There’s no answer.
A part of me is sure this is the place. I directed us here from the passenger seat without hesitation, once we figured out how to get off the highway that hadn’t been here last time and took the tiny road up. I remembered it all – that the road bore to the left as it rose and then curved into the lower edge of the mountain village, then another swing left and, soon after, this big brown gate on the right, of stately design in a grand stone wall. A worn crest carved above it.
Behind the wall and to our left a more modern house in bare brickwork confuses me. The old house is hidden from our sight, so another part of me is thrown – the bricks of the “new” house were bare thirty-two years ago when I was last here. Surely it would have been finished – rendered – by now? Could it be the house I knew?
No answer. I begin to doubt myself and we wander uphill to see if I can recognize anything else, and to see if I can find somebody to ask. At the top of the road we meet an ancient woman carrying some logs in a bucket as she emerges from the darkness of her apparently electricity-free house. Surely it can’t be in this day and age? Maybe she’s just thrifty.
“Excuse me, Señora, but do you know where I could find the Ogando house?” I ask in Castillian Spanish, but of course she replies in Gallego, a language that has more in common with Portuguese and which I find very difficult – impossible in fact – to follow. She speaks for an awfully long time, as if it is her first opportunity to do so for a while. I attempt to signal my inadequate comprehension skills by backing away slowly. She’s repeating one particular sound quite a lot – it sounds like massabayzhu to me. Massabayzhu, massabayzhu. Finally the penny drops: abaixo, or in Castillian, abajo. Mas abajo, further down. Back where we came from.
We walk back down again, passing the gate I was so sure of, looking for someone else to ask. From a tiny alley a few yards further on and down, the sound of a small radio or portable TV emerges, and when we approach, the incessant barking of one of those small yappy dogs disturbs its owner who emerges from his…well, I suppose you’d call it a grotto.
The entrance to the tiny home is obscured by bead curtains and a thousand charms are hung from strings in the porch – feathers and pouches, teeth and fish bones, coins and metal objects of all kinds. I don’t really have the time to take the astonishing scene in as the bead curtains part and a man with waist-length grey hair appears. I hope he doesn’t feel insulted by the full three seconds of dumbfounded silence that ensue before I manage to say anything.
“Sorry to disturb you, but we’re looking for the Ogando house.”
He reflects on this and ushers us down the lane to stand beneath a neighbour’s window. They debate the issue for some minutes. It would appear that there is more than one Ogando house, which in fact does fit with my childhood memory. They need me to pin it down and I tell them I don’t remember much, but I think there was a man called Ajenor who had a son of the same name. This gets an instant flash of recognition and the hippy tells me he’ll take me to the house.
Which he does. Round the corner and back up to the gate we started with.
“There isn’t always anyone here,” he warns us before hammering on the gate and shouting for Ajenor. He doesn’t even try the bell, which we’d been pressing. I remember the place teeming with life; three generations and a clutch of children. This time there’s some movement within, and when the gate opens I see a face I know, a face I last saw thirty-two years ago. It hasn’t aged a day, because I last saw it on the father, and this is the son.
The helpful hippy retreats and I am left to explain myself to a decidedly skeptical looking man.
“Eh, this will sound strange but I was here, in this house, as a small boy. One time with my family and another time on my own for part of a summer. My stepfather was J.L.P.Ogando…”
At the name he perks up and realizes he isn’t dealing with a lunatic. He doesn’t remember me but he does remember my mother. I never had much to do with this one anyway, the summer I was here. It was his brother’s family I stayed with, in the bare brick house, and the two never spoke by all accounts. He lived around the corner in a part of the big old house, and we children avoided him because we thought he was grumpy. At this stage I’m still a little confused, and when I mention that an old uncle and aunt owned the house he looks baffled (I later realize they wouldn’t have been an uncle and aunt to him, they were his parents).
He concludes that I’m mistaken about which house I stayed in and takes me by the arm, leading us down the hill a little to where we can look out over the valley below. This is Galicia – the clouds hang low and dark. We talk about J.L.P a little, about a night he remembers having dinner with my mum. He points out the big house across the valley that was a shell when I walked through it as a boy. It’s been bought by a doctor now and looks very smart. I know full well it isn’t where I stayed but I’m inclined to humour Ajenor, who after some initial caution has turned out to be a very nice man.
On the way back up to the car and the gate he tells us we’re welcome to a coke or a water if we’d like. I don’t want to intrude – I already feel as if I have, so I decline as graciously as I can. It would be interesting, of course, to get in there and check the old house out, but it doesn’t seem to me to be the point anymore. I found the gate so easily, I’m pretty sure the house is just as I remember.
K notices how quiet I am as we drive down and away. Without getting into it too much, I’ve led a fragmented life. There is little sense of continuity. Many of my most cherished memories are of places I will never see again, or of people I will never see again. Today, I beat that equation. I drew a circle, joined the dots by coming back here and making myself known – not just some speck that passes through the lives of others, but a life all of its own. K glances at me as I scribble notes in the passenger seat.
“You ok, honey?” she asks me in the warmest tone.
There’s no answer.
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