The first note the Alberts’ son furtively slipped into my pocket looked like a cryptic puzzle. The words were written in concentric circles and this is what they said:
Smuts or minks. Crosses or lizards. The
night was bitter even though the cockroaches
were weeping. More
I remembered Tomás Albert’s strange sense of humour and didn’t give it another thought. In any case, the child was a bit odd; he’d never been to school and he lived as a virtual recluse in a comfortable room with padded walls. His parents, who were old school friends of mine, must have been badly affected by their only child’s illnesses because as soon as he was born they had left the city and set up home on an isolated farm several kilometres from any village and, ever since then, I hardly ever heard from them. That was why I decided to turn up unannounced, or perhaps it was simply because the farm was en route. It was two years since we had last seen each other and on the way there I wondered if Josefina Albert would have had any success growing her avocados in the garden and how José was getting on with his chickens. The bus stopped in the village and I took a cab the rest of the way. I was also curious about young Tomás’s state of health. The first and only time I had seen him he was playing with toy cars and soldiers on his bedroom floor. He would have been around twelve years old then but he looked quite a lot younger. I hadn’t been able to talk to him (he had a hearing problem) and our brief exchange had taken place in silence, through a half-open window. That was when Tomás had slipped the note into my pocket.
We arrived at the farmhouse and the cab driver pointed to the front door. I picked up my suitcase, rang the doorbell and had a quick glance around the place. There were onions growing in the garden rather than avocados and there was no sign of any chickens in the yard. Instead there were some twenty metal cages each holding four or five rabbits. I rang the bell again. By now, the 1940s Ford was a tiny dot at the end of the road. I rang for a third time. The dust and smoke kicked up by the car looked like a textbook illustration of a nimbus cloud. I grabbed the knocker and rapped on the door.
I was seriously beginning to question whether it had been a mistake not to let them know I was coming when, at last, the door opened and in the shadows I could just make out the silhouette of my friend José Albert.
‘Ah!’ he said, after a lengthy pause. ‘It’s you.’
But he didn’t ask me in and it didn’t look like he was going to. He looked quite a lot older and his eyes (now that mine had got used to the gloom) seemed dull and distant. I rattled off a list of excuses and said how keen I was to catch up with them, how much I valued our friendship and I even said I was keen to find out how well the crops were doing on the plot of land I’d helped them buy two years earlier, almost to the day. An awkward silence followed, although it didn’t seem to bother José. After a while, I heard a loud burst of laughter from inside the house, which helped me regain my composure. ‘That must be Josefina,’ I said. José nodded. ‘I’ve been so looking forward to seeing you both,’ I said after a short pause. ‘But maybe I’ve come at a difficult time?’ Josefina was still laughing, somewhere inside the house. Then she said, ‘Apple!’ and fell silent. ‘Although, of course,” I said, “I’ve no idea how I could get back to the village now. Do you have a telephone?’ I heard doors slamming and whispering. ‘So, if you could give them a call and get them to come and pick me up . . .’
Just at that moment Josefina appeared. Like her husband it took her quite a while to recognize me. Then, with a friendliness which seemed a bit forced she kissed me on both cheeks and smiled. ‘What are you doing standing there on the doorstep? Come in, you must stay for something to eat.’
I was surprised to find the table laid for three people, with porcelain (Sèvres, no less) as if for a special occasion. There were flowers too, and silver table decorations. I suddenly realized I might have come at an inconvenient time (were they expecting some important guest, a visit from someone who unlike me had given them a bit of notice?) and I apologised again, but Josefina took me by the arm. ‘Not only are you not putting us out but we’re absolutely delighted to see you. We’ve almost become hermits,’ she said. Somewhat flustered now, I asked where the bathroom was and José pointed to the door. Once inside, I had a bit of a breather. I looked in the mirror and cursed myself three times over for intruding. I’d join them for lunch (after everything that had happened I was hungry) but straight afterwards I’d phone for a cab from the village. That was what I’d decided to do (and there was no doubt in my mind that I would do it) when I noticed a glass holding three toothbrushes. On one of them, clumsily written in big letters, was the word “Broom”, on another one “Spoon” and on the third one “Pot”. It was the second time I’d come across this “Pot” and it really surprised me. I came out of the bathroom and asked, ‘How’s your son?’ Josefina stopped what she’d just started doing. José lit his pipe and began taking long strides around the table. My questions seemed to make them uneasy.
‘He’s fine,’ said Josefina, confidently. ‘Although not entirely, of course.’
‘You know how it is.’ José added. ‘You know how it is.’
‘He has his good days,’ said Josefina, ‘and his bad days.’
‘It’s his hearing, his heart, his liver,’ José interjected.
‘Especially his hearing,’ said Josefina. ‘Some days we can’t even make the slightest noise. We can’t even talk to him,’ and she emphasised the word “talk”.
‘Poor Tomás,’ he said.
‘Our poor boy,’ she added.
And they went on like this for almost an hour, moaning and rattling off a long list of ailments. But there was something in the whole performance which made me think that this wasn’t the first time it had happened. All that bemoaning and the public confession of their son’s afflictions struck me as over the top and out of place. In any case, it was obvious that the whole act was laid on just for me, the one and only spectator, and that both performers were getting tired of me being there. Suddenly Josefina burst out sobbing.
‘We had such high hopes for that boy, such high hopes.’
And that’s where the first act ended. I immediately realised that what was now expected was for a third party to jump in to sympathise and comfort them. But I didn’t move and I didn’t utter a word. Then José said in a firm voice, ‘Let’s eat!’
Lunch was an awkward, long-drawn-out affair. I’d lost my appetite and there were strange thoughts spinning around in my head. Josefina, on the other hand, seemed to have forgotten all about the thing that had made her burst out sobbing a short while earlier. She opened a bottle of champagne which was caked in mold (in my honor, she said) and did all she could to spoil me and make a fuss of me. José was a bit taciturn but he ate and drank heartily. In one of his few interjections he thanked me for helping them buy the land near their house two years previously, which he suddenly seemed to remember. The things he said and the way he was so careful to avoid any subject which might take us back to our few shared memories (in other words, our school days) convinced me even more that my hosts didn’t want to have any further contact with me in the future. Or, at the very least, no surprise visits. I felt worse and worse. Josefina asked to be excused and went into the kitchen. In her absence things became even more tense. José was totally wrapped up in himself. He fiddled with his fork and distracted himself by crushing a hunk of bread in his fist. From time to time he looked up from the table and sighed, and then went straight back to what he’d been doing before. After the fifth sigh, by which time the bread was looking quite grey, Josefina appeared with a tart. It was a raspberry tart. ‘I’ve just taken it out of the oven,’ she said. But the tart didn’t exactly look as if it was fresh from the oven. Some of the raspberries had sunk into the top more than others. I took a closer look and saw some little round holes. I counted them: fourteen.
Then, I don’t know why, I asked again, ‘How’s your son?’
And, as if I had thrown a switch, the performance started all over again.
‘He’s fine . . . although not entirely, of course.’
‘You know how it is.’
‘He has his good days and his bad days.’
‘It’s his heart, his hearing, his liver . . .’
‘Especially his hearing. Some days we can’t even make the slightest noise. We can’t even talk to him.’
The sound of the coffee brewing caught José with the obligatory response left unsaid. This time, to my relief, he was the one who got up from the table. Shortly afterwards he came back with three small cups (also Sèvres porcelain) and a steaming coffee pot. I thought my friends were stark raving mad or that, worse still, they were doing all they could to hide something from me.
‘How old is Tomás now?’ I asked, expecting them to be disconcerted, or at least a little taken aback.
‘Fourteen,’ said Josefina firmly. ‘In fact it’s his birthday today.’
‘Yes,’ said José, ‘we were going to have a small family celebration but you know how it is . . .’
‘His heart, his hearing, his liver,’ I said.
‘We had to put him to bed in his room.’
I wasn’t convinced by the explanation. Maybe that’s why I insisted on phoning the village myself to ask for a cab. The thought of me leaving seemed to make them feel more relaxed, but not for long. Because there wasn’t a cab. Or actually there was a cab but, again without knowing why, I faked a set-back. I couldn’t work out what exactly was going on but what I did know was that this ridiculous game was beginning to fascinate me. I arranged for the driver to come and pick me up the following morning at nine o’clock.
‘There, you see,’ I said, hanging up, ‘I’m not having any luck today. I’ve definitely missed the last bus.’ My friends didn’t seem to understand. ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to abuse your hospitality for a bit longer. For one night. There’s only one cab in the village and it won’t be fixed until tomorrow.’
They accepted the new set-back stoically. The afternoon went by quietly and, for the odd moment, it was even pleasant. At one point, Josefina disappeared down the corridor carrying a tray with the leftovers and the tart. ‘Is that for Tomás?’ I asked. José, who was busy emptying his pipe, didn’t bother to reply.
When night fell and Josefina was setting the table again (no porcelain this time and no table decorations of any kind) I threw them my last, pointed question, ‘Will Tomás be eating with us tonight?’ They both replied in unison, ‘No, that won’t be possible.’ And then, just as I had expected, they repeated in strict order the usual litany of ailments, which only served to confirm my suspicions. Of course Tomás wouldn’t have dinner with us, and he wouldn’t have breakfast with us tomorrow morning or ever again. Simply because he was no longer in the land of the living. My friends’ madness and isolation made them behave as if their son were still with them. Out of loneliness or maybe also out of guilt. I avoided eye contact. I was becoming more and more convinced that the Alberts had done away with their heavy burden in some unspeakable way.
But again I was mistaken. After we’d finished our meal, Josefina took my hand and asked me sweetly, ‘Would you like to see Tomás?’ I was so surprised that at first I couldn’t reply. However, I think I nodded my head.
‘‘It goes without saying,’ said José, ‘don’t say a word. Our son’s hearing couldn’t cope with a stranger’s voice.’ And then, smiling bitterly, they led me to his room.
It was the same bedroom I’d seen two years earlier, although I had the impression that they’d reinforced the walls and that the window was now double-glazed. There was a fitted carpet and a decidedly dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling. We crept in without making a sound. And there, with his back to the door, sitting on his heels and scribbling in an exercise book like any other boy of his age, was Tomás Albert. He turned round to look at us almost immediately. I could then see with my own eyes that, despite what I’d feared, Tomás had grown up and was now a handsome teenager. He didn’t look ill but there was something in his eyes, something lost, something hazy and at the same time eager, which struck me as odd. I knelt down on the carpet and smiled at him. He seemed to recognise me right away and I’d go as far as to say that he wanted to chat, but Josefina gently put her hand over his mouth and kissed his head. Then, using sign language, she told him that he shouldn’t tire himself out but should try to go to sleep. We left him in his bed. As we went out, José and Josefina looked at me, expectantly. Unable to find the right words, I risked a few friendly taps with the palm of my hand on my friend’s back. After a long pause, all I could manage to say was, ‘Tomás is such a handsome boy. What a shame!’
