It was one of those wedding parties that was doomed to failure right from the start: too many deaf great-aunts, friends of the bride’s father who’d only come because they felt they had to and couldn’t wait to get away and children who did nothing but squabble and cry. On top of that, the caterer was serving less wine than had been agreed upon, even though the bride’s father had paid in advance. Márgara had two crises in a row, the first because the food took longer to be served than expected and then because during the first dance she and her brand-new husband were left alone on the dance floor, spinning around until they got dizzy, and no one came to their rescue. Later they found out that her father, who had been supposed to take the groom’s place, was outside on the patio arguing with the manager about the drinks, getting in the waiters’ way as he counted the boxes of wine and champagne over and over again. During the first crisis, Márgara locked herself in the bathroom, and Edith had to go in after her, take her hand and calm her down. Nobody had noticed the problem with the chicken; the wine wasn’t important. This was her night; she should try to enjoy it. Then, once Márgara had calmed down, Edith helped her to redo her make-up, adjusted her tiara and walked her back to the main table. During the second crisis, however, Edith was tired, bored and a little depressed, so she stayed away and let Márgara’s cousins take care of it. She stayed in her chair, tearing petals off the flowers in the centrepiece that she’d put together herself, crushing them between her fingers until she’d rolled them up into dirty, rubbery balls. Márgara had put her at a table with some old schoolfriends of hers, a load of women who Edith barely knew sharing one uninteresting anecdote after another while their husbands talked listlessly about football and cars. When the moment came for the bride and groom to go out for the obligatory round of photographs, Edith had exhausted all possible topics of conversation with her tablemates. Leaving her dessert half finished, she asked the woman sitting next to her to watch her shoes and handbag and walked away barefoot with a glass of wine in her hand. She slipped upstairs to the mezzanine that overlooked the hall. Fobono had set up his audio equipment and speakers behind one of the basketball hoops in the middle of the main stand and was acting as DJ, rocking back in his chair and drinking beer straight from the bottle.
How are you doing, milady? Bored already?
Fed up, Edith said, leaning on the banister next to him. She could see the whole party from there: people shoving their spoons into ice cream, tablecloths covered in crumbs and stains, the children playing on the dance floor, Márgara and Víctor beaming out at everyone, wandering from table to table while the photographer barked instructions. If the madam could move a little to the left; the young man in the red tie is in the shot; boys in front, please, kneeling down.
How long, do you think, before I can leave without upsetting Marga? Edith asked.
Knowing her, Fobono replied, you’ll have to stay until dawn. Or simply accept that she’ll control you for the rest of your life.
That’s true, Edith said, sighing.
Below, Márgara was pulling along the girl trying to hold up her train. Every now and again she adjusted her tiara, doing a bad job of concealing her nerves. A tall, very skinny woman in a yellow dress kissed her on the cheek, and she immediately wiped it with a napkin. Another woman, dressed in pink, whispered something in her ear, and Márgara appeared to get emotional, gave her a long hug and then fluttered her hands at her eyes to dry her tears before they ruined her make-up.
Did you know that one of Marga’s uncles is psychic? Edith said.
A psychic? Really?
What do I know? She never wants to talk about it. I suppose he embarrasses her. He lives in a small town close to Villa Maria. I think he has a radio show or something.
Who would have thought it? Fobono said. Is he any good?
According to Marga he predicted the birth of a two-headed cow and the end of the Gulf War.
No way. Is he here?
He was invited. Marga didn’t want him to come, but her mother insisted, so I suppose he is.
Which one is he? Fobono asked. He got up from his chair and came to stand next to Edith at the banister. He smelled of black cigarettes and sweat.
Fobo, when did you last have a shower? Edith asked.
This is the style now, he said. The girls love it.
You’re disgusting, Edith told him and concentrated on the guests. By the time the photographer and bride and groom had finished their tour of the tables the number of possible candidates had been narrowed down to three. She pointed them out to Fobono.
Option one: the little old man with the carnation buttonhole sitting in front of Víctor’s father. Option two: the gentleman dressed in black at the table next to the bathroom.
Which? Fobono asked, peering down.
The one with the handlebar moustache. He’s wearing a silver tie-pin. He’s spent all night with that girl dressed in red. The one that looks like Mahatma Ghandi except in a dress.
The bald one?
That’s Suarez Masacho, the guys from the tango show, Fobono said. Marga hired them. They’ll be dancing in a minute. They gave me their tape to put on.
Then we can rule out option two. Then there’s option three, the gentleman in the brown suit with wide lapels; the one wearing glasses underneath the other basketball hoop.
It took Fobono a while to locate him.
