The Angel's Game


In my world, expectations - great or small - rarely came true. Until a few months previously, the only thing I longed for when I went to bed every night was to be able to muster enough courage to speak to Cristina, the daughter of my mentor’s chauffeur, and for the hours that separated me from dawn to pass so that I could return to the newspaper offices. Now, even that refuge had begun to slip away from me. Perhaps, if one of my literary efforts were a resounding failure, I might be able to recover my colleagues’ affection, I told myself. Perhaps if I wrote something so mediocre and despicable that no reader could get beyond the first paragraph, my youthful sins would be forgiven. Perhaps that was not too high a price to pay to feel at home again. Perhaps.


I had arrived at The Voice of Industry many years before, with my father, a tormented, penniless man who, on his return from the war in the Philippines, had found a city that preferred not to recognise him and a wife who had already forgotten him. Two years later she decided to abandon him altogether, leaving him with a broken heart and a son he had never wanted. He did not know what to do with a child. My father, who could barely read or write his own name, had no fixed job. All he had learned during the war was how to kill other men before they killed him - in the name of great and empty-sounding causes that seemed more absurd and repellent the closer he came to the fighting.

When he returned from the war, my father - who looked twenty years older than the man who had left - searched for work in various factories in the Pueblo Nuevo and Sant Martí districts. The jobs only lasted a few days, and sooner or later I would see him arrive home, his eyes blazing with resentment. As time went by, for want of anything better, he accepted a post as nightwatchman at The Voice of Industry. The pay was modest, but the months passed by and for the first time since he came back from the war it seemed he was not getting into trouble. But the peace was short-lived. Soon some of his old comrades in arms, living corpses who had come home maimed in body and soul only to discover that those who had sent them off to die in the name of God and the Fatherland were now spitting in their faces, got him involved in shady affairs that were too much for him and which he never really understood.

My father would often disappear for a couple of days, and when he returned his hands and clothes smelled of gunpowder, and his pockets of money. Then he would retreat to his room and, although he thought I didn’t notice, he would inject himself with whatever he had been able to get. At first he never closed his door, but one day he caught me spying on him and slapped me so hard that he split my lip. He then hugged me until there was no strength left in his arms and lay down, stretched out on the floor with the hypodermic needle still stuck in his skin. I pulled out the needle and covered him with a blanket. After that, he began to lock himself in.

We lived in a small attic suspended over the building site of the new auditorium, the Palau de la Música. It was a cold, narrow place in which wind and humidity seemed to mock the walls. I used to sit on the tiny balcony with my legs dangling out, watching people pass by and gazing at the battlement of weird sculptures and columns that was growing on the other side of the street. Sometimes I felt I could almost touch the building with my fingertips, at others - most of them - it seemed as far away as the moon. I was a weak and sickly child, prone to fevers and infections that dragged me to the edge of the grave, although, at the last minute, death always repented and went off in search of larger prey. When I fell ill, my father would end up losing his patience and after the second sleepless night would leave me in the care of one of the neighbours and then disappear. As time went by I began to suspect that he hoped to find me dead on his return, and so free himself of the burden of a child with brittle health who was no use for anything.

More than once I too hoped that would happen, but my father always came back and found me alive and kicking, and a bit taller. Mother Nature didn’t hold back: she punished me with her extensive range of germs and miseries, but never found a way of successfully finishing the job. Against all prognoses, I survived those first years on the tightrope of a childhood before penicillin. In those days death was not yet anonymous and one could see and smell it everywhere, devouring souls that had not even had time enough to sin.


Even at that time, my only friends were made of paper and ink. At school I had learned to read and write long before the other children. Where my school friends saw notches of ink on incomprehensible pages, I saw light, streets, and people. Words and the mystery of their hidden science fascinated me, and I saw in them a key with which I could unlock a boundless world, a safe haven from that home, those streets and those troubled days in which even I could sense that only a limited fortune awaited me. My father didn’t like to see books in the house. There was something about them - apart from the letters he could not decipher - that offended him. He used to tell me that as soon as I was ten he would send me off to work and that I’d better get rid of all my scatterbrained ideas because otherwise I’d end up being a loser, a nobody. I used to hide my books under the mattress and would wait for him to go out or fall asleep so that I could read. Once he caught me reading at night and flew into a rage. He tore the book from my hands and flung it out of the window.

‘If I catch you wasting electricity again, reading all this nonsense, you’ll be sorry.’

My father was not a miser and, despite the hardships we suffered, whenever he could he gave me a few coins so that I could buy myself some treats like the other children. He was convinced that I spent them on liquorice sticks, sunflower seeds or sweets, but I would keep them in a coffee tin under the bed and, when I’d collected four or five reales, I’d secretly rush out to buy myself a book.

