Everything told in the present tense should be regarded with suspicion, from history books to love songs. In ‘Early this Morning’ by Pedro Mairal, however, the ‘this morning’ of the title stretches out elastically to cover half a lifetime: from morning to midday, from childhood to maturity. Following in the footsteps of ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever, a boy gets into a car to spend the weekend at the family’s house in the country but on the journey the people, pets, partners and even the car itself are constantly changing. As in Cheever’s story, when the protagonist arrives at his putative destination, the house no longer belongs to him and, even worse: he can’t stop or get out of the journey of his life. I imagine the passengers in the car in fast-forward, like internet videos showing fruit germinating, maturing and finally rotting. In contrast, their emotions bloom in slow motion, in great, beautiful detail. Is it time to die already? But in the last paragraph I was just a child! Time isn’t a novel divided into chapters but a continuous, compact narrative in which barely have we turned the page that we discover that we’re old and it’s time to pass the book on. Mairal understands that perception of the passing of time borders on the fantastic, just as Dylan Thomas says in the final lines of his poem, Should Lanterns Shine: “The ball I threw while playing in the park / Has not yet reached the ground.”
We set out early. Dad has a new second-hand burgundy Peugeot 404. I climb into the back, up onto the parcel shelf next to the rear window, and stretch out. I’m comfortable there. I like to lie flat against the window and go to sleep. I’m always happy when we go to spend the weekend in the country because in the flat in the city where we live during the week all there is to do is kick a tennis ball against the wall in the building’s lightwell, above the garage. It’s surrounded by four towering walls dirtied by soot from the incinerator. When I look up it feels as though the lightwell is just another chimney. When I shout the sound doesn’t even reach the square of sky up above. The trip into the country gets me out of the pit.
There isn’t much traffic on the street, maybe because it’s Saturday or because there aren’t that many cars in Buenos Aires yet. I have a Matchbox car in a jar that I’ll use to catch insects and a few crayons that I arrange by size and mustn’t leave out in the sun because they’ll melt. Nobody thinks it’s dangerous for me to be lying on the parcel shelf up against the rear window. I feel safe and snug in the back, pressed up next to the sports club sticker. On the road I stare out at the fronts of the cars because they look like faces: the headlamps are eyes, the bumpers are moustaches and the grilles are mouths and teeth. Some cars have friendly faces; others look angry. My siblings like it when I lie along the back window because it makes more room for them. I don’t sit in the seat until later, when it’s too hot or once I’ve grown too big to fit on the parcel shelf. We turn onto a large avenue. We’re driving slowly – I don’t know whether that’s because there are a lot of traffic lights or because the Peugeot isn’t in great shape: the exhaust pipe is hanging loose, and you have to shout to be heard above the rattle. One of the back doors doesn’t open. Mum has tied it in place with string from Miguel’s kite.
It’s a very long journey. Especially when the traffic lights aren’t synchronized. We fight over the window seats; nobody wants to sit in the middle. On the General Paz motorway we take turns to stick our heads out of the window wearing Vicky’s swimming goggles so the wind doesn’t bring tears to our eyes. Mum and Dad don’t say a word. Except when we pass the police, then they tell us to sit still and keep quiet. When we got the Renault 12 Miguel let his collection of wrestling cards fly out of the window, and Dad pulled over to pick them up because Miguel was crying like crazy. Suddenly I saw two soldiers coming over towards us, brandishing their machine guns, saying that we’re in a military area. They asked Dad questions, patted him down for weapons, checked his documents and then we had to get going without the cards, which we left strewn across the ground, even the one with Martín Karadagian’s autograph.
Dad looks for classical music on the radio; sometimes he manages to tune into the Sodre station. We’ll be kicking each other in the back seat when suddenly Dad turns up the volume and says, “Listen to this, listen to this”, and we have to freeze in the middle of a judo move and listen to part of an aria or an adagio. Later, when cassette players appear in cars, Mozart dominates the journey. We watch the well-maintained road and pollarded trees with white-painted trunks go by and listen to string quintets, symphonies, piano concertos and operas. Vicky leads rebellions in which we try to drown out the sopranos in The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni with our favourite family song. It goes, “We want to eat, we want to eat, dried blood covered in mud …” But then Vicky starts to bring books along for the trip and read them in silence, ignoring everyone else, upset because she is being forced to come along against her wishes until finally she is allowed to spend the weekends in the city to go to the movies with her friends, who are already going out with boys. After that, Miguel and I have a window each all to ourselves, even if we invite a friend along.
We feel as if we’ll never get there. There are long waits en route as Mum buys garden furniture or plants, taking advantage of the fact that Dad has stayed at home to work. Miguel and I sit in the back seat competing to see who can hold his breath for the longest – each of us covering up the other’s snorkel with our hands to make sure there’s no cheating – or we improvise a game of tennis with a rolled-up ball of paper and a couple of flippers. We wait for so long that Tania starts to bark because she can’t stand being locked up in the back of the Falcon Rural we have after the Renault. Then Mum appears carrying plants or pots or furniture that has to be strapped to the roof, and finally we get going again.
