The blinds are pulled down; the old couple who live opposite must be on holiday. Before, the old woman would come out every morning to water the plants on her balcony. The old man would stay inside; he needed a walker to get around. Some days a young girl in a blue jacket would come by, a nurse or a physiotherapist. On Sundays they’d be visited by other elderly couples. They’d sit around a table and play cards until late.
They have a nice balcony; it’s in an ‘L’ shape, wrapped around the building. A lot of plants, an azalea that blooms every spring. They’ve hung a wind chime up at the corner. On windy days you can hear it from a long way away, from the street even. Behind that is a red dreamcatcher with a feather that flutters in the slightest breeze. I imagine it must have been a gift from a grandchild, although I’ve never seen grandchildren in their flat. Maybe the physiotherapist gave it to them.
The flat below the one belonging to the old couple is empty. It takes up the whole floor. They left the blinds up, and you can see that the parquet floor is covered in dust. There’s something long and white lying on the floor in one of the bedrooms. It looks like the holder for a fluorescent light. Pigeons gather on the balcony; the tiles are covered in their shit. There are two nests, one at each end. One of the nests has three little white eggs. You can see them when the pigeon goes out foraging for food.
All you can see of the brown building behind the one where the old couple live is the roof terrace with its cages for drying clothes. Also, a pair of DirecTV antennae pointed at the Sierras. A black shirt is hanging upside down in one of the cages. The shirt cuffs almost touch the ground. There’s no wind, but it still sways a little and occasionally brushes against the rusty mesh of the cage. The flat on the top floor has its blinds pulled down. On the second from top, next to the window, is a white table with an architect’s lamp. They usually leave the light on until late at night. Sometimes I see a hand turning a page or scribbling something. Very occasionally, I see it holding a cigarette. The face is always hidden while the man reads, or works, or studies, or draws. If I met him in the shop downstairs I wouldn’t recognize him.
In the middle of the street, they’re building a pair of apartment blocks, one next to the other. The one closest to me is almost finished. Two men are installing the window frames. Nothing else. A truck came to deliver them yesterday afternoon. Thirty or forty grey-painted iron frames, exactly alike. The builders ran a rope through a pulley and threw it down from the roof. One builder stayed on the top floor while the others went down to the street, tied the first frame to the rope and started to pull. The builder on the top floor watched the metal frame coming up towards him. One of the corners got stuck under the third-floor balcony. The builder pulled on the rope to keep it away from the walls. They started with the frames for the top floors and progressed down the building.
Today the two men in grey shirts started to install the frames, and the air is full of the sound of electric saws and shrieking metal.
It’s five in the afternoon. The builders have left; I can hear their cars driving off into the distance. I like the silence of the flat, how every noise I make reverberates around it. My fingers on the keyboard, the click of the mouse button, a glass when I put it down on the glass table, the back of the chair creaking when I lean back, every footstep. It sounds like an Argentine film from the eighties. They all had dubbed superimposed soundtracks. Sounds added over silence; they never sounded genuine. It’s like I’m moving around in an unreal environment, or underwater, with just the flicking sound of the film for company.
I don’t want to order food. That would mean going downstairs, saying hello to the porter, talking to the delivery boy. I’d have to change out of my pajamas and slippers. I’d rather cook for myself. I put water on to boil and drop some dried pasta into it. The best brand. Before she left Claudia told me which was best at the supermarket.
Always buy these. They’re a little more expensive, but they taste homemade.
I put a couple of cloves of garlic on the table and crush each with the blade of the knife. Again, they make a noise that would be a soundman’s dream.
The telephone rings.
Just a moment, someone wants to speak to you, says a woman’s voice.
Then another voice comes on the line and asks if I am who I am. I say yes, that’s me.
Wait a moment, I’ll put you through, they say.
I wait, and a third voice appears. This one also belongs to a woman. Again, she asks if I am who I am.
You’re a writer? the voice asks.
I say that I am.
The minister of culture wants to speak to you, she says.
Yes, to you.
Can you come to the ministry tomorrow?
Any time in particular?
Any time between nine and twelve would be fine.
I’ll come by tomorrow, I say and hang up.
