Authors: Michael Morpurgo
am the proud grandfather of a wonderful grandson – I have been for eight years. The two of us are very close. Somehow we know each other instinctively, like twins, in spite of the sixty years between us. We even share the same name. Nowadays they call me Abuelo (Grandpa), but when I was little I was always called Antonito, like him. It isn’t only by his name that Antonito reminds me of me.
Until yesterday, being a grandfather had been a simple joy – all the pleasures of fatherhood, and few of the cares and woes. Then yesterday afternoon, up in his
bedroom, Antonito asked me a question that had to be answered properly, honestly, and without circumvention.
It was a little enough thing that began it. It happened during the
Antonito was bored. He was just messing around, as children do. All he did was kick a football through a window, by accident. When his mother came storming out into the garden, Antonito was standing there in his Barcelona shirt, looking as guilty as sin. He hadn’t run off – he’s not like that. There was no one else around except the cat and me, and we were having our afternoon nap under the mimosa tree at the bottom of the garden, well away from the scene of the crime. So, Antonio had to be the culprit. He was for it, and there was nothing I could do to help him.
“Antonito! How many times have I
told you?” I could see that chin of his was jutting already and I knew there’d be tears welling up inside him. I could sense what he was going to say before he even said it. “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. Honest.” And it was all said with such utter conviction, such determined defiance. Asked for an alternative explanation, he shrugged insolently at his mother, pursed his lips and refused to speak.
That one shrug was enough to send his mother into paroxysms of rage. He was “a careless, thoughtless, lying little toad and should be ashamed of himself”. Antonito was banished to his bedroom. For some time afterwards, I could hear him crying, and then whimpering quietly in his misery and his shame. I longed to go up and console him, but had to bide
my time until I was sure his mother had gone out (grandfathers have to be careful in such matters), before making my way into the house and upstairs. I knocked and opened the door.
Antonito was sitting on his bed, chin still jutting, until he saw it was me. “Hello, old fellow,” I said, and went to sit
down beside him. Neither of us could think what to say, so we said nothing. We often said nothing together. We were silent for some time. Then, out of the silence, came the question. “Abuelo, when you were little, did you ever do bad things? I mean,
bad. Did you ever tell a lie?”
“Plenty,” I said. This was quite true of course, but I should have left it at that. Instead, seeking to empathise, wanting to make him feel better, I went on: “I’m telling you, Antonito, I was a whole lot better at bad things than you are. And as for lying, I was a pretty good at that, too.”
He looked up at me with his wide eyes. “Honestly?” he said.
“Honestly,” I replied. “Would I lie to you, Antonito?”
He smiled at that, and brushed the
tearstains from his cheeks. I felt I’d said the right thing.
“Are you going to come down now, and pick up that glass with me?” I asked him. “And then you can make your peace with your mother when she comes back, can’t you?”
But I could tell he wasn’t listening to me even as I was speaking.
“Abuelo,” he said, “when you were little, what was the
worstest thing you ever did?”
I hadn’t thought he would take it any further. I was on the spot now. I had a mountain of worstest things to choose from. But he’d asked me for the
worstest, and I knew at once what that was. I’d told no one else in near enough seventy years – not the real story, not all of it. It seemed somehow the moment to
tell it; and it seemed too that if anyone had a right to know it, it was my grandson. I felt it was in some way his birthright, his inheritance. I knew too that he expected the truth from me. So I told him the truth, the whole truth.
“If I tell you something, Antonito,” I said, “it’ll have to be our secret. No one else must know, not until you’re a father yourself, and then you can tell your own children. That’s only as it should be. After all, it’s our history I’m talking about – yours, and theirs too. Not a word till then, promise?”
“Promise,” he said, and I knew he meant it. I could feel his eyes willing me on. So I began.
“I haven’t always lived here in town, in Malaga. But you know that already, don’t you? I’ve told you before, haven’t I,
how I was born on a farm, how I grew up in the countryside with animals all around me?”
Over the years I’d told him dozens of tales about my country childhood in Andalucia – he loved to hear all about the animals. But I’d promised him something much more exciting this time, and I could see he was full of expectation.
“This is not just another of my animal stories, Antonito – well, in one sense it is, I suppose. But this is the most important story I could tell you, because this story changed my life for ever. I’ll begin at the beginning, shall I?”
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
I was born in a small farmhouse just outside the village of Sauceda on the first of May, 1930. There was my older sister, Maria – ten years older than me to the day – and Mother and Father. Just the four of us. We had uncles and aunts and cousins all around, of course. The whole village was like one big family. But we can skip all that. It was another birth about five years after my own that really began it all.
The farm didn’t belong to Father. Hardly anyone owned the land they worked in those days – we just farmed it.
