I have a terrible story. A true story.
In 1950s rural Spain a young man who has been suffering from epilepsy all his life is offered a cure: “Go to Madrid, the big city. There’s a surgeon there — a great man, a great man — who can cure you!”
The young man and his family jump at the opportunity, even though the operation and the journey to Madrid will cost them all the money they have saved and then some. With great hope and joy that he will finally be relieved of his affliction, the young man and his father and mother travel to the Madrid. They have never been to their country’s capital, and the scale and modernity of the city takes their breath away. They are already composing the stories of adventures and mishaps they will tell their friends and neighbours when they get back to the village.
Then, their innocent adventure turns sour. The young man dies on the operating table. The stolid, stoic parents are overcome with grief, but there is worse to come.
“You must arrange for the body’s transport home yourselves,” they tell them at the hospital. “And you must bear all the costs of this yourselves.”
It is no trivial matter to transport a body three hundred miles. A van must be hired. A driver. And then there are the taxes. Each province you pass through with a body charges a hefty levy. It was a way for the provincial governments to bring in some revenue during the Civil War, when many, many bodies needed bringing home. Four provinces must be traversed for the young man’s body to reach home. Four small fortunes.
The young man’s parents do not have the funds on them to pay for the transport. Neither do they have a bank account. There is no possibility of having the money wired from their village to Madrid. They know no one in that strange city who can lend them money. The father decides there is only one thing to do. While his wife stays in the hospital keeping vigil over the body, he will return to their village, gather the required funds and come back to Madrid. By train it takes a day to get the village.
Two days later the father has returned to Madrid only to be greeted by a distraught wife.
“They have taken our son,” she says. “They have taken our son.”
While the father had been trying to bring together the monies to transport his son’s body home, the remains had been removed from the hospital morgue and buried in a mass grave in the city’s shiny new graveyard — a pauper’s grave.
The father confronts the staff at the hospital.
“We cannot keep a body here for more than a day. Beyond the specified time we must dispose of bodies. Those are the rules.”
And so the old couple return to their village with neither a living son nor his corpse to bury.