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from the December 2019 issue

The Pain of Others

When he runs into an old friend, Spanish writer Miguel Ángel Hernández is forced to revisit the shocking 1995 murder-suicide of his best friend.


They went into Rosario’s house, your father says from the next room, killed Rosi and took Nicolás.

It’s the first thing you hear. The voice that wakes you up. The sentence you’ll never be able to forget.

For a second, you prefer to think that it’s part of a dream, so you stay completely still beneath the sheets. It’s 5 a.m. and you’ve only just managed to get to sleep. Christmas Eve dinner hasn’t gone down well and you’ve been tossing and turning for hours.

They killed Rosi and took Nicolás, you hear your father say again, clear as a bell.

That’s when you open your eyes and jump out of bed, still not understanding a thing. You throw on the first clothes you find and run to the living room.

Your mother, standing by the Christmas tree in her nightdress, sees you and starts crying.

Rosario’s children . . . she manages to say.

What’s happened? you ask.

The worst thing that could, she replies. And she raises her hands to her face to hide the tears.

Your father finishes dressing in the bathroom. Your brother, the first to hear about it, calls to him impatiently from the doorway.

Come too if you want, he says to you as he leaves.

Your mother stays in the house and you go out with them.

Be careful, she warns, and locks the door behind you.

The cold creeps under your skin and the damp penetrates your skull. It is December in Murcia.

The three of you walk in silence down the dark track. There’s a hum in the background that absorbs every other noise. It gets louder the closer you get to the main road, and you head for the esplanade, crowded with silhouettes that dissolve into the gloom.

The dim glow from a cracked streetlight illuminates people’s faces. Nobody looks at anyone else directly. Everything is said in hushed voices.

Three police cars block the way into the house. Beside them, all alone, you make out your friend’s father walking in little circles with his hands behind his back.

What’s happened, Antón? your brother asks when you reach him.

Nothing . . . he stammers, his eyes fixed on the ground, they’ve killed my Rosi and kidnapped my Nicolás.

But who? How? you all ask.

Nothing . . . they’ve killed my Rosi. And they’ve taken my Nicolás.

That’s all he says. Over and over again. He says it to the neighbor across the road, to your neighbor Julia, to your cousin Maruja, to anyone driving past who slows down to ask. He says it with the same lost look, the same shattered expression, and the same air of incredulity, as if he genuinely knew nothing and as if nothing, in reality, had happened.

That’s how he begins whenever he’s asked.

Nothing . . .

And that’s the part no one understands. The nothing of things that cannot be said. The nothing that starts little by little to take over every corner of the scene. The nothing that paralyzes you and clouds your mind. The nothing and two questions:

Who killed Rosi?

Who took Nicolás?

 

“Twenty years ago, one Christmas Eve, my best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.”

That sentence contains a story. The past I’ve wanted to escape from my whole life.

Twenty years ago . . .

I’d just turned eighteen, I lived with my parents in a small house in the country—the part of Murcia where all the fruit and vegetables are grown—and I’d started studying art history at university. My father packed aluminum windows for a living and my mother took care of her ancient aunt, Nena, who was over ninety and spent her days sitting at the window looking out. My three brothers, all married when I was still a boy, had left home quite a long time before. I still had years to go, living in that little house in the middle of nowhere with Nena and parents who were four times my age and could very well have been my grandparents.

I was the one who was made a fuss of, the youngest, the spoiled one. I had everything that they—my brothers as well as my parents—couldn’t have. And I wasn’t to complain because I didn’t know what it was like to feel worn out or have to borrow money in order to eat. Precisely because of this, I had to study hard, work my socks off, and make the most of the gift that had been denied to so many others. I needed to study in order not to end up working in the fields. Study anything: Administration, Mechanics, Electronics. Or better still, stay on at school. And then do the exams and hopefully get into university. Study whatever, preferably Law, Education, or Psychology. Even History of Art would do. After all, it was still a degree, and a degree meant a future. I was going to be the first in my family to go to university. A source of pride. So much effort, so many extra hours, so many late nights rewarded at last. “My son,” my mother would be able to say, “the one at university who shuts himself up and studies all day long: he’ll be somebody one day.”

