map Caprice

by Afshin Rattansi

Published in Issue No. 9 ~ October, 1997

Leocadia and little Rosario are outside watching the woodcutter chip away at a diseased trunk. I’m alone to peer at my murals while I reflect on my imminent departure from Quinta del Sorda.

I’m not disheartened by my having to pack up and move out. The physical exertion is a little trying, but no more than is to be expected at this age. José’s a personable friend, an Aragonese with a good sense of humour to cheer me up while I hide, and only an annoying twitch with his neck to tire me. I was actually very lucky to be able to leave, after having seen so many friends die in exile or transform themselves into refugees. But it’s the hurrying away, the stress of the sudden clandestine escape while all the while, I had thought I would die here, that I don’t like. I had planned for something different, for Leocadia, my sweet mistress, to do the organising and commemorating. I had dreamt of perishing before my easel or perhaps after a pleasant walk through the estate, slumping incautiously onto the walnut dining table I now sit at. If I were to have left the world here in this chair, the final dim image imprinted on my mind would have been of a wild man, his gaping mouth enclosing the head of a child as his palms crushed the limp body into submission. It is a favourite mural of mine, one that reminds me of terrors gone by and the sin of hopefulness.

I shall miss it when I am hiding behind my Aragonese. He’s a good man, he could have instead left me here to be arrested and taken away for my associations with liberals in previous years. How naïve we all were, believing that Rodrigo’s men would liberate us from the tyranny and the seemingly perennial occasions of the Inquisition. At least, up until now I had been safe. When I was Court Painter they couldn’t touch me, even if they disliked my ideas and paintings. I remember, some years back, those ugly disfigured faces marching in to receive the King who had just issued a decree against liberals. They were talentless harsh men who had mastered the skills of diplomacy and tact. I had gone only to try and save old friends like Leandro and my dear comrade, Isídoro Máiquez, an actor I drank with and whom I now greatly miss. He was an intelligent, sideburned man with sensitively drawn eyes that often set off a confused expression. He had been sent to prison for afrancesamiento or ‘collaboration’ with the French. We had been together when Napoleon’s men marched into Madrid. We had probably been talking, as I painted him, of the French, of their grand liberal designs. And when we heard the news, we drunkenly rejoiced because the smallmindedness of petty Court intrigues and royal favouritism would at last wither away. Massacres dashed those hopes and yet we hoped again when Ferdinand came back holding the great Liberal Constitution that would set the people of Spain free. Instead, poor Isídoro was taken away for afrancesamiento. That very evening, I brushed the shirt of a surrendering Spanish hero white as he faced French murderers. Máiquez, had he painted, would have done the same. We despised both the Emperor of France and the King of Spain and his feelings for the King would cause him to end his days not only in exile, but in an asylum.

I, too, was affected by that renewal of the Inquisition. My vain patron, Godoy, the lover of Queen María Luisa, had been imprisoned. His charming Ophelia-like wife, the countess of Chichón, wept for him, telling me that all his property had been confiscated. This had caused me worry. I remember making vague preparations to leave Spain forever. And then little Rosario was born. Nearly eleven now, her mother is at this moment teaching her how to tell the age of a fallen tree. Little Rosario! Maybe she has detained her father too long, perhaps the time is now past for him to make a run from the King’s men.

I’m not such a good walker now; as I get up to move nearer the windows, I hear sounds again and my calves stiffen. Around me are boxes of things each packed handsomely by Leocadia. Without her I might have escaped with only a brush and a knife. I gaze downwards and see a small wooden case with silver hinge and lock. I gently open it to reveal an unexpected souvenir. It’s a Court Summons that reminds me not only of the fall of Godoy, but of others as well.

“..the said Goya be sent for to appear before this Tribunal..and in accordance with what results, the prosecuting Inquisitor of this Holy Office will beg for justice to be done. Your Excellency, however, will act as he sees fit.

16 March 1815”

I squint and read the whole paper quickly, smiling at the use of the word ‘justice’ and at the questions which precede it: Why had I painted these paintings? For what purpose? For whom?

I look out into the garden. Rosario is now naming flowers, prompted by her mother who twirls back a lock of her hair into her shady straw hat. Perhaps, if I weren’t so decrepit, I might be able to hear the words spoken by my youngest child. She seems happy, only a little confused by the relative ages of father and mother. My legs begin to ache again and I stumble towards another dining chair, finding myself looking into the fierce eyes of Saturn on the wall as my consciousness spasms. The sounds of Romany music fill my ears, but the kind played by Court jesters who strum sterile interpretations of the pure melodies of Andalusia. They are tunes that often come back to me, always off-key and sieved of feeling. And yet this deaf-man’s music, like the taste and smell I can still sense, makes me remember, triggers the old sensations. In particular, my mind brings forth the gardens of Sanlúcar through which such music must have whistled.