There’s a new minister. I didn’t know the previous one – he was fired recently – and I don’t know this one either. I call a friend to ask her about him. She doesn’t know him either. Apparently, no one knows who he is. My friend says she’ll try to get some more information, but I don’t hear from her again.
The minister has been called to an urgent meeting. They show me to a sunken chair to wait. Forty-five minutes later he arrives with a lot of files under his arm. He’s sweating, and his shirt is coming out of his trousers. He introduces himself, shows me into his office and tells the woman, whose name is Elsa, to bring me a coffee.
Elsa, a coffee for the young gentleman, he says, and then he looks at me.
You write, don’t you?
A pleasure, the minister says and stretches out his hand. I’ve heard good things about your work.
Thank you, I say.
The minister wants to inject some new energy, to bring in new people and encourage the exchange of ideas. Since his appointment, he has been working on a project called Crossover. He’s bringing together artists from different generations and disciplines to make works between the two of them. He’s setting up pairings. A young painter with an old writer. An old musician with a young actor. He’s looking for established artists from the province and is having them interact with young, promising talents.
You’re a young talent. We’ve suggested that you work with Gripa Castellano, the choreographer.
Then he asks if I know Gripa. She’s one of the artists from the seventies who went into exile in Europe, had some success there and then came back in the mid-eighties. All I know about her is that she’s famous. I suppose that I must have seen her around, but I can’t put a face to her name. It seems that Gripa is going to adopt one of my stories for a ballet. The minister says that Gripa wants to meet me as soon as possible. I need to bring my book with me because when she asked for it at El Ateneo bookshop they didn’t have it.
He gives me the number of Gripa’s assistant. I’m to call her to arrange a meeting.
You’ll get a fee, he says. Two hundred pesos. How does that sound?
That sounds fine.
Have you got your paperwork in order? Can you invoice officially?
Yes, I can.
Great. It’s been a pleasure, says the minister. He stands up and holds out his hand again. Good luck with Gripa. I’ll see you on opening night.
As soon as I’m out of the office, I call the number on the piece of paper he gave me. I say my name and explain that I need to talk to Gripa about the Crossover project.
Chub, is that you? a woman asks. No one has called me Chub in years. It was my nickname at secondary school.
Who is this? I ask.
Angelita Marolier. Don’t you remember me?
I try to scour my memory, but I come up blank. I apologize and say that I don’t.
Angi, Angi Marolier, you must remember. You’ll know me when you see me. Come over right now.
Gripa is rehearsing, but she’s going to take a break soon. Come over and we’ll talk.
Angelita gives me an address on the outskirts of town: a community centre. She tells me that Gripa often sets her pieces in non-traditional spaces and that right now she’s working in a slum. I take the bus, ride it for an hour and a quarter and get out where they tell me to. There’s a eucalyptus tree and a slope. At the bottom of the slope is a river, and the slum is on the other side. A garbage-filled wasteland with a horse and plastic bags occupies the space between the river and the slum. On this side of the river an evangelist chapel sits underneath another eucalyptus tree, and next to it is a breeze-block shed with a zinc roof and a metal sheet for a door. This is the community centre. I knock on the door and am met by a large woman filling out a form.
I’m looking for Gripa, I say.
The woman has no idea what I’m talking about.
The people from the ballet, I say.
Oh, the dancers! Down at the river, she tells me. Come on, I’ll walk you down.
Angelita! shouts the woman from the embankment behind the house. Angelita! The guy you were expecting is here.
I look down. On this side of the river, close to the water, a wooden platform has been built about a metre and a half above ground. On top of it is a circle of people. A crowd of kids from the slum are staring up from below. Someone waves to me to come down.
I walk down the path the woman shows me.
Put your hand on the ground so you won’t fall.
Angelita comes up to meet me. She’s wearing jeans, rubber boots and a hand-knitted sweater that’s a little tight on her. Her hair is loose. She’s about five or six months pregnant. She gives me a hug as though we were old friends. It lasts a little longer than it should. Then she steps back, looks me up and down and says, Chub! You’re so thin. How much weight did you lose?
Ten, twelve kilos, I say automatically, without thinking. Then I’m angry with myself. I’m talking to a stranger. I’ve never seen her before in my life.