Once I was in my room I took a deep breath. I felt disgusted with myself and also a great tenderness for the boy and for my poor friends. However, my disgraceful intrusions were not over yet. I undid my jacket, lifted up my arm and Tomás Albert’s exercise book fell on to the bed. What a shameful sight! The mirror reflected back the image of a thief with the fruits of his labour: a teenager’s exercise book. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d done it, but having experienced that feeling so many times during the course of the day I was starting to get used to it. I got undressed, got into bed and began to read. I read for a long time, page after page, but I couldn’t make any sense of that nonsensical jumble. Sentences completely devoid of any meaning were strangely scrambled up, defying any kind of recognised grammatical rules. At some points the syntax looked correct but the end result was always the same: incomprehensible. That said, the handwriting wasn’t bad and the drawings were excellent. I was just about to go to sleep when Josefina burst into the room without knocking. She was holding a towel and she looked around the room as if she wanted to check on something. The exercise book, wedged between my right leg and the sheet, rustled a bit. Josefina left the towel beside the washbasin and said good night. She seemed tired. I was relieved that I hadn’t been found out.
I turned out the light but going to sleep was the last thing on my mind. What had been a fascinating game a few hours ago was turning into an irritating brainteaser, something I had to try and resolve one way or another. The car would arrive at nine in the morning. So I had ten hours to think, take some sort of action or set off earlier than planned on the dusty road which I now began to long for with all my heart. But I didn’t decide to run away. The impression that somehow that pale young lad needed my help made me wait in silence until my hosts would think I was fast asleep. What had Josefina been searching for in my room? Maybe it was nothing specific and she was just checking that I was in bed and ready to go to sleep. I got dressed quietly and went to Tomás’s room. The door, as I’d suspected, was locked. It seemed too risky to bang loudly on the walls and in any event it would be useless, judging from the padding I’d seen on the inside that afternoon. Then I remembered the window through which Tomás had passed me his message, when we first met. I went out into the garden, taking the utmost care. I felt like a thief once again. I grabbed a handful of twigs from the ground in order to justify my presence in case I was discovered, and then almost immediately threw them away. The game, if it really was a game, had gone too far on both sides. I crept up to Tomás’s window and pressed up against the window sill; the shutters weren’t closed and there was a light on inside. Tomás was sitting up in the bed, just as we’d left him. He seemed to be waiting for something or someone. The thought that it was me he was waiting for made me rap loudly on the window separating me from the boy, but it hardly made a sound. Then I waved my arms around again and again and moved from side to side, hoisted myself up by the window bars and dropped back down to the ground until Tomás, all of a sudden, noticed I was there. He jumped out of bed with an astonishing speed, ran to the window and opened it. Now the two of us were face to face. No witnesses. I looked towards the upstairs windows and couldn’t see any light or signs of movement. We were all alone. Tomás stretched out his hand towards mine and said, ‘Moon, moon,’ with such a worried look in his eyes that it scared me. Then he said, ‘Tail’ and, afterwards, ‘Moon’ again, this time pleading with me, trying to grab the hand I held out to him through the window bars, crying and punching the window sill with his free hand. I hesitated for a moment then I pointed at myself and said, ‘Friend.’ He made no sign that he understood so I repeated myself once, twice more. Tomás looked at me in surprise. ‘Friend?’ he asked. ‘Yes, F-R-I-E-N-D,’ I said. His eyes widened with a mixture of surprise and amusement. He ran over to the chamber pot and showed it to me, shouting, ‘Friend!’. Then, smiling (or was he a bit frightened) he shrugged his shoulders. I didn’t know what to do so I went through the same performance again, half-heartedly. Suddenly, Tomás pointed to himself and said, ‘Pot, the Pot, P-O-T,’ and as he did so he ran his hands over his body and gave me an anxious look. ‘POT’ I repeated, and I pointed towards his pale face.
From then on the two of us started to understand what was going on, either side of the window bars. It wasn’t an encounter between two different, opposing worlds. It was something much more alarming. The language Tomás had learned since he was very young (his only language) was impossible to translate into my language, because it was mine, governed by rules which were completely unfamiliar to me. If, in their madness, José and Josefina had invented an imaginary language for their son it would have been possible to translate it, to exchange words while pointing to physical objects. But Tomás showed me a chamber pot and said the word FRIEND. He showed me the window and said INDECENCY. He ran his hands down his body and shouted POT. It wasn’t even a question of calling things by their opposites. Good didn’t mean Bad, it meant Sneeze. Illness had nothing to do with Health – it was a Pencil Case. Tomás wasn’t called Tomás, José wasn’t José and Josefina wasn’t Josefina. The three people living in that farmhouse, where I’d turned up out of the blue, were Pot, Spoon and Broom. Abandoning the attempt to understand words which for each of us had a different meaning, Pot and I carried on talking for a long time afterwards using a wide range of gestures, quick sketches on paper and noises that didn’t sound anything like words. We discovered that although we had different names for numbers, we used the same signs and systems. So Pot explained to me that the previous day was his fourteenth birthday and that when, two years earlier, he’d seen me through that same window, the note he gave me was a cry for help. He wanted to be more specific and he filled my pockets again with sheets of paper covered in writing and drawings. Then, through his sobs, he asked me to take him away from there for ever, to take him with me. Our means of communication was very basic and there was no room for any nuances. I sketched the 1940s Ford as best I could, together with the road, the farmhouse, a village at the end of the road and, in one of the streets, the two of us – ME-FRIEND and TOMÁS-POT. The boy looked very happy. I realised that he wanted to see a world that he knew nothing about but which he nevertheless felt excluded from. I looked at my watch: half past five. I explained to Pot that the car would come to collect us at nine o’clock. He would have to be on the alert and find a way to leave his room as soon as he saw me with the driver. Pot shook my hand to show his gratitude.
I went back to my room and opened the window as if I had just woken up. I had a shave and made as much noise as possible. I clinked bottles and military marches issued forth from my throat. I tried to make everything that I did suggest the euphoric awakening of a city dweller on holiday on a farm. But my head was bursting. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t understand the real reason for that monstrous experiment I’d just come face to face with, and still less find a satisfactory explanation for José and Josefina’s behaviour these past few years. Thinking in terms of dementia plain and simple or, more to the point, a shared dementia, capable of creating such a systematic distortion as the one suffered by young Tomás-Pot just didn’t seem to add up. There must have been other causes or, at least some reason buried in my friends’ past. Possessiveness? Not wanting to share the affection of their beautiful only child for anything in the world? My voice continued to boom out military marches, louder and louder. I felt I had to be doing something and I started making and unmaking the bed. How well did I really know my friends? I tried to recall any unusual traits from when my former school mates were children, but everything I could remember struck me as disconcertingly normal. José had always been a run of the mill student, neither brilliant nor struggling. Josefina was a hard-working young girl. From a very young age they’d appeared to be very fond of each other. Later I lost touch with them and no one was surprised when they announced their wedding, several years later. I unmade the bed for the second time and started to shake the mattress next to the window. Day was breaking.
Around six thirty I began to notice signs of movement. I heard the sound of crockery in the kitchen and, through the window, I watched as José opened the rabbit cages. I came downstairs, all the while humming some tune or other. Josefina was getting breakfast ready. She was wearing a constant smile and she too was singing. I interpreted this as a sign of overwhelming joy at my imminent departure, but I said nothing and poured myself a coffee. Before long José appeared at the garden door. He was wearing his work clothes and smelled of rabbit. His face was much more relaxed than the previous day, but the look in his eyes was just as dull as when, barely twenty-four hours earlier, he had taken so long to recognise me. He sat down next to me and said good morning. In fact, he didn’t actually say good morning in so many words but rather, reading the expression on his face, I translated his mumbling into a greeting. Josefina sat down with us and spread butter and jam on two slices of toast. I felt like I was having breakfast with two monsters and my stomach felt queasy.
It was now eight o’clock. The feeling that it wasn’t only me watching the clock made me feel uneasy. My hosts carried on eating heartily: apple pie, rye bread, honey. I tried to hide how anxious I was by keeping busy. I opened my case and pretended to look for some documents. Then I closed it. I asked for a chamois leather to polish the lock. I couldn’t stop wondering, now that tiredness was beginning to overwhelm me, how Tomás would manage to get to the car or even get past the walls of that room where they tried to keep him isolated from the world. But the boy was just as clever as I thought he was. At eight-thirty I heard a bell ringing, which I hadn’t noticed until then, and Josefina prepared a tray with milk, coffee and a couple of biscuits. This time she made no reference to her son’s supposed illness (something for which I was sincerely grateful) nor did I bother to ask whether Tomás had slept badly. By now clock-watching had become an obsession. Nine o’clock. But the 1940s Ford still hadn’t appeared.
I was getting more and more anxious. I went out into the garden and, just like the night before, I grabbed a handful of twigs and then threw them away a few seconds later. I don’t know why, but I didn’t dare look towards the boy’s window. But I did feel his eyes following me and my reflex actions took on an unexpected sense of importance. Then everything happened all of a sudden. I heard someone call out, ‘Friend!’ in a very weak voice, almost a whisper. I turned towards the front door and shouted out, ‘Pot!’ The boy was standing there, about ten metres away from me, stock still, breathing heavily. He seemed paler than the night before, more vulnerable. He wanted to walk towards me and then I spotted something which I hadn’t noticed before. Tomás was walking with difficulty, making a great effort. His arms and legs seemed to be uncoordinated; his face, the closer he came towards me, looked more and more contorted. I didn’t know what to say and I went to meet the boy. Pot was panting. He grabbed on to my shoulders and gave me a look which was difficult to pin down. I realised then, for the first time, that he really was ill.
But I barely had time to reflect on it. Pot’s window opened and there was Josefina, frantic, shouting (or should I say howling) at the top of her voice. Her hands were clenched and shaking, calling for help. I heard footsteps behind me. José was carrying a heavy basket full of vegetables but, when he saw what was happening, he dropped it. Pot was burning up. I held his limp body. José ran towards the house like a madman. I heard him muttering incoherent words, turning a key and finally opening the boy’s room. The two of them came out almost at once. They were so agitated, exchanging meaningless words, that my presence didn’t seem to bother them any more. They brought a flask of bluish liquid and tried to pour it down Pot’s throat. But the boy had become motionless and stiff. Like a rock.
‘What can we do?’ I asked.
