Read time: 13 mins

A Landscape Memoir

by Jonathan Pizarro
10 October 2022
Abuelo draws maps of London from memory. In the afternoons, he comes home full of coffee and gossip, a copy of The Gibraltar Chronicle under his arm. He leaves the paper by the door, folded and unread, and makes his way up the stairs to his desk on the terrace. A large stack of paper, a fountain pen and a full bottle of ink. The dog under his feet.
The sun’s rays peep out through the spire of the cathedral opposite, with its timely gongs as the old clock turns its hands. The houses in their rows, coloured in salmon and deep green and burgundy. Shutters wide open letting in the breeze this early July. A murmur of voices below, up and down the pavements of Main Street, talking about their day and the day before and all the threads of life’s narrative. Abuelo draws lines in confident black, turning corners with the pen between his fingers as the Thames winds, the streets converge and the lanes grow intricate at the centre.
When I fly back from university, I stay with him. I prefer it to the chaos of my parents’ apartment, crammed in with my older siblings who refuse to leave, their lives loud through plasterboard walls. Abuelo’s house feels like it’s at the centre of everything, but high enough to leave it all behind at the street door, with its brass knocker in the shape of a closed hand.
           As you walk in from the street and up the stairs from the courtyard, the house seems impossible in its multitude of floors and rooms and high ceilings. Our family was rich once. Something about ships sailing the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece and Lebanon and back. Before the wars grabbed the world by the ankles and shook it upside down. By the time the dust of the mid-century settled, all we had left was a marine supply shop and this townhouse. The dust-covered chandeliers are the phantoms of our opulence. Every night before bed, Abuelo walks around the place with a torch and a set of keys, locking every door behind him.
So, I choose a room and unzip my suitcase and spend my days at the beach with friends who all feel so different each year, like life is pulling them away, and all we have left is this temporary return to the familiarity of our tiny hometown.
By the evening in the muted sunlight, I walk up to the very top of the house, my ankles encrusted.
with beach sand and dried salt like patches of imaginary continents on my skin. Abuelo sits and considers each of his London maps. Sometimes they arch in a flourish. A stretch from Hammersmith to Whitechapel. Others are smaller, more considerate. The uneven boxes of buildings and the narrow, hidden alleys that open up into squares crosshatched with the impressions of trees. He leans in and writes street names in block capitals, with a care so deliberate he has to pause often and put down his pen, which drips a tiny splash of ink onto the wooden table. He looks up from under his straw hat and massages his hand, the veins under thinning skin forming their own cartography.
It takes him a moment to pull out of his time travel and see me there in this moment that is the present in Gibraltar on the terrace and not looking up at the Beaux Arts sweep of Regent Street as it curves down from Piccadilly Circus. The omnibuses and carriages and pea-soup fog disappear from his mind. The call of hawkers and newspaper boys and motor horns as the church bell gongs in the beckoning of mass, and he smiles and he says,
Hello dear, cómo estás?
By 10 o’clock, the sky turns a deep velvet blue. On a good night there’s a moon and maybe some stars like little holes on a canvas letting in the light. I walk ahead of him, down the tight twist of stairs worn at the edges from centuries of use. He holds onto the railing with one hand, an unfinished map in the other, as we step down and around and deliberately, taking all the time he needs.
I run my hands along the glazed tiles on the walls, hand-painted baskets of fruit pictured in all their striking colours. Another thing in the house imported from Florence or Genoa when a fleet of ships had our family name on the side of them.
He tells me about his choice of film for the night as we make our way to the living room. It’s cool with the fan on and the windows wide open. The sound of television late-night shows that last for hours coming in from other houses and bouncing off the walls. The sound of oven doors opening and wooden spoons circling pots. Plates coming out of cupboards. Mothers calling dinner and children protesting, dragged away from their videogames.
I was thinking, he says, of Crossroads. With Hedy Lamarr. You know Hedy  Lamarr? Guapísima, she was. With one eyebrow she could say anything. He settles into his armchair and its cushioned groove. I tell him I don’t know her.
Of course, he says. Jovenes today.
He thumbs the piece of paper and looks down at it. I turn towards the door.
Look, he holds up his drawing.
He traces a path with his finger through the lines.
During the war we lived in Hammersmith, here in this building. It was a hotel. I used to take the omnibus this way, all the way down here, all the way to Victoria, and it stopped aquí. He taps. And in this cinema, I used to watch films. Cat People. The Ghost of Frankenstein. The Wolf Man. Zorro, with…cómo se llama? Tyrone Power. Yes. And after los news, The Adventures of El Captain Marvel. If you stayed, you could watch another one and another one and another one without paying. I stayed until it was dark. Until the blackouts. The last bus home. And sometimes, the sirena sounded while we were on the bus, and all we could do was pray nothing would hit us. Or it would stop. We would run to the shelter. I thought of El Captain Marvel in the sky fighting Los Nazis, and I wasn’t afraid.
