‘ALL SOULS’ is a story from Hijas de un Sueño, a collection of short fiction by Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, published 2017 by ESDRUJULA EDICIONES. This English translation is the result of a collaboration between myself and the author.

you are alone

I am alone

but sometimes

loneliness can


a flame.


Mario Benedetti


A ray of sunlight filtered through the filmy curtain of the bedroom window. Slowly, as Maria opened her eyes, she savoured the heat of her skin. The night had startled her with dreams so that she now felt an urgency to get in the car and collect her mother and Aunt Reme to take them to the cemetery. How strange! She had never felt like this before about All Souls’ Day. Yes, of course she remembered the dead, sometimes she even talked to them, but she seldom visited the graves. Maybe because the old sepulchres oozed mourning, reeked of oblivion. What a terrible smell! Yet this day she wanted to touch the marble and feel the fire of remembrance burning on the other side.

She remembered her brother.

When she raised the blinds, her smile changed to astonishment. It was a sunny autumn day, but the wind blew like never before. The fallen leaves danced madly in flaming whirlwinds. A neighbour was running about, grabbing at the clothes on the clothes-line, raising her arms to catch a skirt that was pirouetting, it seemed, to the rhythm of her anger. A tattered piece of paper flew by, drifted, ending up spiked on a fence. A crazy acrobat was walking on a rope stretched between two trees. He lost his balance and crashed to the ground. Maria rubbed her eyes, and a sweet peal of her laughter died out on the wind.

It was them! Her mother and aunt had arrived. Dead souls howled on a wild flurry of air.

Her mother swiftly got into the car with her, and Reme, always the younger sister, followed.

―Oh, child! What a horrible wind! said her mother.

―This is so, so sad, whispered the aunt― Oh, Matilde, I left the graves perfect, gleaming yesterday, and see! This is very disturbing.  The flowers are all over the place. I can’t look!

They all stared, astonished at the havoc wrought by the wind. Meanwhile the car climbed the steep slope to the cemetery. When the two got out, leaving Maria in the car, a sudden gust took off Reme’s scarf and Matilde grabbed the door-handle to prevent herself from falling. The wind subsided for a few seconds, during which they entered the graveyard, shouting words Maria could not understand. Alone by the car, she looked up.  The sky, a delicate indigo was  splashed with cloudy chiffon, embroidered with swooping seagulls. With her eyes she could not detect movement, but her body, inspired by the lashing of the wind, felt it. The souls of the dead, like birds in flight, roared with the wind. For a moment, she became as a seagull and she rose up from the earth.

When she entered the cemetery, she was surprised there were so many people there, in spite of the wind. It was sad to see so much damage: cracked jars, sponges rolling up and down the paths, flowerpots lying broken on the ground and on the tombs. Deafened by the wind, she absorbed the colours of the chrysanthemums, lilies, roses, gladioli, daisies, irises, camellias, carnations… What did it matter anyway, if the flowers were exquisitely laid out or scattered everywhere? She opened her eyes wide and breathed in a jumbled magic.

Far away she could see, like two graces, her mother and aunt next to a grave. She and went closer, struggling against the wind.

―Oh, what a shame, Maria! ―shouted her aunt as she tidied a broken pot of bright yellow chrysanthemums― This is a total wreck. What a Day of All Souls! Ah, your grandmother loved flowers so much…

– Reme darling, I think it’s best to take the flowers home for her. If we leave them here they’ll just blow away and…

But, before ending the sentence, she had to grab her sister’s arm in order not to topple over in the wind. While they complained about the damage, Maria turned to the headstone of her brother. She stared down at it, and she shivered.

―What is not remembered is as if it didn’t ever exist ―said Matilde striking a pious, solemn pose.

Maria took in her mother’s unexpected words and, plucking a chrysanthemum from the pot, she put it quietly on her brother’s grave. But the wind whipped it up and stole it away. She ran after the flower that settled on a tiny little shrine. Kneeling, breathless, she lifted the chrysanthemum and read a name traced out in golden letters. It could not be true! She had always thought Elisa was a legend.

Once upon a time there was a small child with golden hair, sapphire eyes and angelic smile. People in Candiles imagined she was a fairy and queued to see her in her cradle. One autumn night, the mother tucked her in and sang her favourite lullaby.