My friends suddenly noticed I was there. José looked at me, with no expression in his eyes. ‘We have to call a doctor,’ I said. But no one moved a muscle. We looked like a group of actors posing by the door. Pot was stretched out on the floor with his body propped up against my knees, José and Josefina looked ashen, still trying to get the boy to swallow the blue liquid. ‘He’ll get better,’ I said, and it felt like someone else had said those words. What was happening? How come only minutes earlier I’d felt like a hero and now I desperately wanted to throw up, to somehow wake up from that nightmare? Why did the same boy who a few hours earlier had seemed to be bursting with health now look like the description which his parents had been giving me all day yesterday? Finally, why that language, which I myself (no doubt the only witness) couldn’t stop thinking about while José and Josefina were reviving their son, as they fought back their tears? Why? I grabbed hold of José’s arm, firmly. I begged, I screamed, I shouted at the top of my voice. ‘WHY?’ I said again and suddenly, almost without realising it, a word came out of my mouth. ‘Moon,’ I said. ‘MOON!’ And this time I didn’t need to grab hold of anyone to get their attention. José and Josefina stopped sobbing. Both of them, as if they were one person, seemed to wake up from a dream. They stood up at the same time and very carefully took little Tomás’s body into the house. Then, as they closed the door, Josefina glared at me cruelly, straight into my eyes.
I ran down the road like a madman: two, three, maybe even five kilometres. I was almost exhausted when I heard the rumbling of an old car. I sat down on a rock. The 1940s Ford soon appeared. The driver stopped the car and gave me a look of surprise. ‘I didn’t know you were in such a hurry,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry. The bus will wait.’ I settled down on the back seat. I was exhausted and I couldn’t utter a word. The driver tried to make conversation.
‘How long have you known the Alberts?’
He interpreted my panting as a response. ‘They’re good people,’ he said, ‘wonderful people,’ and he looked at his watch. ‘The bus will wait. Don’t worry.’
I undid my shirt. I was sweating.
‘And how’s little Tomás? Is he any better?’
I shook my head.
‘Poor little Pot,’ he said.
And he started whistling.
Julia knocked on his door for the third time, looked through the keyhole without managing to see anything, and strode moodily up and down the roof terrace. She now realised that she should have done something several days earlier, when she found out that her brother was keeping something secret from her, before the whole family got involved and began a round of cross-examination and recrimination. Because Carlos was still there; locked inside a dark room, pretending to be feeling slightly unwell, only leaving the solitude of his attic room in order to eat, always in a bad mood, his face hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, taking refuge in a peculiar, exasperating silence. ‘He must be in love,’ their mother had said. But Julia knew that his strange behaviour had nothing to do with the vagaries of love or disappointment. That was why she’d decided to mount guard on the top floor, next to his bedroom door, looking through the keyhole on the alert for the slightest sign of any movement, waiting for the late summer heat to force him to open the window that looked out over the roof terrace. A long, narrow window that she could slip through like a cat being chased, like the shadow cast by one of the sheets hanging up to dry in the sun, and appear so suddenly and unexpectedly that Carlos, caught unawares, would have no option but to talk to her, or at least to ask her, ‘Who gave you permission to burst in here like this?’ or ‘Go away! Can’t you see I’m busy?’ And she would see. She’d finally see exactly what mysterious things her brother was getting up to, understand why he was so very pale and offer to help him straight away. But she’d been keeping a very close eye on everything for two hours now and she was beginning to feel ridiculous and embarrassed. She left her vantage point next to his door, went out on to the roof terrace and, as she’d done so many times already that afternoon, began to count the number of broken and cracked tiles, plastic pegs, wooden pegs, the exact number of paces up to the long narrow window. She rapped on the glass and heard herself say once more in a tired voice, ‘It’s me, Julia.’ What she should have said really was, ‘It’s still me, Julia.’ But what did it matter now! This time, however, she pricked up her ears. She thought she heard a far-off moan, the creaking of rusty bed springs, the sound of dragging feet, a metallic sound, more creaking and then, unexpectedly, in a crisp voice, ‘Come in. It’s not locked.’ And at that moment Julia felt a shudder very similar to the strange tremor which had run through her body several days earlier, when she suddenly realised that something was happening to her brother.
A couple of weeks had already gone by since Carlos had come back from his first study trip. September 2nd, the date she had inked in red on the calendar in her bedroom now seemed ever more distant and improbable. She remembered seeing him beside the British Airways jumbo jet, waving his arm at the bottom of the steps, and she could see herself, impressed that at the age of eighteen he was still getting taller. She was jumping for joy on the airport terrace, waving and blowing kisses back to him, pushing her way through the crowd to greet him in the arrivals hall. Carlos was back. A little bit thinner, quite a lot taller and decidedly pale. But Julia thought he was even more handsome than when he’d left and she paid no attention to her mother’s remarks about the inadequacies of the English diet and the incomparable qualities of the Mediterranean climate. And nor did she join in with the family banter when they all got into the car and her brother seemed delighted at the prospect of spending a few weeks at their house on the coast and their father bombarded him with innocent questions about the fair-haired young English girls in Brighton. She felt too emotional and her head was buzzing with plans and projects. The following day, once her parents had stopped pestering him with questions, she and Carlos would share their news about the summer, sitting on the roof terrace, as usual, with their feet dangling over the edge of the eaves, just like when they were small and Carlos would teach her to draw and she’d show him her collection of picture cards. When they reached the garden, Marta came out to meet them skipping and jumping and for the second time Julia marvelled at how tall her brother had grown. ‘Eighteen years old,’ she thought. ‘How ridiculous!’ But she didn’t say anything.
Carlos was lost in his thoughts as he gazed at the front of the house as if he were seeing it for the first time. His head was tilted to the right and he was frowning, with his lips drawn back in a strange sort of rictus grin which Julia didn’t know how to interpret. He didn’t move for a while, staring straight ahead with his eyes glazed over, as if hypnotised, remote from the rest of the family who were coming and going with suitcases, and unaware too of Julia’s own proximity. Then, barely changing his posture, he tilted his head to the left, with a dazed look, the strange rictus grin on his lips evolving into an unmistakeable expression of weariness and despondency. He ran his hand over his forehead and carried on across the garden, along the pebbled path, with his head down, eyes fixed on the ground.
Over dinner their father still wanted to hear all about Carlos’ conquests and his mother was still worried about his sallow complexion. Marta came out with a couple of comments that made Carlos smile. He seemed tired and sleepy. Perhaps it was the journey. He kissed everyone good night and went to bed.
The next day Julia got up very early, went over the reading list that Carlos had recommended before he’d left, gathered together the notes she’d made on her thoughts and impressions and headed up to the roof. After a good while, tired of waiting, she jumped on to the flat terrace. Her brother’s window was half-open, but the bedroom seemed to be empty. She peered over the balustrade and out over the garden.
Carlos was there, in the same place as the night before, gazing at the house part in amazement and part in dismay, his head tilted first to the right and then to the left, staring at the ground, walking dejectedly up the pebbled path that led to the house. That was when Julia suddenly realised that something was happening to her brother.
The theory about an impossible infatuation started gaining ground during the family’s strained lunchtime discussions. An English girl, a pallid blonde young thing from Brighton. The melancholy of first love, the heartache of a long distance romance, the apathy that young people of that age tend to display towards anything that is not the object of their passion. But that was at first, when Carlos was simply aloof and withdrawn, jumping at any question, avoiding eye contact, rejecting little Marta’s hugs. Perhaps that was when she should have acted decisively. But now Carlos had just said, ‘Come in. It’s not locked.’ And, summoning up her courage, all she could do was push the door open.
At first she was only aware of suffocating heat and the sound of pitiful laboured breathing. After a while her eyes got used to the gloom. Carlos was sitting at the foot of the bed and the only specks of light which had managed to penetrate his fortress all seemed to be concentrated in his eyes. Were they really his eyes? Julia opened one of the window shutters slightly and sighed with relief. Yes, that morose young man, his eyes hidden behind a pair of impenetrable sunglasses, his forehead spattered with shiny little drops of sweat, was her brother. Only now his pallor seemed too alarming and his behaviour too inexplicable for her to carry on making excuses for him to the rest of the family.
‘They’re going to call a doctor,’ she said.
Carlos didn’t flinch. He stayed there for a few minutes with his head bent down, his knees knocking together, drumming his fingers as if he were playing a children’s tune on the keyboard of a non-existent piano.
‘They want to make you eat. And make you leave this squalid room for once and for all.’
Julia thought she saw her brother shudder. ‘This room,’ she thought. ‘What’s so interesting about this room to make him stay in here so long?’ She looked around and was surprised to see that it wasn’t quite as untidy as she’d expected. Carlos, over on the bed, was breathing heavily. ‘He’s going to say something,’ she thought and, finding it hard to breathe in the stifling atmosphere, she gingerly pushed back one of the window shutters and half-opened the window.
‘Julia,’ she heard. ‘I know you’re not going to understand anything I’m about to tell you. But I need to speak to somebody.’
Her eyes lit up with a flicker of pride. Just like old times, Carlos was going to share his secrets with her, make her his closest confidante, ask her for help which she wouldn’t hesitate to give. Now she realised that she’d done the right thing mounting guard next to that gloomy bedroom, behaving like a ridiculous amateur spy, enduring long silences, measuring out the dimensions of the torrid, solitary roof terrace again and again to the point of tedium. Because Carlos had said, ‘I need to speak to somebody.’ And there she was, beside the half-open window, ready to listen attentively to whatever he decided to tell her, without daring to interrupt, not minding that he spoke in such a low voice, making it difficult to understand, as if he were scared of hearing the secret underlying reason for his anxiety from his own lips. ‘It all comes down to a question of . . .’ Julia couldn’t make out the last word, spoken at half volume through gritted teeth, but she preferred not to interrupt. She took a crumpled cigarette from her pocket and held it out to her brother. Carlos, without looking up, declined the offer.
‘It all started one day in Brighton, just an ordinary day like any other,’ he said. ‘I lay down on the bed, closed the window to shut out the noise of the rain and went to sleep. That was in Brighton. Did I mention that?’
Julia nodded and gave a little cough.
‘I dreamed that I’d done brilliantly in my exams and was showered with diplomas and medals, and then all of a sudden I wanted to be home with you all and without a second thought I decided to turn up and surprise you. So I got on a train, an incredibly long, narrow train and, before I knew it, I was back here. “This is a dream,” I said to myself and, feeling very relieved, I did my best not to wake up. I got off the train and started walking to the house, singing as I went. It was the crack of dawn and the streets were deserted. Suddenly I realised that I’d left my suitcase on the train, together with the presents I’d bought for you all, and the diplomas and medals, and I knew that I had to go back to the station before the train left again for Brighton. “This is a dream,” I told myself again. “Let’s just assume I sent the luggage by post. Let’s not waste time. Otherwise things might get complicated.” And I stopped in front of the house.’
