Who hasn’t been stuck in a dead end job at one time or another? Many of the initial sensations experienced by the protagonist of ‘Insomnia’ will be familiar: the feeling of inertia and worthlessness, the economic dependence, the strangely symbiotic relationship that can develop with your employer, often based in mutual mistrust and resentment... In this compelling story, Oliverio Coelho takes an everyday situation and adds a large dollop of Gothic weirdness. It is a characteristic aspect of Coelho’s literature that his characters don’t behave quite as you would expect them to, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Instead of leaving his position at the cavernous flat at the first opportunity, his protagonist seems almost to relish the bizarre predicament in which he finds himself, energetically joining in with the confounding game of intrigue and voyeuristic interplay to which he is subjected by his memorably odd employers, Antonieta and Adolfo Voisin. As the reader watches him get gradually sucked beyond the point of no return, they are left in doubt that they are in the presence of a brilliant and extraordinarily original storytelling talent.
Before going to bed I would count the hours: one, two, three, four, five, six… seven. I looked at the clock. It was four in the morning, so four plus seven was eleven and eleven minus seven was four. I would get seven hours’ sleep, or rather six hours and fifteen minutes if I subtracted the forty-five minutes it would take me to find the right position in bed and block out the noise made by my employer. Six hours – not even six hours and fifteen minutes – is enough for someone who doesn’t work or hate. A worker, in contrast, needs at least seven hours’ sleep. A worker who hates – his boss, for instance – needs a full eight hours: eight hours, no more, no less. Eight hours calculated from the moment one actually gets to sleep not from when you go to bed, try to find the right position and block out the noise.
My personal circumstances had fluctuated over the years according to my finances. I started out as a feckless idler who slept for six hours a day, then I became an idler tormented by desire, thus adding fifteen minutes to my daily sleep. After my father was murdered I was forced to find work. It took me months to recover from the loss. The case against the criminal eventually came to a conclusion. The guilty man, a retired dentist who had apparently confused my father with the intended victim and thus declared his innocence – he was innocent of the crime he had wanted to commit – paid for his deed: life imprisonment. Only then could I truly cry and unburden myself of my grief. After that I set about looking for work. My appearance, as one or two malicious people told me while queuing to apply for jobs, left something to be desired. To tell the truth, I had never paid much attention to how I looked before or after my father’s death. And, in fact, I still don’t. I still have big bags under my eyes and a ghostly pallor. I had looked that way before my father died as well… but this has nothing to do with anything. I’m talking about my father when I might just as well be talking about my mother, of whom I have only vague memories. The fact of the matter is that I found just one person willing to give me a job with no questions asked.
It happened like this. One Monday, about a year ago, I read the following advertisement in the newspaper:
Wanted: Young man. Experience not required. Good walker. Excellent vision. Calm. Few prejudices. Artists need not apply.
The first thing that struck me about the advertisement was the lack of abbreviations. I read it again and thought that the “Artists need not apply” part seemed a good sign. At the time the last thing that I could be described as was an artist. So I went to the address given. I was chosen from among a large number of applicants and that same day started work at the home of Adolfo and Antonieta Voisin.
After I was given my first task, to take Antonieta out for a walk, the building’s porter took me into a corner and got straight to the point. “So you’re the new employee… I hope you have more luck than the others. No one lasts more than a week.” He touched his temple with his finger. “If something strange happens, call me. They all call me. Now go, before Antonieta sees us. Here she comes.”
Antonieta joined me and asked who I had been talking to. Over the next few days I found that it was one of her favourite questions. She always thought that when I wasn’t with her I was talking to someone.
“Don’t even think of discussing us… Be discreet,” she said once. “How would you feel if we discussed your private life? Please, be discreet. In this neighbourhood rumours spread terribly fast… Look at how they talk about Adolfo and I. They say that we’re holding our son captive.”
On numerous occasions I tried to reassure her that I very rarely spoke to anyone, and when I did I would never dare to reveal anything about my employers’ private lives, not under any pretext. Antonieta pretended not to hear me and changed the subject to address another of her recurring worries, that her husband was trying to poison her, a suspicion that was as ridiculous as it was beneficial because she secretly slipped me a little more money to taste her food before every meal.