My favourite place in the whole city was the Sempere & Sons bookshop on Calle Santa Ana. It smelled of old paper and dust and it was my sanctuary, my refuge. The bookseller would let me sit on a chair in a corner and read any book I liked to my heart’s content. He hardly ever allowed me to pay for the books he placed in my hands but, when he wasn’t looking, I’d leave the coins I’d managed to collect on the counter before I left. It was only small change - if I’d had to buy a book with that pittance, I would probably only have been able to afford a booklet of cigarette papers. When it was time for me to leave, I would do so dragging my feet, a weight on my soul. If it had been up to me, I would have stayed there forever.

One Christmas Sempere gave me the best gift I have ever received. It was an old volume, read and experienced to the full.

‘Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens . . .’ I read on the cover.

I was aware that Sempere knew a few authors who frequented his establishment and, judging by the care with which he handled the volume, I thought that perhaps this Mr Dickens was one of them.

‘A friend of yours?’

‘A lifelong friend. And from now on, he’s your friend too.’

That afternoon I took my new friend home, hidden under my clothes so that my father wouldn’t see it. It was a rainy winter, with days as grey as lead, and I read Great Expectations about nine times, partly because I had no other book at hand, partly because I did not think there could be a better one in the whole world and I was beginning to suspect that Mr Dickens had written it just for me. Soon I was convinced that I didn’t want to do anything else in life but learn to do what Mr Dickens had done.

One day I was suddenly awoken at dawn by my father shaking me. He had come back from work early. His eyes were bloodshot and his breath smelled of spirits. I looked at him in terror as he touched the naked bulb that hung from the ceiling.

‘It’s warm.’

He fixed his eyes on mine and threw the bulb angrily against the wall. It burst into a thousand pieces that fell on my face, but I didn’t dare brush them away.

‘Where it is?’ asked my father, his voice cold and calm.

I shook my head, trembling.

‘Where is that fucking book?’

I shook my head once more. In the half-light I hardly saw the blow coming. My sight blurred and I felt myself falling out of bed, with blood in my mouth and a sharp pain like white fire burning behind my lips. When I tilted my head I saw what I imagined to be pieces of a couple of broken teeth on the floor. My father’s hand grabbed me by the neck and lifted me up.

‘Where it is?’

‘Please, father—’

He threw me face-first against the wall with all his might, and the bang on my head made me lose my balance and crash down like a bag of bones. I crawled into a corner and stayed there, curled up in a ball, watching as my father opened my wardrobe, pulled out the few clothes I possessed and threw them on the floor. He looked in drawers and trunks without finding the book until, exhausted, he came back for me. I closed my eyes and pressed myself up against the wall, waiting for another blow that never came. I opened my eyes again and saw my father sitting on the bed, crying with shame and hardly able to breathe. When he saw me looking at him, he rushed off down the stairs. His footsteps echoed as he walked off into the silence of dawn and only when I was sure he was a good distance away did I drag myself as far as the bed and pull my book out of its hiding place under the mattress. I got dressed and went out, clutching the book under my arm.

A sheet of sea mist was descending over Calle Santa Ana as I reached the door of the bookshop. The bookseller and his son lived on the first floor of the same building. I knew that six o’clock in the morning was not a good time to call on anyone, but my only thought at that moment was to save the book, for I was sure that if my father found it when he returned home he would destroy it with all the anger that boiled inside him. I rang the bell and waited. I had to ring two or three times before I heard the balcony door open and saw old Sempere, in his dressing gown and slippers, looking at me in astonishment. Half a minute later he came down to open the front door and when he saw my face all trace of anger disappeared. He knelt down in front of me and held me by my arms.

‘God Almighty! Are you all right? Who did this to you?’

‘Nobody. I fell.’

I held out the book.

‘I came to return it, because I don’t want anything to happen to it . . .’

Sempere looked at me but didn’t say a word - he simply took me in his arms and carried me up to the apartment. His son, a twelve-year-old boy who was so shy I didn’t remember ever having heard his voice, had woken up at the sound of his father going out, and was waiting on the landing. When he saw the blood on my face he looked at his father with fear in his eyes.

‘Call Doctor Campos.’

The boy nodded and ran to the telephone. I heard him speak, realising that he was not dumb after all. Between the two of them they settled me into an armchair in the dining room and cleaned the blood off my wounds while we waited for the doctor to arrive.

‘Aren’t you going to tell me who did this to you?’

I didn’t utter a sound. Sempere didn’t know where I lived and I was not going to give him any ideas.

‘Was it your father?’

I looked away.

‘No. I fell.’

Doctor Campos, who lived four or five doors away, arrived five minutes later. He examined me from head to toe, feeling my bruises and dressing my cuts as delicately as possible. You could see his eyes burning with indignation, but he made no comment.

