by Tony Warner
The girl stares out of the window. Not at me. Not at anything as far as I can make out. She is there every evening as I pass on the way home from work, a pencil stuck in the corner of her mouth, puckering up her top lip, almost closing her right eye. She has a desk lamp, which she rarely uses except on rainy or overcast days.
Her house looks directly on to the street. My shirt sleeve almost brushes her window sill. Not an infant; ten or eleven, maybe. Old enough to be taking her school work seriously, even the parts which she finds boring or difficult. The days she works hardest are those when she is using her coloured crayons. Then she does not look up as I pass, or stare into the distance. I wonder what dreams she has, where her mind wanders, propelled by her pencil, fuelled by her mother who I glimpse in the gloomy interior, surely insisting she work hard to get ahead.
He passes every evening the old man, making his way up the hill. Today he is slower than yesterday. When he was slower than the day before. I wait for the time when he will grind to a halt, not able to face those fifty more steps to the top. Will he turn into stone like the men in the statue outside the church or the rocks the sculptor piled one on top of the other in the main square? The mayor says they represent the heroes of the past, the great ones who made our city.
Were the great ones like this old man? If they were, they cannot have been so great. I think of people in the past. Were they just like us, working and eating and sleeping? Waiting for the world to change or for us to change? He passes. I pretend not to see, stare out across the lane. He pretends not to look at me, stares on up the street. Does he have a wife at home? Children? But he is much too old for children.
I am studying history, my favourite subject. History is about people. All the other subjects are about things. I take my crayons, draw a ship, the one which took Columbus to America. Why didn´t he fly? Maybe the Americans did not have any airports then, because they lived in tents and hunted buffaloes. The flags on the ship are red and gold, the colours of the flags in the city. Mamma says I should not take too much time on my drawing, that I must study the words in the history book and write my answers to the questions. She says I am a dreamer. The old man is not a dreamer. He has a job. He walks with purpose, if slowly. He has lived a long time. The world is real to him. He understands life.
What it must be to be ten once more, on the brink of life, trembling like a swimmer on a high diving board; excited. There will be fear, a flight into the unknown, a bursting arrival.
Where must I go? To the office every day, certainly. I shuffle the papers, agree decisions must be made. Avoid decisions.
At home I also avoid decisions. So few now the children have gone. What shall we eat? Can we afford a holiday again this year? Is the flat too large for the two of us? If we move, what furniture are we going to sell? Again today I avoid making a decision. We have lived like this for ten years. We may live another ten, twenty, a hundred. The girl has her choices to come, ones which will be forced upon her. Like me, she must make the final decision, to live or to die.
She is very serious. Dreams of becoming a doctor. Her biology books are in front of her. From time to time she copies one of the diagrams. Between times she enters reveries of how it will be. She is the heroine of her own film, her own fiction. Somewhere in Africa she nurses children, injects them with magic fluids which will cure them of their illness, protect them against malaria and AIDS. No, not AIDS; she is too young to know about AIDS. Even periods are beyond her ken, the whole messy business of sex and carnal love. I am beyond it, if I still go through the motions.
He is something in business. No, not business. He carries a briefcase. A lawyer! A lawyer defending poor people, which is why his shirt is so crumpled and worn. He defends them even though they cannot afford to pay him. It is their troubles which make him so slow and careworn. However tired he is he cannot turn down a case, studies the papers deep into the night. Eventually he finds the one fact which proves his client has not committed the crime, that he is innocent and can go free. But his client is poor and cannot afford to pay him.
Or he has lost his case. That day he stops half way up the hill, examines the dog dirt on his shoe, wonders if he has made a mistake. Is it his fault an innocent man has been found guilty? Worse, he has defended a murderer who has been released. Then the murderer goes on to kill someone else; a woman or a child maybe. On such a day the old man stops at the bottom of the hill, buys himself a beer in the bar to give himself courage to mount the hill.
