrong. Rumours intensified, the story appeared in the papers, concern mounted and, to everyone’s amazement, on a carnival day in 1957, when the whole town was given over to dancing and processions, the invasion was launched.

Lorries laden with gangs of strangers came in via the Lleida Road, their powerful engines drowning out the festivities and causing many faces to turn pale behind the carnival masks. The vehicles didn’t stop in the town; they carried on upstream along the track by the Ebro for a couple of kilometres, but they left a trail of anxiety in their wake. The revellers dispersed and a clammy darkness fell on what had been a day of dense fog when the boats’ melancholy sirens had never stopped wailing in midstream, interspersed with the screeching of seagulls. It was the first of many nights of anguish which were to mark out the future of the town.

The trucks kept coming day after day; the wall by the Ebro vibrated as they drove past. The time for rumours was over: they were going to block the course of the Ebro with two enormous dams. One of them, upstream, not far from the town; the other downstream, at Riba-roja. Faió and the town would disappear beneath its waters.

* * *

He remembered the disaster: men and bulldozers trespassing on farmlands, surveyors at every turn with their equipment, taking measurements and drawing up plans, workmen erecting prefabricated wooden huts by the river so they could hide away while the townspeople sought to fight off this brutal onslaught, calculated to sow despair and block any attempts at resistance.

“They want to make electricity,” exclaimed Joanet del Pla at the Quayside Café, echoing the remarks that could be heard night and day all over the town.
“Yes, at our expense…”
“Two reservoirs.”
“And us in the middle.”
“They’ve got a bloody cheek!”

It was all illegal − or so Forques the boatbuilder muttered furiously, repeating the argument that had been employed time and time again in futile protests aimed at averting the disaster: the plans still hadn’t received government approval. And Estanislau Corbera mentally agreed with him as he lay awake, afflicted by the insomnia that he was to suffer from then on. But they would be beaten, there was no hope for them. The firm who were constructing the dams belonged to the State, to the people in charge. And no one needed reminding that the people in charge were the same bunch who had rebelled against the Republic in 1936 and who were responsible for the savagery of the Civil War… What point was there in talking about legality? The counter in the café was the reef on which their anxieties crashed: the land, the houses, the mines would be expropriated, the town would be flooded… And this led on to the next question: what future was there for them? Where would they go? What would they do? But why did they care, why did they worry? Weren’t the exact words of His Excellency, the governor of the province, that he was sick to the balls of that shower of whining Reds, and that if they didn’t stop pestering him, he’d personally load them all into a lorry at gunpoint and send them up north to work in the mines in Asturias? The solution according to Horaci Planes ─ whose job as nightwatchman meant that he suffered from insomnia in the daytime ─ was to push the esteemed gentleman just a little bit further until they burst his honourable balls (billiard balls? footballs? punch-balls? wondered the customers), and the threat became a reality. At least it would set things straight and they wouldn’t have to live ─ if it could be called living ─ in the atmosphere of uncertainty that existed now… At the same time, the town was swarming with people. The first wave of the invasion had been merely a taste of things to come, of the huge tide which exceeded the district’s capacity to absorb it. Even people who remembered the hordes who had overrun the coalfield in the Great War had never seen anything quite like this massive influx. In the main they were a sorry-looking bunch of poor folk who had come from far and wide to scrape together a few pence to send home to their families; the counters at the Quayside Café and the other hostelries in the town were filled with faces and accents from all four corners of the State. Every doorway became a shop, a tavern or a bar. The streets were paved with gold but even though his clientele had rocketed ─ mumbled Estanislau Corbera as he lay tossing and turning ─ it was easy money, short-term prosperity, its warm recesses a breeding-ground for maggots.

They never suspected that most of them would grow old, indeed many would die, still prey to that sense of anguish; they never suspected that thirteen years of uncertain struggle lay ahead of them, caught like rats in a trap. Estanislau didn’t realize that he would have thousands of sleepless nights to reflect and commit to memory each bitter setback in the agony of the town’s stubborn defence. In the course of this process it managed to irritate not just the governor’s testicles but those of the entire machinery of government: the moth-eaten testicles of the pallid, dusty clerks; the testicles of the wily, devout technocrats, softened in holy water; the testicles of the bloodthirsty sabre-rattlers, steeped in alcohol; the mummified testicles, embroidered with a swastika, of God’s chosen one, whose face appeared on the coins… A long path leading to desolation, which old Nelson was treading that afternoon in 1971 as he walked down Soul Alley.

Translated by Judith Willis
Jesús Moncada, The Towpath. London: The Harvill Press, 1994
Jesús Moncada
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