It was a hard life, but I knew little of that. For me it was a magical place to grow up. There were cork forests all around – we’d harvest the cork and cut it off the trees every nine years, to make corks for wine bottles. We had our little black pigs wandering everywhere, and dozens of goats for our milk and cheese, and chickens too. Never short of eggs for an omelette. We had mules too, for bringing the cork down from the hillsides, and horses. Everyone had horses or mules in those days. I could ride almost as soon as I could walk.
But mostly it was cows we kept. Not those lovely reddy brown Rositos you often see out in the countryside. Ours were black, black and beautiful and brave. My father bred only black bulls, bulls for the
for the bullring. We
must have had fifty or sixty of them, I suppose, counting all the calves. Magnificent they were, the best in all Andalucia, my father always said. As a small boy I’d spend hours and hours standing on the fence, just watching them, marvelling at their wild eyes, their wicked-looking horns, their shining coats. I loved it when they lifted their heads and snorted at me, when they pawed the ground, kicking up great clouds of dust and dirt. To me they were simply the noblest, the most exciting creatures on God’s earth.
At that age though I had no real idea, no understanding of what they were kept for. They were just out there grazing in their corrals, part of the landscape of my life. I didn’t ask such questions, not at five years old. Out in the cork forest I’d see the red deer in amongst the trees, the wild boar bolting through the undergrowth and the griffon vultures floating high up there in the sky. I didn’t ask what they were there for either. Life seems simple enough when you’re five years old. Then Paco came, and the war came, and the bombing planes came, and nothing was ever to be simple again.
There was a terrible thunderstorm the night Paco was born. Father asked me if I was frightened, I remember, and I said no, which wasn’t true. And Maria said I
was. She and I fought like cats sometimes; but I thought the world of her and she of me. So that’s why I went outside into the storm with Father that night, to prove to Maria that I wasn’t afraid. I followed Father’s swinging lantern across the yard to the barn, hoping and praying the lightning wouldn’t see the lantern and strike us dead.
The mother cow was lying down when we got to the barn, and two little white feet were already showing from under her tail. I looked on as Father crouched down behind her, took the calf by his feet, leaned back and hauled on him. There was some grunting and groaning (from both Father and the cow), but there was very little blood and it was quickly over. The calf slipped quite easily
out into the world, and there he lay, shining black and steaming in the straw, shaking his head free of the clinging membrane.
“Bull,” Father told me. “We’ve got a fine little bull.” He knelt over him, lifted his head and poked a piece of straw down his nostrils. “It’ll help him breathe better,” he said.
The cow was trying to get to her feet. Father moved smartly away and took me with him. She was bellowing at us, and giving us the evil eye, making it very clear that she didn’t want us anywhere near her calf. But try as she might the cow could not get up on to her feet. She just didn’t seem to have the strength. Time and again she almost made it, but then her legs would collapse and she would be down again. In the end she gave up, and
sat there breathing heavily and looking bewildered and frightened. Father did all he could to help her, but her only response now was to toss her horns at him angrily. He shouted and whooped at her, clapped her sides, twisted her tail – anything to panic her up on to her feet. Nothing would shift her.
“That calf has to drink, and soon,” he told me, “or he won’t live. And he won’t be able to drink unless she stands up.”
I joined in now, screaming at the cow to get up, slapping her, jumping up and down, but still she couldn’t do it. She was stretched on her side now, completely exhausted by her efforts.
“Only one thing for it,” said Father. Crouching down beside her, he stripped some milk from her udder into a bucket. Then he poured it into a bottle with a teat
on it, lifted the calf’s head and dribbled the milk down his throat until at last he suckled. All the time though, he was struggling against it, fighting the bottle, fighting Father.
“We’ve got a brave one here,” said Father. “I’ll hold him, Antonito. You feed him.” And he handed me the bottle.
So there I was, feeding the calf
myself. I talked to him as I fed him, and he was calmer at once. I told him how beautiful he was, how he was going to be the finest bull in all of Spain. He sucked, and as he sucked, his eyes looked into mine and mine into his, and I loved him. After a while Father had no need to hold him any more. I told Father he should be called Paco, and Father said that it was a
fine and proper name for such a brave bull. But I could see Father was becoming more and more anxious about Paco’s mother. She was weakening all the time. Despite his best efforts, it was only a couple of hours later that she breathed one last sigh and died. In that one night I had witnessed my first birth and my first death.
aco was soon up and on his feet. I stayed there, crouched in a corner, to witness his first staggering steps. Every few hours after that we would go to the barn to feed him. I found I had to get on to an upturned bucket, otherwise he couldn’t suck properly from the bottle. I’d stand up there, wave the bottle at him and call him over to me. After only a couple of days I didn’t even need to do that. As soon as I opened the door into
the barn he’d come trotting over, and he’d suck so strongly that it was all I could do to hold on to the bottle. Worse still, if the teat became blocked, if he couldn’t drink the milk down fast enough, he would become impatient with me and butt suddenly at the bottle as if he wanted to swallow it whole, and the bottle would end up on the barn floor.