To Antonio Pereira
I could not have known at the time, but that was to become the most important day of my life.
I had just come home from school and was leaving my bag in the kitchen, when from the end of the corridor emerged my father’s deep, low voice.
“Jorge? Is that you, Jorge? Come here, please.”
My father was in the living room, sat on his sofa, completing a crossword beneath the light of a floor lamp. My father was forever doing crosswords. He would do crosswords in the morning. And in the afternoon, after a short siesta, he would continue doing crosswords. He solved them in a state of total concentration. In fact, he never began a new crossword before finishing the previous one, meaning he’d spend hours and hours on them. It was only after dinner that he would stop doing crosswords: then he would turn the television on. That was my father’s life and I was a little embarrassed by it. At school, sooner or later, everyone talked about their homes and what their fathers did for a living. Dávila’s father was a lawyer, Tamayo’s father was a pediatrician, Aranceta’s father ran a jeweller’s. My father only did crosswords. When they would ask me “What does your dad do?” I didn’t know how to respond. Worse still, Dávila had already noticed something was wrong and would always ask me that same question in the playground. He had done it so often without my responding, that even if I did now decide to invent something, it wouldn’t be convincing. That was why I knew, before the end of the year, I would have to fight Dávila. It was one of those certainties that plucks boys from the playground and places them, finally, face-to-face with the real world.
“Jorge,” my father repeated, “can I ask you a question?”
I had already entered the room where he labored over those interminable crosswords. The leather sofa was very worn, but it was his favourite spot; I don’t think I ever saw him sit anywhere else at home. There, beneath the lamp, he solved crosswords, with his gaze concealed behind wire-rimmed spectacles with perfectly round lenses, dressed in a robe and plush slippers. He then read aloud:
“Figure of speech in which the same word is used both at the beginning and end of a sentence. Do you know what that is, Jorge?”
My father lowered his head, as he always did when trying to examine someone’s face over the top of his glasses. My father would never remove his reading glasses to examine you, instead he would lower his forehead and remain in that position, fixing you with his blue gaze, that blue and so very melancholy gaze, which is unique to people with pale blue eyes who’ve grown old.
“How do you spell that?”
“Wait, wait, Epana …?”
With the tip of his pen, he counted the spaces of one of the crossword’s columns, muttered something under his breath and then, with a slow nod of the forehead, gave his approval.
“Epanadiplosis. Yes, that’s right. Thanks, Jorge.”
“You’re welcome, Dad.”
I returned to the kitchen, and spread my schoolbooks out on the table where every day I did my homework. I wasn’t a great student, but I was a conscientious student, the kind of student teachers like: disciplined enough not to cause the usual problems, but lacking sufficient talent to create more serious ones. Let’s just say that while they did not expect much from me, they all respected me; they had for me the kind of restrained but entirely adequate respect that the perseverance of a hard-working boy inspires. I would always do my homework, in the kitchen at home, while my father, there in the living room, remained fully absorbed in his arduous crosswords. Later, as evening began to fall, my mother would return home from the shop. That day passed like so many others, but before she came to give me a kiss, I heard my father call her into the lounge and the two of them quietly whisper together for a few moments. Then, with a smile on her face, my mother entered the kitchen and without saying a word kissed me.
“Hi, Mum,” I said.
She passed her hand through my hair, as she’d been doing since I turned thirteen, perhaps no longer daring to embrace me in the tender way she did when I was younger.
“Don’t say anything to your father,” she said, “but you really impressed him today. He asked you god-knows-what for his crossword and you already knew the answer. ‘The boy’s a genius, a genius,’ he said as soon as I walked through the door. He’s very proud of you.”
At that time, I still hadn’t entered that confusing and painful age known as adolescence, but I had begun to suffer some of its effects: for example, the praise of my father irritated me. I told my mother that it was nothing, really. In literature class, a few days before, we had gone over figures of speech. There we had come across anadiplosis and, later, epanadiplosis. Apart from the terminology, there was nothing complicated about it.
“They taught it in class,” I insisted. “I don’t know why, but it stuck. I suppose by the end of the year, after the exams, I’ll have forgotten it.”
“Don’t put yourself down. Not everyone knows that.”
“Everyone studying at secondary school does. Then they forget it. It’s one of those useless things you learn at school.”
Such displays of arrogance were further proof I was fast approaching adolescence: I thought everything we learned at school was totally pointless.
“… useless things like epanadiplosis. What the hell is the point of knowing something like that? It’s no use for lawyers, doctors, businessmen or politicians”—I hung my head—“it’s only useful for people who spend their lives doing crosswords.”
My mother frowned.
“Don’t criticize your father,” she reproached me. “Lately that’s all you do. Your father has a legally recognized physical disability. That’s why he doesn’t work. Your father loves you, he loves us very much, and he’s a wonderful person. If only there were more people like him.”
