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By Juan Tomas
When one walks down the refurbished boulevards of Madrid these days,
there is little evidence of the painful memories of the Spanish Civil War.
Madrid held out for three years against the fascist forces, who attacked
through a narrow front in the Casa de Campo area. The Republicans had
been warned of the attack on November 8th, and were able to fend off the
Moroccan regulars, which were supported by Italian and German light
armour. The defense of Madrid was fierce, and even involved an
international brigade, (which included some Canadians), but their enemy
managed to establish a foot hold in the area known as University City, which
helped seal the defender’s fate.
Generalissimo Franco then ordered the aerial bombardment of Madrid’s
residential areas, terrifying the inhabitants, and demoralizing resistance.
This was Guernica all over again, and Pablo Picasso caught their angst for
prosperity in his famous black and white mural. Thus, the surviving brave
young defenders of no pasaran, surrendered to a repressive and vindictive
regime. Some, were sent to slave labour camps at the rock quarry to toil for
over two decades building a monument to the fallen during the war. Others,
were not as lucky, and found themselves in concentration camps, or were
shot summarily. Some managed to escape to France, and were picked up by
the Nazis as traitors. Such a fate could place an individual in notorious slave
labour camps like Mauthausen, in Austria. The one characteristic the living
and the dead seemed to share was the colour gray.
Gray is not an indigenousness colour of Spain. Red with a touch of gold is
Spanish, as are the beautiful flowers that are traditionally hung from
apartment balconies, along with joyfully chirping yellow canaries. Gray is the
colour of motorized divisions, uniforms, automobiles, and tombstones. It is
also the colour of humiliation; of obedience and servitude. Once upon a
time, before the war, Madrid had night clubs with jazz, which unfortunately
was also associated with sexual experimentation. This of course represented
an effrontery to the Catholic Church’s power establishment, and sexual
freedom, such as America experienced during the roaring twenties, which
was to be repressed at all costs. It was very easy for Franco’s dictatorship
to use the Church’s power to control the masses through fear from State and
God, (which seemed to be the same in post war Spain).
When Edward first came to Madrid from Vancouver in 1967 as a student of
art, it was to encounter a city covered with charcoal gray soot from too many
small cars cramped into medieval streets, barely wide enough to
accommodate them. Tourism was booming, and there was no shortage of
German, French, and English tourists, who came to Madrid as a stop over to
more relaxed places with names like Marbella, and Torremolinos. The gray
people that went hustling down the stairs of Madrid’s metro each morning
were seldom noticed by foreigners. They crowded mindlessly into the
steamy tubes of transportation, oblivious to the memory of how, here their
families had once hidden from the bombs dropped by Herman Goring’s
Condor Legion. While Heinkel 111 bombers rained their payloads of death
upon them, they cringed below, condensing urine into drinkable water in
order to survive. Nobody remembered, not even the gray people, as they
now crammed into the waiting subway trains, or patiently stood in line for the
You hardly ever noticed them; gray people blended into gray buildings.
After all, if one stuck to the splendor of la Gran Villa, and calle Paseo del
Prado en route to the hotel Ritz, one seldom saw anything but colorful
tourists, and “improperly dressed Americans”. The gray people were in the
shadows of Madrid’s history. They walked stoically through narrow dark
streets, to stand up in crowded bars filled with second hand smoke, and
inhale unfiltered cigarettes called Celtas or Ducados, while sipping their
Cañas (draft beer), and watching football (soccer) on the black and white
television. Edward saw the gray people because he had integrated himself
into their world.
As an artist, he found himself living in the more humble neighbourhood of
calle Atocha. Of all the soot covered buildings he had seen so far, nothing
compared to some of the cathedrals and insurance buildings lining the street
called Atocha. Not far from his lodgings was the famous flamenco studios
area on calle Amor de Dios. Just across from this, there were shoe makers
who could make you a decent pair of flamenco dance shoes, and when one
walked by rehearsal studios, there was often the sound of well played Esteso
guitars accompanying large dance classes, drumming out endless cadences
of music and passion. This seemed to be the only place were one actually
heard real colour in Madrid, at least in the streets, (singing by patrons in bars
was illegal then). Of course one could always go the Riviera Club to hear
Antonio Cades, or Peret perform. However, such colour was exclusive to
those empowered with the right credentials: Money.