I ask her how she knows me, and she says that she was a friend of my brother’s when my brother studied here and that she once came to a party we held on the roof terrace above the flat on Calle Independencia. She can remember the flat’s exact address. It’s true that my brother and I lived there for a few years, but we never had a party on that terrace. You weren’t even allowed onto the terrace in that building.
Gripa is in the middle of a motivational speech. Angelita tells me that she hates to be interrupted at times like this, but it’ll be over in five minutes. We wait at the foot of the stage. The kids from the slum are watching the goings-on on stage very closely, even though nothing’s happening. It’s just a group of people standing in a circle, talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying. The air smells of smoke and putrid mud. A bonfire is burning in the wasteland on the other side of the river. Close to the shore, a cement block sticks out from the water, and iron rebars stick out from it in their turn. A cormorant is sunbathing on the small island, its wings held open to dry.
Angelita tells me that they’re rehearsing a new choreography. Gripa wants to draw inspiration from poverty, which is why they’ve set up the stage there.
But not material poverty, Angelina tells me, spiritual poverty. You know? Inside and out, the two are related. They reflect one another. The slum is a metaphor, you know?
Her face radiates sweetness, and both her hands are on her belly. The wind is blowing her hair around, and from time to time she has to brush a lock out of her eyes.
On opening night we’re going to rent a coach so people feel safe. And there’ll be lights everywhere. Gripa wants to put lamps on each side and spotlights in the river. And one big one, the kind with a moving beam, to light up the slum. We want the effect to be like spies, or fugitives, as though the light was trying to illuminate someone trying to escape. It’s another metaphor. Gripa thought of it. It’s going to look great. We’ll make a staircase with ropes for banisters so people can come down the slope. It’ll be lined with torches.
The circle of people on stage breaks up. The dancers disperse, drink water, stretch their legs and practise different moves. A fat woman in an orange-and-fuchsia tunic with large batik circles comes down the ramp at the side. Her hair is carrot coloured. I expected her to be much smaller, skinny, a dry, frugal former dancer, but I know that this is Gripa. She hugs me and her hug lasts longer than normal too. She smiles.
Good to meet you, she says. It’ll be a pleasure to work with your texts. Did you bring me the book? I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I have. I look for it in my backpack and give it to her.
Gripa flicks through the pages. She reads the title of one of the stories and looks at the cover image.
As soon as I’m done with this I’ll start work on yours, she says and hands the book to Angelita. Then she apologizes.
Thank you for coming, she says. She kisses me again before heading back up to the stage. A dancer helps her up the ramp, and Angelita tells me that Gripa has been having trouble with her left knee for some time now. Then she asks if I need to call a taxi.
I tell her that I don’t; I’ll take the bus home.
Time passes. They finish building the block of flats in the middle of the street. Slowly, people begin to move in. They cover the windows in different coloured curtains. From what I can tell from the balcony, most of them are students. In the first week there was only one light; it came from one of the flats on the ninth floor. A kid was walking around the flat naked. He came out to the balcony to eat. I watched him and wondered how it would feel to sleep alone in a brand-new empty building.
The blinds are still down in the old couple’s flat. No one has come by to water the plants, and they’re drying in their pots.
The architect’s hand still smokes, very occasionally, late at night.
One morning the phone rings. It’s Angelita. She says that they’ve started to rehearse the new ballet, the one based on one of my stories.
Gripa wants you to see it. Can you come by? she asks.
I say that I can. Monday is my day off.
Great. In the basement at the Caraffa Museum. How’s two, two-thirty sound? Tell the guy at the door that Gripa invited you so you can get in without paying.
I have some lunch and go out. I get there at quarter past two. I walk up to the security guard and tell him that I’ve come to see the rehearsal. He tells me to talk to the girl at the desk. The girl doesn’t even know that someone is working in the basement.
I’m new, she says apologetically.
After trying to call her boss, who doesn’t answer, she dials another number and waits. I watch her a little more intensely than one should. The girl starts to get anxious and dials another number.
Are you sure they’re working in the basement? I’m calling and no one’s answering, she says.