Julia had to make a big effort not to interrupt. This sort of thing happened to her as well and she had never dwelled on it much. Since she was small she’d been aware she could control some of her dreams. She would realise all of a sudden, in the middle of the worst nightmare, that she and she alone was the absolute mistress of that magical series of images and that, just through autosuggestion, she could get rid of certain characters, summon up others or speed up the pace of events. It didn’t always work, (she had to be aware of her ownership of the dream to do it) and what was more, she didn’t particularly enjoy it. She preferred to let herself embark on strange adventures, as if they were really happening and she was simply the protagonist, but not the owner, of those unpredictable stories. Her sister Marta, even though she was very young, once told her something similar. ‘I was in control in my dream,’ she’d said. And now suddenly Julia remembered a few conversations about the same thing with her school friends, and she even thought she’d read something of the sort in the memoirs of some Baroness or Countess which a friend had lent her.
She lit up the crumpled cigarette which she was still holding, inhaled a mouthful of smoke and felt a rough, burning sensation at the back of her throat. When she heard herself cough she realised that the room was engulfed in complete silence and that it must have been a long time since Carlos had stopped talking and she’d lost herself in a stupid flight of fancy.
‘Go on, please,’ she said, finally.
After a slight hesitation, Carlos continued. ‘It was this house, the house where you and I are now, the house where we’ve spent every summer since we were born. And yet there was something very odd about it. Something awfully unpleasant and distressing which I couldn’t put my finger on at first. Because it was this house down to every last detail but, thanks to some rare gift or maybe a curse, I was looking at it from an unusual angle of vision. I woke up covered in sweat and unsettled, and I tried to calm myself down by remembering it had only been a dream.’
Carlos buried his face in his hands and choked back a groan. His sister thought he was mumbling an unnecessary: “and then I got here . . .” and, to her dismay, the memory of the transformation she’d witnessed a few days earlier at the garden gate came flooding back to her. ‘So that was what happened,’ she was about to say, ‘that’s what it was.’ But again she didn’t say anything. Carlos had got to his feet.
‘It’s an angle,’ he said. ‘A strange angle which is no less real because of the horror it instils in me . . . And the worst thing is that there’s no escaping it now. I know I’ll never be free of it as long as I live . . .’
His latest round of sobbing made her look away towards the roof terrace. She suddenly felt uncomfortable in there, not understanding much of what she was hearing, feeling decidedly alarmed by the complete disintegration of someone she had always believed to be strong and healthy, someone to be envied. Perhaps their parents were right and Carlos’ affliction couldn’t be cured just by listening, letting him get things off his chest. He needed a doctor. And her job now was simply to escape from that stifling room as fast as she could and join forces with the rest of the family. ‘Right,’ she said, decisively. ‘I promised Marta I’d take her to the cinema . . .’ But she immediately realised that her face gave the lie to her fake air of calm. Carlos’ glasses confronted her with a double image of her own face. Two heads with dishevelled hair and eyes wide open with shock. That’s how she must look through his eyes: a young girl trapped in an ogre’s lair, making up excuses to slip out of the room, waiting for the moment she would cross the threshold, take a deep breath and run down the stairs. And now, worse still, Carlos, from behind those dark glasses, seemed to have become mesmerised, examining her every detail. And, beneath those two heads with dishevelled hair and eyes wide open with shock, she felt two pairs of legs start to tremble so much that she couldn’t keep up her story about Marta and the cinema, as if that afternoon were just an ordinary afternoon when Marta and the vague promise to take her to the cinema actually mattered. The shadow cast by a sheet billowing in the wind meant she couldn’t see her brother for a few seconds. When the shadow receded, Julia noticed that Carlos had come even closer. He was holding his sunglasses in one hand and she could see his swollen eyelids and a stunned expression on his face. ‘How marvellous,’ he said, in a thin voice. ‘I can still look at you, Julia.’ And again this special, preferential status he accorded her for the second time that afternoon put paid to her plans with astonishing speed. ‘He’s in love,’ she said over dinner and she forced down a plateful of insipid vegetables, forgetting to add any salt and pepper.
It didn’t take long for her to realise that her behaviour had been foolish: not only that night but every other night after her first visit to his attic room, when she’d set herself up as an intermediary between her brother and the rest of the world; when she’d taken it upon herself to spirit away the untouched plates of food from his room; when in her role as close confidante she’d told Carlos about the doctor’s diagnosis (acute depression) and the family’s decision to send him to a convalescent home. But it was too late to turn back now. Carlos received the news of his imminent confinement with surprising indifference. He put on his dark glasses with those impenetrable lenses that he only dared take off in front of Julia, said that he wanted to leave his attic room, wandered around different parts of the house, hanging on Julia’s arm, and greeted the rest of the family, reassuring them. Yes, he felt better, much better, he was over the worst of it, they needn’t worry. He shut himself in his parents’ bathroom for a while. Through the door Julia could hear the click-clack of the metal cabinet, the rustling of paper, a splash of eau de cologne. When he came out he’d combed his hair and freshened up, and he looked much more calm and relaxed. She accompanied him back to his room, helped him into bed and went down to the dining room.
It was some time later that Julia suddenly felt alarmed. Everything came flooding back: the lock on the attic room door that her father had ripped out a few days earlier; her mother’s concern; the doctor’s meaningful look as he said he was powerless against the anguish of the soul; the click-clack of the metal cabinet . . . It was a white cabinet, very neat and tidy, that she’d never thought to examine: the first-aid kit that her mother was so proud of. No one else could have fitted such a vast collection of remedies to deal with any emergency into such a tiny space. She ran up the stairs two at a time, panting like a greyhound, terrified at the prospect of having to name the unnameable. When she got to his bedroom she pushed open the door, threw back the shutters and rushed over to the bed. Carlos was sleeping peacefully, stripped of his inseparable dark glasses, oblivious to fears and anxieties. Neither the sun pouring in through the window from the terrace roof nor Julia’s best efforts to rouse him could make him move a muscle. She was surprised to find herself groaning, shouting, calling down the stairs to the rest of the family. Then everything happened incredibly fast. Carlos’ breathing got weaker and weaker until it was almost imperceptible. At times his face regained the calm, relaxed beauty of earlier days, and he wore the trace of a soft, beatific smile. Now Julia could no longer ignore the evidence: Carlos was sleeping for the first time since he’d got back from Brighton, back on 2nd September, the date that she’d inked in red on her calendar.
There was no time to regret her stupid behaviour or to wish with every fibre of her being for time to turn back on itself, for it still to be August and for her to be sitting on the edge of the roof, anxiously awaiting her brother’s arrival, clutching her wad of notes. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she was still small, a little girl playing with her dolls during the day and collecting picture cards, who sometimes, at night, had terrible nightmares. ‘I am the mistress of this dream,’ she said to herself. ‘It’s only a dream.’ But when she opened her eyes she couldn’t keep up the pretence. This terrible nightmare wasn’t a dream, nor did she have any power to rewind the images or change events or even manage to make her brother’s handsome, peaceful face take on the suffering caused by his illness again. Once more, the shadow cast by a sheet billowing in the wind dominated the room for a few moments. Julia turned to look at her brother again. For the first time in her life she understood the meaning of death. Inexplicable, incomprehensible, hidden behind the fraudulent appearance of rest. She could see Death, the horror and destruction of death, putrefaction and the abyss. Because that was no longer Carlos lying on the bed. It was Death, the grim reaper, crudely disguised with someone else’s face, roaring with laughter behind those swollen, reddened eyelids, showing everyone the falsity of life, proclaiming her dark reign, her capricious will, her cruel and unbreakable designs. Julia rubbed her eyes and looked at her father. It was her father! That man sitting at the head of the bed was her father. But there was something extremely unpleasant in his features. It was as if a skull had been made up with wax drippings, then powdered up and highlighted with grease paint. ‘A clown,’ she thought, ‘the worst type of clown . . .’ She grabbed her mother’s arm but a sudden wave of disgust made her let go again. Why was her skin suddenly so pale, why did it feel so tacky? She ran out on to the roof terrace and leaned against the balustrade.
‘The angle,’ she groaned. ‘Oh my God, I’ve discovered the angle!’
That was when she noticed Marta was beside her, cradling one of her dolls and holding a half-sucked toffee. Marta was still a beautiful child. ‘Marta,’ she thought. ‘I can still look at you.’ And although the words resounded in her head like the echo of someone else’s voice, someone else’s intonation, the memory of a loved one she could never see again, that wasn’t what shocked her the most or made her fall to the floor and pound the tiles with her fists. She’d seen Marta, she’d seen Marta’s expectant look, and deep down in those dark eyes the sudden awareness that something was happening to her, to Julia.
An Unexpected Bender
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
“In the year 17__, having for some time determined on a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers, I set out, accompanied by a friend, whom I shall designate by the name of Augustus Darvell. He was a few years my elder, and a man of considerable fortune and ancient family: advantages which an extensive capacity prevented him alike from undervaluing or overrating. Some peculiar circumstances in his private history had rendered him to me an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard, which neither the reserve of his manners, nor occasional indications of an inquietude at times nearly approaching to alienation of mind, could extinguish.
“I was yet young in life, which I had begun early; but my intimacy with him was of a recent date: we had been educated at the same schools and university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had been deeply initiated into what is called the world, while I was yet in my novitiate. While thus engaged, I heard much both of his past and present life; and, although in these accounts there were many and irreconcilable contradictions, I could still gather from the whole that he was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable. I had cultivated his acquaintance subsequently, and endeavoured to obtain his friendship, but this last appeared to be unattainable; whatever affections he might have possessed seemed now, some to have been extinguished, and others to be concentred: that his feeling were acute, I had sufficient opportunities of observing; for, although he could control, he could not altogether disguise them: still he had a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another, in such a manner that it was difficult to define the nature of what was working within him; and the expressions of his features would vary so rapidly, though slightly, that it was useless to trace them to their sources. It was evident that he was a prey to some cureless disquiet; but whether it arose from ambition, love, remorse, grief, from one or all of these, or merely from a morbid temperament akin to disease, I could not discover: there were circumstances alleged which might have justified the application to each of these causes; but, as I have before said, these were so contradictory and contradicted, that none could be fixed upon with accuracy. Where there is mystery, it is generally supposed that there must also be evil: I know not how this may be, but in him there certainly was the one, though I could not ascertain the extent of the other – and felt loth, as far as regarded himself, to believe in its existence. My advances were received with sufficient coldness: but I was young, and not easily discouraged, and at length succeeded in obtaining, to a certain degree, that common-place intercourse and moderate confidence of common and every-day concerns, created and cemented by similarity of pursuit and frequency of meeting, which is called intimacy, or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them.