My wife, Josefa, herself recovering from the death of her dear brother, was looking after Xavier, a survivor of a boy who benefited little from her careful, methodical teaching. Poor Josefa was always doing herself down, swing between bouts of depression and wild pleasantries. I remember telling her excitedly of my invitation to visit María, the Duchess of Alba, at her villa in Sanlúcar. She had perhaps been suspicious. María had recently been widowed and etiquette would normally preclude such a visit. But, as I was leaving, she kissed me on the cheek in her usual way and maybe thought for an instant that this trip might prompt her entrance into the Duchess’ famed circle. For her, my trip might have heralded a way out of that wrenching sadness of hers. She was wrong, of course, as she was about nearly everything else.

I remember seeing María and her husband at parties before my illness stopped me from attending. It was nearly always from afar, though I once came near enough to be enchanted by the sight of her sitting on a Court swing. But by the time we were introduced, the Duke was dead and I stone deaf. As I got to know her I would imagine that at some dinner, long ago, I had heard the quality of her voice and from this I read her lips with that in mind. But fate may have played its hand, I would have lost in a duel had the Duke been alive to watch her fall in love with me. Not that it was unusual, of course : Godoy and the Queen had been carrying on for ages, he even fathering many of her children. The ridiculous painter Sablet was with María’s aunt, most of the time.

María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, the thirteenth duchess of Alba, was a reckless, beautiful woman, who paid no heed to staid, aristocratic manners. She dressed like a gypsy and escaped to the bars and cafés of Charles III’s Madrid. There she would involve herself in casual affairs, tugging at boys’ hearts while they pulled at her purse. The Duke was quite unable to control her, sadly managing his business and probably other affairs. I remember my reception at Sanlúcar, the Duchess’ entourage gleefully teasing a man almost old enough to be their father. I drew and painted furiously during those months of insatiability. Mostly, they were nudes, post-coital sketches in washes of grey.

The women all subscribed to a pleasant variant of the liberal tradition. María would tell me of escapades in fits of giggles and then turn gravely to philosophy. I remember a particularly heated debate about a friend of her grandfather’s. The argument, in which María communicated what was being said on a long roll of paper, lasted into the early hours of the morning, all over the Frenchman, Jean Jacques Rousseau, guilt and God.

“I think I would have loved him,” said one of the girls, spurring on others to contradict her. Later, naked María would in a charades-like demonstration show me that Confessions was a book that changed her life. To this day, I wonder how different her life would have been without it. I certainly think that her joviality masked an acute melancholia. Anyone who had surrendered to the lovemaking of Godoy the ass must have been, what shall I say, a little moonstruck. However, she was one of those women who excited every man she met. She had the qualities of a Goddess inspiring adoration rather than rational analysis. Some of the sketches I did were cathartic attempts to analyse what it was about her that charmed. I studied the shapes and angles of her legs, arms and buttocks. One drunken night, I even drew her navel, thinking it the secret to the Venus of Spain.

But I was unable to answer the Inquisition in this way. Seducing widows in the name of writing another post-Platonic treatise on Beauty would not have satisfied them. Nor would I be able to conjure an explanation as to why Godoy had a ‘before-and-after’-effect machine. María had one at Sanlúcar, a metal-cogged display that could show one painting and then by twiddling a handle, another secret one. No, there would have to be another defence for these ‘obscene’ Majas.

The Quinta del Sorda houses another souvenir from Sanlúcar, a small stepstool decorated by Egyptian motifs. I walk over to it and laugh, slapping my head a couple of times to try and lower the music before sitting down. If the present-day Inquisition knew what acts María and I had got up to, beside, on and under it, they would no doubt sequestrate the seat now, along with my etchings lampooning the dangerous criminals that have hung Colonel Riego. Long after poor María had died, I fell ill and doctors told of injuries traces to those contorted months where my pencil wore blunt amongst the liberal seraglio of Sanlúcar.

The weather seems to have changed, I can see Leocadia eyeing a cloud above her and stealing a glance back towards the house. Her eyes, meeting mine momentarily, have lost a little of their sparkle amongst these murals. She has long suffered my stuttering moans and nightmares and at half my age discovers her natural animation only with Rosario. She has understood the reasons for my moods and has sometimes even believed in my right to know them. Four years ago, we were both dizzy with expectation. The Constitution to which I had sworn allegiance was constantly occupying our thoughts. That twitch of hope seems, since last summer, like nothing more than the muscle-tensing of a man at the gallows. Spain holds nothing for us anymore. She knows that too and both of us now yearn for travel.