The friends that Miguel invites keep changing. I look at them with amazement and perverse anxiety because I know that when we get there they’re going to start stumbling into the traps that Miguel always sets for them beforehand: the dead mouse in the guest’s rubber boots; the ghost in the shed; the farce of the murderous pigs; the pit covered with leaves and branches next to the row of palm trees by the house. Back in the car, during mid-morning traffic jams, I look at Miguel’s friends and savour my first taste of evil. I prefer the arrogant, pompous ones because I know that the humiliation brought upon them by the traps, in which I play some vague, ill-defined role, will be all the more intense. Miguel’s guests almost never come back.
Once they finish the first stretch of the motorway and set up the tolls, the traffic flows better. Vicky goes on her own with friends who have cars. Dad barely ever comes any more. In the beaten-up Rural, while Mum drives, Miguel uses my drawing pad to sketch out plans and strategies to spy on Vicky’s friends as they’re getting changed. Then Miguel starts to come less frequently, and I have the whole back seat to sleep on. Mum stops and wakes me up to put water in the leaky radiator when the engine overheats. We buy a watermelon by the side of the road.
At the railway crossing, where before there were just a couple of hawkers, now there are amputees or quadriplegics begging for money and other men selling magazines, balls, pens, tools or dolls. Also, at the traffic lights in the villages we go through, people beg for change or sell flowers and fizzy drinks. Dad’s company give him a Ford Sierra. It has automatic buttons and, because Miguel was robbed recently, Mum makes me lock the doors and close the windows at the traffic lights because she’s scared of the hawkers. She says that they swarm in on you and also that Duque might bite them. Then the air conditioning means we have an excuse never to open the window. The car begins to become a safety capsule with its own microclimate. Outside, there’s more and more rubbish and political graffiti; inside, the music is crystal clear on the new stereo, and Mum patiently puts up with the Soda or Police cassettes I play.
The car is faster, and it always seems as though we’re just about to arrive – especially when I start to drive myself and accelerate without Mum realizing it because she’s sitting happily in the passenger seat, inspecting her latest facelift in the mirror. Her skin is pulled back as though she is going very fast. Then, after Dad dies, Mum prefers Miguel to drive because he’s returned like a prodigal son, and Vicky lives in Boston. The road starts to look weird to me because I’m driving El Chino’s father’s yellow Taurus, and we keep the windows closed, not because we’re afraid but to make sure that the marijuana smoke stays thick. We listen to Wild Horses; there are passages in the music that border on the spiritual as we speed along the road. We feel at one with the enormous, flat landscape. Then I drive Gabriela’s mother’s car, which fortunately is diesel so isn’t so expensive to fill up when we go on our day trips to get some time alone. People are talking about expropriation, but they’re just being alarmist; we still have two governments to go until that happens. Gabriela wears short dresses that force me to drive with one hand so I can put the other on her thigh, slowly rising up from the knee, without changing gear because I’m letting the engine cruise and Gabriela has whispered in my ear that we’re in no rush to get there. The journey never took so long. The house is far away, out of reach.
Later on, Gabriela’s belly starts to swell, and we go on trips to try to get used to family life. Her brother lends us his Volkswagen. Now we use seatbelts; we’re increasingly afraid of death, and we don’t have far to go. The years pass more and more quickly. There are a lot more cars on the road and more toll booths. The motorway is almost finished. We stop at a service station and argue. Gabriela cries in the bathroom. I have to ask her to come out. Then we buy a baby seat for Violeta, and the little thing sleeps in the back with her own seatbelt. All three of us are tied up.
I push down on the accelerator because I want to get there early to have lunch. Gabriela says that it doesn’t matter; we can stop at McDonald’s. We argue. Gabriela resents me. I put on my sunglasses and go faster. On the trip I listen to demos for the radio commercials. I grip the steering wheel of the Ford Escort tighter. Not far to go. Gabriela asks me to go slower, then she stops coming. She takes Violeta to her mother’s for the weekend. I drive on my own, listening to Mozart’s piano concertos on hi-fidelity CDs. The engine of the 4×4 doesn’t make any noise at all. The motorway is finished, with fences on either side to stop people crossing. I take the fast lane and look at the speedometer: 165 kilometres an hour. I’m about to pass by the exact spot. I see the three palm trees and wait for them to align. They come closer, I come closer, until the first tree blocks out the other two and I say, “Here”, and it’s like I’m shouting, but I say it slowly at the exact spot where the house used to be before the expropriation, before it was demolished and the motorway was built on top of it. For a thousandth of a second I feel as though I were going through the rooms, over the bed where Miguel and I used to pretend we were professional wrestlers. I pass by the graves of Tania and Duque nestled among Mum’s plants, go through a damp, metallic aroma, the taste of green cherries thrown into the pool to dive for later, through the haze of fear of the snake that came out when we turned over a sheet of metal, through the rainy night when we tried to throw a ball through the only broken window pane so we’d have to go out with the torch and brave the toads and the puddles. It’s exactly twelve, and the sun is beating down on the asphalt. I’m a divorced man, a man who works in advertising, going to his brother’s country house for the first time; a man who’s forgotten the way and is lost; a man who doesn’t know where to turn off and who has been driving in his car since he set out early this morning, a long time ago, lying on the parcel shelf up against the rear window.