“Darvell had already travelled extensively; and to him I had applied for information with regard to the conduct of my intended journey. It was my secret wish that he might be prevailed on to accompany me; it was also a probable hope, founded upon the shadowy restlessness which I observed in him, and to which the animation which he appeared to feel on such subjects, and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded, gave fresh strength. This which I first hinted, and then expressed: his answer, though I had partly expected it, gave me all the pleasure of surprise – he consented; and, after the requisite arrangement, we commenced our voyages. After journeying through various countries of the south of Europe, our attention was turned towards the East, according to our original destination; and it was in my progress through these regions that the incident occurred upon which will turn what I may have to relate.
“The constitution of Darvell, which must from his appearance have been in early life more than usually robust, had been for some time gradually giving away, without the intervention of any apparent disease: he had neither cough nor hectic, yet he became daily more enfeebled; his habits were temperate, and he neither declined nor complained of fatigue; yet he was evidently wasting away: he became more and more silent and sleepless, and at length so seriously altered, that my alarm grew proportionate to what I conceived to be his danger.
“We had determined, on our arrival at Smyrna on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, from which I endeavoured to dissuade him in his present state of indisposition – but in vain: there appeared to be an oppression on his mind, and a solemnity in his manner, which ill corresponded with his eagerness to proceed on what I regarded as a mere party of pleasure little suited to a valetudinarian; but I opposed him no longer – and in a few days we set off together, accompanied only by a serrugee and a single janizary.
“We had passed halfway towards the remains of Ephesus, leaving behind us the more fertile environs of Smyrna, and were entering upon that wild and tenantless tract through the marshes and defiles which lead to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana – the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques – when the sudden and rapid illness of my companion obliged us to halt at a Turkish cemetery, the turbaned tombstones of which were the sole indication that human life had ever been a sojourner in the wilderness. The only caravansera we had seen was left some hours behind us, not a vestige of a town or even cottage was within sight or hope, and this ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge of my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.
“In this situation, I looked round for a place where he might most conveniently repose: – contrary to the usual aspect of Mahometan burial-grounds, the cypresses were in this few in number, and these thinly scattered over its extent; the tombstones were mostly fallen, and worn with age: – upon one of the most considerable of these, and beneath one of the most spreading trees, Darvell supported himself, in a half-reclining posture, with great difficulty. He asked for water. I had some doubts of our being able to find any, and prepared to go in search of it with hesitating despondency: but he desired me to remain; and turning to Suleiman, our janizary, who stood by us smoking with great tranquility, he said, ‘Suleiman, verbana su,’ (i.e. ‘Bring some water,’) and went on describing the spot where it was to be found with great minuteness, at a small well for camels, a few hundred yards to the right: the janizary obeyed. I said to Darvell, ‘How did you know this?’ – He replied, ‘From our situation; you must perceive that this place was once inhabited, and could not have been so without springs: I have also been here before.’
“‘You have been here before! – How came you never to mention this to me? and what could you be doing in a place where no one would remain a moment longer than they could help it?’
“To this question I received no answer. In the mean time Suleiman returned with the water, leaving the serrugee and the horses at the fountain. The quenching of his thirst had the appearance of reviving him for a moment; and I conceived hopes of his being able to proceed, or at least to return, and I urged the attempt. He was silent – and appeared to be collecting his spirits for an effort to speak. He began –
“‘This is the end of my journey, and of my life; – I came here to die; but I have a request to make, a command – for such my last words must be. – You will observe it?’
“‘Most certainly; but I have better hopes.’
“‘I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this – conceal my death from every human being.’
“‘I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and –’
“‘Peace! – it must be so: promise this.’
“‘Swear it, by all that –’ He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.
“‘There is no occasion for this. I will observe your request; and to doubt me is –-‘
“‘It cannot be helped, – you must swear.’
“I took the oath, it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He proceeded –
“‘On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis; the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.’
“‘You will see.’
“‘The ninth day of the month, you say?’
“As I observed that the present was the ninth day of the month, his countenance changed, and he paused. As he sat, evidently becoming more feeble, a stork, with a snake in her beak, perched upon a tombstone near us; and, without devouring her prey, appeared to be steadfastly regarding us. I know not what impelled me to drive it away, but the attempt was useless; she made a few circles in the air, and returned exactly to the same spot. Darvell pointed to it, and smiled – he spoke – I know not whether to himself or to me – but the words were only, ”Tis well!’
“‘What is well? What do you mean?’
“‘No matter; you must bury me here this evening, and exactly where that bird is now perched. You know the rest of my injunctions.’
“He then proceeded to give me several directions as to the manner in which his death might be best concealed. After these were finished, he exclaimed, ‘You perceive that bird?’
“‘And the serpent writhing in her beak?’
“‘Doubtless: there is nothing uncommon in it; it is her natural prey. But it is odd that she does not devour it.’
“He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly, ‘It is not yet time!’ As he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment – it could hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell’s weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead!
“I was shocked with the sudden certainty which could not be mistaken – his countenance in a few minutes became nearly black. I should have attributed so rapid a change to poison, had I not been aware that he had no opportunity of receiving it unperceived. The day was declining, the body was rapidly altering, and nothing remained but to fulfil his request. With the aid of Suleiman’s ataghan and my own sabre, we scooped a shallow grave upon the spot which Darvell had indicated: the earth easily gave way, having already received some Mahometan tenant. We dug as deeply as the time permitted us, and throwing the dry earth upon all that remained of the singular being so lately departed, we cut a few sods of greener turf from the less withered soil around us, and laid them upon his sepulchre.
“Between astonishment and grief, I was tearless.”
June 17, 1816.
There was always, in the square, a curious and ancient rentable stagecoach that no one ever rented. The dozing coachman would shake himself awake at the striking of the hours from the bell tower, then his chin would fall back onto his chest. In the corner, by the faded yellow City Hall building, there was a fountain spurting a trickle of water from a bizarre marble face. Thick, cylindrical hair coiled liked snakes around it, and the bulging eyes, devoid of pupils, returned a dead, blank stare.
For at least the past three centuries, another building stood facing City Hall. It was an old aristocracy mansion once grandiose, now in ruins, undone and run-down. The façade saturated with decorations, turned grey with time, showed the merciless signs of passing time. The flying putti guarding the threshold were corroded and filthy, the marble festoons were losing their flowers and leaves, and the closed portal displayed a selection of mould stains. Yet, the house was lived in; the owners, however, heirs to an illustrious and fallen name, rarely showed themselves. On few occasions, they received the priest or doctor, and once in a few years, family from faraway cities, who always left swiftly.
The inside of the mansion offered a succession of empty rooms into which, during storm-ridden days, rain and dust whirled through the broken windows. There were strips of wallpaper, worn remnants of tapestries peeling off the walls, and on the ceilings sailed, among shining, plump clouds, swans and naked angels, and beautiful women leaning out of flower and fruit garlands. Some of the rooms were frescoed with adventures and tales, inhabited by regal characters riding camels or playing in luxurious gardens among monkeys and falcons.
The house’s two sides overlooked narrow and bare streets, while the third spilled onto a closed garden, a prison with high walls in which laurel and orange trees withered. With no gardener to look after it, nettles had invaded that tight space, and sad, blueish flowered weeds grew out of the walls.
The Marquis’ family, the owners of the building, left most of the rooms uninhabited, and had retreated into a small flat on the second floor, complete with outdated furniture that resounded, in the quiet darkness, with the feeble lament of woodworms. The marquess and marquis, both small and wretched people, showed in their features that sad resemblance that sometimes mimetically takes over after endless years of coexistence. Thin and withered, with pale lips and drooping cheeks, their movements were not too dissimilar from those of puppets. Maybe instead of blood, their veins ran with a lazy, yellowish fluid, and only one thing held up their strings: for her, it was authority, for him, fear. For, you see, the marquis had once been a small-town aristocrat, cheerful and without too many thoughts, his only concern being to find ways to finish up the rest of the family wealth. But the marquess had educated him. Ideal humanity, in her mind, should refrain from laughing and speaking out loud, and above all should hide secret weaknesses from the rest of the world. According to her teachings, it was a crime for one to smirk, fret, forcefully blow one’s nose; so the marquis, afraid to err in his gestures and forbidden noises, had avoided all noises and gestures entirely for some time now, lowering his head and reducing himself to a mummified human with docile eyes. It still did not shield him from scoldings and reproaches. Extremely high-mannered and sharp, she would often strike him with direct reprimands, or allude to certain unspeakable figures, only worthy of their contempt. They, she’d say, ignorant of their own will and unable to educate their own children, would drag the house into ruin, if the Holy Grace had not found them a Wife. So the man meekly endured her tortures, until the times when he left, with the little change the austere Administrator allowed him in his pockets, for his walks. Maybe, in the solitude of the tiny countryside roads, he let himself go to excesses, to singing cavatinas, and thunderous nose blowings; sure, when he’d return home, he had a strange light in his eyes and this involuntary reveal of his possible fun and impolite interior dimension would always raise the marquess’ suspicions. She’d press him with questions all evening, which would get more and more humiliating and sharp in order to extort compromising admissions. And the poor man, through coughing fits, stuttering, and blushing, would keep putting himself in a corner, to the point that the marquess started a scrupulous and austere control over her husband, and decided to often escort him on his walks. He resigned to the facts; the flame in his eyes, however, became obsessive, and fixed, and no longer sparked by joy.
From such parents, three children had come to the world; for them, in their first years, the world was made in their image and likeness. The town’s other characters were but vague presences, nasty, unlikeable brats, women in thick, black tights with long, oily hair, sad old religious men. All of these badly-dressed presences wandered along the short bridges, small streets, and the square. The three children hated the town; whenever they walked outside, in a row with the single servant, following the walls, their gazes were dark and disdainful. The local kids took their revenge by mocking and terrorizing them.
The servant was a tall, vulgar man, with hairy wrists, flaring red nostrils, and small mercurial eyes. He took out the subjection to the marquess on the children, treating them as a master would; when he accompanied them, swaying his hips slightly and looking down on them, or bluntly reprimanded them, they trembled with hatred. But outside as well as inside, their mother’s curt admonishments followed them; they walked in an orderly fashion, in grim silence.
The walk almost always ended at the church’s entrance, the two columns held up by a pair of sizeable lions with a tame expression. Higher up, a wide rose window let into the nave a cleansed, fresh light, in which the light of the candles fluttered. The apse housed a tall body of Christ, with purple blood flowing from his wounds, and figures around him gesturing and despairing with heavy movements.
The three children would kneel contritely and bring their hands together.
