At that time our experience with death was very limited. Sometimes someone’s grandfather or grandmother would die, like a domino falling when its turn comes at last, but still we all had at least two or three grandparents living. Some grandparents – in particular, some grandmothers – threw themselves off their balconies. This happened with a certain frequency; I have since asked myself if it was something peculiar to that neighbourhood or period in time, a coincidence, or else some fault in my memory. Whatever it was, it happened, or at least I remember that it happened. We would be playing peacefully in the street when first the rumours and then, later, the cries reached us: the grandmother of we-didn’t-know-who had thrown herself from a fourth, a fifth, a tenth floor, always from enough of a height to kill her. The apartments – council blocks of exposed brick – were high and had narrow balconies cluttered with junk: cleaning supplies, birdless birdcages, plantless plant pots, and old, dirty mattresses were visible. Some were enclosed by a barrier of green glass, but this, evidently, didn’t stop the old women perching on the edge and throwing themselves off into the void. It was like a plague. Five or six flung themselves off in the space of just a couple of years; once we even saw, from afar, a body crumpled on the pavement, light as a rag, through the police cordon and the neighbours surrounding it. There was nothing to stop us getting nearer, except perhaps fear and revulsion; nothing prevented us, either, from inventing perverse fantasies about the possibility of a murder – someone pushed her, said one; they did it to get the inheritance, another added, repeating ideas from TV movies; us, children of a neighbourhood where the grandmothers did not have nor ever had an inheritance.
The grandparents died, but for us life had no limit. What concept could a child have, after all, of death? Or, rather, what concept could a child have of death in a country free of war or conflict, in an average city in a moderately developed country, in a normal neighbourhood like so many other indistinguishable and interchangeable neighbourhoods, in the wide working suburbs of straight roads and small squares where we spent bored afternoons – playing ball, skipping rope, flirting, enacting little dramas – under those tall blocks of bare brick with their widowed grandmothers who were taken in – and sometimes neglected – by their families, and who every so often, conscientiously and methodically, would die of old age, or, perhaps, tired of waiting, hurl themselves from the window.
Our preoccupations lay elsewhere. Like, for example, getting the most coveted stamp, one that might crown an album collection – not because we had such an album to complete, but to elevate ourselves in the eyes of others – or trying not to be laughed at for wearing good-girl shoes to school instead of trainers. Our concerns were pretending to have seen some TV programme that everyone else had seen; getting good grades without being branded a swot; drawing caricatures of our teachers – I had a good hand for this – without being caught and punished by being made to stand face to the wall; or trying not to be mocked for holding the pencil incorrectly, and being made to stay behind in detention.
Sometimes other affairs arose, in the face of which throbbed a kind of crazed pride, the sudden awareness of a scraped and vulnerable interior, an abyss into which we would peer without clearly discerning the shapes which lay below. One such affair was the time of the phone calls, the unsettling and seductive time of the phone calls. Every afternoon, right when my mother took my brother to his music lesson, someone would call the house and it would be me who picked up the phone. From the other end of the line a distorted but unmistakably adult voice issued day after day, with incredible nonchalance, the same threat. Your father is going to die; we are going to kill him. Just that, time and again, the warning with its strung out, malicious cadence: Your father is going to die; we are going to kill him. Your father is going to die; we are going to kill him. With the receiver glued to my ear, immobilised by terror, I would do nothing. I didn’t respond, I didn’t question it, I barely breathed: I just listened until I couldn’t take it any longer, and then I hung up. My mother went out every afternoon, Monday to Friday, and I would sit waiting for the telephone, and it never failed to ring; it had to have been perfectly planned, as it never rang at the weekends. I felt a deathly fear – I came to think that they really would kill my father – but I never dared say anything to anyone. In part, because a strange superstition held me back: if I spoke about it, I thought, it would end up happening. But alongside this was a desire to hoard the panic, to keep the immense, pure suffering that surrounded me in the middle of the night, the exclusivity of it, all to myself, unshared with anybody.
During the day, at school, I sat there hearing the voice in my head. I was thinking of it with a shudder – Your father is going to die; we’re going to kill him – when a Rubio exercise book landed on my desk with a crash louder and more violent than you’d think paper smacking against wood could sound.
‘Don’t you know how to write as God intended? Look at this!’
It was the voice of the science teacher, who was obsessed with the way I held a pencil.