My work for the Voisin family didn’t just consist of taking Señora Antonieta down Avenida de Mayo. There was more to it than that. Antonieta was blind but refused to acknowledge it in public, making my role as guide more difficult. Her original approach to her disability was such that if she stumbled or knocked against a wall it was my fault. She’d immediately ask if someone had seen us, and the more I tried to convince her that no one had noticed the more she thought I was lying to her. She’d lose her composure, grab hold of my arm and beg me to tell her that no one had seen her. I agreed to everything she said, but she wouldn’t have it. She’d call me a wastrel, a huckster. “If my husband were to find out about the money you get from me… if he knew that you extort me with the excuse that he wants to poison me. You’re a monster. Please, take me back home.”
That was how it always went. For months the same scene was repeated, with the odd omission or addition. When we got back to her building she’d forget that I was a monster and ask me whether her husband seemed suspicious to me. I was so afraid of lying to her that I always told her the opposite of what she wanted to hear, and she put my disappointing answers down to an impure character polluted by the Communism she sensed was rife in the building and generally across the neighbourhood.
Señor Adolfo, on the other hand, always seemed happy with the work I did. I had earned his trust, and when I brought his wife back he’d flatter me by taking me into his confidence. He’d take me into the dining-room, while Antonieta rested her legs in her bedroom, and tell me tales about his past as an athlete, his trips to Europe and his many infidelities. Then, as though he had been trying to soften me up, he’d ask me to tell him about the walk in detail. At first I took this as a benign indiscretion; he was trying to look out for his wife. Little by little Adolfo’s questions grew more specific; because – as he told me and as I had observed – they never spoke to one another, he wanted me to tell him exactly what she had said during the latest walk. He offered me a healthy tip to jog my memory, and I, who felt more loyalty to him than her – Adolfo seemed the saner of the two – told him everything, including the suspicions of poisoning, while he kept repeating, “My poor Antonieta. What’s wrong with her? What do you think?” So as not to offend my generous patron, I would tell him that I didn’t know. “Perhaps she’s getting senile?” he’d ask, and I was more than happy to agree with this diagnosis.
On one occasion, as we walked down Calle Florida, Señora Antonieta declared that she sensed that her husband and I were in cahoots; we were spending too much time together after her walks. I tried to convince her of my loyalty, but that only made her more angry. “As of this moment, you will stop tasting my food,” she spat and tried to run off. Fortunately she ran into a newspaper kiosk, lost her balance, and I was able to catch up with her before she tried to cross the street. She swore so quickly and with so much fury that she choked on her own rage. That day – so long ago; so much has changed – we came back in a taxi. On seeing his wife come home in that state Adolfo took me aside to question me, and, when he found out that she’d hit her head against a kiosk, admonished me for the first time.
The incident had consequences. For some time Antonieta lay in bed with her head bound, and my only tasks in the flat were to feed her and wash her body, as her husband instructed, with a wet cloth, a sponge and a soft-bristled brush. When she had recovered she told me that she wanted to bring the walks to an end. She would never leave her room again. I conveyed this decision to Adolfo, and he approved of it enthusiastically, confiding quietly, with a malicious subtlety that I’d never seen in him before, that he’d been waiting for this for some time.
As if to make up for her immobility Antonieta never stopped talking. Adolfo, who listened to everything she said from behind the door, told me once that he was worried that Antonieta would go mad if he let her go on talking to herself. “It’s essential”, he used these exact words, “that you move in with us.” I thanked him and made up several reasons that prevented me from accepting his offer. Adolfo insisted and offered to double my salary. I told him that I didn’t care about money – thus far I’d saved the six months’ wages he’d been paying me punctually because I had nothing to spend them on. Then he lost his composure, his face went red and he shouted that he didn’t want to hear my excuses; I’d be sleeping there that very night. I would set up a bed in the library, next to Antonieta’s bedroom. I stepped back in fright, and Señor Voisin, seeing that this approach was counterproductive, took hold of my shoulders and started to snivel. His hands were cold, bones wrapped in leather. He told me that I was like a son to him… “I’m very lonely. Soon I’ll be needing someone to listen to me… Please don’t be like that. Look at me. Ever since I was a boy, when we went to the countryside and my mother sat me on her knee, I have been terrified of dying alone, of dying alone talking to myself. And my fears are not unfounded. My parents died talking with no one to listen to them – my father in an insane asylum; my mother in the countryside, alone and, even worse, talking as though someone were listening to her. What do you say? I’ve surprised you, haven’t I? Now you’ll stay, won’t you? Or will you allow us to go . . . I don’t like that word, so, let’s say, take leave of our senses, because I could never go mad, no. I could only take leave of my senses, don’t you think?”