He’s a good candidate, he said. A little while ago I saw him talking to Marga’s sister, and for the photographs they called him over to stand at the main table.
That must be the guy. Watch me from up here, Edith said. She finished her glass and went back down the stairs, lifting the hem of her dress. At his table, the gentleman in the brown suit was using his spoon to make figures of eight with what was left of his ice cream.
Edith ran across the hall, sat down on the free chair next to him and without even introducing herself asked straight out if he was the psychic uncle.
Are you the psychic uncle? she asked.
The gentleman in the brown suit looked up indifferently, and, still holding his spoon, shook his head.
The psychic is my brother-in-law, he said and pointed at a fat man with a greying beard who was talking to another man a couple of tables away, smoking and laughing. Next to him was a small woman wearing a lot of make-up, who was busy shoving the centrepiece into her handbag.
Which one? The fat guy with the beard? Edith asked.
Yes, that’s the one.
I never would have thought it, Edith said. She waved at Fobono on the balcony to tell him that they’d got the wrong uncle. Then she poured herself another glass of wine, adjusted her dress and walked across the hall, stepping over a bunch of kids playing on the floor.
The psychic uncle wore braces and had the top four buttons of his shirt undone. When he spoke smoke escaped from the side of his mouth and mingled with the beard around his lips.
Edith stood in front of him.
Excuse me, are you the psychic uncle?
In the flesh. A pleasure, said the psychic uncle. What can I do for you?
Nothing, Edith said. I wanted to meet you. I was curious. Márgara is always talking about you. I’m her best friend.
Margarita talking about me? How strange, said the psychic uncle. But I’ve seen stranger things. Well, here I am, you’ve met me, I’m Márgara’s uncle, said the psychic uncle before going silent.
As he spoke he briefly looked Edith in the eyes, but just for a moment. The man the uncle had been talking to took a step back. From his spot on the mezzanine Fobono was giving her the thumbs-up. Edith looked away.
Actually, I’d like to talk to you for a while, she said, twiddling with her hair. I’m a little lost. I don’t know what to do with my life, and I wanted to know if you could give me any tips about my future. I’ll pay, of course.
The psychic uncle started to laugh. He laughed with his whole belly, as though he was having an asthma attack. A thousand little beads of sweat stood out on his chest.
It doesn’t work like that, he said as he reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to dry his neck and forehead. It’s not as though I have a crystal ball or something.
Then how does it work? Edith asked.
I occasionally get visions, but I can’t predict when they’ll come and especially not what they’ll be about. As much as I’d love to have a vision of you, I don’t control these things; it’s beyond my powers. So, it’s been a pleasure. I’m sorry that I can’t help you, said the psychic uncle before turning back to the man.
Edith walked away. From the balcony Fobono was making fun of her, laughing hard, so Edith decided to go back to her table. She sat down with Márgara’s friends from school, joined in the conversation and even pretended to be interested in what they were saying. Then, when the couples went off to dance, she looked after the children who’d fallen asleep on the chairs. When it got late she helped Márgara get changed out of her wedding dress for the honeymoon and went out onto the street with the rest of them to wave off the bride and groom. Later, as she was leaving, she saw the psychic uncle putting something in the trunk of a red Valiant parked half a block away. She walked past him but didn’t say goodbye. The woman who had stolen the centrepiece was waiting in the passenger seat sitting up very straight with her hands crossed on her lap. Two children were sleeping in the back seat.
Edith forgot all about it until one morning, a month and a half later, when she was late and her father’s nurse hadn’t arrived yet, the telephone rang. It was the psychic uncle.
Márgara gave me your number, he said. In fact, I asked for it.
OK, Edith said. What’s wrong? I’m in a bit of a hurry right now.
I had a vision, and you were in it, the psychic uncle said. Behind his voice, on the other end of the line, she could hear the psychic uncle’s children shouting. Edith imagined them fighting on the patio of a house with hens and a lemon tree.
Your question must have settled into my subconscious and then resurfaced, said the psychic uncle. It’s the first time something like that has happened to me.
Edith didn’t know what to say. She’d answered the phone standing next to the hob with her eyes on the kettle. She was making tea for her father. She turned off the hob and sat down.
What happened in the vision? she asked.
You were dressed in white, and it was windy, very windy, said the psychic uncle. You were climbing a large tree, a kind of willow, and the wind was blowing the branches around. Also, there was a windmill with water flowing out of it. A naked man was running around the tree. You fell, and the vision ended before you hit the ground.
What did the man look like? Edith asked.
Dark hair, pale skin. More or less your age.
Roberto, Edith thought without saying anything out loud.
