|Late on that Friday evening, six of the seven-strong Tomás family were in the main dining room of the Costa Concordia. Ana and Juan and three of their four children: the sixteen-year-old twin boys and their youngest, seven-year-old Juan. Their daughter was 19, and off having supper with a boyfriend, but in the dining room with the rest of the family (he went everywhere with them since that day, well over twenty years ago, when he came to live with the newly-wed Ana and Juan) was Ana’a uncle Guillermo.|
Although 68 years old, he was like another child in the family. He was an “innocent” as they were still often called. Sometimes when you asked him, he knew his name; sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he knew where he was; sometimes he didn’t.
He couldn’t talk much, but he could smile, a big, big smile that lit up his face. He sat all day at a table in the bar run by Ana and Juan in Mallorca, and that smile would break out on his face as someone came in. He sat there, smiling, and waited for the hugging and kissing to begin. If you sat down beside him, he would take your hand and smother it in little kisses, or stroke it gently while saying over and over again “My pretty love, my pretty love”.
He loved everyone, and everyone loved him.
That evening on the Costa Concordia, Ana had cut up his meal for him, and tied a linen napkin tenderly round his neck, when the boat seemed to lurch. A woman screamed, a child gabbled excitedly
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. There was a fierce metallic sound, more than a groan, less than a screech. The lights flickered off then back on again.
The boat lurched more strongly, and Guillermo didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the glasses, plates and cutlery slithered across the polished table top. He settled for keening – the high-pitched wail that he retreated into when upset or frightened by anything unusual. His family rushed to pat him, to hug him, to soothe him; under the avalanche of kisses he calmed down.
The lights flickered on and off again, then stayed off. Shouts of dismay from other diners broke out around them; several women cried out, a baby started screaming. The six Tomáses all held hands and waited, then remembered the eldest girl, in another room, and panicking, started rushing hither and thither in the dark.
Juan calmed them down, got them all together, and they made their way in a cautious chain towards the passageway where they could see torch beams moving. “There’s nothing to worry about, it’s just a black-out, the engineers are working on it” the staff called out as they rushed past, herding people back towards the cabins, away from the decks.
Then one of the twins stumbled in the dark. “The floor, the floor – it’s moved!” he cried. The boat had started listing, and panic came onto most of them. Old tío Guillermo was already terrified, keening and holding tight to Juan. The recognisable sound of her great-uncle’s keening acted as a homing beacon for their daughter who soon joined them, and all seven, plus the boyfriend, set off for the open deck, pausing en route to put on life-jackets. They waited for an announcement from the Captain, but heard nothing.
On deck they joined a long queue for the lifeboats, shivering in the dark. The women were not dressed for being outside on a January night, and the men took off jumpers and tried to stuff them round the life-jackets of Ana and her daughter. When they reached the front of the life-boat queue, they tried to put Guillermo on first.
“Stand back, stand back! Adult males, stand back!” cried the crew organising the evacuation. They tried to tell them that Guillermo was a child in a man’s body, they tried to explain that he could not fend for himself, Ana wanted to give up her place for him, but the crowd around them repeated “Adult males, stand back!”, and pushed and shoved and elbowed them and cried out in ten different languages, so Ana and her daughter and little seven-year-old Juan went into the boat, while Guillermo, Juan, the twins and the boyfriend stayed behind on the slippery, listing desk.
And the crowd around them pushed and shoved and elbowed them and cried out in ten different languages.
They tried to hang together in a chain: two adults, two strapping lads, and poor tío Guillermo. But the desk was slippery and the ship was listing more and more and the crowd around them pushed and shoved and elbowed them and cried out in ten different languages.
One fell, they all fell and slid down the deck as though it were a playground slider. They got to their feet, fell again. They lay there a moment in the dark with the cries and shouts all around them, and Guillermo’s keening, now fainter, now stronger. They pulled themselves up and after a time, moved to the other side of the ship, where there was less chance of slipping into the sea.
Juan’s phone rang: it was Ana to say that she and her son and daughter had reached Porto Santo Stefano on the island. They laughed, they cried, Guillermo keened, and Juan pulled him close to him, pulled him close in a big, big hug. Guillermo stopped keening and said “Pipí, pipí”, and Juan felt the old man’s urine, warm and acrid-smelling, spreading through his clothes and reaching his skin. “Never mind, never mind” he soothed him, stroking his face. “When the lights come on, we’ll get you changed”.
But the lights didn’t come on, and they struggled on, keeping together for over an hour, until they realised that the decks were almost empty, that all the usable life-boats and most of the people had gone to safety.
“We must go, the ship may turn over, we’ll get sucked under” people now said. And so those few remaining on board stood on the edge of the deck and commending themselves variously to La Madonna, to San Nicolás, to la Virgen de LLuc, Patrona de Mallorca, they cast themselves out into the dark, down down down to the dark, dark sea.
But tío Guillermo wasn’t there when they surfaced. They called, they circled looking for him, then finally turned and started the forty-minute swim to shore.
Once the family was re-united in the Sports Centre on the island, they went from building to building looking for him. Is Guillermo here? Has anyone seen Guillermo Gual? They loved him and they looked for him for the rest of the night and part of the following day.
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