Antonietta, the eldest, despite her seventeen years of age, still had the body and the clothing of a child. She was thin and uncoordinated, and her straight hair, as it wasn’t customary to wash frequently in the mansion, always smelled faintly of mouse droppings. They were parted at the middle, and the parting was more clearly obvious on the back of her head, as the hair grew shorter and thinner, inspiring feelings of pity and protection. The girl’s nose was long, curved and sensitive, and her thin lips pulsated when she spoke. In the frame of her pale, emaciated face, her eyes moved with nervous passion, except when in the presence of the marquess, when she kept them low and dull.
She wore tresses onto her shoulders, and a black smock so short as to reveal – if she moved too much too quickly – her underwear, tight and almost reaching her knees, with its red ribbon; the smock opened at the back, onto her laced petticoat. Her black tights were held up with simple elastic, twisted and consumed.
Pietro, the middle child of sixteen, was docile. He moved both his small, stocky body and his eyes, discretely lit under the thick eyebrows, very slowly. He had a sweet, tame smile and his dependence from the other two was obvious by just looking at them.
Giovanni, the youngest, was the ugliest in the family. His meager body, almost as if he were born old, was too withered to grow any further; but his quick and burning eyes resembled those of his sister. After short bursts of frantic activity, he’d immediately fall into prostration, followed by fevers. The doctor would say of him: I do not believe he will survive puberty.
Whenever his fevers would strike, sudden and for no apparent reason, his body was shook as if by electric shocks. He knew this to be the sign, and he’d wait for the incumbent illness, his lips stretched and eyes wide. Nightmares would dance and buzz around his bed for long stretches of days, and a shapeless tedium would weigh down on him, inside of a dense, gloomy mood. Then his recovery would come, and too weak to move, he’d curl up on an armchair and drum his fingers rhythmically on the armrests. And he’d think. Or read.
The marquess, busy as she was in her administrative duties, didn’t really supervise the children’s education and learning. She was content with them not speaking or moving. And so, Giovanni was able to read strange and wonderful books, in which characters wore clothes never seen before: wide-brimmed hats, velvet waistcoats, swords and wigs, and dames in fantastic dresses, rich with gems and nets woven out of gold.
These beings spoke a winged language, which knew how to reach peaks and chasms, sweet in love, fierce in anger, and they lived dreams and adventures of which the young boy daydreamed for hours on end. He shared his discovery with his siblings and the three of them all believed they could identify the characters in those books with the painted figures on the walls and ceilings of the mansion and that, long alive in them but hidden in the cellars of their childhood, were now resurfacing once more. Soon there was an unspoken understanding between the siblings. When no one could hear them, they spoke of their creatures, unmaking and remaking them, talking about them until they were alive and breathing among them. Deep hatred and love tied them to this and that character, and it often happened that they’d spend their nights awake talking to each other with those words. Antonietta slept alone is a small room connected to that of her brothers’; their parents’ room was separated from their by a large room, parlour or dinette. So no one could hear them if, each from their own bed, they talked as if they were the beloved characters.
They were new, wonderful conversations.
‘Leblanc, sir Leblanc,’ whispered Giovanni’s raspy voice from the bed on the right, ‘have you sharpened the shining blades for the duel? The blood dawn will rise soon, and you know, dear sir, that proud lord Arturo knows no human mercy nor fear before death’.
‘Alas, my brother,’ whimpered Antonietta’s voice, ‘the white dressings and perfumed balms have already been prepared. May the Heavens grant you their use on your enemy’s corpse.’
‘The blood dawn, the blood dawn,’ mumbled Pietro, not as imaginative and always a little asleep. But Giovanni always intervened, suggesting his lines:
‘You,’ he’d say, ‘have to reply that you will face the danger devoid of fear, and that no Count Arturo will be the one to stop you, no man has been born who can.’
That was how the three children discovered theatre.
Their characters appeared fully-formed from the mists of invention, arms clamouring and clothes swishing. They acquired flesh and voice, and the children started living a second life. As soon as the marquess retired to her rooms, the servant to the kitchen, the marquis out on his walk, each of them turned into their counterpart. Her heart beating, Antonietta closed the front shutters, and became princesמs Isabella; Roberto, in love with Isabella, was played by Giovanni. Pietro never had a definite part, but played a rotation of the rival, the servant, the captain of a ship. The force of the fiction was so strong that they each forgot about their own real person; often, during the long, boring sessions supervised by the marquess, that marvellous, compressed secret almost bounced off them in secretive and sparkling glances: ‘later – they meant – we’ll play the game’. At night, in the dark, the game’s creatures populated their loneliness under the sheets, and the events of tomorrow would start taking shape; they smiled among themselves, or in the case of violence or tragedy, clench their fists.
In spring, the prison-garden also gained a fictional life. In the sun-bathed corner, the orange striped cat would quiver as it closed its green eyes. Strange, sudden smells would seem to burst from this or that corner, that pile of soil or this hedge. Flowers sickened by shadows would bloom and fall in silence, their petals reduced to pulp between the stones; the smells would draw lazy butterflies who’d let their pollen slip.
In the evening, dull, warm rain would often fall, barely making the ground damp. It’d be followed by a low wind, also carrying smells wandering across the night. The marquis and marquess, after breakfast, would fall asleep in their chairs; the townsfolk’s conversations, at sunset, sounded like conspiracies.
The secret game had become a kind of plot, taking place on a wonderful and distant planet, known only to the three siblings. Taken by the enchantment, they’d be unable to sleep at night for their thinking about it. One night, the wake was even longer; Isabella and Roberto, the hindered lovers, were to plan an escape, and the children were fretting in their beds to come up with a solution for that dire situation. Eventually, the two boys fell asleep, and the faces of their invented companions danced a little before their eyes, between light and dark, until they vanished.
Antonietta couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she thought she could hear a dark, long cry in the night, and she stayed awake to hear better. Sometimes it was strange noises in the attic breaking the comedy she still inhabited, as she made it up under the sheet. Eventually, she stepped out of bed; she quietly walked into her brothers’ room and whispered their names.
Giovanni, a light sleeper, sat upright. His sister had worn on her nightgown, which barely reached her knees, a worn-down black wool coat. Her straight hair, neither thick nor long, was undone, her eyes shone in the slanted shadows of the candlelight she held between her hands.
‘Wake up, Pietro,’ she said, leaning over his bed with feverish impatience. At that moment, Pietro stirred and slowly opened his tired eyes. ‘It’s about the game,’ she explained.
Lazily, fairly unwilling, Pietro lifted himself onto his elbow: both boys were looking at their sister, the eldest, distractedly and with glazed eyes, the other, already curious, leaning his young-but-old face towards the candle.
‘It came to pass,’ started Antonietta in a rush, as if talking about some sudden, dramatic event, ‘that during the hunt, Roberto wrote a note and hid it in a tree trunk. Isabella’s greyhound by chance runs towards that same tree and returns with the note in his mouth. ‘Pretend you’re lost,’ it says, ‘and meet me as darkness falls in the woods that surrounds Challant castle. We’ll escape from there.’ And so, as they all chase the fox, I run away and meet Roberto. And the wind blows, and he makes me get on his horse, and we flee in the night. But the knights notice our absence and they follow us blowing the horns.’
‘Shall we make it that they’re found?’ Giovanni asked, his eyes flitting and curious in the reddish light.
His sister was unable to stay still, she kept making gestures with both hands, so the flame swung between feeble flashes and giant shadows.
‘We don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘Because,’ she added, with a mysteriously triumphant laugh, ‘we’re going to go to the hunting room to play the game.’
‘The hunting room! That’s impossible!’ Pietro said, shaking his head. ‘You’re joking! At night! They’ll hear us and find out. And everything will be over.’ But the others attacked him, insulted.
‘How dare you!’ they said. ‘You’re afraid!’
In a defiant attempt to rebel, Pietro lay down on his bed again.
‘No, I’m not coming,’ he said. Antonietta changed her tone.
‘Don’t ruin everything,’ she begged him, ‘you’re the hunters and the horns.’ And so she won the last of Pietro’s reticence, and he got up. He was wearing, like his brother, a worn-down flannel shirt, over which he slipped a pair of shorts. Antonietta cautiously opened the door leading to the stairs. ‘Bring your candle too,’ she told them, ‘there are no lamps up there’.
So the three set off, single file, up the narrow marble staircase, filthy and dull from use. The ‘hunting room’ was on the first floor, right after the stairs. It was one of the biggest rooms in the mansion, and the squalor of the other abandoned rooms was here animated instead by the vast frescoes on the walls and ceiling. They showed hunting scenes against a rocky landscape, with dark, straight trees. Several greyhounds, their muzzles pointed and their hind legs taut, ran everywhere in a frenzy, as the horses jumped or proceeded with dignity, in their red and gold caparisons. The hunters, in their bizarre, fish-skinned silks, tall hats with long feathers and green tricorns, walked or marched blowing their horns. Long ribbons hung from the latter, yellow and red standards flapped against the terse skies, and out of the cliff grew sharp-leaved bushes, and open, rigid flowers, almost like rocks. All of this was now buried in darkness. The candles, with their light too feeble for the sheer size of the room, revealed here and there the vivid colours of the saddles or the white backs of the horses. The children’s shadows swayed on the walls in magnified movements and ghostly footsteps.
They closed the doors. The piece began.
The silence of the night was vast; the wind had ceased for the trees to not rustle. Antonietta was stood by a painted tree which suddenly started flowing with sap. Birds came to life and slept in the foliage. And on her appeared, like a miracle, a long gown of floral and regal make, and a golden satchel. Her hair parted into two blonde tresses, and her pupils enlarged from fear and rapture.
‘Courage, my love, I am here, here, by you,’ murmured the other, turning into brave knight. His sweet and faunish face peered out of the darkness. ‘Roberto!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Roberto! Hold me, my love!’
A sudden grace bloomed in her. Her teeth and eyes shone with grace, her curved neck and her lips housed grace. She kneeled, her bare knees touching the ground. ‘What are you doing, my beloved?’ he asked. ‘Stand.’
She shuddered. ‘You came,’ she murmured almost in pain, ‘and it is night no longer, I have no more fear. I am finally close to you! I am like within the walls of a fortress, within a nest. If only you knew the sadness, how I cried these lonely nights! And you, my heart, what have you done these nights?’
‘I wandered,’ he said, ‘on my horse, thinking of ways to liberate you. But do not dwell, my darling, on the times of solitude. That has passed. No force can separate us now. We are together for eternity.’
‘For eternity!’ she repeated, bewildered. She smiled with her eyes closed, and sighed and trembled. Shuddering, she moved closer to him. ‘Do you not hear,’ she said, ‘a sound of horns in the distance?’
Roberto listened. ‘Do I have to blow the horns now?’ asked Pietro, coming closer. It was his specialty. He could mimic the sound of wind instruments and animal noises, and in doing so his cheeks engorged in grotesque ways.
