In the Night of Time(7)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina


    Before he left, Ignacio Abel used a red pencil to cross out the date on the calendar behind his desk, next to the one for the following year, on which only one date was highlighted, the day in October marked for the inauguration of University City, when the model and the real landscape would mirror each other. Black and red numbers measured the white calendar space that was his daily life, imposing a grid of working days and a line as straight as an arrow’s trajectory, at once distressing and calming. Time so swift, work so slow and difficult, the process by which the neat lines of a plan or the weightless volumes of a model were transformed into foundations, walls, tiled roofs. The time that vanished day after day for the past six years: numbers lodged in the identical squares of each calendar day, on the curvature of a clock’s sphere, the watch he wore on his wrist and the clock on the office wall, which now showed six o’clock. “The president of the Republic wants to be certain an inauguration will take place before the end of his term,” Dr. Negrín, the secretary of public works, had yelled on the telephone. Then bring in more machines, hire more workers, speed up the deliveries, don’t let everything come to a standstill with each change of government, Ignacio Abel thought but didn’t say. “We’ll do what we can, Don Juan,” he said, and Negrín’s voice sounded ever more peremptory on the phone, his Canarian vowels as powerful as his physical presence. “Not what you can, Abel. You’ll do what has to be done.” Ignacio Abel imagined him slamming down the phone, his large hand covering the entire receiver, an emphatic vigor in his gestures, as if he were walking against the wind on the deck of a ship.

    He liked that moment of stillness at the end of the day: the deep stillness of places where people have worked hard, the silence that follows the rumble and vibration of machinery, the ringing of telephones, the shouts of men; the solitude of a place where a crowd rushed through seconds before, people busy with their tasks, fulfilling their duties, doing their part in the great general undertaking. The son of a construction foreman, accustomed since childhood to dealing with masons and working with his hands, Ignacio Abel maintained a practical, sentimental affection for the specific trade skills that were transformed into the character traits of the men who cultivated them. The draftsman who inked a right angle on a plan, the bricklayer who spread a base of fresh mortar and smoothed it with the trowel before placing the brick on top of it, the woodworker who sanded the curve of a banister, the glazier who cut the exact dimensions of the pane of glass for a window, the master craftsman who verified with a plumb line the verticality of a wall, the stonecutter who cut a paving stone or the stone block for a curb or the plinth of a column. Now his hands were too delicate and couldn’t have endured the roughness of the materials, and they never had acquired the wisdom of touch he’d observed as a boy in his father and the men who worked with him. His fingers brushed soft Bristol board and paper, handled rulers, compasses, drawing pencils, watercolor brushes, moved quickly on a typewriter, skillfully dialed phone numbers, closed around the curved black lacquer of his fountain pen as he inked signatures on paperwork. But somewhere he’d kept a tactile memory that longed for the feel of tools and objects in his hands. He had an extraordinary ability to assemble and disassemble his children’s Meccano sets and toys; on his worktable there were always paper houses, boats, birds; he took photos with a small Leica to document each phase in the construction of a building and developed them himself in a tiny darkroom he’d installed at home, to the excitement and admiration of his children, especially Miguel, who, unlike his sister, possessed a whimsical imagination, and when he saw his father’s camera decided that when he grew up he was going to be one of those photographers who traveled to the far corners of the world to capture images that appeared as full-page spreads in magazines.

    With a pleasant feeling of fatigue and relief, of work accomplished, he crossed the empty space of the office and went outside, feeling on his face a cool breeze from the Sierra with its hint of autumn. The scents of pine and oak, of rockrose, thyme, and damp earth. To prolong the enjoyment, he left the window of his small Fiat open when he started the engine. A short distance from Madrid, University City would have both the geometrical harmony of an urban design and a breadth of horizons outlined by tree-covered slopes. In a few more years the luxuriant growth of trees would provide a counterpoint to the straight lines of the architecture. The mechanical rhythm of construction work, the impatience to impress upon reality the forms of models and plans, corresponded to the unhurried pace of organic growth. What had recently been completed achieved true nobility only with use and a constant resistance to the elements, the wear caused by wind and rain, the passage of humans, the voices that at first resound with too-raw echoes in spaces still permeated by the smell of plaster and paint, wood, fresh varnish. Partial to technical novelties, Ignacio Abel had a radio in the car. But now he preferred not to turn it on, so nothing would distract him from the pleasure of driving slowly along the straight, empty avenues of the future city, looking over construction work and machines, the progress of recent days, allowing himself to be carried along by a mixture of attentive contemplation and daydreaming, because he saw with an expert eye what was in front of him as well as what did not yet exist, what was complete in the plans and in the large model installed in the center of the drafting room. The School of Philosophy stood out all the more in the chaos of the construction site. Opened barely two years earlier, the building still had the radiance of the new, the light stone and red brick shining in the sun as brightly as the banner on the façade and the clothes of the students who went in and out of the lobby, the girls especially, with their short hair and tight skirts, their summery blouses against which they pressed books and notebooks. In a few years his daughter Lita would probably be one of them.

    He watched their brightly colored figures become smaller in the rearview mirror as he drove toward Madrid, though he was in no hurry and didn’t choose the fastest route. He liked to go around the edge of the city to the west, then to the north, driving the length of the Monte del Pardo along the suddenly limitless plain and the beginning of the highway to Burgos, over which the Sierra extended like a formidable, weightless mass, dark blue and violet, crowned by motionless waterfalls of clouds. Madrid, so close, disappeared into the plain and emerged again as a rustic horizon of low, whitewashed houses, empty stretches, church spires. He passed only a few cars on the highway, a straight line brighter than the dull terrain on which it had been laid out with saplings along its edges. Rows of hovels beside the highway, long whitewashed earthen walls, doors as dark as the mouths of caves beside which were gathered disheveled women and children with shaved heads who watched the car go by with mouths hanging open. Columns of smoke rising from kilns in the brickyards and emanating from the garbage fermenting in the mountains. To isolate himself from the stink, he closed the window. In the radiant expanse of the sky, the first flocks of migratory birds flew south. The late September sun made dry stalks in fallow fields glow. The first signs of autumn produced a state of hopeful expectation in Ignacio Abel that had no specific cause and perhaps was nothing more than the reverberation in time of a distant schoolboy’s joy in new notebooks and pencils, the innocent pull of an unblemished future that emerged in childhood, maintained until the first failures of adult life.

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