Lulla-lulla-byyye, Bye,

My child is sleepy,

 Angels will bless her

 Yet this litt’l child

Does not have a cot,

But her father’s a carpenter

He will make one

For her 

 So he makes her a cot

Of caramel candy

And when she wakes up,

She can lick her sweet thumb

 Elisa fell asleep. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and turned off the light. That night someone broke into the house, stole the TV, a rifle and the baby, who never returned from that caramel night. The mother completely lost her mind, and the father locked himself away in the carpentry shop. Carving cradles. As years went by, hope faded like a candle at dawn, and the family buried an empty coffin.

 Maria cradled her brother’s tombstone in her arms and closed her eyes. She was sitting with her brother again, in the back of the car, driving with cardboard steering wheels. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled because they were wearing identical caps. Propelled by the wind, memories flew out the window and dissolved on the surface of the rear-vision mirror.

Maria placed the golden chrysanthemum down on Elisa’s grave, and she could hear faint laughter that was lost on the wind. Then the flower was lifted up, and it sailed off into the sky, up until it disappeared under the shadows of the seagulls.

Yes, the clouds were not coming to her. Towards heaven they flew free, with the roar of the wind.

The wind.


A Collection of Spanish Stories – memoir and comment

GERARDO2.jpgGerardo Rodriguez Salas – author of a recent collection of Spanish short stories:  Hijas de un Sueño at his desk in Granada

One night in December 2001 I went to a party. It was in a grand reception hall at the University of Granada, and there I met Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, a PhD student of literature in English. We were both part of a conference on writing from the British Commonwealth. When I told Gerardo I was extra keen on the work of Lorca, he arranged for me to go the next day to the Lorca museum in Fuente Vaqueros, about half an hour by car from Granada. Dr Susan Ballyn from the University of Barcelona kindly drove me to the museum. So far, a sweetly orthodox tale. It could have all ended there. But since the party, all of sixteen years ago, Gerardo and I have been having a conversation, sometimes by email, occasionally face to face in Spain or Australia. So it’s a never-ending party.

In 2017 Gerardo published his first collection of twelve stories, Hijas de un Sueño which I choose to translate as Daughters of the Dream. Each story is given an epigraph, one of them being from Lorca, two from Katherine Mansfield – also a writer for whom Gerardo and I share a great love. But there is another writer (whose work was before this unfamiliar to me – my loss) who is highly significant to the collection, and that is Angeles Mora, the 2016 winner of the Spanish National Prize for Poetry. Angeles Mora provides a Preface, and also the epigraph for the book:

‘In the labyrinthine lights of your mind

I was the guest that stayed for dinner’

So the reader realises the stories will have a strong kinship with poetry. They are set, as a splintered discontinuous narrative, in the imaginary Andalusian village of Candiles, the name of which invokes the image of an old oil lamp. On the jacket of the book, the light from such a lamp fills the interior of a snow globe, the lamp being in the hand of a small adventurous girl who resembles an illustration in a picture book from the thirties. With a wonderful understatement and subtlety, the jacket is the flat colour of a dried brown leaf, the girl and her lamp lightly sketched in a darker shade of umber.

The title story, concerning the life and death of a grandmother, and the history of a family after the Civil War, begins with a riddling sentence that sets the reader’s mind off into a labyrinth of images, characters and situations: ‘When the grandmother was born, the world began to die.’ It is local; it is universal – funny, tragic, grand and sad.

Woven deeply into the whole fabric of the collection are inter-textual references to the works of Lorca and Mansfield. ‘Leftovers’ is a delicate re-visiting of Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ (one of the finest and most heart-breaking short stories ever written), and the Spanish story takes as its epigraph a quotation from ‘Miss Brill’: ‘They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting.’ This foregrounding of the theatre of lived lives is the key motif and device of ‘Retales’, and the story rings with the deep pathos that it shares with ‘Miss Brill’.

Characters from one story will speak up in another. In ‘All Souls’, where the legend of a long-lost child provides the spine of the tale, people from ‘Daughters of the Dream’ appear, and play their part in the visit to the cemetery on a very windy day. I tell you, this is beautiful, entrancing stuff to read. Experimental, playing with light and dark, language and literature.

I should say that the collection has not yet appeared in an English translation, but that’s no reason for me to conceal my pleasure and interest in it from English-speaking readers. One of the stories, ‘Mirage’ was in fact published in an English version in Meanjin a few years ago, so there is a little Australian connection. The works of Lewis Carroll and of Virginia Woolf resonate in ‘Beyond Dreams’. ‘Twelve Butterflies’ is set in rural Spain at the start of the nineteenth century when the Inquisition was in its last stages, and it is a glorious feminist re-writing of the Grimm tale ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’. Imagine that if you will.

