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.