I notice that in tidy capitals he has written the name of the cinema. I know it. It’s opposite Victoria Station. I pass it often on my way to university.
Abuelo. That cinema, I say, it’s now a theatre. It shows Wicked. The musical. He stares at the map, his finger on the journey from Hammersmith to Victoria and back again. He looks up at me.
Gone With the Wind, he says. With Vivien Leigh.
I know that one, Abuelo.
And he gets up to look through his videotapes.
I serve him rosto. A deep bowl of it, steaming in this humidity. The scent of basil, oregano and tomatoes. His on a small table. Mine on my lap balanced on a Formica tray. My Abuela’s recipe from a notebook she kept on top of the fridge. The measurements in pinches and handfuls or not at all. I do my best, but I never get it right. The carrots are not as tender. The pork doesn’t fall off the bone. The pasta is either too soft or too crunchy. Some element is always missing. Abuelo’s is piled high with grated cheese. The way he likes it. Swirled around until it melts into pale yellow threads against the bright red sauce.
He puts the map aside. His hand trembles. Splashes of crimson on his shirt seep through the fabric.
The streetlight casts amber patterns of light onto the carpet. The television screen fuzzy with the lines of old video. The opening music goes slightly askew as it crescendos.
She came to Gibraltar, you know, he says to me, mouth full of pasta.  Vivien Leigh?
He nods. Eyes fixed on Scarlett O’Hara making her way down a staircase. The Theatre Royal. Up the hill from here in La Piazzella. She was in a play. Shakespeare. For the men who stayed behind. And the soldiers. My father, he told me. He kept the newspaper for me. He said she was more guapa on the stage than in any film. Una actriz tremenda! Tremenda!
We watch Atlanta burn. At the intermission, he gets up and kisses me on the forehead.
Goodnight, dear. Don’t stay up late. This film is interminable.
He goes into the darkness. Then the shine of the torch he keeps in his pocket and the sound of keys as he checks every door before going to bed. Somewhere before the end credits, I fall asleep.
I dream about Gibraltar burning down. Of the Theatre Royal, which they tore down last year, disappearing into the flames as Vivien Leigh takes a bow on the stage.
The audience stands up to clap.
On the days when the levante clouds settle on top of the Rock of Gibraltar and the weather is no good for the beach, I sit on the terrace under the bougainvillea that gives some brightness to the overcast day, and I watch Abuelo work. I fidget with the book I’m reading and with my phone. My attention is drawn from the pale overcast sky to the dog’s jowls, anxious for scratches. The hourly cathedral bells mark how much time I waste. How few pages I have made it through.
I throw my book on the ground. I search the kitchen for snacks. I bring Abuelo a sandwich, a Coca-Cola, some olives. He holds my hand for a second in thanks, but he barely moves. Only his pen across the desk building up another recollected London.
One night he wakes me up. He calls my name and shakes my leg softly. The room illuminated by a thick, cream-coloured church candle inside a patterned glass holder. His silhouette on the wall. The light casting shadows onto the deep lines of his face. His blue eyes aglow with mischief.
Dear, he says. Dear, come downstairs. Pero quiet. He puts a finger to his lips. I made sausages.
I smell them. The smoke and oil and fat absorbed into his thick burgundy dressing gown that he wears despite the heat. It’s so far into the night that from outside there is that almost impossible moment of complete silence. And inside, just the whirring of the fan and the ticking of a clock and then the creaking of floorboards as I follow him down into the kitchen, more out of concern than hunger.
Every cupboard door is open. The fridge door also open. The sausages spitting in the overheating pan. On the kitchen table, bread torn into thick pieces and butter melting in its porcelain holder. An attempt at eggs next to the sink, cracked and oozing over the counter.  Set the table, I tell him. He takes his time choosing the right plates. He turns on the radio in time for a news bulletin on the hour. I find out it’s 3am. Four dead in a traffic accident near Madrid. Something about the economy. The promise of good weather across the Iberian Peninsula.
I take over. Counter wiped clean. Oven off. Food on a tray. Every door closed. I boil water. And we sit together eating late-night breakfast. He folds a piece of bread and dips it into his mug. Wet crumbs and oily pools of butter swim in the milky tea.
Were you hungry? I ask him. Could you not sleep?
He looks away, focused on a place beyond the wall.
After the war, he says, I lived with my tía in this house. Mamá, she had died. And Papá, he was busy. He couldn’t look after me and my brother. Men in those days, sabes? His sister moved in. Ay, she was so strict. And this house. These cupboards, they were so full of food. When we were in London for the evacuation, it was all rations. Horrible. But here, when we came back, we had queso and sugar and milk and pan and sausages. But my aunty, she was very strict. Everything locked. He points to the cupboards and the small keyholes in each door.