This collection is one of the great treasures of my bookshelf, and I am so pleased I went to that party in Granada.HIJAS2.jpg




Sometimes part of the attraction a book has for a reader depends on the time and place where the reader first read the book, the circumstances surrounding the event. The ambience gets into the readers’s memory of the book, and never goes away. My father used to read Wind in the Willows to my little brother, and I used to listen in, and so the story is woven into the experience of the reading. I always think fondly of those times whenever I read or hear someone read the book. When I was about fifteen I had a crush on a boy who gave me a blue and white Penguin copy of the first volume of The Divine Comedy which I then read with a special weird fascination, a fascination coloured by thoughts about the boy himself. I used to sit on the front veranda reading The Divine Comedy and this boy would come past and we would more or less solemnly discuss the book.

In Sydney in May 1998. It was early evening. I was waiting for a cab at the wharf, going back to the hotel after a session at the Writers’ Festival. It was raining like mad and I was sharing a black umbrella with a man I had just met. It happened to Auberon Waugh. I have admired his writing since the sixties, and I’m an avid reader of The Literary Review of which he was then the editor. Under the umbrella he didn’t seem to me to resemble the cartoon of himself in the pulpit at the front of the magazine.

The cab didn’t come and didn’t come, and I begin to tell AW about the first time I read his work.

It was summer 1963 Massachussets. I was staying with friends of friends in a tall serene old house surrounded by European trees. My bedroom was an attic, and beside the bed was a low white bookcase. It was there I found The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh.

The novel is a bit like a sharply farcical Brideshead Revisited – sly, ruthlessly subversive and very funny. I was captivated by delicious the characters and elegant turns of phrase. The action moves from a religious community and school to hospitals, madhouses, the army and various dens of iniquity. The aristocratic Martin Foxglove is matched by Kenneth Stoat, the repellent and unprepossessing son of a dentist. The ridiculously Catholic Lady Foxglove is a magnificent hypocrite whose antics and manipulations are described with a breathless glee. ‘She took out her little notebook in which she wrote her day’s good works. On each page was printed a list: Bury the Dead, Visit the Imprisoned, Clothe the Naked – goodness she must remember about Martin’s new uniform. Give Food to the Hungry – well, that’s myself, she thought humorously.’ She knows the best make-up to wear in times of disaster. She makes at least one fatal mistake when she puts two letters in the wrong envelopes. I love novels with the letter motif.

Nobody is really redeemed in The Foxglove Saga ; people start out bad and just get worse. To spite his mother Martin loses his faith. When she is slowly fading away in a nursing home he sends her a jar of gooseberry jam each Christmas. The religious Brothers are devious and spiteful, and the nurses are in fact criminal.

I loved that book, and I sometimes re-read it with great pleasure. Its principal subject is the joke of the fact of mortality, as this joke translates into character and society.


As we stood in the gloom under the umbrella, AW reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small book. He handed it to me and said he would like me to have it. It was a slightly battered uncorrected proof copy of The Foxglove Saga bound in manilla, with burnt umber type. Chapman & Hall. Lg. Crown 8vo. pp.240 Approx. price 15s. 0d. To be published September 1960.


I was amazed. Dazed. One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite authors, and here is the author handing me a rare and precious copy. An unimagined moment. I really like bound proofs, I love their spare design and simplicity. No blurbs, no guff, no cover illustration.
In the proof of The Foxglove Saga there’s a black and white line drawing on the title page. This is an unusual flourish, even for the real thing, but very odd in a proof. A sketch of a foxglove in bloom, with a stoat standing on its back legs gazing into the lowest floret, like an illustration in a children’s book.


The first time I read the novel in Massachussetts, I liked it so much my hosts said I could keep it. So for me it seems to be charmed. First the desired copy became mine; thirty-odd years later, the bound proof. Imagine. The cosy attic bedroom in Massachussetts is wrapped around me and The Foxglove Saga. Then this the long-ago bedroom is brought forward in my consciousness as I stand with the author in the rain at the wharf. And as if by magic the buff and russet book, soft, faintly ragged, vaguely discoloured at the edges, rusting at the seams, lifts from the briefcase and is put into my hands. There was something unreal and dreamlike about all this.

Auberon Waugh has since died. This makes me very sad.

Lady Foxglove died, you may like to know, as she had lived, in the odour of sanctity.

Stoat joined the order.

ASHES TO ASHES – is it cricket?