The next day I moved my few possessions into Adolfo’s home. Only then did I realize how large it was. There were several empty rooms, locked windows and shadowy corridors down which no one had been for years. My room, the closest to Antonieta’s bedroom, was a large library/living-room with an oval oak table and a sofa bed.
It took me some time to get used to the solitude one feels in large rooms. At night, when the street had gone absolutely quiet, I heard Antonieta’s screams and Adolfo walking in the corridor. He would stop and put his ear to the door or the walls of his wife’s room. “Come. Listen,” he said to me once when he saw me come out into the hall. I was forced to do so and, frankly, I never heard more than wailing. “What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Come on, you’re young, you must be able to understand,” Adolfo urged me, and although I never meant to lie, after the scene had been repeated on several occasions I pretended that I could hear her saying a name over and over again. He was terribly intrigued and unsettled by this. “Tell me who she’s calling for, please. It’s too late for jealousy. I’m an old man. Tell me.” I told him that she was saying his name, and he, rather than mistrusting me, decided that the Adolfo she referred to was someone else, a lover from another time, one of his precursors.
The next day Señor Voisin began to linger in front of my room as well. I heard him carefully place his ear against the door. Was I talking to myself as well? The worst thing about talking to oneself, I thought, must be that you don’t realize it. Maybe I did talk to myself, and I’d never know it. Or was I thinking out loud? Just as I thought this I froze and looked around the room, which, in the dark, looked like the plains that Adolfo was always talking about. The objects around me seemed utterly mysterious. The most oppressive aspect was the presence of books. There were so many that sometimes I thought they were human and felt as though I was being watched. Once again I got the impression that I was talking to myself and ran to a mirror to look. Only when Adolfo went to bed at midnight was I able to calm down and get to sleep. This was also the hour that Antonieta would stop talking so loudly and subside into a sleepy murmur.
The days weren’t so strange. Sometimes I did chores, paid bills or cleaned the house with a broom and duster. The rest of the time I spent with Señora Voisin, listening to her or washing her. I soon reached the conclusion that her stories may have had an internal logic but that they contradicted each other. Her different versions of the past were irreconcilable with one another. A single lifetime isn’t enough for a person to have been a top dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet and in the cabarets of Paris, a mountain climber, a tennis teacher, a polo instructor, an actress, an avid knitter and a manicurist. Every afternoon she claimed a different profession for herself, and after a while, after all that nonsense, I started to be intrigued by her true past: I was bitten by a need to discover the truth. Never before had I wondered who my employers really were, but from the moment I asked myself the question my ignorance began to seem very suggestive and worrisome. I had the feeling that their anonymity made them more dangerous. I had to be careful. I had no idea what Adolfo was capable of. After all, it was because of him that Antonieta was living as an invalid. And just as he had got into the habit of spying on me as well as his wife, he could have a similar fate in mind. I imagined myself trapped in the library, crippled and talking to a young man hired by Adolfo, whom he would tell I was his poor demented son and who would, logically, be obliged to stay in the next room. No, I refused to be a part of Adolfo’s scheme any longer. I couldn’t let someone replace me. Wasn’t it obvious that he was sacrificing us every night to reaffirm the fragile thread that tied him to existence? Perhaps my suspicions weren’t overblown. Perhaps I bear some responsibility for what happened later. Certain events are irreparable. And when something is irreparable it becomes inevitable. Thinking this way eases my bewilderment and the horrific situation in which I find myself.
