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The White Hills of the Ebro
Beyond the white hills of the Ebro, the sky was blue and cloudless. The shadows from light standards and billboards fell across one edge of the platform, and the tables in front of the small café were in the sun. The station was between two lines, with spurs on either side, and the two women sat at one of the tables and the air was cool and still. The train for Barcelona was due in forty minutes and would stop at the station to let off and take on passengers.
The older woman asked, “What does Bizitza Ona mean, do you suppose?”
“Where do you see that?”
“The name of the café.”
The younger woman looked up at the sign, her hand shading her eyes. “My Basque isn’t what it should be. Or is it Catalan?”
“Basque, I think. Do you want a coffee?”
“Absolutely. I’ve been freezing all morning.”
When the waiter appeared, the older woman ordered them two coffees. “Do you want some sort of pastry, too?”
“What do you think? Will they have croissants?”
She spoke with the waiter and he nodded.
“Then bring us croissants, too, if you would.”
As the man moved away, the older woman looked past him at the hills in the distance. They were white in the sun and the country was dry and dust rose from the roads as farm trucks rumbled past.
“I was here, before.”
“Here? You mean this station?”
“It was years ago. Before you were born.”
“You had a life before I was born?”
“I know it’s hard to imagine. That was a long time ago. A lifetime ago.”
“Were you Sally’s age?”
“Very close, perhaps a year younger.”
“You were just a girl.”
The waiter arrived and set down their coffees and croissants and spoke to the older woman.
“He wants to know if we need anything else.”
The younger woman shook her head. “This is perfect.”
As they sipped their coffees, the younger woman looked at the older woman. “The sun is not warm, today.”
“Do you want your sweater?”
“I think it’s a good idea.”
The older woman pulled her pashmina more tightly around her neck.
“Then you agree?”
“I wish you would reconsider.”
“London’s too much for me, anymore. I wouldn’t like that.”
The younger woman sat back in her chair, the cup of coffee in hand, but did not say anything.
The older woman looked again at the hills and then back at the younger woman. “I was here with a man. His name was Teddy.”
“It was a very long time ago.”
“I don’t think I know who that is. Have you mentioned him before?”
“His name was Teddy and he was from St. Paul. He was a grown man, Theodore, and he went by Teddy. Can you imagine? A grown man calling himself Teddy.”
“Like their president.”
The older woman laughed. “Perhaps. He certainly thought he was a man of action. Strenuous, and all that. He put a lot of motion into what he was doing.”
“Mother! My goodness.”
“He would be going in several directions at once, the poor man, yet all to no avail.”
The younger woman laughed.
“I didn’t care for him. He was too loud, too insistent. He was the sort who always seems to be shouting, even if they never raise their voice.”
“He doesn’t sound pleasant.”
“No. He was very American. We were together for a few months. I was looking for a small job in Paris, and we fell in together.”
“As people do.”
“As people do.”
“And then you fell out?”
The older woman took a sip of coffee. “We saw things differently.”
She looked across the platform at the river and trees and fields on the far side of the Ebro. The trees were without leaves and the fields had been harvested. The river sparkled in the pale sun and the fields were brown and bare save for the tangled and shimmering stubble. The mountains beyond were already topped with snow above the pines.
“I remember the fields were so green, then, and the trees. Now, it all looks so desolate.”
The younger woman looked across at the fields and leafless trees.
“It will be all green, again, in a few months.”
“Things can get better.”
“When the train arrived, I watched Teddy get on.”
“I know you would be very comfortable with us.”
“I was sitting at a table, and he had both our suitcases and was getting on the train.”
“You can have the spare room, with the private bath, and straight out onto the terrace. You love the courtyard. You always say it’s so peaceful. They have ideas about restricting traffic, these days, and it can be so quiet.”
“You see, he was so sure.”
“It would mean a lot to me, and I wouldn’t worry about you.”
“And then he stopped, and looked back. He seemed so shocked and I just sat there.”
“I’m saying things might get difficult.”
“I didn’t have a sous.”
“The treatments will take it out of you, and I can help, and Sally and Thomas are hardly around, anymore. I think it’s a good decision.”
“He was looking back at me, so confused.”
“I remember, he stepped back from the stairs and sort of dropped my suitcase on the platform and it fell over on its side.”
“Mother, you’re not listening.”
“He expected me to follow him, and I didn’t.”
The younger woman reached across the table and took the older woman’s hand. “I’m saying that it would be wonderful to have you with us. Glyn thinks the world of you and he knows how happy I would be if you would come and stay with us. I think it’s what you should do. Asthall will be too far away if you’re not feeling well.”
“I didn’t because I thought he was dreadful.”
The waiter stepped from a nearby table and spoke again to the older woman.
“Do you want anything else?”
“No. I’m good. Let me get this.”
“This one’s mine.”
“You haven’t let me pay for a thing. Well, I’m getting dinner, no matter what you say, and the rooms in Barcelona.”
The older woman spoke for a moment to the waiter and he cleared away the coffee cups and saucers and small dishes.
The younger woman regarded the older woman as she set some coins on a tray the waiter had placed on the table.
“Who was he, this man? This Teddy from St. Paul?”
The older woman looked at the younger woman, and then looked away at the barren fields beyond the river.
“In the end, he wasn’t anyone. Not really. I knew him for a couple of months, and then he got on the train, and I never saw him again.”
“What year was this?”
“It was a long time ago.”
They sat in silence and the sun was overhead and the air was still and from a distance they could hear the approach of the train.
At last, the younger woman spoke. “It sounds like you did the right thing, leaving him.”
“He wasn’t a good man.”
“Father was a good man.”
“Richard was a kind man.”
“Nobody was as kind as dad.”
The train for Barcelona arrived in the station, obscuring the view of the river and the trees and dry fields of entangled stubble. On the near side, the hills were stark and white and bare.
“Why were you with him?”
The younger woman nodded.
“I was young, and he was very handsome, and had money, and when he wasn’t being awful, he could be funny. I thought we would go everywhere and do everything, but I found that I wanted something more.”
The younger woman stood and reached for her suitcase. “Did you find it, the something more?”
The older woman extended the handle of her suitcase and looked past the train at the river and the barren trees and fields of stubble, gold and white and tangled in the sun.
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Brady Harrison’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Aethlon, High Desert Journal, The Long Story, and Short Story. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including the collection The Term Between and the forthcoming novel A Journey to Al Ramel. He has lived in France and Ireland, as well as in Missoula, Montana. Visit Brady’s webpage. Read Brady’s commentary on his story.
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