“You’re a failure.”
“I’m a normal, decent person.”
My aunt looked up from the sheet of paper she held in her hands. She had been reading it as if the information it contained were new to her. But it was not. It was a CV, which summarized my brief and disastrous professional life.
She looked at me with curiosity and continued reading, although I knew there was not that much left to read. She had called me a failure not out of any desire to offend me, but simply as if she were confirming something self-evident.
My aunt’s office was oppressive. Well, what really made me feel uncomfortable was her attitude, superior and distant, as if her success in life gave her permission to look down on the rest of her family.
I did not like her, but I had never been her favorite nephew either, which was why I had been surprised when my mother told me that her sister wanted urgently to see me.
Aunt Marta had become the family matriarch; she even dominated her brothers, my uncles Gaspar and Fabián.
Everyone asked her advice about everything, and nobody made a decision without her giving the go-ahead. In fact, I was the only one who avoided her and who, unlike all my cousins, never sought her approval.
But there she was, proud of having saved and even tripled the value of the family business, a company that dealt in and repaired machinery: something she had managed to do, among other reasons, because of her opportune marriage to her good-hearted husband, Uncle Miguel, for whom I felt a secret sympathy.
Uncle Miguel had inherited a couple of buildings in the center of Madrid, and got a good amount of rent each month from the tenants. He used to meet with the building administrator once a month, but otherwise he had never worked. His only interests were collecting rare books, playing golf, and taking every opportunity to escape from the vigilance of my Aunt Marta, to whom he had gratefully ceded the monthly meetings with the administrator, knowing that she had the intelligence and the drive to succeed in everything that she did.
“So you say that a failure is a normal, decent person. So people who succeed are abnormal? Indecent?”
I was about to answer yes, but that would have gotten me into trouble with my mother, so I decided to give a slightly smoother reply.
“Look, in my line of work being decent usually means that you end up unemployed. You don’t know what it’s like being a journalist in this country. You’re either on the Right or you’re on the Left. You’re nothing more than a conduit for transmitting the slogans of one side or the other. But if you try to simply describe what’s happening and give a truthful opinion, then you end up marginalized and out of work.”
“I’ve always thought you were on the Left,” my aunt said ironically. “And now the Left’s in power...”
“Yeah, but the government wants their reporters to shut their eyes and mouths as far as their own errors are concerned. If you criticize the government, that means isolation. They stop thinking that you’re one of them, and of course, you’re not one of the others, so that leaves you in no man’s land, or unemployed, like me.”
“It says here on your CV that you’re working for an internet newspaper at the moment. How old are you?”
The question annoyed me. She knew very well that I was in my thirties, older than any of my cousins. But this was her way of showing me how little she was interested in me. So I decided not to tell her how old I was because it was clear that she already knew the answer.
“Yes, I write literary criticism for an online newspaper. I haven’t found anything else, and at least I don’t need to ask my mother for money to buy cigarettes.”
My Aunt Marta looked me up and down, as if seeing me for the first time, and appeared to hesitate before deciding to make her offer.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a job, a well-paying one. I trust that you can live up to my expectations.”
“I don’t know what the offer is, but my answer is no; I hate company press offices. If I’m here it’s because my mother asked me to come.”
“I’m not going to offer you a job in the company,” she replied, as if the idea of my working for the family firm were crazy.
“So I’m going to ask you to do something for the family, something more personal. Something private, in fact.”
My aunt carried on looking at me as if she were still not sure if she was making a mistake.
“I want you to investigate an old family story, having to do with your great-grandmother, my grandmother.”
I didn’t know what to say. My great-grandmother was a taboo topic in the family. No one spoke about her; my cousins and I knew almost nothing about this mysterious person, about whom it was forbidden to ask questions and of whom not a single photograph existed.
“My great-grandmother? What do I have to investigate?”
“You know that I have almost all the family photographs. I wanted to give my brothers and sister a present for Christmas. So I started sorting through the old photos and choosing some to make copies. I also looked through my father’s papers, because I remembered seeing some photos mixed in with them as well, and I found some photos and... Well, there was a sealed envelope, which I opened and found this...”
My aunt turned back to her desk and picked up an envelope, from which she took a photo. She gave it to me doubtfully, as if she thought I was clumsy and that the photo would not be safe in my hands.
The photograph had torn edges and had turned yellowish with time, but the portrait, of a young woman in a wedding dress, smiling and holding a bunch of flowers, was still intriguing.
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. Well, we think it could be our grandmother, your great-grandmother... I showed it to your mother and my brothers and we all agreed that our father looked a lot like her. We’ve decided that the time has come to investigate what happened to our grandmother.”
“Just like that? You’ve never wanted to tell us anything about her. And now you find a photo that you think could be of one of our relatives and you decide you want to find out what happened.”
“Your mother’s told you something about her, surely...”
“My mother’s told me the same as you’ve told your kids: practically nothing.”
“But we don’t know that much; our father never spoke about her, he couldn’t get over losing her even after a long time.”
“As far as I know, he never knew her. Didn’t she abandon him when he was a newborn baby?”
My Aunt Marta seemed to be vacillating between telling me all she knew and throwing me out right away. I suppose she was thinking that I might not be the right person to deal with the business at hand.
“What we know,” she said, “is that our grandfather, your great-grandfather, imported and sold machinery, above all from Germany. He traveled a great deal, and tended not to say when he was going, much less when he was thinking about coming back, something that his wife can’t have liked very much at all.”
“It’s impossible that she wouldn’t have known. If he was packing, I suppose she must have asked him where he was going, that’s how these things work.”
“No, he wasn’t like