What will he say to his wife? ‘I have lost a case; I have won a case. A free man is in prison. Another is dead because of me. I am a bad person and a bad lawyer.’ How will he get up the next day? Will he remember what has gone before, apologise to God, read his next set of papers? He feels as crumpled and worn as his shirt.
Her mother is tall. She has kept her figure, unlike so many of our women. Like Martha, turned into a soft ball by four children. Too many, I said, but the priest was on her side. No matter the apartment was too small, my salary barely sufficient, her womb over-efficient, my self-control deficient. Only saved by the surgeon’s knife, slicing its way through poisoned tissue.
The girl will never have that trouble, growing up tall and willowy like her mother. I see her at a college graduation, half a head taller than the other girls, long hair black as a moonless night. Desired, she frightens the young men, she is so serious. Her own desire is hidden by her ambition, her compassion. As yet she feels none. She loves her mother, fears her father, lives for the visits of her grandfather, who spoils her with chocolates and ice cream. Grandfather smells of sweat and old tobacco, talks of a world long ago lost; a world out of the history books when there was no freedom and police on every corner.
Saturday morning, she is not at her desk. She is playing handball at the sports centre or swimming at the beach. Mother takes her, towels stuffed into a woven shopping bag, their swimming costumes worn underneath, wet and uncomfortable on the way home, temporarily staining the seats of the bus. Father will have done the shopping. ‘Manuel!’ declares the mother, ‘you have forgotten the…….’
‘Papa always forgets something,’ says the girl.
Not like me. I have a list. My life is lived by lists. Shopping, family birthdays, dates of bills to be paid, reports to be written, meetings to attend, telephone calls to make, people to interview. When I retire the lists will remain, to be picked up by a younger man who comes after me, one whose ambition has not been ground down by the sandstone of the system.
He carries a boulder on his shoulders. I cannot see it, but it must be there. The boulder forces him to bend forward, to crawl slowly up the hill like the man in mythology who is forever pushing his load upwards, always to lose control of it at the last minute.
Papa was like that when he left, slow and bent. Some days he stood up straight. Those days he turned red, shouted at mamma. Never at me. Mamma shouted back. I think they enjoyed themselves then, like the dogs in the park who snarl and growl at one another, biting legs and tails. Afterwards they march off proudly, having shown what brave dogs they are. Papa and Mamma could not walk off. They stood snarling at one another until Papa went to work and Mamma took me to school. He left after a week when there had been no school and he had no work. Said nothing to Mamma. Forgot to kiss me ‘goodbye’.
When I finish school I will go and look for him. He will kiss me and call me ‘Princess’ again. Whenever I draw a picture he is in it somewhere: a man standing next to Columbus, a conquistador on a horse, an Eskimo watching the ice melt. I will be a private investigator. No. Girls are not detectives or private investigators. I will be a cleaner in the hospital, like Mamma. Eventually everyone has to go to hospital. One day Papa will come in with a cut or even a broken arm. He will see me and pick me up with his one arm. He is so strong he only needs one arm.
The old man cannot pick me up, though I am still only little. Long and thin, but little. He regrets having no-one to pick up, no bedtime stories to read. What does he read to himself before he goes to sleep? Mamma reads nothing. She sits in front of the television after supper, nods off to sleep, wakes to shout at the politicians before sending me to bed. Nowadays I read my own bedtime stories.
I am reading a book by an English man who lived here for a short while in the bad times. Once I read love stories but now I prefer imagination to the fiction of love. The hero betrays the woman; the woman betrays the man. The rulers betray everyone except themselves. Politicians betray even themselves. Politicians do not know it, but it is not they who are the rulers. Lovers do not know it, but love is a fiction. Only death is real.
Martha will live on long after me. She is five years younger, one in a succession of long-lived women. Why would she need a dried up old stick, one who cannot even pretend to give her satisfaction? The children will take her in. One of the girls, daughters in law ever jealous to keep all women away from their man, boys always willing to be mothered.
