One Million Cows

by Manuel Rivas
Translated by Johnathan Dunne

She was dressed not in black, but in a blue and white print dress, with a shawl the colour of old silver, like a continuation of her hair. She gestured to me to stop from inside the bus shelter and, when I did so, peered in through the window of the car with eyes like those of a barn owl, behind tortoiseshell glasses.

‘So are you going to Vigo, or not?’

She asked this as if there really were no other place to go. ‘Thank you, son, you’re a life saver,’ she said, having settled into the seat and rearranged her hair. On the radio, the pips signalled five o’clock and were followed by the signature tune for the news. Oblivious to the intrusive sound coming between us, she went on to explain that she’d missed the bus and had a doctor’s appointment. ‘At this age, all there is are complaints, son, being old is a misfortune.’ ‘In Galicia,’ said the newsreader, ‘there are approximately one million cows.’ ‘Of course not, madam,’ I said out of politeness, ‘don’t say things like that.’ ‘Rubbish,’ she said, ‘they take us for a bunch of idiots. One million cows! They spend the whole day spouting rubbish.’ I switched off the radio, and she turned to me with a satisfied expression. ‘None of what they say is true, son, none of what they say is true.’

She asked me where I lived. I replied I wasn’t sure. ‘I move about.’ She smiled. ‘You young ones are amazing. I lived once in Madrid. Do you know Madrid? I lived there until recently. I have a son, he went there to work and got married. One day, he turned up at home, in Soutomaior, I was peeling potatoes, and said, “Come on, mother, get your things and come with me.” I replied, “What are you talking about? What am I supposed to do with the animals and the house? Who’s going to look after the house?” And he said, “Don’t you worry, mother, there’ll be someone to look after the animals, we’ll give them to the neighbours, and the house… no one’s going to take the house.” And so I went. I went to Madrid.’

‘And did you like Madrid?’

‘What?’

‘Did you like Madrid?’

‘A lot. I liked it a lot.’

The old woman rummaged in her handbag and pulled out a compact mirror and some lipstick.

‘I liked it a lot,’ she said after doing her make-up. ‘But I couldn’t sleep. My son lived in an apartment, a little apartment, but it was fine. It would do. My daughter-in-law is a darling. I always wanted him to marry a local girl, but – what to do? – he married someone from over there, and I tell you that girl is amazing, very thin, but pretty all the same. She wouldn’t let me lift a finger. Not even to wash the dishes. “You, mother” – she called me “mother” – “have to rest, you’ve already done enough work.” “So have we all.” “No, mother, I want you to sit down.” But the problem, son, was I couldn’t sleep. The walls were made of paper. The people upstairs had a child, a little baby, and of course it cried. The cot was right above my head. Can you believe those miserable parents never got up to give it some attention? Night after night, with the baby wailing out loud, until it got so tired it fell asleep, poor thing. It drove me crazy. One day, I bumped into the mother in the entrance and had a word, you bet I did. I told her they were merciless, letting a child cry like that. And do you know what the cheeky woman replied to me? “Mind your own business.” That’s what she said, the stupid woman. But that wasn’t the worst of it.’

I glanced over. Her lips were pursed, and she was rubbing her hands.

‘The worst of it was that my daughter-in-law said the same. “It has nothing to do with you, mother, everybody has to live their own life.” That same night, the baby started crying. It drove me out of my wits. So I left. What do you think of that? I left the following morning.’

Passing through Meixoeiro, we saw the chaotic silhouette of Vigo in the background, a dilapidated wall in the haven of the estuary.

‘Are you going to the hospital?’

‘No, no. Drop me off at the entrance to Vigo, and I’ll manage.’

‘I can take you to the doctor, if you like. I have enough time.’

She refused again, but, when I stopped at the lights in the Praza de España, she placed a hand on my knee and leaned over as if to share a secret. ‘Do you know where Nova Olimpia is?’ I was surprised, but answered I did. ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘Then drop me off there. There’s a dance for OAPs today. Did you know, when I came back from Madrid, I got myself a boyfriend?’

‘I don’t suppose he’s a doctor?’

‘No, of course not!’ she said, crying with laughter.

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