Reaching through the dense leaves, Pascual grasped the lemon and twisted it off its stalk. The hefty fruit was as large as his hand, and he inspected its waxy pores before lifting it to his nose and sniffing. Nodding, he placed it in the rope bag alongside the dusty Muscatel grapes. He knew the boy loved to peel the tough grape skins and suck on the sweet pulp inside.
The old man carefully strapped the bag on the back of his moped, climbed on and kicked it into life with the heel of his espadrille. As he steered slowly out to the main road, he remembered how, when his wife was alive, the two of them would walk to their land together. Over the three kilometres he would listen to her good-humoured chatter about the children and the foreigners whose villas she cleaned.
These days however, his joints ached at the change of the seasons and often his own weariness surprised him. He had been reluctantly grateful when his daughter and her husband had presented him with the second-hand moped a few years ago. ‘Apu’s Put Put’ the boy called it. Now he used it regularly to come to the land, and on the odd occasion when he had to go to town.
As he put-putted home in the late sun, Pascual planned how his grandson could help him pick lemons and harvest the almonds. Together they would visit the local cafes and restaurants on the beach front to sell their wares. He told his daughter the boy was just an extra pair of hands to help him during the school holidays, but they both knew it was more than that.
When he got back to the village, he parked the bike down the alley beside his apartment, locking it behind an iron grille. Carrying the rope bag, he climbed the tiled stairs to his front door but was surprised to find it open. He wasn’t expecting the boy until the weekend.
Inside the cool, shadowy room his rheumy eyes took a moment to adjust. His daughter was sitting at the table, gently tugging at a white handkerchief in her hand. Her son stood at her side, stock still, staring intently with large brown eyes at his grandfather.
Pascual nodded reassuringly at the boy who seemed to relax a tiny amount.
The old man’s voice was gravelly but his words were soft. ‘Marisol? What has happened?’ His daughter glanced at him briefly before returning to her hanky.
‘There’s been an accident Papa,’ she replied quietly. Pascual sat opposite her, the raffia seat gently creaking under his weight.
At the mention of her husband’s name, his daughter nodded and began to cry, raising the handkerchief to her face to hide the tears. The child looked at his mother anxiously. Pascual wished his wife were here. She always knew the warm words that eased an emotional situation; how to express sympathy by just the touch of a hand. It was a mystery to Pascual, so he waited for his daughter to compose herself, wiping her eyes and nose with the handkerchief.
‘He’s been hurt in an explosion,’ she explained. ‘A boiler at old Señor Medina’s house. No one knows what happened. Carlos is always so good with the old plumbing.’
Pascual nodded, waiting for his daughter to continue. The boy stood so still and silent he’d almost forgotten he was there.
Marisol took a deep breath and said, ‘He’s in the hospital. He has very bad burns. They say he’s stable at the moment, but it’s serious. They will know more in the morning.’
‘Carlos is a strong man,’ said Pascual as kindly as his gruff voice would allow. His daughter looked at him and nodded.
‘You’re right, Papa. But I need to be with him tonight. Carlos’s mother is at the hospital now and I need to return – but it’s no place for a child.’
Pascual looked at his grandson and smiled at him. The boy stared back.
‘Of course he can stay here.’
‘I didn’t have the chance to pack a bag; you could go round to our apartment...’
Pascual shook his head. ‘No need. He’ll be fine.’
Marisol looked at her father and smiled weakly. ‘Of course. Thank you, Papa.’
Pascual stood and walked over to the boy, putting a large leathery hand on his small shoulder. The boy looked up at him.
‘Go to your husband,’ he told his daughter.
Marisol stood and turned to hug her son. Pascual watched the child’s body collapse into his mother’s arms, sinking his face into her dark curls. She held him for a few moments before straightening up. Blinking away the tears, she stroked the boy’s soft brown hair and smiled brightly at him.
‘Be a good boy for Apu. And don’t worry about your Papa – Grandma and I will be with him tonight.’
She turned to Pascual and gingerly kissed his bristly cheek. ‘Thank you, Papa,’ she whispered.
As she left the apartment, closing the door behind her, Pascual saw the boy stiffen. Quickly he picked up the rope bag, took the boy’s hand and led him into the kitchen. He pulled the fruit out of the bag and put the grapes into the sink. Instinctively, the child reached to turn the tap on and began washing the dust off the grapes.
Pascual took out the bread he’d bought in the village that morning. He tore the end off the long loaf, then from the overhead cupboard brought out a small bar of chocolate. Breaking a few squares off, he pushed them deep into the middle of the bread. He turned on the grill of his ancient oven, opened the door and put the bread on the shelf.
The boy had finished washing the grapes, so Pascual passed him a tea towel to dry them while he put the kettle on. When he’d finished, the boy fetched the bowl from the table in the next room and carefully placed the bunches of grapes in it.
Pascual made the boy a cup of weak tea with milk and sugar, and himself a strong cup of black coffee. The boy took great care in carrying the glass bowl full of fruit to the table, then sat on a chair while his grandfather placed his tea in front of him. Pascual felt two large brown eyes follow him as he returned to the oven and lifted out the bread.
Insensitive to the heat, he wrapped the bread in a paper serviette, brought it out to the child and sat down opposite him. The boy held the bread, looking at it as if trying to decide if he was hungry. Then, the thin smell of warm, melted chocolate rose from the toasted bread and he began nibbling the crunchy edge of the loaf.
Pascual sipped his coffee, watching the boy blowing at the bread and biting past the crust into the chocolate-coated dough. Pascual remembered eating this once as a child and the comforting effect of the simple treat.
