Always, the sun shines and the black telephone dangles from its cloister wall like a stricken beetle.
Always, the skipping rope circles and the dust rises and the Pujarnol air is thick.
And always, Ruby sits on a tree stump, watching the girls. The younger ones play a skipping game. Soy la reina de los mares, they sing, taking turns to drop a handkerchief and pick it up. Not long ago, she was just like them.
‘Teacher,’ they say to her, ‘look at us jump!’
‘Soon,’ she says, ‘you will reach the clouds.’
‘But there are no clouds!’
‘Not yet, perhaps.’
‘Perhaps,’ they chant. ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.’
The older ones walk past. Hair slick from the pool, they kick up dust with their sandals. And Carla, who is often alone, walks amongst the pines reciting her verbs. The rope grazes the red earth with soft, regular thuds.
Back home, a plane ride away, Grandma lies in a hospital bed with a failing heart. When Ruby said goodbye, she kissed her grandmother’s cheek and imagined the heart beneath its ribcage: a proud, clenched fist. Ruby said words that might have been I love you but are lost to her now. Grandma told her she should travel to Spain as planned. Life couldn’t just stop, she said. The doctors said that it might be weeks or months, who could tell?
And it’s a sweet deal, this summer job: four weeks of Catalan sunshine, with a couple of hours’ teaching each day. Ruby gets to sit in the shade of the veranda asking questions, showing the girls how to distinguish their b’s from their v’s. No teeth, she says, just your lips, like this. The girls purse their lips and soften them slightly. Perfecto! Ruby says. Only Carla, who Grandma would dismiss as ‘big boned’, never gets it right. Veauty and the Vest, the girl says repeatedly, when asked her favourite film. Ruby tries not to smile. She hopes Carla will be a butterfly, like her. A girl who will grow up to be more beautiful than expected.
In Ruby’s dreams it is Carla who takes the call that day, who comes running as fast as she is able, her feet slipping out of her sandals on the gravel drive, wincing from the pain of the sun-baked stones, barely able to form the words she needs, pointing back the way she has come, to the telephone receiver dangling in the expectant heat. Senorita Ruby! – breathlessly – your mother, your mother on the phone!
My mother? she thinks. And then, the truth rushes through her.
The skipping rope stops, and Ruby absorbs the hush.
In her dreams, she is forever about to take that call.
Emily Devane is a writer, teacher and editor from Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Her stories have been widely published, including Best Microfiction anthology 2021, Lost Balloon, Bath Short Story Award anthology and Smokelong Quarterly. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Northern Writers’ Award and a Word Factory apprenticeship. Emily teaches creative writing, co-runs Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club and is a founding editor at FlashBack Fiction.