I took precautions to protect myself from Adolfo’s suspicious behaviour. At dinner time he always called me into his bedroom – a large, gloomy space with gleaming dark furniture – to talk to me about his wife. I had to tell him everything she had said that afternoon. He listened with his head tilted and damp, staring eyes, hugging himself and repeating “My poor Antonieta”. When I had finished my account he asked me for an opinion, which was always brief because he would interrupt me and start to talk about himself, telling me about his past on a ranch and other, less crude frivolities. Before I went to bed he asked his favourite question: “Do you think that Antonieta will die talking to herself?” Once, instead of saying no, she’d die with me at her side, I decided to ask him about something I’d never been able to understand. Why did they avoid each other? He drew back. I saw that questions weakened him; the fact that he couldn’t control them seemed to humiliate him in a way that he couldn’t quite admit to. From then on, every day when I left my room, I would ask him indiscreet or plainly malicious questions, and he, caught between shame and fury, told me that I was being impertinent, ordered me away, said that it was the last time that he would tolerate such a lack of respect. But the fact that I lived in that gloomy house gave me the right to ask questions, to take liberties with my employer. As a fellow inhabitant, didn’t I suffer, too? Didn’t I have just as much right to spy on the other inhabitants if I breathed the same cold air in the corridors and endured the same enclosed spaces?
My behaviour changed radically. Awareness of my position gave me an invincible power over my employers. At night, after Adolfo had finished with his machinations behind the doors, I would insolently come out into the corridor and, once he had shut himself in his bedroom, lean on his door to spy on him in turn. The first few times it was enough just to listen to him. He walked from one end of the room to the other, his steps muffled by the carpet, coughing hoarsely every now and again. He knew that I was spying on him; ever since I had arrived, he had been waiting for me to take such an obvious liberty. What else could he want but to present me with an intimate vision of himself? What else was left to him at the end of his life but the pleasure of being spied on? At the prospect that he was, in fact, using me to satisfy some perverse, senile need, I gave into the temptation to peep through the keyhole. And I found that knowing that he was being spied on did indeed comfort him. He walked around the room naked, and what I had taken for a cough was, in fact, a filthy chuckle he indulged in, his lips wobbling, every time he stopped to look at his flaccid, worm-length member swinging between his legs.
Night after night, in spite of my emotional suffering during the day, I couldn’t resist the urge to peer through the keyhole once more. Why did I do it? I struggled to resist, but I was no longer satisfied by listening to him. Seeing him walk through the large room and witnessing the instant when the smile came over his face as he swung his strange penis with a slight shake of the hips became a need that gave meaning to my life. And the harder I tried to control myself the more important the nocturnal incursion became. I lived for the night.
During the day I waited with Antonieta for the moment to arrive. I counted the hours. My time with the old woman grew more and more difficult to bear. I started to hate her. I also thought that her presence accentuated my anxiety: while she existed the whole charade seemed impossible. I suffered from an increasing need to torture her. And only when this unexpected temptation overwhelmed me did I start to take my little revenge… I had every right to take revenge for her presence, I told myself, to have my revenge upon the fate that brought me here, the fate that had turned my daily life into a mixture of noise and desperation. When she asked me about her husband I told her that he was acting somewhat suspiciously. He wandered the house all day – which was true – as though he were waiting for something to interrupt this anguished routine, and every night he would offer me money to poison her. Every night in exactly the same way.
“You see? You see? Didn’t I tell you? I knew it. He’s a monster,” she’d respond. “I have money, too. I’ll live to make him suffer… He won’t get rid of me so easily. Just you wait. He’ll die first; he’ll explode. I’ll show him. I’ll give you money so you can do what you want and be free… Soon now. Don’t make that face. I’m not afraid of him. You don’t have the class or the skill to kill someone who has dined with Ingrid Bergman.”
Of course, I disregarded the old woman’s prattling and told her, to scare her even more, that Adolfo had promised to make a will in my favour if I poisoned her. I advised her, to avoid an awful scene and preserve her dignity, to die soon. Nobody wanted more intensely than I to get rid of her and stay there alone, once and for all, with my employer. I was determined to defeat Antonieta. As she spoke, my hatred for her grew, as did my impatience to lay claim to the sense of wellbeing that Adolfo represented for me.