Then the museum doors open and a group of nursery-school kids comes in. The boys are wearing coats with blue and white squares; the ones for the girls are pink and white. The teacher is wearing a headband with two antennae finished off with pom-poms that bounce when she moves. The antennae are just like the ones the Chapulín Colorado wore, but green. A couple of mothers have come along to help with the outing. The children form two rows, but when one gets to the staircase he shouts, and they all start to run. The mothers try to calm them down while the teacher with the green antennae comes over to the desk to occupy the attention of the girl at the ticket counter. She has a letter, shows it to the girl and reads a few paragraphs out loud. Meanwhile, the security guard talks on his radio to the other guards and, surrounded by nursery-school children, uses his body to shield a white-marble sculpture. In his light-blue shirt, navy-blue tie and movie-policeman’s cap he looks like a skinny giant standing in the middle of a crowd of ordinary humans who barely come up to his hip. The kids ignore him and stroke the marble with their little hands.
The sculpture is of a naked woman hugging a fish. The kids touch her breast and start saying booby, booby, booby, booby. Then one says vagina, and they all start a chorus of booby, vagina, booby, vagina, booby, vagina, again and again. Then they add bottom and go on. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby with vagina with bottom. Bottom with boobies. Vaginabooby. The mothers scold them, but they’re ignored.
Willy! shouts a short, very blond boy.
Willy with booby with vagina with bottom, the others chorus.
I slip away and head down the stairs to the basement. It’s deserted. You can’t hear the screams of the nursery-school kids any more. I walk down some hallways with concrete walls. Pipes run along the ceiling, gurgling every now and again. Running water.
Angelita? I call, but no one answers.
I come to a lit room with white walls. In the centre is a table covered with paint pots, brushes, pliers and different-sized magnifying glasses. The smell of acetone burns my nostrils. Someone has left a half-finished cup of tea on the table. About a dozen fluorescent lights buzz from the ceiling.
Angelita? I call again.
I go back out into the hallway and walk to the other end, passing a bathroom with a leaky tap, an empty office and a packet of half-eaten biscuits on a table. At the end is a staircase going down. I think I can hear sounds down there. The staircase has landings. I stop at the second to rest, listening. I think I can hear Gripa’s deep voice.
I open a door and find a large empty space with a high ceiling and cement walls. Four large columns hold up the roof. I see people sitting on some chairs in the dark. The only light comes from a corner lined in semi-transparent plastic like a large, plastic aquarium. The dancers are moving around inside.
Gripa is walking among them, leaning on a cane. She’s marking time.
I see Angelita sitting on the chairs. Her profile has changed. She’s fatter. She’s watching events inside the aquarium closely. I tap her on the shoulder, and when I do I realize that she didn’t hear me come in. I might have startled her. But Angelita turns slowly, as though she can’t bear to take her eyes off the dancers. She doesn’t seem surprised.
You came, she says. She waves to me to sit down, then turns back to the lit area. Behind the plastic, the dancers are walking around the stage holding large blocks of wood up high. They’re moving slowly, turning the pieces of wood in their hands, holding them up as though they were an offering. At first, I think they’re naked, but then I realize that they’re wearing flesh-coloured suits. It’s very quiet; the only sound is Gripa’s voice.
One, two, three, four. Good, again. Go back to your places.
The dancers run quickly back and start again. Their strides are long and graceful, their backs arched.
Angelita turns to look at me. Her eyes are full of tears. She smiles.
Isn’t it beautiful? she asks.
I say it is, although I’m not really sure.
What does it feel like? How does it feel to see this and know that you helped to create it, that it came from one of your books?
I don’t know what to say. Blocks of wood don’t feature in any of my stories, neither does a plastic aquarium or half-naked dancers.
Which story did she choose? I ask.
No idea. Gripa lent me your book, but I didn’t have time to read it. She liked it a lot.
But you don’t know which story she adapted?
She didn’t say. All of them I think. Gripa works with sensations.
Oh, I say. I don’t have anything to add.
Angelita turns back to the aquarium. Gripa has stopped the action again. The dancers go back to their places and start over. They repeat what they did before. They cross the stage diagonally, contorting their bodies with blocks of wood raised over their heads.