I’d like to go back to Italy perhaps, Paris on the way, or maybe I’ll go and stay with old Leandro Moratín in Bordeaux. This all assumes that I manage to cross the frontier. It relies on the amnesty rumoured to be in a state of negotiation. Until then, José and myself will drink, silently imitating my mural of The Two Women Laughing.

Leocadia has entered the room and sees that my eyes are half-closed. She’s going through her checklist one more time, blinking as her white hat turns to different wooden boxes that litter the room. Her lips are pursed with concentration as he pink sash mischievously sags to one side. She ponders for a moment on whether to disturb me for a decision on some object I once expressed preference for, and begins to tiptoe towards my stepstool. Possibly, she wants to ask me about advice for Xavier, my eldest son. She thinks that I don’t realise how careless he is about money, that I refuse to believe his inordinate irresponsibility. But then, if I had been a Madrileño and the son of a great painter rather than a country boy used to the screams of “Agua va” as excreta was thrown from the rooves of buildings, I’d probably have been just the same. I suppose I would have wished he had greater political commitment, I would have liked maybe to see him fight for the Constitution. But, if he had, I would only have complained that he had got his family into trouble.

Leocadia now sits below me, tempting me to lift her hat and toy with her curls. What might she have found that she now wants to speak about? She must have seen that I had taken out the old Summons. It would have brought memories for her, too. She had been terrified when it came, reading it in that climate of stormy sessions with Inquisitions, the thousands taken away. Rosario was only one then and the danger of being forced into hiding couldn’t be overlooked. By then, my influence in the Court was dwindling and couldn’t be depended upon. Commissions were declining in number and many useful friends and lovers had left me forever.

Her worry had been laced with jealousy and irrational suspicions about my potential for perversion. I had showed her a sketch for the Maja Desnuda, complete with altered head. It was all to have been a means of explanation but it only made her blush and the following day prompted her own inquiry as to how representational the painting was. Had I tempered the quantity of pubic hair? Who was it? Why had I painted it? Did it excite me? They were questions that closely resembled those of the Inquisitions. My answers were interpreted as coy, though I believe I was truthful. In the end, these questions would never be asked, officially, at my Tribunal.

Instead, a young man in the employ of the Inquisitions called at my door to find out, privately, the owner of the striking pair of thighs. At first, I was wary of the request, trying to size the boy up, gauging a diplomatic reply and so forth. I decided to offer the upstart her name and where he could find her if he annulled the Summons. When I knew I was out of danger, I told him the picture was of one of Godoy’s mistresses and gave him the address of a discrete and royally patronised brothel. The matter ended satisfactorily.

“Will we be alright?” Leocadia signals to me.

“Yes, it’s funny, but after all these years, I really do believe we will.”

She smiles at me as a wave of humming takes off in my ears. I look ahead and see Rosario coming with José. He looks worried, quite unlike the round red-faced man whom I know so well. I will have to write cheerful notes for him while I hide. I’m used to the uncertainty, the climaxes of loss and gain. I was hardened enough to remain straight-faced when Josefa died, when María died, when so many others died. But I live now in darkness, I have grown up to love the monsters that inhabit it. Leocadia now gets angry with me, telling me that I should hurry. I make a gesture to show her that I will leave my house in my own time, wondering whether I will even feel a loss if I never see her again.

As she greets José, I steal away to other rooms with Rosario. As we walk slowly before the painted walls and into the studio filled by etchings and lithograph-tests, she asks me questions. But I can’t hear you, Rosario, when will you understand that you father cannot answer without first hearing? I try and tell her that I will teach her how to paint. I think she understands me. As we walk back out to the front of the house, she slows down, her mouth gaping open as if she had only just noticed the murals. I look at her eyes and smile at the seriousness of her gaze.

Leocadia has retreated to the kitchen and refuses to say goodbye to me. I embrace José and hold my palms out to imply that there’s nothing we can do if she’s made up her mind. Looking out onto the estate, I notice how beautiful it looks in the twilight. The felled tree that had revealed her age to Rosario is smelling strangely of sugar-cane and is attracting white butterflies that glint in the light of the house. The boxes have all been nailed and taken to the carriage. All that now remains for me to do is kiss Rosario farewell and to turn her towards Saturn monsters that awaken when Reason sleeps.

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Afshin Rattansi has produced news and documentaries from all around the world for the BBC and Channel Four. As well as working as an environmental catastrophe risk analyst, a columnist for The Guardian and New Statesman, he has written six novels. His short stories have appeared in a Penguin anthology, "Brought To Book" (1994) and he is currently seeking an agent. He lives in London, England.