‘You look like you write with a stump,’ he told me, ‘you’re going to get calluses on your fingers, your writing will always be bad, if you write like this. I’ll get you writing properly, whatever the cost, you’ll write properly, whatever the cost!’ he repeated, and flipped the book to show me the other side with its little diagram of two hands – ‘This is clear, no?’ – one holding the pencil right, the other holding the pencil wrong. The secret to harmonious and delicate writing is to hold the pen correctly, without clenching it, and to write calmly – not like me, roughly, stubbornly as a mule; ‘you insist on doing it wrong.’ I swallowed, holding back tears and trying to arrange my fingers as I was supposed to – or as God, it seemed, insisted I must – the index finger supporting the pencil gently, the thumb below it, holding it without bending any of my fingers, without applying pressure, now come on, write, faster, come on, write. But I wrote slowly holding it like this, and always fell behind when he was dictating. ‘You don’t learn and you don’t want to learn,’ he shouted at me. ‘In the end you’ll be illiterate!’ How I would like now – if he’s even still alive – to tell that teacher that despite holding my pencil badly, and the bad writing it produced, I ended up being a writer. I would love to say that to him, though ultimately that desire is nothing more than proof that a part of the child I was still lives in me, cowardly and impotent as I was with the teacher next to me, hunched, insistent, aggravating – his smell insistent and aggravating too. Although that moment was always awful, it was only that: a moment. Afterwards, once he had turned away, I would immediately go back to my old ways, unruly, determined never to learn the way he told me to – the way the Rubio books said! – convinced that my way was much easier, much faster, and bolstered in this by the writing teacher – who never tried to correct me – and my parents – who never afforded it the slightest importance – mocking him and his ridiculous arithmetic problems, he who put such effort into holding the pencil right.
A woman goes to the butcher to buy a two-kilo chicken. Once deboned and gutted the chicken weighs 1400g. If the bones weigh three quarters as much as the guts, how much did the guts weigh? How much the bones?
We all found these problems very funny, my sister and I most of all. She’d had the same teacher two or three years earlier; laughing about him with her, I felt closer to her, felt older. The man wasn’t only obsessed with the right way to hold a pencil – or sit, or cross the Hs and Js, or breathe through the nose, or however many other things we were supposed to do ‘as God intended’ – but also with flesh and guts, sausages and tripe, slaughter and butchery. He’d taken my sister’s class on a school trip to the municipal abattoir, where they filed past the bloody equipment and saw huge cow carcasses hanging from hooks; that day she had come home struck dumb with the shock of the experience. There had been protests from some of the parents, but the teacher accused them all of being feeble. He believed that those who weren’t strong or brave enough to confront the spectacle of animal sacrifice or the dismembering of its corpse missed out on the beauty that emanated from an opened body, with its tight mechanism of muscles, tendons and bones exposed to the air. ‘The perfection of anatomy’, he said with some emotion, spreading out over a lectern his slides of a human body, and he also brought in a plastic laboratory torso into which he put his hand with delectation to lift out, and show up close, the lungs, the heart, the spleen, the liver. It was disturbing, of course – or recounting it like this, with hindsight, it sounds so – but I’m convinced that there was nothing particularly sinister – and nothing feigned – in his passion. Rather, he behaved like a little boy who was not particularly bright but tremendously invested in his hobbies, repeating time and time again theories that we never quite believed, for example that the demographic proportions of the world were such that there were many times more women than men, or, as he said with a wink, ‘Each man gets seven women’.
Looked at in this way, it could all seem like fun. In fact, it was fun. The way we mocked him and how much we enjoyed doing it; how easy it was, after all, to ridicule him, to mimic his unsteady gait, his pink hands clasped behind his back, our put-on, infantile voices trying to imitate his, high and shrill: What weighs more: the rack or the rib of pork? Don’t tie the quails that way! Yawning in class is forbidden! Will you never learn to hold a pencil properly?
School and make-believe, the telephoned threats and my silence, insomnia and laughter, fruit at playtime and my good-girl shoes: such was life, and it seemed to extend far into the future, a road without end – life: such a serious and eternal thing – a route by which I would reach, sooner or later, my sister’s age and have friends like those my sister had, boys who seemed to me almost men, and who liked me and commanded my respect in turn; of them, particularly, the redhead, always smiling, always joking around, freckles everywhere – his face, his arms, all the way down his legs, lanky and funny, a plate of lentils, they said, a delicious plate of lentils with carrot, I thought, and I wrote to him – to him, and to so many others – rapturous love letters that I always destroyed afterward, because the pleasure was just in the writing of them, in the free flow of bad writing that came from my loosely held pencil.
I don’t remember that boy’s first name. Only his surname – Marble. What sad irony.
Nor do I remember clearly what happened or what explanations were given, if any were given – if any could be found. Without our knowing, the horror nested right there, in the deviation from the norm. The fact that the grandmothers threw themselves from balconies didn’t really affect us, but why did the Marble boy do it – because that’s how I see him now, the Marble boy – he who had just turned fourteen, with his laughter, his gestures, that absent gaze and the russet shine of his hair, so different to all the others? The news flowed down the school hallways one morning, we told it to each other in whispers but at the same time shouting, somehow, as we lingered before returning to our places to take our seats, each eventually walking bewildered to our desks, troubled and frightened.