This is the second part, Angelita explains. The first part is a performance recorded on video projected onto the plastic while the guys dance inside. Would you like to see it?
I tell her that I would, and Angelita rummages in a large leather bag. It takes her a while, but in the end she takes out a small video camera. She turns it on and opens a screen to the side.
It was filmed here, she explains. During the piece it’s going to be projected onto the plastic in the same place where it was filmed so that the spaces match up. The filmed columns will be superimposed over the real ones and won’t look as though they’re projected. The idea is for the dancers to be like ghosts or spectres, you know? The film will interact with the dancers.
I say that I understand; it’s a good idea.
Angelina rewinds the tape and passes me the camera.
You press this button for play and this for stop.
On the small screen of the video camera I see the same rectangular space, the cement and a patch of damp in the corner. A naked bulb is hanging centre stage. There’s only one spotlight. I immediately think it’s a reference to Bacon. I’ve never seen a painting by Bacon in person, I’m only familiar with him from pictures in books, but he’s one of my favourite painters, and I’m glad to see him there.
A dancer comes in from one side. This time there’s no doubt about it: he’s naked. Another dancer comes in from the other side, she’s naked too. They meet in the middle. The man is carrying a shotgun. They both stand very close together, looking at the camera. Then we hear a noise, and a pig appears. Someone has let it in from outside. The aquarium space is closed, and the pig is running around the sides. The pair of dancers stand very still in the centre. The pig is large and black. Suddenly the dancer aims his shotgun and fires. The speaker on Angelita’s camera buzzes. The sound of the shot was very loud. The pig runs around in desperation. The female dancer hugs the man’s back, protecting herself. The dancer shoots again. The pig howls in pain and lets out a high-pitched squeal that overloads the speaker again. The female dancer takes more cartridges from a cloth bag hanging around her neck and passes them to the other dancer, who reloads, aims and fires again. The pig starts to bleed and leaves a trail on the ground. It runs more slowly and bumps into the wall at the back. The outline of its body is pressed against the cement in blood. At one point, it turns to face the two dancers. For the first time, the female dancer screams for real. But the male dancer shoots the pig again in the head, and it falls to the ground. More or less in the centre of the aquarium. Then the female dancer takes a small knife out of her bag and sticks it into the pig’s neck. Blood begins to gush out. The dancer hugs the body and starts to howl in grief. The male dancer stands in a martial pose right behind the dead pig. He doesn’t look at the body. He looks straight ahead with cold eyes. To one side of the screen, eight dancers come in, dressed in black. One is carrying a pneumatic drill. He turns it on and starts to break up the cement floor in the centre of the aquarium, in front of the pig. The drill makes a horrifically loud noise that dominates the scene. The other dancers are carrying shovels. While the drill breaks up the floor, the dancers dig in the soil underneath. It’s a grave. It takes them twenty minutes to finish. Then they all pick up the pig and throw it into the grave. The naked dancer is covered in red. A mixture of blood and tears drips from her hair. The naked male dancer stays in position, completely still. The female dancer screams in heart-wrenching pain. She stretches out her hand. She doesn’t want to be parted from the dead pig, but the first shovel-loads of soil are already dropping on top of it. As they fill in the grave, more dancers come in from the other side. They’re pushing a wheelbarrow of fresh cement. They pour it onto the earth and smooth out the floor. Then they leave. The last to go is the naked male dancer who never looks at the pig or the grave.
Did you like it? Angelita asks when I give back the camera.
I don’t know what to say.
Did they really kill it? I ask.
Yes, of course. We drugged it a little before it came in so it wouldn’t hurt the guys. But still, as you saw, it tried to attack them.
And you buried it there? It’s down there right now? As I ask I peer through the plastic into the centre of the aquarium. The spot where the grave is can be clearly seen. The cement is a different colour, lighter.
It’s down there, Angelita says. It was very important to Gripa that it be real and for the spectator to come to the realization gradually. Ever since we killed the pig, this place has been different. It has another feel; it’s charged.
Are you sure that this is based on my book? I say. There aren’t any pigs in my book.
The pig isn’t a pig. It’s a symbol, Angelita explains.
What does it symbolize?
Something from your book. Gripa read it.