In 1995—the twenty years ago in the sentence above—without quite knowing it, I had already begun to plot my own escape. The university, the city, the world beyond the edges of the market garden were going to be my salvation. I would find the place I really belonged, the place where I should have been born. But there were still ties that stopped me from leaving and bound me to the place I came home to each afternoon. One of these had been like a supply of oxygen for me in the past, my shadow, the boy I’d grown up with: Nicolás, Rosario’s son, my neighbor, someone I’d grown apart from but still considered my best friend

We lived barely two hundred yards from one another. His house was up on the main road that cut across the fields. Mine was at the end of a dirt track. Both houses were surrounded by lemon trees. Our lives seemed cut from the same cloth. His birthday was a few weeks after mine, he too was the child of old parents and the youngest of four siblings, just like I was. Nicolás had a sister while we were all boys, but apart from that we were like twin reflections. Inseparable. As close as flesh and bone, the neighbors said. I was the flesh, he was the bone. I was tubby and round, he was tall and thin. I was plump-cheeked and pink, he had copper-colored skin, a sharp profile, and features that were almost Chinese. A lanky Asian-looking boy with glossy black hair.

When I think of Nicolás, for some reason I always see him dressed in a purple Tactel tracksuit. I also remember him as self-contained, quiet, distant, reserved. Because this, more than anything, was what defined him. If I was a hardworking fatty, he was reticent and sickly. I guess these days he would be diagnosed as somewhere on the autism spectrum. Back then he was just a “quiet kid,” shy and withdrawn. A strange boy who kept his head down and whose voice barely made it out of his body. He was just the same when he was four as when he was seventeen.

Nicolás didn’t behave like other children. He was special. Even when he got teased about his shyness, he put up with it like nobody else would have done. But he had his limits. Pushed too far, he’d explode. A pent-up fury surfaced. Nobody knew where this excessive rage originated; the short-lived outbursts surprised even me. The rest of the time, I was his voice and his defender. I spoke for him and protected him. With Nicolás beside me, I felt powerful. I commanded and he obeyed. He was my shadow and my sidekick.

Nicolás was present in every bit of my life. From our first day at school until the night it all happened. It’s true our paths started to diverge a bit after middle school, when he opted for vocational training and I carried on along the academic route, but even though we no longer saw each other in class, we met up back home in the afternoons and played football, basketball, ludo, cards, and video games. We saw each other on Sundays at church, preparing the readings and assisting with the Mass. We attended confirmation classes in the next village over on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. And, finally, we both took driving lessons. He was always there, right up to the end, on the afternoon of December 24, 1995, when I saw him in the doorway of his house playing chess with his cousin Pedro Enrique, just hours before the fateful night when he killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.

 

That night, after Christmas Eve dinner, at around two in the morning, when his parents had gone to bed and the rest of the family had left, Nicolás went into Rosi’s bedroom—she was five years older than he was—and battered her to death. He did it with the cassette player, or the bathroom scale, or, according to other versions, everything he had on hand. The parents heard neither blows nor cries. They were woken by the sound of a car engine. Entering Rosi’s room, they found the body of their daughter lying in a pool of blood.

They looked for Nicolás, but he had disappeared. The blue SEAT 127 was gone too. They called the Guardia Civil and the search got underway. Nobody knew where Nicolás could be. Several hours later, toward dawn, they found his body in Cabezo de la Plata, a rugged, mountainous area about six miles from his home. His cousin, another of my closest friends, discovered him at the bottom of a cliff. He had his belt round his neck. He’d tried to hang himself before he jumped.

 

These were the facts. As much as I knew. Everything I’d managed to find out directly afterward. If some day I dared write the story, I’d have to start like that. And reveal everything from the beginning. He killed her and committed suicide the same night. There’s nothing more to it. There’s no mystery. Or rather, that is the mystery. Why did he kill her? What was going through his head? Why did he go into her room? What started the fight? Was it even a fight? Was there something else going on between them? What happened to turn a celebration into a deadly nightmare?

Nobody could explain it. A normal family, good kids; that’s what everyone told the Guardia Civil and the media, me included. Nobody knew anything. Nobody found out anything more. The case was closed and all questions remained unanswered. The secret became a riddle, its solution buried with the bodies forever. When all was said and done, the facts were pretty straightforward: there was a victim and a murderer and the murderer was dead too. The rest was pure speculation. But of course everyone speculated.

Strange though it may seem, I rarely revisited that long night. I preferred to blank it out and flee toward the future as though nothing had happened. My best friend had killed his sister and committed suicide. Nobody knew why, least of all me. I was eighteen years old and, coming right in the middle of my adolescence, it might be expected that such an event would leave me in bits. Be that as it may, I moved on in a manner that now, looking back, I find surprising and scarcely comprehensible.

That night created a strange rift between my past and my present. Before it, my childhood in the fields and orchards. Afterward, my university life among artists and historians. An insurmountable barrier between what I had been and what I had decided to become.