‘There’s nothing broken, but the bruises will last a while and they’ll hurt for a few days. Those two teeth will have to come out. They’re no good any more and there’s a risk of infection.’

When the doctor had left, Sempere made me a cup of warm cocoa and smiled as he watched me drink it.

‘All this just to save Great Expectations, eh?’

I shrugged my shoulders. Father and son looked at one another with a conspiratorial smile.

‘Next time you want to save a book, save it properly; don’t risk your life. Just let me know and I’ll take you to a secret place where books never die and nobody can destroy them.’

I looked at both of them, intrigued.

‘What place is that?’

Sempere gave me a wink and smiled at me in that mysterious manner that seemed to be borrowed from an Alexandre Dumas romance, and which, people said, was a family trait.

‘Everything in due course, my friend. Everything in due course.’


My father spent that whole week with his eyes glued to the floor, consumed with remorse. He bought a new light bulb and even told me that I could turn it on, but not for long, because electricity was very expensive. I preferred not to play with fire. On the Saturday he tried to buy me a book and went to a bookshop on Calle de la Palla, opposite the old Roman walls - the first and last bookshop he ever entered - but as he couldn’t read the titles on the spines of the hundreds of tomes that were on show, he came out empty-handed. Then he gave me some money, more than usual, and told me to buy whatever I wanted with it. It seemed the perfect moment to bring up something that I’d wanted to say to him for a long time but had never found the opportunity.

‘Do?a Mariana, the teacher, has asked me whether you could go by the school one day and talk to her,’ I said, trying to sound casual.

‘Talk about what? What have you done?’

‘Nothing, father. Do?a Mariana wanted to talk to you about my future education. She says I have possibilities and thinks she could help me win a scholarship for a place at the Escolapios . . .’

‘Who does that woman think she is, filling your head with nonsense and telling you she’s going to get you into a school for rich kids? Have you any idea what that pack is like? Do you know how they’re going to look at you and treat you when they find out where you come from?’

I looked down.

‘Do?a Mariana only wants to help, father. That’s all. Please don’t get angry. I’ll tell her it’s not possible, end of story.’

My father looked at me angrily, but controlled himself and took a few deep breaths with his eyes shut before speaking again.

‘We’ll manage, do you understand? You and me. Without the charity of those sons-of-bitches. And with our heads held high.’

‘Yes, father.’

He put a hand on my shoulder and looked at me as if, for a split second that was never to return, he was proud of me, even though we were so different, even though I liked books that he could not read, even if mother had left us both to face each other. At that moment I thought my father was the kindest man in the world, and that everyone would realise this if only, just for once, life saw fit to deal him a good hand of cards.

‘All the bad things you do in life come back to you, David. And I’ve done a lot of bad things. A lot. But I’ve paid the price. And our luck is going to change. You’ll see . . .’


Do?a Mariana was razor sharp and could see what was going on, but despite her insistence I didn’t mention the subject of my education to my father again. When my teacher realised there was no hope she told me that every day, when lessons were over, she would devote an hour just to me, to talk to me about books, history and all the things that scared my father so much.

‘It will be our secret,’ said the teacher.

By then I had begun to understand that my father was ashamed that others might think him ignorant, a residue from a war which, like all wars, was fought in the name of God and country to make a few men, who were already far too powerful when they started it, even more powerful. Around that time I started occasionally to accompany my father on his night shift. We’d take a tram in Calle Trafalgar which left us by the entrance to the Pueblo Nuevo Cemetery. I would stay in his cubicle, reading old copies of the newspaper, and at times I would try to chat with him, a difficult task. By then, my father hardly ever spoke at all, neither about the war in the colonies nor about the woman who had abandoned him. Once I asked him why my mother had left us. I suspected it had been my fault, because of something I’d done, perhaps just for being born.

‘Your mother had already left me before I was sent to the front. I was the idiot; I didn’t realise until I returned. Life’s like that, David. Sooner or later, everything and everybody abandons you.’

‘I’m never going to abandon you, father.’

I thought he was about to cry and I hugged him so as not to see his face.

The following day, unannounced, my father took me El Indio, a large store that sold fabrics on Calle del Carmen. We didn’t actually go in, but from the windows at the shop entrance my father pointed at a smiling young woman who was serving some customers, showing them expensive flannels and other textiles. ‘That’s your mother,’ he said. ‘One of these days I’ll come back here and kill her.’

‘Don’t say that, father.’

He looked at me with reddened eyes, and I knew then that he still loved her and that I would never forgive her for it. I remember that I watched her secretly, without her knowing we were there, and that I only recognised her because of a photograph my father kept in a drawer, next to his army revolver. Every night, when he thought I was asleep, he would take it out and look at it as if it held all the answers, or at least enough of them.