Did he have a mole on his back? she asked.
If he did, I didn’t see it, the psychic uncle answered.
Edith lit a cigarette.
And what does the vision mean? she asked.
I don’t know. I thought I should tell you then you’d be able to interpret it. That’s why I called you. Does it suggest anything?
I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a little girl, said Edith.
Maybe you need some time. If you think of anything let me know, said the psychic uncle, and he gave her his telephone number.
Roberto, Edith said to herself when the psychic uncle had hung up. How long has it been since I heard from him?
For the rest of the day the vision was all Edith could think about: the wind, the tree, the fall, the windmill, the water, Roberto running around naked. She had no idea what it meant, but she couldn’t put it out of her mind. That Sunday she went to visit Márgara to see her new house. She followed her down the hall while Márgara showed her the rooms, television, the tiles she’d chosen for the bathroom and the place where the stairs to the baby’s room and the as yet non-existent top floor would be. Then, as they were talking on the patio next to the pool, Márgara asked her if her uncle had been able to contact her.
What did he want? Márgara asked. He asked me for your number; he said that he needed to speak to you.
I have no idea. He didn’t call me.
The next week the psychic uncle called three more times, always in the morning just before Edith left for the office. He was having more visions. On Tuesday Edith appeared as a marble statue at the bottom of the sea, her mouth gagged with dark algae. On Thursday Edith was naked in the snow, hugging an animal, a wolf maybe. It was eating her stomach, and she was covered in blood. On Friday Edith was in a garden by a spring; her fingers touched the water and then long dark roots stretched out from them, wrapped themselves around her neck and strangled her.
I need to see you, said the psychic uncle. I need to see you soon. They’re driving me crazy. If I’m with you I’ll know what they mean, said the psychic uncle.
Did you see the naked man again? Edith asked.
Not once, said the psychic uncle. You’re always alone.
Edith started to cry.
Stop calling me, she said and hung up.
Two days later, the phone rang in the middle of the night. The psychic uncle had had another vision. He was waiting with the car running and a change of clothes in a leather bag.
Give me your address, he said. I can be there in five hours.
Leave me alone, Edith answered.
It’s important that I see you. Give me your address or I’ll get it from Márgara, the psychic uncle said.
You can’t come to my house, Edith said. Let’s meet in a bar.
It has to be a private, safe place. You and I need to be alone. No one can interrupt us, said the psychic uncle.
I don’t know, do what you like, but don’t you dare come to my house, Edith said and hung up. She turned off the lamp and tried to get back to sleep, but she couldn’t. The tree, the algae, Roberto, the wolf and the roots growing out of her fingertips. She didn’t want to think about it. The sheets were suffocating her. She got up and went to the kitchen, where she stared at the tiles. Her nightshirt was wet with sweat and soon cooled in the kitchen air. She shivered.
I have to get away. I’ll go somewhere where he’ll never find me, she thought.
Her father called her from his bed. It was still dark outside, but he always woke very early. Edith made him breakfast and took it to him.
Who was it who called in the middle of the night? asked her father.
Wrong number, said Edith.
The psychic uncle spoke to her from a service station by the road. He’d had another vision while he was driving. Edith had appeared in the passenger seat. She was looking pale with her chest covered in a bin liner.
The psychic uncle asked Edith if she was OK, if she was feeling strange in any way.
I’m fine, said Edith.
Are you alone? Are the doors locked? he asked.
I’m with my father, Edith said. Everything’s fine, she went on and then looked out of the window. The sun was coming up. The buildings stood out as black rectangles against a luridly orange sky. It was cold. Daytime noises could be heard in the avenue.
The psychic uncle still had a couple more hours ahead of him. He asked Edith to reserve a hotel room for him so he could shower and have a nap. Edith didn’t know any cheap hotels.
Any will do, said the psychic uncle. Whatever seems best to you.
In the end, Edith told him how to get to one close by the airport. It was the hotel Roberto had taken her to when he said that he was on a business trip.
How much is it? the psychic uncle asked.
Edith said that it wasn’t expensive.
I don’t know if I’ll have enough money. I left in a hurry, said the psychic uncle.
Edith didn’t reply. Then, when it was time, she called a taxi, did her make-up in the mirror and checked her hair.
I’m fine, I’m perfect, she told herself before going out. This is nothing; it’ll make a good anecdote. Fobono will laugh like crazy when he hears it.
