Inés by Dvora Treisman
When I moved to the Catalan town of Figueres in 2012, the first neighbor I met was a little old lady called Inés. She was petite, kind of cute, had short silver hair not unlike my own, spent considerable time on a public bench in front of the building, and was very talkative, except that I could hardly understand a word. It wasn’t only that she spoke no Catalan, in spite of having been married to a Catalan for over 40 years and having lived in Catalonia for over 60, it was because in addition to being from Andalusia, where they have a strong accent, she spoke Andalus Castilian as if she had marbles in her mouth. But she was friendly, the only person so far to say hello, and so I made an effort to understand what she was saying. It turned out to be terrifying.
Inés told me that the former owners of my apartment had sold because some of the kids in the building were breaking in through the window that gives onto the interior air shaft where we all have a small balcony that houses our washing machines. These were Moroccan kids, she said, little delinquents, and there was nothing you could do.
Well, I know something about that Spanish idea that there is nothing you can do, but even so, I was upset. I had come up to Figueres to spend one day looking for apartments, at the end of which I decided which one to buy. I had little time and little money. Had I made a bad choice? I was not only upset but also a bit frightened.
So the next day I headed over to the gestoria – the management company that services our building. I spoke with Catarina and told her what I had heard. Who told you that? she asked. Inés. Oh, well, don’t give it another thought. Inés is always coming up with stories, always blaming people for things. She’s difficult, “complicated” is the word they use. Ignore her. There was never any break in.
When I got to know her better it became worse. Inés really did make up stories, all of them nasty. She blamed all of us around her – even those who actually tried to help her when she needed it. She complained to the police that kids were throwing rocks up at her window from that bench of hers, so the city removed the bench even though there were no kids and no rocks down there to throw. So her story resulted in her losing her bench.
On the other hand, she used to throw urine out her window onto the street. She did it for years. She denied it but it always landed right under her window and some of the neighbors said they had seen her do it. Apparently she collected it in a bucket and then dumped it out. Why? Who knows.
She complained constantly that neighbors were trying to break into her apartment. She blamed her neighbors next door and others. She would stand in the stairway in front of her door and accost anyone going up or down with a tirade. They can’t drive her out of her home, she would yell through the marbles. And if anyone tried to engage her and tell her that no one was trying to get her out of her home, she would argue and yell. You could hear it throughout the building. When I heard those arguments I would try to delay my going out so I could avoid running into her. I got to where even when it was quiet I would look out my peephole first to make sure that going out was safe and I wasn’t going to be hassled.
At one point I went to the social services office to see if they knew about her. It seemed to me she wasn’t really capable of taking decent care of herself and could use some help. I gave them her details – name, address, etc. and that was the last I heard of it although some time later I would see someone who seemed to be a social worker coming every now and then.
Once, on the stairway, when she was totally out of it, telling me something about how she felt she was dying, I called the emergency medical number. Police and an ambulance came. Two agents went into her apartment with her, stayed for about half an hour, and then left. After that Inés told anyone she could find, even strangers on the street, that I had sent the police to get her. I decided that from then on I would just mind my own business.
I thought her problem had to do with old age, dementia maybe, but people who knew Inés from 50 years ago told me she’d always been like this. Mala llet, they said. Spoiled milk.
Whatever the cause of her problem, it only became worse and finally, shortly after the pandemic began, her sister had her taken to a nursing home. That was about three years ago. And last week word came that Inés had died.
Word came via a notice that had been posted on our front door by the funeral home. This is a common practice. When someone dies, the funeral home tapes a notice of the death and announcement of the funeral service, held at their facility across from the cemetery, on the door of every building in the immediate neighborhood where that person used to live. The notice gives the person’s name, civil status, age at death, family survivors, and the day and time of the funeral service – usually the next day because the Spanish do not wait around. You’re dead one day and disposed of the next.
When I first came to live in Figueres, from my apartment I heard, for the first time, church bells tolling. I hadn’t noticed that in Barcelona. This wasn’t the usual registering the time or announcing a mass. It was slow, lugubrious tolling, and it went on and on. The sound was so mournful that it didn’t take much imagination to figure out that someone must have died.
In the Catholic Church, bells represent the voice of God and are meant to remind people of the existence of heaven. Historically, bells were used as a clock; to announce mass, baptisms, weddings, funerals; other religious holidays; and to warn of fires and floods. For each purpose there was a specific way of ringing the bells and everyone understood.
When someone in the community died, they would ring a death knoll. Three rings for each bell three times for a man (nine total), three rings for each bell two times for a woman (six total). Some professions such as veteran or fireman also had special markers. Then the bells would toll, one strike for each year of the deceased’s life. Thus people would have a good idea of who had died.
I don’t know if any bells tolled for Inés. If they had, they would have rung 91 times, a good long time.
Example of public death notice