For years I would have to return to the doors of that store to spy on her in secret. I never had the courage to go in or to approach her when I saw her coming out and walking away down the Ramblas, towards a life that I had imagined for her, with a family that made her happy and a son who deserved her affection and the touch of her skin more than I did. My father never knew that sometimes I would sneak round there to see her, or that some days I even followed close behind, always ready to take her hand and walk by her side, always fleeing at the last moment. In my world, great expectations only existed between the pages of a book.


The good luck my father yearned for never arrived. The only courtesy life showed him was not to make him wait too long. One night, when we reached the doors of the newspaper building to start the shift, three men came out of the shadows and gunned him down before my very eyes. I remember the smell of sulphur and the halo of smoke that rose from the holes the bullets had burned through his coat. One of the gunmen was about to finish him off with a shot to the head when I threw myself on top of my father and another one of the murderers stopped him. I remember the eyes of the gunman fixing on mine, debating whether he should kill me too. Then, all of a sudden, the men hurried off and disappeared into the narrow streets trapped between the factories of Pueblo Nuevo.

That night my father’s murderers left him bleeding to death in my arms and me alone in the world. I spent almost two weeks sleeping in the workshops of the newspaper press, hidden among Linotype machines that looked like giant steel spiders, trying to silence the excruciating whistling sound that perforated my eardrums when night fell. When I was discovered, my hands and clothes were still stained with dry blood. At first nobody knew who I was, because I didn’t speak for about a week and when I did it was only to yell my father’s name until I was hoarse. When they asked me about my mother I told them she had died and I had nobody else in the world. My story reached the ears of Pedro Vidal, the star writer at the paper and a close friend of the editor. At his request, Vidal ordered that I should be given a runner’s job and be allowed to live in the caretaker’s modest rooms, in the basement, until further notice.

Those were years in which blood and violence were beginning to be an everyday occurrence in Barcelona. Days of pamphlets and bombs that left bits of bodies shaking and smoking in the streets of the Raval quarter, of gangs of black figures who prowled about at night shedding blood, of processions and parades of saints and generals who smelled of death and deceit, of inflammatory speeches in which everyone lied and everyone was right. The anger and hatred which, years later, would lead such people to murder one another in the name of grandiose slogans and coloured rags could already be smelled in the poisoned air. The continual haze from the factories slithered over the city and masked its cobbled avenues furrowed by trams and carriages. The night belonged to gaslight, to the shadows of narrow side streets shattered by the flash of gunshots and the blue trace of burned gunpowder. Those were years when one grew up fast, and with childhood slipping out of their hands, many children already had the look of old men.


With no other family to my name but the dark city of Barcelona, the newspaper became my shelter and my world until, when I was fourteen, my salary permitted me to rent that room in Do?a Carmen’s pensión. I had barely lived there a week when the landlady came to my room and told me that a gentleman was asking for me. On the landing stood a man dressed in grey, with a grey expression and a grey voice, who asked me whether I was David Martín. When I nodded, he handed me a parcel wrapped in coarse brown paper then vanished down the stairs, the trace of his grey absence contaminating the world of poverty I had joined. I took the parcel to my room and closed the door. Nobody, except two or three people at the newspaper, knew that I lived there. Intrigued, I removed the wrapping. It was the first package I had ever received. Inside was a wooden case that looked vaguely familiar. I placed it on the narrow bed and opened it. It contained my father’s old revolver, given to him by the army, which he had brought with him when he returned from the Philippines to earn himself an early and miserable death. Next to the revolver was a small cardboard box with bullets. I held the gun and felt its weight. It smelled of gunpowder and oil. I wondered how many men my father had killed with that weapon with which he had probably hoped to end his own life, until someone got there first. I put it back and closed the case. My first impulse was to throw it into the rubbish bin, but then I realised that it was all I had left of my father. I imagined it had come from the moneylender who, when my father died, had tried to recoup his debts by confiscating what little we had in the old apartment overlooking the Palau de la Música: he had now decided to send me this gruesome souvenir to welcome me to the world of adulthood. I hid the case on top of my cupboard, against the wall, where filth accumulated and where Do?a Carmen would not be able to reach it, even with stilts, and I didn’t touch it again for years.

That afternoon I went back to Sempere & Sons and, feeling I was now a man of the world as well as a man of means, I made it known to the bookseller that I intended to buy that old copy of Great Expectations I had been forced to return to him years before.

‘Name your price,’ I said. ‘Charge me for all the books I haven’t paid you for in the last ten years.’

Sempere, I remember, gave me a wistful smile and put a hand on my shoulder.

‘I sold it this morning,’ he confessed.