A month ago, I think, maybe two, events precipitated towards a climax. Even though I had been expecting a monstrous ending, I was stunned. One night, when Adolfo was as per usual lurking behind our doors, I heard strange noises and movements. I knew that my employer had given up on his spying routine and had decided to go into his wife’s room. I heard screams. I listened, leaning on the door, paralysed in horror at something that I had known was imminent but that at that moment seemed too much, excessive… and I was just listening… He knew it. I was alone, the only witness, and he knew it. Driven by morbid curiosity I went out and looked into the corridor as Adolfo, who was naked except for his slippers, dragged Antonieta by the arm. She barely had the strength to whimper quietly. She only began to resist when he opened the door at the end of the hall and tried to shove her into a room to which I had never had access. Then my employer, who seemed calm in spite of the situation, pushed her with a cane I’d never seen before and locked her in.
Soon afterwards Adolfo moved into the room next to mine. Everything changed… I don’t know how to explain it, how to accept it. During the day he walked through the house, nude, leaning on his cane, talking, talking to himself, and sometimes, I think, he would order me to do something but then contradict himself and start to laugh and swing his penis. I didn’t know what to do. I could no longer spy on him. I wondered what the point was of having a master any more. Until recently, every night he used to go back to the room to which he had condemned his wife. I think he took her something to eat. Several times, always careful, always during the day, I went to the door at the back. I heard murmuring and footsteps: yes, I enjoyed her slow, pronounced footsteps; they sounded like the ticking of the clock, and I was thrilled to think that these noises were all that was left of Antonieta.
About two weeks ago, I think, I stopped hearing the footsteps, and Adolfo continued walking from one end of the flat to the other. Every time he passed me he laughed out loud and said something unintelligible. When he got into bed in the afternoon he ordered me to sit next to him. Then I would feed him lovingly. I’d cut up his favourite food, meat and fruit… He also asked me to shave him and to cut his hair and nails. As he laughed and his smooth stomach swelled, his eyes grew so bright that they became frightening. He had deprived me of everything, even Antonieta, whom I then realized I had appreciated more than I knew. She could have saved me, I thought… Yes, she could have. Not him. Faced with the realization of the mistake I had made, I couldn’t even take possession of Adolfo and had to limit myself to a simulacrum of domestic routines: he hardly had any hair or nails left, and his beard had stopped growing.
The most terrible part was the fact that I couldn’t spy on him. During the day he was free to wander the house and at night he paced around his room, which had previously been Antonieta’s room, and rapped on the walls with his cane. I decided that I hated him deeply and would do anything to be rid of him and his noises.
Sometimes he came out into the hall, and I heard his laboured breathing, his cough-like laugh. He scratched my door with the end of his cane, I don’t know for how long. I couldn’t get to sleep. I counted the hours of sleep I had left – one, two, three, four, five, six – and made calculations. I needed to sleep for eight hours, but at dawn Adolfo came into my room and woke me up with his laugh. Then I thought that I must flee… But it was too late. Something was about to happen. Two days ago my wait came to an end. Something happened. I couldn’t hear Adolfo any more. The last time I heard his wheezing it was early and he didn’t come into my room. I heard him walk along the corridor, stop at the end and open and close a door. I searched for him for hours to relieve my suffering: his absence hurt me more than I might have supposed. I would rather have had him by my side, putting up with his eccentricities, cutting his nails.
I went to the door at the end of the hall several times. The first time I heard the dragging of feet, as though he were scratching the floor. After that, I heard nothing more. I spied through the keyhole: it was dark, very dark, and quiet. I wondered what was in there. I tried to get in, but the door was locked.
I suppose that sooner or later I’ll have to force the door open or flee. Meanwhile, the house is empty. I walk from one end to the other, and the enormous rooms are like mirrors reflected in mirrors. Suddenly I suspect that someone is hiding somewhere and scour every corner to make sure that I am alone.
“Everyone’s gone,” I tell myself, biting my nails.
I start walking again. Now what?
*Image: Virgil Finlay