‘A Clear Conscience’ by Carmen Martín Gaite, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

In 1986 I was a student in Madrid, thrust into the tumult of the post-dictatorship social revolution known as La Movida. On my first morning at the Universidad Complutense, I fell down some stairs, had a nose bleed and got taken off to the women’s lavatories by some kind fellow students. On emerging I discovered that the novelist Carmen Martín Gaite was giving a talk in the lecture theatre. I still remember her distinctive look, bohemian in a felt hat and scarf – and her observation that when you have been restricted to the home, as Spanish women so often had been in the twentieth century, you learn observational skills that come in very useful for novelists. Writing about the home has so often been disparaged as a lesser art, but it is in homes and families that our most intense experiences take place.

The short story, Martín Gaite once observed, could sometimes slip past censors who paid closer attention to novels. In this 1956 story – deeply subversive in its way – a poor young woman from a shanty town on the edge of Madrid persuades a doctor to come and visit her sick child. He agrees to drive them both to hospital, but the child dies on the journey. The woman’s hopeless situation – she will probably resort to prostitution to raise money for medical bills – and the contrast between her desperation and the doctor’s sangfroid is beautifully evoked, and painful to observe.

First published as La conciencia tranquila, 1956. Translation in Madrid Tales, edited by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press, 2012