‘Crematorium’ reads the old blue street sign in Eaglehawk, Victoria, and the child assumes there is a link to ice cream somehow. I explain the meaning. He is shocked. ‘What, burnt?’ he says. I briefly explain and then hurry past the grisly thoughts and images, and tell him instead about the significance of ashes to the game of cricket. Then later I decide to investigate the background to the famous urn of ashes that is housed at Lord’s.Ashes-Urnx640.jpg

In the spring there are a few pale golden daffodils nodding in the grasses among which stand, here and there, the gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene (see the image at the head of this page). Kind of romantic. This is Cobham in Kent, and the tower of the church is one of those severe square Norman ones in weathered grey stone. One grave is that of Ivo, 8th Earl of Darnley and his ‘loving and beloved’ wife Florence. When I was doing research for my 1995 novel The White Garden, I visited by chance the church in Cobham, but I confess I paid little attention to the headstones. I must further confess that my research for this essay comes mostly from the internet. So perhaps this is not an essay after all, but a piece of deeply unreliable fiction. It seems the grave of Ivo and Florence was restored in 2011. If I ever return to Cobham I will look at it. You might wonder why the earl and his lady are buried in the churchyard, and not in some more auspicious location. Well, it so happens that the last Earl of Darnley to be buried in Westminster Abbey was the third one, who died in 1781, after which there was apparently no room there for any more Earls of Darnley. So the family built an elaborate mausoleum in the grounds of Cobham manor house, but, as my sources tell me, ‘for obscure reasons’ nobody was ever laid there to rest. So there are Ivo and Florence in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene. I do love and obscure reason.

Keep your eye on Florence, loving and beloved wife of Ivo.

I must now turn to the matter of cricket. Florence was a key player in the narrative about the ‘Ashes’ that are kept in an urn at Lord’s, and that have given their name to the cricket series between England and Australia. In 1882 after Australia defeated England at Lord’s, there was a mock obituary in the Sporting Times lamenting the death of English cricket, and saying that its body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. Legend has it that a stump from the fatal match was burned, and that the ashes were sent to Australia. The destination of these ashes seems to remain unknown. Ivo captained the English team that subsequently played in Australia in 1882 – 83 and he said he would ‘bring back the Ashes’. So far, so much metaphor.

Ivo and the team sailed from England to Australia in the company of Sir William and Lady Clarke of Rupertswood, Sunbury, Sir William being President of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Now, on board was Florence Morphy, governess to the Clarke children. Florence was the daughter of the police magistrate at Beechworth, Victoria. Ivo and Florence fell in love and were married at St Mary’s in Sunbury in 1884. There’s a nice happy ending bang in the middle of the story.

But between the shipboard romance and the wedding, there was cricket. Before the tour began, on Christmas eve 1882, Sir William presented Ivo with a tiny urn. Was the urn silver? Was it terra cotta? What did it contain? Why ashes of course. But ashes of what? Stump, ball, bail or veil? Family legend insists they were the ashes of a veil belonging to Florence, burnt by Lady Clarke in a playful, romantic gesture. I can’t help thinking this was a weird thing to do, to burn the veil of the governess and pop them in an urn. But then, the Victorians were into memorial keepsakes. If Lady Clarke did burn the veil, she set the ball rolling for confusion ever after between ‘veil’ and ‘bail’. This confusion is perhaps compounded by the fact that after the English won the third game of the series Ivo took a bail from that match, had it made into a letter-opener, and presented it to Lady Clarke. Both the urn and the letter-opener remained at Rupertswood until Ivo came back later in 1883, and married Florence in 1884. He took the urn home to England and it now lives at Lord’s. It is made from terra cotta, and has returned to Australia only twice; the letter-opener is still in Australia.

The ultimate happy ending I suppose is embedded in the graveyard at St Mary Magdalene, Ivo having been buried there in 1927, and Florence in 1944. (Florence died on my fourth birthday – a seriously useless piece of trivia, but at least it is probably a fact.) I assume that it is the skeletons, not the ashes, of Ivo and Florence that lie in the graveyard with the daffodils. Together at last.

In a recent novel by Fay Weldon, Death of a She Devil, there are lots of old people living in an ancient lighthouse (don’t ask). When the 94 year-old man (the only man in the place) dies, there is much discussion of how to dispose of his body. Burial, cremation or something else such as liquefying him and pouring him into the sand. They do in fact crudely and illegally bury him, and he surfaces from time to time, being finally taken off to the morgue. His ultimate resting place is not recorded in the novel.

So, to bury? Or to cremate? To follow the blue street sign to the crematorium, or to meander off to the churchyard. Furnace or slow decay? Problem.