One day my hermano, Pepe, he comes to me while we’re outside playing, and he’s holding a key. He took it from her apron while she was sleeping in the day. We ran somewhere in town to make a copy. And every night, we were very careful, but we would come downstairs and eat food. Some crackers. A bit of queso. A little slice of cake. Biscuits. A glass of milk. I get that feeling sometimes. That all the food will disappear again. That we’ll have ration. And war. And then I get very hungry. He puts his hand over mine.
I don’t think we’ll have another war, Abuelo, I reply. But thank you for inviting me. They are very good sausages.  
You look after me, dear, he says, and squeezes my hand tight.
At the end of the table behind a vase of flowers are a pile of his maps. I reach out for the one on the top, a smaller study. The circular impression of Piccadilly Circus on the bottom right and the busy lines of streets winding out from it. That’s my latest one, he says. A work in progress.
He takes it from me and lays it flat on the table.
Piccadilly, Leicester, Trafalgar, he says. We go to Trafalgar on a Sunday after church. To feed the pigeons, sabes? Pepe and Mamá and me. And there’s a man there with a trolley. He sells hot salty peanuts.
I was there last month, Abuelo, I say to him. I went to the National Gallery. Ah, he says, but that’s closed! All the paintings, they have them somewhere safe in case a bomb
Abuelo, I reply, there’s no bombs. Not anymore. And there’s no pigeons anymore. The gallery is open. Maybe…you could come and visit me soon?
Ah dear, he says, you have to be careful. You think there’s no bombs, but they come when you least expect them. I don’t think I can travel by ship for so long again. Better you visit me when you can. When it’s safe.
You can come by plane, I say.
He laughs and stands up. He takes the dishes and puts them in the sink. He kisses me on the forehead and says,
Goodnight, dear; sleep tight.
He takes the torch out of his pocket, and he walks out of the kitchen. I hear him checking the doors again.
I study his map. A small alley that connects Regent Street to Piccadilly is labelled Calle Del Aire instead of Air Street. Buildings that don’t exist anymore are drawn in detail. Other streets and landmarks are erased completely. Trafalgar Square takes up half the page. Nelson’s Column so tall, Abuelo has run out of space to draw the statue of the admiral. Little scribbles engulf the pillar in their hundreds, taking the crude form of pigeons in flight.
He comes home in the afternoon and calls my name. It comes off the walls, up the courtyard and into the house like a restless spirit. Again. His voice hoarser. I’m in the kitchen making minestra for him. His favourite dish. I stir slowly to stop the beans sticking to the bottom of the pot. I turn off the oven before running downstairs.
He stands at the entrance, the door wide open. A bundle of papers clutched tight in one hand as he holds out a modern map of London in front of him with the other. I see the city like a tight network of vessels, punctuated by squares and parks and the thick powder blue of the winding river.
Abuelo, what’s wrong?
He throws the map and the other papers onto the floor. He still has his hat on. Patches of sweat down the front of his white linen shirt. His legs unsteady.
Abuelo, it’s a map. Nothing to be stressed about. Why don’t we go upstairs? I’ll make you a tea.
He stays, unmoving. His papers gripped tighter.
In the café, he says, the men. One of them brought this…this thing; is it a joke? Are they playing a joke?
I shake my head. No Abuelo, that’s London. The way it looks now. You were there a long time ago. Things have changed.
But not that much! he shouts. Things don’t change that much!
The bells of the cathedral sound for 2pm. But they keep ringing. Hitting one side, then the other. With the door open, the noise takes up all the space in the house. There’s nothing but the resounding peal.
Abuelo lets out a cry and crouches on the floor, his hands over his head.
Las bombas! Las bombas! They’re coming! There’s no time!
I crouch down next to him and hold him as he shakes and sobs.
Ya esta. It’s okay. They will pass. We’ll be fine. Let’s get under the mesa.
We crawl together to the table by the stairs. I put my hands over my head like his and close my eyes and wait.
The bells stop. The clock above us is no longer ticking. Outside, no sound. Then a howl of wind as it blows through Main Street, filling every side street with its pitch. Windows slam and glass breaks. A woman screams in surprise. It comes into the house. I feel it push against me. I hold onto Abuelo. I open my eyes against the force to see all of Abuelo’s maps swirling above us before they disappear through the entrance. Every sheet like a bird out of a cage looking for wherever home was the last time they were in the sky.
Time starts again. People outside shop, talk, laugh in the continuance of life, wondering what just happened. The weather giving them enough of a story to share with neighbours and friends for days.
I help Abuelo up from under the table, and we walk towards the stairs.
My maps, he says.
It’s okay, I tell him, we can start over. I’ll help you.
Maybe, he replies. Maybe.
I hear the call of seagulls. Music from the busker on the square. A dog barks.  Children laugh as they run past. The roar of a car engine. Someone answers their phone with a loud hello.
The front door closes gently on its own,
keeping out the noise.

Photograph © Andrew Neel

About the Author

Jonathan Pizarro

Jonathan Pizarro is a Gibraltarian writer living in London. He studied Creative Writing at Brunel University, where he was mentored by Bernardine Evaristo. His short fiction has featured in Popshot, Litro, & Untitled: Voices, amongst others. He writes ‘Chasing Nelson’, an arts & culture column for the Gibraltar Chronicle. His short story ‘Luz in Nueva […]