As the boy munched on, Pascual got up and crossed the tiny flat to the bathroom that lay off a corridor. He turned the bath taps on full, and while rusty brown water gushed into the bath, he opened the bathroom cabinet. It was almost bare, housing only his razor and shaving foam, toothbrush and paste, a plastic bottle of aspirin that his daughter insisted he take but he rarely did, and some bubble bath he kept for the boy’s visits.
The water had begun to run clear, so he put in the plug and poured out some bubble bath. Then he returned to the boy who had finished his bread and was holding his mug of tea with both hands.
Pascual placed a hand on the child’s small head and gently stroked the soft hair.
The boy twisted his head to look up at his grandfather.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Pascual huskily.
‘Yes, Apu,’ he nodded, attempting a smile.
‘Good. Now finish your tea, it’s time for your bath.’
The boy climbed into bed dressed in his grandfather’s stripy pyjama top with the sleeves rolled up. Sitting on the bed, the old man tucked the sheet in and laid a light blanket over him.
‘Apu?’ whispered the little boy.
‘Is Papa going to die?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied after a brief pause. Although he knew his daughter often sugar-coated difficult news, he had always been completely honest with his own children.
The boy’s large eyes peered up at him.
‘I am not a doctor. The hospital is full of doctors. They will do everything they can to make him better.’
‘But will he be alright?’ persisted the boy.
‘Your father is a good man. And he still has a great many things to do in his life. Like watching you grow up. I know he will fight as hard as he can,’ said Pascual.
The boy nodded thoughtfully.
‘How old were you when your Papa died?’
The question took Pascual aback, and for a moment he studied the boy, considering his answer.
‘I don’t know,’ he said quietly, gently shaking his head.
‘Why not?’ the boy asked, puzzled.
‘Well,’ began Pascual, ‘it was the war...’
‘The Second World War?’ interrupted the boy, ‘Our teacher told us about that – she said Spain was um...’
‘Neutral?’ suggested Pascual.
‘Yes; didn’t get involved.’
‘That’s right. But that’s because Spain had only just finished its own war.’
‘Who were they fighting?’ asked the boy.
‘Themselves,’ said the old man.
‘How can a country fight itself?’
‘When people have different views, it can end in a fight. You must have seen that at school.’
The boy nodded.
‘Some people take the side of one person in the fight, and some people take the other person’s side.’
The boy nodded again.
‘Well, in this case, the whole country took one side or another. And the whole country fought each other.’
‘Who was on the right side?’
‘It wasn’t that simple. It was a fight between the rich and the poor. Between people who believed in God, and people who didn’t. Between people who wanted to do things in the traditional way, and those who wanted to be more modern.’
‘I would be on the side of the poor people who believed in God,’ said the boy decisively.
‘Well then, you would have been on both sides,’ said the old man.
‘What?’ said the boy, shocked.
‘It’s true. In those days, the church was very rich and powerful. The poor workers and farmers wanted change; they wanted their own land and better working conditions. The church did not want change. So the two were on opposite sides in the war.’
The boy shook his head, unable to understand.
‘At the time, I think it seemed an easy decision. You were either for freedom – freedom from poverty, freedom from greedy bosses and landowners, even freedom from the Church. Or you wanted things to stay the same, and for the government to be very strict about keeping it that way.’
‘And what happened? Who won?’
‘The people who wanted to keep things as they were. A man called General Franco won the war.’
‘Does he still run Spain?’
‘No,’ said Pascual. ‘Franco died many years ago and Spain has changed a great deal since the war.
‘Apu?’ said the boy.
‘Which side were you on?’
‘I was just a boy. I wasn’t on a side.’
‘But you must have wanted one side more than the other’
‘Well,’ said Pascual thoughtfully. ‘I lived in an orphanage which was run by the Church – so they taught me that we must believe in God, and anyone who is against that belief is an evil person.
‘But when the war was over, I worked with farmers and workmen who had fought on the other side. I knew what it was to be hungry, and can understand why they fought for a better life.’
‘But Apu, you can’t be on both sides.’
The old man sighed, seeing the boy would not accept an inconclusive answer. ‘I do not like violence, but I suppose if I had to fight for one side, it would have been the Rojos’.’
‘The Rojos? Which side was that?’
‘The Republican side. The ones that wanted change. The colour red has often been used by those fighting for the poor people.’
‘Why the Rojos, Apu? Why choose that side?’
‘It’s just a feeling that it was the right side. When it comes to difficult decisions, you can listen to your head or your heart. I am not an educated man, so I listen to my heart.’
The old man smiled at the boy and kissed the top of his head.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘time for sleep.’
‘But, Apu,’ said the boy, ‘you didn’t tell me about your Papa.’
‘There’s nothing to tell. He probably died in the war. Many people did.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘You don’t remember your Papa dying?’ said the boy.
‘I was brought up in an orphanage, but I don’t remember anything before I arrived there. It’s as if my memory was wiped clean. I’ve tried to remember but I can’t. Not a face, not a name. I tried to find out, but many records were destroyed during the war.’
‘How old were you when you went to live at the orphanage?’
‘About your age, maybe? I don’t know.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the boy. He shook his head in puzzlement.
‘I know which year I arrived at the orphanage. But I don’t know what year I was born.’
The boy thought for a moment, his brow wrinkled.
‘So,’ the boy said hesitantly, ‘so you don’t know how old you are? Even now?’
‘And, you don’t know when your birthday is?’
‘No,’ said Pascual. ‘I don’t have a birthday.’