What had happened? What happened to us, after that death?
The science teacher came in lugubriously. He said nothing: he knew we knew. That day he didn’t set out problems, or call anyone up to the board. He just had us sit in silence for an hour – a whole hour – in memory of the boy we would never see again. His face was white and his lips contracted in a grimace of sadness, he scratched nervously at his forearms, he looked daggers at us if we moved or made a noise. The science teacher, we could see, was not a bad guy after all.
The writing teacher came in later, with red eyes and shaking hands. She looked at us unseeingly, with a feeble smile. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ she admitted, and then broke down crying. Some of us cried with her. There was something sweet in that collective mourning.
Later, at the end of the morning, the religious studies teacher appeared. She was a greying woman, tall and gaunt, of whom I recall only vaguely her feet, large and wide; we didn’t know her well, as she only came to our school one day a week. She came in, closed the door, and ordered us to take out our books and to open them to page 96, as if to start her lesson in the normal way, as if there had been no rift in the classroom, as if another of us might not fall. Had no one told her what had happened? We couldn’t believe it.
‘Miss,’ one boy said, ‘haven’t you heard that Marble committed suicide?’
Suicide. We’d never used that word. Probably the kid had only dared to choose it because it seemed easier, or had believed perhaps that it was the only word that would allow him to interrupt the class without getting told off. The teacher lifted her head, fixed us with her gaze, and for a few seconds held a jagged, abrupt silence about herself.
‘I know,’ she snapped, finally.
‘I said page 96.’
We opened our books and felt a deep shame, for what, we didn’t know. Marble, I said quietly to myself, as if asking for forgiveness, and the class went on as normal, just like the rest of the days at school did, without any further alteration as I recall bar the usual bomb threats, the flooded ‘shells’ (those prefabricated and temporary classrooms that became permanent). Nothing was even comparable. What is certain is that for us life, the endless business of it, went on. The anomaly was exactly that: a deviation, the significance of which we didn’t and could never understand. The grandmothers continued to throw themselves off the balconies in their sterile and disciplined way. The phone calls stopped coming and were substituted for some other fear or pain that I kept all to myself. No one punished me any more for my writing – for the way I held the pencil or pen – and I passed through school without incident. Marble died and we survived. The only debatable thing is the memory of that time itself. Did the religious studies teacher really behave in that way? Was it a show of unfeeling – even cruelty – or of discomfort, of her inability to express herself? Did she bear out her principles – the impossibility of accepting suicide, that act of human audacity against God – to such an extreme degree that she refused to show compassion to those children? Or did she in fact say something else, make some explanation or lament that I have failed to remember?
Not so long ago I met an old school friend and we spoke of it. She remembered it more or less the way I did. The teacher had taken the class as if nothing had happened, the friend confirmed. She even got angry because we’d been slow, because we hadn’t done the exercises well. ‘I don’t think she was a bad person,’ she added. ‘Just an awkward woman who didn’t know how to manage a class of thirty kids. Thirty undisciplined savages.’ I had to agree.
Afterwards we talked, she and I, of other things. Of other, later misfortunes – accidents, illnesses, poverty and childbirth – and also of joys – moving house, children, achievements half-seen, half-hidden.
‘Do you really write?’ she asked me, laughing.
‘Yes, more or less,’ I said. I always say the same – more or less.
‘What do you write about?’ she persisted.
‘Oh, I don’t know, this and that; normal things, things I invent or remember.’
‘Give me an example.’
I hesitated. ‘Now, speaking with you, makes me want to write about Marble.’
Her eyes widened in surprise. ‘But you don’t remember the details well!’ she warned me, doubtfully. ‘You’ll get it wrong!’
‘No… not exactly about Marble,’ I corrected myself. ‘About what life was like back when the Marble stuff was happening. About what my life was like when the Marble stuff happened.’ Hesitantly, I tried again. ‘About how I saw it. A recreation, a lie.’ I saw this explanation calmed her. ‘Nothing important.’
She remembered very clearly the way I used to hold a pencil. ‘It was awful!’ she said. ‘As if instead of a hand you had a chicken’s claw!’ Ah, bad writing, we laughed together.
As if it were even possible to get good writing from a crooked pencil.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Martha Sprackland is an editor, writer and translator. Her debut collection of poems, Citadel (LUP, 2020), was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the John Pollard International Poetry Prize. Martha has published translations from Spanish of poems by Verónica Viola Fisher, Gladys Mendía, Ana Gorría and others; in 2021 she was shortlisted for the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize (fiction).