I promised Walter that one day I would go visit him in Mexico. That was the summer of 1979 in Madrid, after we had spent our fifth day travelling together. Hang on, was it in Toledo’s Alcázar? Things often didn’t happen the way I remember.
I recalled getting on the last train out of Nice before the French Rail strike. We met Walter and his son Rewi at the station. Walter greeted us in rusty Mandarin. He had been in Lanchow working for the UN in the Forties teaching technology and stayed on until the Fifties to observe the change of powers. Rewi had been backpacking long enough for his father to come and fetch him home. Before that though, they planned to spend some quality time together allowing Walter to share his own European travelogues. The train headed for Barcelona.
In the midday sun, we were enjoying Spanish coffee at a roadside cafe. Indeed, we were in Toledo. That morning we met Goya, El Greco and their kings. Walter remarked, “It’s gonna be hard times for the modern artists. They can’t sit a general in front of a computer.” Another cup of coffee? Here up on the hill, time stood still. The hustle and bustle had left us alone. The locals on the other table were yelling at each other. We were amused by the heated arguments and wondered what it was about. Walter smiled. There were only two things the Spanish interested in: football and politics. It was football. Across the road in the yard a girl was doing her laundry, the way her mama used to do with a washboard. Life had not promised her a washing machine. She didn’t know that. It was easier, I imagined, to lead a life without demand if you knew nothing about what you didn’t have, couldn’t have and simply got on with it.
Life was in no way easy, Walter was saying, in the time of war, but somehow people made it through. What time was it? I was not listening. Distant thunder didn’t frighten me. Should we make a move? I came all this way wanting to see the castles in Spain and had not had a glimpse so far. We drank up our coffee and brought our days together closer to the end. We headed for the castles, and in Spain they really were there. Right before my eyes, not wishful thinking. I had been daydreaming about travelling the world all the time. There and then, I gave my word to Walter that should I be going to America, I would love to visit his weaving factory and meet the rest of his family.
The castles had seen beautiful princesses and wicked witches. That’s what I was told. But did someone on a white horse ever find his way here? If those remaining stones were disillusioned they didn’t show. Dreams survived all the long waiting years and our childhood. Between sleeping and waking we grew up, only to find the fairy tales torn and the castles in ruins. What was unkind was not a breach of promise. Perhaps the prince did come on his white horse, leaving his armour and swords for the tourists to admire.
An old couple exclaimed with adoring eyes. They had found their lost enchantment. To make believe that what had been there for them once would be there again for them then. Fifty years had passed them by and they came back to the place where they spent their honeymoon. A long way from where they were then, many years my senior, I wondered what glamour they could bring back to keep the story going for their grandchildren. My youthful eyes didn’t envisage what they saw.
But Walter knew. It took a century and hundreds of thousands of men to build the castles in Spain and concrete the stronghold of dreams. A kiss of cannons shattered them. Broken armours and rusted swords, we left them behind.
Walter urged, “Come to see us, or I won’t forgive you.” I turned and took a long last look to make sure they were there. The castles of Spain.
(A Rewrite — published on 1/6/1980, The Thumb Biweekly)