The psychic uncle was waiting for her on a sofa in the lobby in front of the reception desk. As soon as Edith got out of the taxi he took her arm and dragged her into the hotel. They went up in the lift without saying a word. The psychic uncle stepped back to let her into the room first. The wallpaper was the same as it had been five years ago. It hadn’t changed in thirty years: large orange flowers against a yellow background. The room was small and hot with a mini refrigerator for a nightstand, a television suspended from an iron frame and a window with a view of the back of a varnish and paint factory. Rumbling aeroplanes made the glass shudder three or four times a day.
The psychic uncle pointed to the bed.
Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Give me a minute. I have to go to the bathroom.
Edith lay down. She listened to the water running and the psychic uncle murmuring something on the other side of the door. The psychic uncle came out of the bathroom with a white towel in his hands. He dried his face, the back of his neck and his ears.
That’s better, said the psychic uncle. I needed to freshen up. I haven’t slept. The visions wouldn’t stop.
Has this ever happened to you before? Edith asked.
Never, said the psychic uncle.
I’m scared, Edith said.
I understand, said the psychic uncle, and he sat down on the edge of the bed, his shoulders dropped and his back hunched. Edith sat up.
Stay there. It doesn’t bother me, said the psychic uncle.
What did you see? Am I going to die? Edith asked. She smiled, as though she were trying to apologize for something.
I don’t know, said the psychic uncle. It would be a shame if anything were to happen to you; you’re so pretty. You’re prettier in person than in the visions, he said.
Thank you, said Edith, looking away.
The psychic uncle put his hands together on his lap and closed his eyes. He sat there very still in the hotel room. He was breathing heavily, and his nose began to whistle. His beard was wet, and his body trembled.
Why did you bring me here? Edith asked after a while.
Shh, the psychic uncle said, and he closed his eyes again. Please be quiet.
Edith got up from the bed and took a little bottle of whisky out of the minibar. She poured it into a paper cup.
Are you having one right now? What do you see? she asked.
There was an explosion, said the psychic uncle. Splinters everywhere. Lethal splinters, like spears. There’s a fire. The flames swallow you up. There’s smoke, a lot of smoke. Your flesh burns. You don’t want to get away. Your skin turns black, like burning paper, and it cracks. You can see the flesh underneath.
Edith downed the whisky in one.
Enough. I’m leaving. I don’t want to know any more.
The psychic uncle opened his eyes very wide and stared at her.
You don’t understand, he said. You can’t leave.
Because you can’t, he said and shut his eyes again.
Edith snorted in protest and looked for the remote to turn on the TV. Just then they heard sounds outside, shouting, a group of people running. The explosion came almost immediately afterwards, bursting their eardrums. The windows shattered, and a wooden beam flew in through the window and landed on the bed. Edith screamed in fright.
It’s beginning, said the psychic uncle.
A huge flame leaped up from the paint factory and expanded through the air. Gusts of ether and turpentine burned her eyes. The flames spread to the curtains, the psychic uncle’s beard, the bedspread and the flowers on the wall.
It’s here, said the psychic uncle. He stood up with his eyes closed and the flames all around him.
Edith screamed and banged on the door, which was locked.
Help! Help! Someone help me! she cried.
The fire consumed the psychic uncle. He was very still as he burned, standing ramrod straight with his arms down by his sides.
Edith banged on the door again until she heard someone on the other side tell her to calm down.
Stand to one side, I’m coming in, they said, and Edith pressed herself against the wall. The room was now just a cloud of flaming, translucent gas. Surfaces were turning dark and melting.
Here I come, someone shouted from the hall and kicked the door until it caved in. The psychic uncle opened his eyes, his head was a black bonfire, his beard and hair were nothing but flames. He opened his mouth, tried to scream and made as if to move toward Edith to keep her there, but his legs gave way and he fell to his knees on the carpet in the middle of the fire.
Edith stared at him in horror until someone took her arm and dragged her out of the room. A large cloud of black smoke was billowing in the hall, up against the ceiling. Edith saw people crouched down, their eyes red and their mouths covered in wet towels. Still holding her, the man who had rescued her ran towards the stairs. They leaped down them, and when they got to the lobby they found it was now a large hole open to the sky. A whole wing of the hotel had disappeared.
It was a plane, a wounded woman stammered as she walked through the wreckage. A plane fell on us, she said.
It was the factory, the factory exploded, the man said, still holding Edith by the arm. He was wearing a blue uniform; maybe he was a concierge or a receptionist.
Out, go outside, he shouted at Edith and pushed her through the hole in the wall into the garden. Then he headed back into the smoke.
Edith climbed over the rubble and piles of plaster and ran across the grass and the car park. In the distance, she heard sirens, and behind her, in the hotel, more explosions. Then she felt the heat from the fire.
Edith kept on running.