The museum people let you do this? It’s crazy. You’ve buried a pig down there.
Gripa is friends with the director. He loved the idea. He saw immediately how important the burial was. He read your book too. He liked it a lot.
I see, I say.
Inside the aquarium the dancers are still holding the wooden blocks. They’re throwing them in the air. Gripa is encouraging them to throw harder and harder.
Do you want me to call Gripa so you can talk to her? Angelita asks me.
No, don’t worry. I have to go. I’ll come by another day.
We rehearse here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Come by whenever you like.
I leave. From up above I hear the shrill voice of a guide talking to the nursery-school children.
The guard doesn’t look at me as I pass him on my way out.
A week later I see the news in the Arts and Entertainment section in the newspaper. Not a long article. The minister of culture has been fired. The next day a letter appears in The Voice of the Interior. The former minister says that he wasn’t fired, he resigned. I call the ministry. They say that for the moment all activities have been suspended. I ask about the Crossover project specifically, and they say that it’s suspended too.
I call Angelita on her mobile. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. For the moment Gripa has stopped the rehearsals and has started to work on a new ballet that she wants to hold at the airport.
In the arrivals hall? I ask.
No, says Angelita, on the runway. We’re negotiating. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a problem. Let me find out what’s going on with this Crossover thing, and I’ll let you know, she says.
I don’t hear any more about it. I call Angelita again, and a woman’s voice answers. I ask for her, and she says that Angelita is in the hospital; she can’t come to the phone because she’s just had her first baby. For a moment I think that the voice belongs to Gripa.
Gripa, is that you? But she’s hung up.
The Crossover project is definitively suspended. The fees for the work haven’t been paid because the budget for the project was never approved.
I let a couple of months pass and dial Angelita’s number again. A pre-recorded, metallic voice tells me that the number is out of service.
The old couple in the flat opposite never came back from their holidays. They’ve been replaced by a young couple. For a few days, I thought that they were the old couple’s grandchildren because the furniture remained the same. Then, one afternoon, a removals van came and wrapped everything up, even the pots with their dry plants. The next day the new arrivals brought their things. Modern furniture, cream sofas, a steel-and-glass table, a painting with a large green splodge. The guy leaves early every morning in a suit and tie; the girl sleeps in. She gets up and walks around the flat in her nightdress. She reads magazines until the man gets back. At night they watch TV. I see the blue reflection from the screen on the bedroom wall.
The flat below is still empty. There are more and more pigeons.
I learn from the newspaper that Gripa is going to hold her ballet at the airport. There aren’t going to be many performances, and they’ll be at strange hours when there’s no air traffic. I find it hard to get tickets. I send an email to someone I know at the culture section asking if he has any. He doesn’t answer, so I call him. He’s a little thrown because we haven’t spoken in years. He could have lied, but I caught him off-guard. He sends me two tickets. I invite a friend who cancels at the last minute, so I go alone. At the airport a light aircraft is parked in the middle of the runway. In front of it are a hundred folding chairs set out in rows. They have us sit there. The lights go down, and the show starts.
A girl comes running out of the darkness at the back of the runway. She’s carrying a torch. She runs around the plane a couple of times and then lights a pyre in front of a propeller. The fire grows in the darkness. Nothing happens for a while, and we all stare at the fire, expectantly at first, then bored, or moved, or whatever. When it’s almost gone out, the lights come on again. A crowd of dancers in skin-tight black outfits surrounds the plane. Each of them has blocks of wood raised above their heads. A caravan of women covered in dark shrouds comes in from the left. They’re pushing a wheeled cage. Inside the cage is a black pig. I can guess what’s going to happen next. In this version, instead of burying the dead pig, the dancers shove it into a coffin and push it up a ramp into the plane’s hold. Then, either side of the runway, two rows of red lights come on. A pilot appears and gets into the cockpit, starts the engines and points the nose to the north. The dancers escort it until it’s in place, then they move away. The plane accelerates down the runway, takes off and soars into the night. Its roar gradually fades until it’s lost in the wind and the plane has disappeared completely. All that is left on the asphalt is the cage in which they brought the pig, which is empty with its door hanging open. Gripa comes out, waving.
We all stand and applaud.