With time, that long night turned into an anecdote about the past. An episode in my life that I never examined beyond trotting out the sentence I sometimes repeated like a mantra: “My best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.” A well-rehearsed formula that was also perhaps a shell, protection against that dark space I’d never known how to enter.

Nevertheless, there, in that sentence, in that formula-shell I’d created to cut off my past and keep it away from the present, was a story that could be told. That’s what Sergio del Molino had suggested, and what others before him had also assured me. You have to write about it one day, my friend Leo insisted every time the topic came up. Yes, one day, I replied, believing that the day would be put off indefinitely as long as I continued to pursue my interest in stories about artists, intellectuals, and sophisticated theories. Yes, one day, I thought; one day I’ll revisit that night and everything that will come with it: Nicolás, life in the country, beginnings, home, parents, neighbors, incomprehension, that whole world I’d escaped from and never wanted to return to. Yes, one day, I used to say to myself; one day I’ll write about all the fears, frustrations, and sorrows of the past.

One day, I thought. One day, I said. And inside I was petrified that the day, constantly being shunted into the future, might finally arrive and begin to tear up the present.

 

There was a story there. Possibly a novel. I saw the possibility of it as clear as day. The next morning, however, the cold light of day persuaded me little by little that I’d been overenthusiastic. Where was I going with the book? A novel about a real crime? A story set in horticultural Murcia? It was nothing like anything I’d written before. I’d published one novel about the contemporary art world and I was trying to finish another that also revolved around art. Artists, intellectuals, international exhibitions, complex theories about the limits of representation and the way memory worked with images . . . these were the things I knew how to write about. After all, much as I’d like to think of myself as an author, in the end I was just a university lecturer who’d made the most of his knowledge to turn what had been written as an academic article into a novel. And that’s what I should carry on doing. Leave things alone and get on with stuff I could manage. Writing the story would mean leaving the relative comfort of that territory to journey into the unknown, straying into places I’d never explored before. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now I know it’s all part of the same impulse and that, in fact, I wasn’t going to have to go all that far. But back then I was convinced it was a new path, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it because, among other things, I didn’t know how.

I spent almost the whole day with these thoughts running round my head. I was still mulling them over when, that same afternoon, while I was waiting at a set of traffic lights to cross the road after a tedious departmental meeting, a car started flashing its lights and someone waved at me from inside. I recognized his face instantly. I couldn’t believe it: Juan Alberto. I hadn’t seen him for almost ten years. I knew from occasional text messages that he’d started working at the Barrio de Carmen police station, but I had barely seen him since my wedding.

I went up to the car and greeted him through the passenger-side window.

“We must get together and catch up,” he said, grabbing my arm without taking his eyes from the rearview mirror.

“Sure thing, call me any time.”

“I’ve got shared custody now. You must see my little girl. She’s all grown up.”

I nodded.

“I’m really glad to see you, Miguel.”

We didn’t have time for more than that. The lights turned green and his car headed off toward the city.

I was glad to see him too. But bumping into him just when I was considering writing about what had taken place twenty years before seemed a strange twist of fate. Not only because Juan Alberto had been one of my best friends in adolescence and this fact took me straight back to the past, but also because he played a pivotal role in the story I was thinking of exploring. Juan Alberto was Nicolás’s cousin. He’d known him well too. But there was something else: the night it all happened, after a search lasting several hours, he was the one who had found the body at the bottom of the cliff.

Weirdly, we’d never talked about it. Since that sad night, we’d hardly seen each other for any length of time. Although we ended up losing touch for other reasons, what happened on Christmas Eve of 1995 put up a barrier of darkness between us, a space we couldn’t cross and within which everything had remained unsaid.

And now, when for the first time in ages I’d admitted the possibility of looking back, up popped Juan Alberto. What were the chances of it happening that very afternoon? I’ve never put much faith in signs and portents, but I confess that as I watched his car drive off into the distance, the naive idea that someone or something had made our paths cross went through my mind.

I think it was in that moment that I really convinced myself I had to write the book. In the same instant, I also realized what it would mean to do so, the wounds I’d reopen and the damage I might cause.

Today, with the book underway and no chance of turning back, I believe that if fate had a hand in my meeting Juan Alberto that day, it wasn’t to convince me that this was the story I had to write, but quite the opposite. It was to put me off, to warn me that there are waters it’s best not to stir up and places you shouldn’t go, that not all tales need telling, that writing doesn’t always win out and that sometimes we also founder when faced with the pain of others.

From El dolor de los demás. © Miguel Ángel Hernández. By arrangement with the Indent Literary Agency. Translation © 2019 by Anna Milsom. All rights reserved.

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