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. Mom’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 truck 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 neighbors. 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 good-bye. 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 friends call out to us from the cab and wave good-bye too. Time passes in slow motion. The Pegaso sets off, lumbering into the distance as if it doesn’t want to leave either. Mom’s in her dressing gown, and a tear rolls down her cheek, or maybe not. We, the sons, are in pajamas 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 around 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 moving 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 apartments they put up in Jacobystrasse after the war. Here, the Pegaso lurched toward 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 plowing 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 an apartment on 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 that 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 recognized. 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 color 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 traveled 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.
“Life is very short, and there’s no time . . .” Christopher suddenly
starts singing. We let him go on because the words are relevant and it’s a Beatles song. All four of us are fans but, right now, we’re not going to play at deciding who’s going to be George, or Paul, or Ringo, or John. We’ll keep this kind of exercise to ourselves and, as for this business of interrupting a conversation by breaking into song, this is the first and last time we’re going to let anyone chime in—do a solo—without the prior consent of the other three. We’re not in a karaoke bar and we need a few rules if we’re going to get along. If all four brothers talk at once it will be pandemonium. Then again, Chris is right: Life is very short, and there’s no time.
What else? Until recently, we’d been getting along with our lives, without knowing that the other three brothers existed, but is it true that our father—or rather his absence—has shaped our lives in the same way? No, of course not, though we’re sorely tempted to make up stories about his underlying influence. Take our professions, for example. Christof’s in show business, and the actor’s craft, to be or not to be, reminds us of our father’s faking skills. Christophe’s a lecturer in quantum physics at the University of Paris, where he observes the world, questions reality, and studies parallel universes (in which our father would never abandon us). Christopher has a stall in Camden Town and earns his living buying and selling second-hand records: His acquisition of collectors’ gems and other relics, often by not strictly legal means, is the legacy of our father’s picaresque lifestyle (read on, please). Cristòfol’s a translator, novels mainly, from French, so when he renders them from one language into another it’s like a tribute to our father’s linguistic efforts.
What else, what else? Are we four brothers physically alike? Yes, we do look alike. We might say that the four of us are from the same genetic map and that our mothers—Sigrun, Mireille, Sarah, Rita—are the evolutionary elements that make us different, the barbarian grammar that has removed us from the Latin. In some part of Central Europe, at a crossroads where their destinies come together—or right in the middle of a roundabout, if we’re going to be irritatingly symbolic—we’ll have to put up a monument to them
because of what they had to bear. They haven’t met yet. It’s only a few weeks since they found out that the others exist, that we have half-brothers and that they, therefore, have stepsons. The boundaries, however, stay where they’ve always been. With a touch of irony, shared by the other three, Sarah says that we sons are like ambassadors meeting up to negotiate an armistice. Later on, we might decide to get them together for a weekend in some hotel on neutral ground. In Andorra, for example, or Switzerland. But that will have to come later.
What else, what else, what else? 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 aging 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 defense 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.
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 compartment, and he only remembered to mail 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.
What else needs telling? Ah yes, how the four of us make ourselves understood. English has been our lingua franca ever since the day we first met, after Cristòfol decided to go looking for the other brothers. We use English because it’s the language in which we best understand each other, because we need some kind of standard, but, in the end, our conversations produce a more complex language, a sort of familial Esperanto. Christof has no problems with this because English is a first cousin of German and he studied it from a tender age. Christophe speaks it with that slightly smug accent typical of the French, plus a technical vocabulary he picks up from the conferences and lectures in quantum physics he often goes to. Cristòfol learned it when he was older, taking private classes, because he studied French at school and university. Sometimes when he can’t get the words out in English he turns to his second language, which is comforting for Christophe. You can see it in his face. Then Chris and Christof start laughing at their Latin origins, mocking them in their own patter, full of guttural sounds, fragments of the “La Marseillaise,” and names of French soccer players.
Chris, however, speaks a bit of Spanish thanks to being pushed by his mother, Sarah. In the mid-seventies, when it seemed clear that Gabriel wouldn’t be visiting them any more, she enrolled her son in a summer course to learn the language. Dammit, Chris might never see his father again but at least he’d have the legacy of speaking Spanish. His teacher was a university student called Rosi. She’d gone to London to get experience, and her first discovery was that teaching wasn’t her thing. Her method consisted of making them listen to a cassette of songs that were all the rage
that summer. That’s why Chris sounds like a native speaker when he says things like “Es una lata el trabajar,” “No me gusta que a los toros te pongas la minifalda,” or “Achilipú, apú, apú,” although he hasn’t got a clue that they mean “having to work’s a pain,” “I don’t like you wearing your miniskirt to the bullfight,” and something sounding like “chili-poo” in a red-hot rumba.
We’ve discovered that songs in Catalan are another childhood experience we share. At our first meeting in Barcelona we had lunch in a restaurant and tried to pool all the information we had about our father. All at once, some children playing and singing at a nearby table had us reliving the songs he taught us when we were small. Songs like “En Joan Petit quan Balla” and “El Gegant del Pi,” in which little Johnny danced and a giant strode around carrying a pine tree.
“I remember a bedtime story Dad used to tell me,” Christof said. “The kid was called Pàtiufet or something like that, and he ended up in the belly of a bull, where it never snows or rains, und scheint keine Sonne hinein. I’d be shitting myself with fright. Sometimes I tell it to my friends’ kids in German, mostly because I like the idea of Pàtiufet competing with the Brothers Grimm.”
“Well, I was obsessed with ‘Plou i Fa Sol,’ that song about rain and sun . . . and witches combing their hair,” Chris recalled, singing his own weird Catalan version. “In London that happens a lot, I mean rain and sun at the same time. Almost every day when I went to school or to play with my friends in the park across the road, I used to look anxiously up at the sky and there would always be a ray of sunshine in that constant drizzle. ‘Here we go again,’ I’d think. ‘In some old mansion, here in this city, right now, the witches are combing their hair again, getting ready to go out.’ When I told my friends about it, convinced I was revealing a secret, they started teasing me and then I’d sing them the song to make them shut up. But it didn’t help.”
This linguistic synergy that the four of us are fast perfecting brings us even closer to our father. It’s an inheritance of sorts since it seems that he spoke all our languages yet none of them. Over the years, according to our mothers, the words he learned
across Europe started overlapping, setting up shortcuts and false friends, simplified verb conjugations and etymologies that only superficially made sense. He took the view that you can’t have long silences in the middle of a conversation, so he slipped from one language to another in his head, and then uttered the first thing that occurred to him.
“My brain’s like a storeroom packed to the ceiling,” they reported him as saying. “Luckily, when I need something, I always end up finding it.”
Even if it was only his conviction, his resources worked and the result was a very practical idiolect. Sigrun complains that a conversation with him always turned comic even when it was meant to be serious. Rita remembers, for example, that his Catalan vi negre had gone linguistically from black to red with vi vermell because that was the color that ruled in France (vin rouge), Germany (Rotwein), and Great Britain. And, yet Mireille assures us that once, in a brasserie on Avenue Jean-Jaurès, he ordered black wine or, as he put it, “vin noir” and even “vin tinté de la maison,” with the inky-black Spanish red, tinto, in mind.
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.
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 recognize 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 colors 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 stop for gasoline 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 neighborhood gas 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 recognize 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.