One day in October, Edward felt adventurous, and made a pilgrimage to the
country side area known as Casa deCampo. He found a curious little gray
house, surrounded by a short barbed wire fence, and a policeman
brandishing a submachine gun guarding the premises. What on earth would
such an innocuous looking little hovel need barbed wire and an armed guard
for? The thought seemed ludicrous, until he noticed that the building was
riddled with bullet holes. He then remembered that he had seen such scars
of war upon the facades of many edifices in Madrid, including the central post
office. The macabre notion occurred to him; maybe the State feared the
ghosts of their own guilt?
As if to answer his musings, two gray people walked past this shrine to
resistance, without even noticing it. They were probably about fifty five years
of age, but looked much older. With sallow complexions, saddened eyes
underlined with charcoal gray circles, their bent figures covered with gray
cardigan sweaters, wearing a white shirt and black tie, they seemed to
personify a uniformed conformity. They were tired looking, he thought. Yes,
Edward had learned a few things about their history through his study of
Spanish art, and he now wondered if these might be some of the people that
took refuge in the sewers of Madrid during the bombings.
There were many such gray people walking near the small lake in the park
that day, and Edward decided to sketch them. First, he decided to draw a
charcoal rendering of the little bullet riddled cabin, which seemed to draw the
attention of the guard. When the coast seemed clear, he crossed the low
barbed wire fence and entered the ghostly looking building. There was
nothing but rubble, no letters to loved ones, no documents left behind, no old
photographs, nothing, and he sat against the far wall looking out through the
jagged aperture wondering who might have died here during the defense of
He felt as if there was something watching him, but quickly dismissed the
idea. The irony of a scribbled message to his left, no pasaran, made him
muse as to the futility of political causes. “There are no causes worth fighting
for”, his old friend Antonio once told him. He almost became a gray person
himself, after being captured by the Nationalists in 1937. His brother was not
so lucky; he ended up on the rock quarry of Mauthausen concentration camp
just before the Americans liberated it in 1945. After working as a special
commando, (burning the dead in the crematorium), he later joined the ranks
of the post war living dead. No, Antonio escaped becoming a gray person;
when his Moroccan guard was distracted, he ran, and made his way to
Barcelona. Then after spending some time in London, and Boston, he
ended up in Toronto, which is where Edward met him. No, not all Spaniards
of that generation were gray people.
Edward had little trouble finding other artifacts of the Spanish Civil War
strewn about the Casa de Campo country side that day. There were gray
cement pillboxes and an occasional bunker, barely visible through the
bushes and wild grass. When he entered one such fortification he had a
strange sensation of not being alone again. He didn’t hear any sounds or
voices, there were no images, not even messages written on walls to give him
this sense of uneasiness. But there was something. It was simply a feeling
of energy …from what he could only guess… but it was there like some force
… defying definition.
Edward just shrugged it off as an overly active imagination, and resolved to
conclude that his excursions into the past were fanciful. After walking a
couple of kilometers towards the city, he entered the metro and headed
towards the station Sol. While en route, he began to review the days
charcoal sketches. They were pretty good; perhaps they could be used for
his class on Monday. Yes, he decided to submit the sketches of the old
house to the Fine Arts Academy on calle Alcalá, for his midterm a la prima
assignment. The more he studied them, the more he could feel energy within
them, kinda like what it felt like being inside those buildings.
Monday morning brought a gray drizzle, which seemed to cleanse the soot
covered facades of the cathedrals and tenement buildings. Their
overhanging balconies offered a brief reprieve from the deluge that had
increased inhospitably. Edward huddled under the canopy of restaurants
and bars, then running between them, he eventually made his way through
the Puerta del Sol ; along past the grand palaces found on la calle Alcalá, to
the immense entrance way of his school, Academia de Bellas Artes. He went
up the white marble steppes, past an immensely imposing gray statue of
Hercules dueling with a great eagle, and onwards to class. I hope the old
man, doesn’t take offence to the subject matter of these sketches, Edward
whispered to himself as he took his place to the left of the assembled twenty
students, mostly made up of young men who had travelled from many
different parts of the world, just for the privilege of being at this academy.
The famous Madrid art museum El Prado had attracted the attention of
many renowned artists the world over, and this made Edward feel insecure
about a possible rejection of the subject matter. After Madrid had a
reputation for not only being ultra conservative in the arts, this was Spain
under the rule of Franco, the all powerful “caudillo”, (“Big Brother” for lack of
a better adjective).
In class, Edward was only partially paying attention to the other student’s
works, as they were brought up one by one to be displayed…and criticized.