Recently a friend was saying that she and her family are thinking of taking her sister’s ashes to the sea, and scattering them in the waves not far from the old family home. Then she said she might take the ashes of her own late husband and daughter too, and scatter them, since what to do with them has never been decided. This set me off on a frequent train of thought of mine, which is that families often seem to have a problem knowing what to do with the ashes of the dead. Burial of a body is so routine and straightforward, in a way. You die, you are boxed, the box is buried, nature, merry with moisture and heat and cold, bacteria and critters, takes its course. You have a location in the graveyard. Ivo and Florence, for example, will ‘always’ be in place. Ashes in urns often lurk awkwardly about the house for years and years.

I sometimes recall the end of Wuthering Heights where Lockwood visited the graves of Edgar Linton, Cathy and Heathcliff. He: ‘lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’

This kind of thing appeals to the romantic imagination, removing from the picture the busy and disquieting presence of a range of worms and insects, not to mention the effects of water, fungus, the interest of wild animals, bacteria and the general process of decay. But the romantic imagination is a long long way from reality; that is its function of course.

Some of my family and friends have been buried, and some have been cremated. Both are horrible. They are the two principal methods used today, although as the earth grows ever more crowded and betrayed, and as people become more urgently aware of the need to care for the planet, it is clear that both of these methods involve a most serious and dramatic waste of precious resources.

The characters in my most recent novel Family Skeleton are funeral directors, involved in making a fortune from burials and cremations. The narrator is a skeleton; a body languishes in a cellar unattended for five years; romantic gestures include releasing flocks of butterflies at funerals. There are various kinds of cemeteries in the book. Although nothing quite like the one in Wuthering Heights or the one at St Mary Magdalene. And I realise there is no discussion of cremation in my novel. It’s a burial kind of novel. Dead ad buried, buried alive.

I have no answers to the question of whether to donate the body to science, to bury, to cremate, to liquefy – or even to mummify. It’s clear that a dead body is a problem, whichever way you look at it. But now at least when I think of ashes I might think of Ivo and Florence and the ashes of the veil, the renovated grave, the empty mausoleum. It’s easy to slip from the horrors of that child’s question: ‘What, burnt?’ to the romance of moths fluttering among the heath and harebells.

Not to mention the mysterious romance of The Ashes.


New Year 2018            THE FOLIO SOCIETY DIARY


Often at Christmas I receive a beautiful diary for the coming year. I have developed a habit, or perhaps a phobia, whereby I never use them as diaries at all, because they are too precious. To write on the details of everyday life would surely be to deface them. Like some dreadful kind of graffiti. There seems to me to be an unbridgeable gap between the spirit of the pictures, the skill, the colours, the subject matter, and the facts of appointments with friends, family, dentists and hairdressers. I keep track of those on my phone, laptop, and in dreary ‘planners’ designed for the purpose. On my bookshelves I have several of the fancy diaries from past years, pristine collections of photos of the works of Gaudi, the Lady and the Unicorn, paintings of Australian birds, botanical illustrations.

This year my daughter gave me a diary from the Folio Society. Gorgeous. Small hardback. On the cover is an embossed image of a leaping stag from the Liber Bestiarum held in the Bodleian Library and made in the thirteenth century. The left hand pages show, in strangely soothing colour, on pleasing thick creamy paper stock, images from works of art made in the fifteenth century or earlier. A dreamy selection of fifty-five medieval sights from prayer books, maps, frescoes, manuscripts, herbals, music scripts. I sat down beside the Christmas tree and became lost in a sweet, slow contemplation of the pictures. A detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a man catching bees from a Book of Hours, a snowball fight from an Italian fresco.

When at last I closed the diary, everyone else had gone for a swim. I started to think – will I put the diary on my desk and just look at the image for the week? Will I put it on a nearby table and look at it from time to time? What if – it came to me as a revelation – what if I got a nice soft forgiving pencil and wrote appointments in it? Surely not.

On the eleventh of January 2018 I have an appointment with my hairdresser. I turned to the relevant page, where there is a facing picture of Christine de Pizan in her study, painted in the early fifteenth century. The blue of her gown echoes the blue of the cover of the book. Her hair is concealed beneath the sails of a crisp white head-dress. Her tiny white dog waits obediently at her feet. She sits on a chair that resembles what is often known as a Savonarola, in a stone archway. Her book, covered in handwriting, is open on the table. She has some sort of writing instrument in each hand, and she has almost reached the bottom of the page. Her gaze is thoughtful. What will she write next? I picked up a soft pencil, and in the narrow space provided for events scheduled for Thursday 11, I wrote: Hair 2.15.