Those arguments would perhaps convince me later, but not at thirteen years old; they were not convincing that infernal year in which Dávila did nothing but ask me what my father did for a living. Sooner or later I would have to fight him, and then they would call us into the headmaster’s office, and that would cause more problems, and the news would reach home, and there would be no way I could tell anyone the truth. Parents never know the reasons why you must fight in the school playground.
“But don’t you tell him anything, do you hear?” continued my mother. “You know what he’s like: he looks down and hides what he thinks, but you really impressed him today.”
Embarrassed, I asked my mother to leave me to my homework: I hoped nobody would ever remember that I knew what epanadiplosis meant.
Unfortunately, my father, who may well have been a good man, was by no means a discreet man. The news he had solved a crossword thanks to my help spread through conversations with family, conversations with friends. The following Sunday, when my uncle and aunt came to visit, my father dedicated an interminable monologue to the anecdote. Nor was he shy about letting the neighbors know. The widower from the third floor, a tall, gaunt elderly man, who always walked in the park with a book for company, made me aware of that the first time we crossed paths in the hallway.
“Hello, Jorge. Congratulations!”
“Your father tells me you’re a whiz in literature.”
“A whiz in literature,” I repeated to myself, puzzled.
“… and rhetoric, that noble art, holds no secrets for you.”
“Well, you know, my father overestimates me.”
From someone of my age, the remark must have seemed to the old man somewhat insolent, for a slight, ironic smile crept onto his lips, made all the more ironic by its careful restraint.
“You have a good day then, Mr. Overestimated,” he said as we parted.
There was nobody we knew to whom my father did not tell that story. About his son, the literary genius. The elderly widower adopted the habit of calling me a man of letters, and people began to ask me the meaning of every word they had heard or read but not understood. When they would ask me those kinds of questions, sometimes I was able to resolve their doubts, other times not, but that didn’t affect my prestige.
“Epanadiplosis. Remember that, Son?” my father would recall some time later. “You hit the nail on the head then, without a moment’s hesitation.”
Years went by. But neither the memory of my great feat nor my reputation faded. I finished school with reasonable grades and began studying law. I didn’t much like university, but wasn’t brave enough to leave. It was in the second year that I met Nuria and began to date her. Nuria fell pregnant. My life was turned into a labyrinth of domestic complications, sudden responsibilities, and tragicomic family scenes. The truth is our early marriage cast a pall over our days and, before long, our nights too. Dávila’s older brother informed me of some upcoming entrance exams for the post office. The exams were easy enough, but there was something even better: Dávila’s brother was the post office’s regional director. In a few months I was a postman. Being a postman wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but it offered certain advantages for a very young father. So, while my friends were still studying, I had already become independent, with a wife and child and a monthly paycheck. There was even a period in which I was better off than my friends, and felt as if I had matured faster than all of them.
“It’s true, it’s true,” my father would say, “you’ve behaved responsibly and have done your duty. And now you have a stable job. But someone as cultured as you could do so much more.”
“He will do,” my mother would intervene. She never uttered a word of reproach to me, but, in her heart of hearts, she hoped my life would take a different direction.
“Of course he will!” my father would conclude. “Someone who at thirteen years old already knew what epanadiplosis meant … Do you remember, Jorge?”
Nuria and I lived close by to my parents, and week after week, year after year, decade after decade, the family rituals were observed. On Sundays, we would go with the children to eat at their place, and as we sat around the table after dinner my father, sooner or later, would bring up the great feat. There is a strange tendency in parents to project all hopes of happiness onto their children. They feel life has treated them unfairly, but that a metaphysical reparation is on its way.
“Epanadiplosis! And he said it just like that, without a moment’s hesitation, knowing exactly what he was talking about. Isn’t that right, Jorge?” he would repeatedly say, as he fixed me with his melancholy gaze from those old, blue eyes.
My father had become one of those obstinate old men whose words, no longer of any relevance, are received with indulgence and affection.
“A genius, a real genius,” he repeated time and again.
That had become the constant refrain of a mad old man.
And as he said it, he took my hand in his, and squeezed it with increasingly less strength, but with the same faith as the very first day.
“My Father’s Life” is a short story from the award-winning Basque writer and journalist Pedro Ugarte. It was included in the collection Nuestra Historia (Páginas de espuma, 2016). Nuestra Historia received rave reviews in all of Spain’s major newspapers, and was chosen as one of the books of the year by ABC. Pedro Ugarte has written many works of fiction, spanning novels and short stories. His work has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Polish.
Alan Williams’ interest in all things Latin American grew from his time living and working in Argentina and Bolivia. On returning to London, he embarked on a degree in Latin American Studies, and started working with the Latin American Disabled People’s Project. He reads and translates in his free time.