He knew his turn would soon come, and he was beginning to have serious
reservations… “Edward”? … “Señor Braddock …would you care to grace us
with your a la prima renderings”? The term a la prima was something all
artists used when speaking about a work done on the spot, as opposed to in
the studio after the fact. Edward found it to be too continental, and preferred
to use first rendering instead, it was more Canadian.
There were four girls in the class. One Spanish girl nicknamed Pichy, (after
a famous song), who was a native of Madrid, had the deep soulful brown
eyes of Andalucía with long softly flowing dark hair parted in the middle. Her
light complexion was accentuated with a few freckles under her eyes, and as
Edward made his way forward, her friendly regard gave him confidence. She
was not gray; she was colourful, radiant, overflowing with sexuality
uncommon in Madrid at that time. Finally Edward arrived at the head of the
class room, (the hour of truth had arrived), and placed his large portfolio
upon the erected easel. I feel like Manolete, standing perfectly still before
the bull, while being expected to make four or five passes. “Bien, Señor
Braddock, kindly unveil the contents of your assignment ”, sounded
professor Blanco, sarcastically, showing his annoyance with Eduard’s
reluctance to present the drawings. Slowly the bindings were undone.
The first drawing was of the little bullet riddled house he found in the
countryside. It was a tomb like homage to the unidentified fallen defenders of
the Casa de Campo. Professor Blanco seemed to be impressed with the use
of convex concaves shadows, giving the work a rather ghastly sense of the
macabre. However, as it was decidedly post impressionism, and as such,
had dubious merit against the more classically minded tastes of the regime.
The second rendering was from inside the house. At first it just seemed to
be an old abandoned hovel; however there also appeared something Edward
didn’t remember drawing.
Against the main wall were faint images of three young men, about
seventeen or eighteen years of age, they were wearing uniforms which did
not seem to be consistent with what Edward had seen in Spain before. They
looked hungry, unshaven, their sad eyes wide with terror, and their faces
seemed to be forlorn with pending death. They were soldiers of the army
that held off the Nationalists of General Franco and his German and Italian
allies, during the defense of Madrid. On the wall, to their right, appeared the
names: Pablo Suarez, Pepe Contreras, and Emilio de Guzmán, 1939.
“Where did you see this”, barked the irate professor? Edward was
speechless. He did not see this …he did not draw this. A cursory review of
what had happened was made by the academy director, after which Edward
was asked to leave. Shortly after, he left Spain for good without his
Many years later, there developed a fresh vibrant Spain, full of life, and joy.
The newly renovated palaces and civic facades, have given a cleansed
sense of what Spain once was in the gold era, and had now become. When
touring the casa de campo countryside, you will find no evidence of gray
tombstones for the fallen, no more pillboxes or underground bunkers.
Libertinism had returned to Madrid, with all its social maladies and excesses.
The Guardia Civil was no longer feared as much as before, and the policia
armada s recruited many young women. And yet, even though times had
changed very much, one could still see the figures of gray people, plodding
along the old medieval streets of El Rastro, (a neighbourhood renown for its
bohemians and antique art dealers) blending into the shadows of the past,
The two tourists approached the street vendor, and began to barter over
the paintings and sketches he displayed. “I like this one Frank…it looks so
Mediterranean”, remarked a rather gaudily dressed middle aged woman
wearing large sunglasses, to her business man companion. He seemed to
be indifferent to the array of mass produced pot boilers featuring castles, bull
fights, street scenes, and Palaces. There were several colourful people out
that fine day in March, as the weather was unusually clement for early
spring. A lone individual moved over to the art collection, and began flipping
back some various works mounted on cardboard. The vendor noticed him,
as he didn’t look as if he had much money, and why would he be looking at
The man was of medium height, wore a gray sweater, gray pants, white shirt
with a black tie. His balding and aged figure was slightly bent forwards, and
he stood with a walking stick in his left hand. The vendor looked him over
suspiciously, for he did not appear to be of any consequence. Besides, with
that sallow complexion, dark circles under the eyes, and sloping shoulders,
he looks like death warmed over.
“Hey grandfather, is there something I can help you with,” he asked?
The old man answered silently shaking his head. After examining several
works , stopped and stared at one charcoal sketch of a dilapidated looking
little farm house surrounded by a low barbed wire fence, guarded by a
policeman brandishing a submachine gun. Then he pulled up a second
drawing of the buildings’ interior, and clearly visible were faces of the three
horrified looking young men in what appeared to be their death throes.
“So are you interested in that drawing jefe”, asked the young Moroccan
He turned slowly and looked him squarely in the face, a single tear running
from his right eye, “Tell me young man, how much for this one of my