‘Yes,’ the other two whispered.
The sound of a horn, low and growling, slowly moving closer and shriller, could be heard in the background. The wind picked up in the forest; a gust shook the leaves on the trees like banners. The horses leapt, the knights shook on their backs, falcons circled in the whistling air. The greyhounds leapt into the darkness, and the knights blew their horns.
‘Hark! Hark!’ they shouted, running through the torches that marked the air with lines and circles of smoke.
Isabella let out a cry, and threw her head back, clinging to Roberto.
‘My Queen!’ he shouted. ‘No one will take you from these arms! I swear. And with this kiss I seal my oath. Now, come forth! Come forth, if you dare!’
The two children kissed on the lips, Giovanni grew in size. His cheekbones reddened and temples beating, he came closer to his sister. And she, hair in disarray, mouth burning, danced in a frenzy. ‘Come, knights and steeds!’ they shouted. And Pietro bounced from here to there, swaying on his stocky body and blowing out his cheeks, like a large zuffolo.
At that moment, tragedy and triumph ceased. Trees and knights stopped, losing their dimensions, and a dusty silence entered the room. The light of the candles only showed three ugly children.
The door was opening. The marquess, inspired, had suddenly decided to check upon the children in their rooms, and her search had eventually brought her to the hunting room. ‘What is this farce?’ she shrieked with her silly voice. And stepped inside, holding a tall chandelier, followed by the marquis.
Their grotesque shadows crept along the opposite wall. The marquess’ sharp nose and chin, her bony fingers, her swaying tresses pinned to the top of her head, slightly fluttered in that now marginally more lit room, and the small, demure figure of the marquis stayed behind, still. He was wearing a worn bedrobe, with red and yellow stripes that made him look like a beetle, and the few grey hairs left on his head, usually smoothed down with an ointment of his making, were standing straight up, making him look terrified. He stood there cautiously, as if afraid of tripping up, and sheltered the flame of the candle with his open palm.
The marquess turned a sharp gaze onto her children, who froze; then she turned to her daughter, with raised eyebrows and a wry, scornful smile.
‘Look at her!’ she cried. ‘Pretty! Oh dear, dear!’ and suddenly becoming irate and combative, raised her voice. ‘You should be ashamed, Antonia! Explain…’
The children were quiet. But while the two boys were stunned, their eyes to the ground, Antonietta, curled up by her tree, now dead, stared at her mother with open, lost eyes, similar to a young quail surprised by a sparrow hawk. Then her incredibly pale face, her drained lips, was covered by a disordered and violent redness, covering her skin in dark stains. Her lips trembled, and she shuddered, lost, overwhelmed by painful and uncontrollable shame. She kept curling further into her nook, as if afraid that someone might touch and search her.
The two brothers were shocked by the scene that followed. Their sister suddenly fell to her knees, and they thought she might beg for forgiveness: instead, she covered her blazing face with her hands, and started shaking in a bizarre, raspy, and feverish laughter, which soon turned into angry crying. She uncovered her strained face and, lying on the ground with her legs stiff, she started ripping out, in a childish and continuous gesture, her untied hair.
‘Antonietta! What happens?’ exclaimed the marquis, aghast. ‘Silence, you!’ ordered the marquess, and because her daughter had uncovered her frail, white legs in her thrashing, she twisted her face in disgust.
‘On your feet, Antonietta,’ she barked. But her voice exasperated her daughter, who seemed possessed by the Furies; the jealousy of her secret had shattered her. In silence, her brothers shifted away, and she was left alone in the middle, shaking her head as if trying to remove it off her neck, moaning with agitated and improper gestures. ‘Help me to lift her up,’ the marquess finally said, and as soon as her parents touched her, Antonietta ceased all movement, exhausted. Holding her under her arms, she moved without realising up the dimly lit staircase; her eyes were dry and fixed, her lips showed the spittle of ire, and her cries had been replaced by a muffled and inconstant moan, but still filled with anger. She kept moaning in the same manner even once they reached her bed, where she was made to lie, and left alone.
From the nearby room, the brothers couldn’t help but listen to that lament that distracted them even from the thought of the violated secret. Then Pietro was taken over by a dreamless sleep, and Giovanni was left alone in the darkness. He kept tossing and turning without peace, until he decided to leave his bed, and headed barefoot to his sister’s bedroom. It was small, misshapen, in which the smell of childhood lingered, but one oppressed by boarding school. The ceiling sported a faded image: a slender woman, draped in orange veils, dancing with her arms reaching for a painted vase. The walls were stained and miserable, a pair of old red slippers were placed to one side of the wooden bed, and on the wall opposite an angel spread its wings and held a stoup. The night lamp was lit and let onto the bed a feeble bluish aura.
‘Antonietta!’ called Giovanni. ‘It’s me…’
His sister seemed to not notice him, despite her eyes being open and filled with tears; she lay immersed in her childish crying, her lips taut and trembling, and unmoving; slowly, her eyes started to close, and her wet lashes seemed long and displayed. Suddenly, she jolted awake again.
‘Roberto!’ she called, and the name and the sharp sweetness in the voice filled with regret shocked her brother.
‘Antonietta!’ he called again. ‘It’s me, Giovanni, your brother!’
‘Roberto,’ she said, her voice lower. Calming down now, she seemed more absorbed and attentive, as someone carefully following the tracks of a dream. In silence, her brother also felt Roberto’s presence in the room; tall, a little arrogant, with his black velvet waistcoat, the arabesque weapon and silver buckles, Roberto was standing between them.
Antonietta seemed calm and asleep by now; Giovanni stepped out into the corridor. Here the house’s silence enveloped him, contained yet infinite, like the one found in burials. He felt suffocated and nauseated, so he moved to the wide window on the stairs and opened it. He could hear, in the darkness outside, light thuds, as of soft bodies falling onto the sand in the garden; the space beyond the garden seemed alive and sensible to him, and the urge to escape, an old urge despite its vague, chimeric nature, took hold of him now, sudden and irresistible.
Without thinking, almost out inertia, he went back to his room and put on his clothes in the dark. Shoes in hand, he walked down the stairs, and the creaking of the front door behind him both horrified him and, in its song, filled him with delight.
‘Goodbye, Antonietta,’ he murmured. He thought he would never see Antonietta again, never again the house and the square; all he had to do was walk straight ahead for none of it to exist any longer.
Only the gurgling of the fountain could be heard in the empty square, and he turned, facing away from that cold and sad marble visage. He walked along known streets, until he reached the countryside paths and finally the open fields. The already tall and green wheat grew to both his left and right, the mountains in the background were more of a cloudy mass, and the night dragged on, exhausted, breathing damp and still beneath the sharp light of the stars. ‘I’ll reach that mountain range,’ he thought, ‘then the sea.’ He had never seen the sea, and the illusion of thunderous rumbling of a shell came back to him, from when he used to bring it up to his ear to play. But the sound was now alive and resounding, so that instead of the fields around him, he felt as though he was surrounded by two calm bodies of water on either side. After some time, he was sure of having walked far, though really he had only left the town. Exhausted, he decided to rest by a smooth tree, with wide foliage, split in two long branches similar to the arms of a cross.
He had only just rested his head on the bark when he felt a shiver: ‘The illness,’ he thought, both calm and horrified. The fever was indeed taking him, burrowing with burning, restless roots through his already drained body, too tired to stand up. His eyesight suddenly sharpened, so that he could now see the crawling of the night’s creatures surrounding him, and he could see the beating and flickering of their eyes, like hazy fires.
They were winking, he recognised them all, and he might have been able to call them one by one and ask them the infinite series of questions he had been harbouring since his early childhood.
But out of a strange urgency, the night turned towards dawn. The sunrise that came was bright, turning the landscape into a vast city of clay, dusty and empty, scattered with huts that looked more like mounds of soil, and short pillars. In this city, on the side of the rising sun, Isabella appeared, as big as a cloud against the sky, her dress like the chalice of a red flower. She approached him, despite her feet not moving. Her bare shoulders dropped from exhaustion, and her closed lips seemed to be smiling, her shining, still eyes stared at him to help him sleep.
He did, meekly. With daybreak, it was the hated servant who found him and took him home in his rough arms. As many times before, Giovanni stayed in his bed for days he never knew had passed, and his sister Antonietta looked over him. She sat there, calm and lazy, sometimes knitting, often just idling. She watched her brother deliriously imagining his red, burning worlds, offering him water every now and then. She sat there, in her apron and smooth hair, like a servant in a monastery.
Her lips looked burned.
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?
Ricardo González loved to go to the cinema. His first major cinematic memory, many years ago now, was of a black-and-white film about cops and robbers. Before that he only went to the cinema occasionally, once or twice a month, but after that film everything changed. As he was leaving the theatre he felt a pressing need to watch the movie again. So he did. He sat in front of the same black-and-white scenes once more, closely following the robbers’ flight from the police. They stole an armoured car but were never able to break into it. Ricardo González knew that the other spectators didn’t know how the movie ended, and he wanted to talk to someone about it. He looked at the person sitting in the seat next to him and who was enthralled by the masterful scene in which one of the crooks stretches out his hand to pick up a guard’s gun, unaware that the guy is still alive. But Ricardo González didn’t know any of the people sitting near him; they were all strangers. In the end everything goes wrong for the thieves and the girl. She and the leader of the gang throw themselves off a cliff. The word “End” came up on screen, and Ricardo realized from what people were saying that the film hadn’t been a hit. It was rubbish, they said, the ending was confusing. Ricardo walked the city for hours, surprised at the audience’s reaction. He thought about the film, wondering whether he had been mistaken about how good it was. The ending wasn’t difficult at all; it was very easy to follow! The boss and the girl commit suicide, that much was obvious. What was it that people didn’t understand? He felt that he didn’t know enough about films to make a definitive judgement one way or the other, so his doubts remained. Maybe if he talked about it with someone, if he met someone in the street and asked them what they thought of the movie… But there wasn’t anyone around he could ask. The best idea would be to go back to the theatre the next day.
As he gave back Ricardo’s ticket, the usher smiled in recognition. “At least somebody likes the flop,” he said behind Ricardo’s back. “The guy who just went in has seen it about eight times.”
Ricardo González sat in the same seat as he had for the previous screenings. He anxiously waited for the lights to go down. He now knew that the actor who played the gang leader was called Rod Steiger, while the girl was played by Nadja Tiller. He followed the plot in a cold sweat. During the final scene, when Steiger and the girl tell the police that they’re “coming down” from the mountain, Ricardo saw that, once again, the audience wasn’t getting it.
“They kill themselves. They throw themselves off a cliff,” he shouted, standing up on his seat and cupping his hands to project his voice.
He was hit by a wave of voices telling him to shut up, but he ignored them.
“The camera is filming from below. They choose to commit suicide instead of giving themselves up to the police. Don’t you see?” he shouted again. That was when he was pulled off his perch by three employees.
“The only good thing about that waste of time was the guy who started shouting in the middle of the theatre,” said a woman in a purple dress as she headed for the exit.
The best thing about going to the movies is sharing in people’s pleasure as they leave the auditorium after a great film, or, if the film is bad, when we shout for our money back. That’s what’s so great about Saturdays. I see the couples going into the theatre holding hands, and I love them because I know that that’s what’s most important. On Saturday people are happy and talk a lot, so I can hear what they’re saying. I can be close to groups of people talking about the film and find out whether I agree with them or not. Sundays are good, too, but different. People go to the movies, but their faces are no longer flushed with joy. Monday is too close, I think. On Sundays I rarely get to find out what people thought of the film.
But if I had someone who liked the movies, things would be much easier. Yes, we could go to the movies every day, we wouldn’t care if the theatre was empty, and then talk about it as we stroll through the city. That would be very good for me, especially on days of the week when hardly anyone goes to the cinema. It’s depressing sitting on your own, but if I didn’t go, what else would there be for me to do? Often, on Mondays, when I’m only accompanied by three or four bitter-looking people, I consider leaving. One day I’ll set out into the city to find people who I know like cinema and then arrange to meet up with them on Saturdays at such and such a theatre. For example, I could look for the girl with the nice hair who comes with her boyfriend and is always smiling. She must know a lot about the movies because she comes almost twice a week. If I found someone to talk to, I’d tell them everything, from the first film to the last. One day I’ll do it. I promise.
You’re a Big Boy Now was only screened for three days. Ricardo González saw it on all three showings on Friday and came back on Saturday. It was on that Saturday that the audience angrily began to ask for their money back just half an hour in. Because no one paid them any attention, they started to throw greasy popcorn cartons around as well as a number of shoes that crashed against the screen. They even had to turn up the lights and inform the audience that the management reserved the right to eject anyone causing a disruption. The lights went down again and people went on making a fuss, but the management didn’t eject anyone. Ricardo, shaking with anger, wondered why they didn’t stop the screening or why people didn’t simply leave if they didn’t like the movie. For him, the film was one long ordeal as he looked up apologetically at the new guy and the debutante, begging the beautiful Elizabeth Hartman and Francis Ford Coppola in the name of all true lovers of cinema to forgive such awful behaviour. Once the film came to an end Ricardo González joined the crowd of unruly people. The girl with pretty hair was there. Ricardo came up behind her to hear her opinion, but she wasn’t saying anything at all; she was just beaming up at her boyfriend. Ricardo González thought incredulously that she was too pretty not to have anything to say after watching a movie as lovely as You’re a Big Boy Now.
If she says something about how much she liked the film I’ll go over to congratulate her. But she’s not saying a word; all she does is smile and smile.
“It was a great film, the best I’ve seen this year.” These words came from very close by. Ricardo González turned around, his eyes wide and his mouth clamped shut, looking for the person who had uttered them: it was a fat young man stuffed into a pair of jeans who continued to enumerate the qualities of the film to his excessively hostile audience. But Ricardo felt no sympathy for the man’s plight. What he felt was admiration. He wanted to run up to the fat man, hug him and shout that he felt similarly about Coppola’s film. But he restrained himself; it would be better to wait until they left the theatre. He watched the man slip away from the crowd and stand under the film poster. Ricardo followed him and was happy to see that he had come on his own. He must also be looking for someone he can talk to about films, he thought as the fat man set off down the avenue.
Realizing that he was letting his best chance of starting a conversation get away, Ricardo González walked behind the fat man, thinking about what he’d say to break the ice. Respect, man, you know your films. That’s how people talk in the city. And when the fat man asked him what he had done to deserve the compliment, Ricardo would tell him that he felt the same way about You’re a Big Boy Now, and they’d pity the poor morons who hadn’t got it. Then they’d go to a soda fountain somewhere or walk along with their hands in their pockets, talking about the best films they’d ever seen: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits; the one by Carol Reed called Prófugo de su pasado in Spanish. Do you know it? I think it has an Englishman, a little old Englishman. Profugo de su pasado, starring Laurence Harvey and Alan Bates – it’s pronounced “Beits”. No? And Lee Remick, a stunner with good teeth. In English it’s called The Running Man or The Ballad of the Running Man – more poetic, don’t you think? It’s a fantastic thriller. And they’d also talk about Robert Wise, the films he made before he started to make movies just to win Oscars. They’d talk about La mansión de los espectros – Hill House or The Haunted, something like that. I always get confused between the Spanish and English titles, not to mention the title of the novel on which the film is based. I never know which is which. Hill House, a film about ghosts starring Julie Harris – that’s the way to do it, I’d say with subtlety and respect. And I’d also tell him that I’ve been coming to the cinema since I was a baby, but I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to share my thoughts. He’d wait a couple more blocks and then approach the fat man. Hey, I liked You’re a Big Boy Now, too. All hail Francis Ford Coppola.
The fat man took his hands out of his pockets and stopped walking. A few paces behind him, Ricardo González did the same. The fat man looked over his shoulder as though something had fallen out of his pocket. He looked behind him and saw Ricardo smiling at him. That was all Ricardo could manage, a smile, as he waited for the fat man to come back and shake his hand. You’ve just been to the movies, haven’t you? Seeing that the fat man wasn’t moving, Ricardo thought that he might be waiting for him to come over. But he was wrong about that, too. The fat man put his hands back in his pockets and went on, a little faster now.
It was getting dark; they’d walked a long way. Ricardo told himself, speeding up a little, that he’d say something to the man at the next corner. You know your films. You liked You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you? The fat man got to the corner, looked over his shoulder a second time, and Ricardo smiled again, thinking that now he’d stop. But he didn’t. He crossed the road, hurrying to the right. Ricardo, confused, almost ran to the corner and crossed the road, too. To his amazement, the fat man had disappeared. Ricardo González shielded his eyes with his hands to see if the man walking in the distance in the weak late-evening light was the person he was looking for. No, he wasn’t. Worried, he wondered what might have happened to his friend. Where did you go, man? I wanted to talk to you about You’re a Big Boy Now. It’s a great movie, isn’t it?
Then he saw him. The door to a yellow house opened, and his friend’s sizeable body appeared. His hands were shoved into the pockets his jeans, and he was staring at Ricardo, who had already begun to smile and introduce himself when he caught sight of the others.
“Good afternoon,” said Ricardo. That was a bad start. In this town, people say hello with a “Hey” or a “What’s up?”
The fat man didn’t answer; he just stared. Behind him four young men emerged, followed by a fifth, who closed the door to the yellow house behind him.
“You liked the movie, didn’t you?” Ricardo stammered, coming closer.
“Don’t touch me, you faggot,” the fat man said after hesitating for a moment. “Stay away from me.”
“Let’s smash his face in,” said a boy who looked like the fat man but was incredibly skinny.
“What?” Ricardo González asked. “No, I came to talk to him,” he said, pointing at the fat man. “To discuss the film. I’m telling the truth, ask him. You went to see You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you?”
“What’s wrong? Couldn’t you find any of your little friends at the theatre?” asked the fat man, slapping away the hand Ricardo had proffered.
“No, you don’t understand, there’s been a misunderstanding. I just came to talk about the film. You liked it, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
And so Ricardo González was beaten up. He felt the first blow at the back of his head while he was still trying to process the fat man’s answer. Then came the fat man’s fist and his face behind it; something hit his back, and the boys started to crow gleefully. If they hit me there again I’ll burst, but there won’t be any blood. I’ll just burst. He said that he didn’t like the film… but that wasn’t him… I came to talk about the film… I think that your mama is calling the boys in for dinner… Look at those ripe mangos… This kind of thing doesn’t happen here… Everyone in this city loves everyone else… Then his body hit something hard, the welcoming cement, on which a puddle soon began to form.
I’ve been coming to the cinema for so long that I can even tell how the people on the screen smell. A little while ago I saw a movie by Peter Collinson, The Long Day’s Dying, a long, long day on which the only thing they do is kill because even when they die they kill: they kill themselves. But a multitude of Saturdays and Sundays and many, many films have come and gone, and I doubt there’s a single person in the city as happy as I am when I see that the people who have come to the cinema agree with me about a film. One of these days I’m going to say hello to all my friends, all the girls who sit next to me, but once begun it would never end. That girl with the pretty hair has disappeared; she must have moved. The guy who was with her keeps coming, only now he’s accompanied by a different girl, one with green eyes and black hair. They’re my friends, too. They give me an affectionate hello when they see me. Many stories have been shown on the screen on many different Saturdays, and I’m happy when people leave wowed by a film by Polanski, or Winner, or Peter Watkins, or Pontecorvo, and also when the guy telling the story is Stuart Rosenberg, the guy from La leyenda del indomable starring Paul Newman. Have you seen it? Yes, Cool Hand Luke. Don’t moan. You know very well that I have to say the original title when they get it wrong in Spanish. I wait eagerly for Saturday to come around, to say hello to my friends and chat as we walk around the city, remembering Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare by Robert Aldrich, admitting that we’re head over heels in love with Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine or Anjanette Comer when she played a Mexican alongside Marlon Brando, and also that we loved Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. And why not occasionally recall the films of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, speculating about the car accident in which they were killed? We make fun of them, but we also remember them fondly. And the weekends, the routine never changes, when we go to second- or third-class theatres to catch anything we might have missed. For example, a short while ago we got to see The Chase by Arthur Penn, and I leave holding her hand, remembering the final scenes in Blow-Up – you know, my love, the one where a man wanders through the city and sees a pair of lovers that would make an excellent photo, the very image of love, but the picture of love turns out to be about crime and death, and the man doesn’t want to let it go because it’s the only important thing ever to happen to him in his sorry life. But that’s impossible, my love, you can’t survive like that. It’s better to join the happy people who have the good fortune not to be thinkers. To survive you have to know how to play tennis without a ball or a racket. So, here we have the city, I live in the city, I watch films, and I’m happy.
What Ricardo González would like most in life would be to talk about a film he saw a long time ago, a cowboy film, Journey to Shiloh, which has war scenes borrowed from another film. It’s the only youthful film about the US Civil War. It’s about seven boys from Texas running around searching for something, but they don’t know what. He’d like to tell someone how great some of the scenes in that movie are, but he doesn’t, he knows that he mustn’t say anything, and when he leaves the theatre he walks the city streets talking to himself and staring at the ground. He knows the pavements by heart, reliving the colours, emotions and words he saw on the screen.
Because Ricardo González still loves to go to the cinema.
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—“It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.
It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.