If I dared I would run away, find a house in a village far from anywhere. Grow tomatoes, keep chickens, grow a beard down to my waist. Shaving is such a waste of time. Time is a commodity which is not guaranteed.
I never see the girl’s father; the mother only rarely. Where is he? Working long hours somewhere on the other side of the city or in another country. Many were those in my youth who left for sea, away for weeks or months, returning with pockets full and heads empty, washed clean by brine. Her father will arrive home one day, captain of an oil tanker too huge to even enter the port. He will pick her up, throw her into the air, call her ‘my darling’, take them all off for a meal in the kind of restaurant I could never afford. She will show him her school books; tell him what medical school she will attend.
Mamma has her period. She says I will start mine one day soon. One of the girls in my class already has. Two years early says my teacher, annoyed at having to find her a clean PE skirt to wear. Next week we will have special lessons: the boys in one room with the male biology teacher, us in another room with our class teacher. The boys talk about what will be in the lessons and giggle. We have been better prepared by our mothers, more confident talking to us than to our brothers. We are all Catholic, of course, and know the church’s teaching about contraception, adultery, divorce and self-abuse. Disease, AIDS, unwanted babies: momma has told me everything. And men. Men are untrustworthy bastards, she says. (She rarely swears, so she must be serious). They will make promises, swear to look after a girl, marry her if she is good to him, love her for ever. Believe him and he will leave you with a house full of children and no money, says Mamma. Life is a business, do nothing until you have a legal document, all signed, sealed and delivered.
I understand the rules and the penalties, like I understand the rules and penalties in football. What I don´t understand is why anyone bothers with either of them. ´Hormones,’ says the biology master. We want him to show us one. When he cannot, we do not believe him, in the same way we do not believe the priest when he says the wafer is turned into God’s flesh. It still tastes of nothing, not even bread.
This hill gets steeper every day. Martha is upset. The youngest boy is taking his family to America. That makes three of the four out of the country, including all the grandchildren. The girl remains, but she is in love with an English man. They will marry and she, too, will be gone, leaving us alone with one another with nowhere to go on weekends or for holidays. She talked to me about it without cease last night. This morning all that passes her lips is cold coffee.
There is a strange car parked on the road this evening. I have seen it before. Dark blue like the sea on a stormy day. I have no idea of the make, even less of the model. Usually I see it only in the evening. This week I have twice seen it in the morning as well. A visitor, a friend, a lover. Who knows? The girl is at her books, which are piled up neatly next to her desk lamp. Her tongue is tucked in her left cheek, eyes half closed in concentration. Serious work tonight.
I must finish everything by the end of the week, my teacher says. All the work has to be in and marked before I change school. Next term I will be at the School of the Immaculate Conception behind the university medical faculty. Mamma will be the waitress in the restaurant. I can help sometimes, she says. Our new apartment is above the restaurant, looking out onto the busy street, so I can watch the cars and the buses and the motorbikes whizzing by instead of the old man crawling up the hill.
The people who come into the restaurant are very clever. They are the doctors and the students from the medical faculty. Many of them are women. Of course they are, says Mamma, women can do anything. I have never seen a woman driving a bus or a lorry. Except for foreign buses or lorries, but they do not count. Maybe if I study hard I could be a nurse or a doctor, not just the girl who serves the food or looks at them out of the bedroom window.
I stopped last night outside the girl’s window, only half way up the hill. The night was hot, I was slow, eaten by the heat. I have always climbed the hill in one pass. Not to do so is to admit to old age. The girl was not there. I looked through the slats in the blinds to the empty apartment beyond. Where has she gone? Off to Argentina in her father’s ship? Away to the capital, to the bright lights and temptations?
Martha tells me how slow I have become. She asks me a question. I pause for thought. One second? Two seconds? Ten seconds? Then reply. My boss complains I am slow. That report should have been finished yesterday. Why have I not telephoned for the information yet? We will need to find a younger man, one who can keep up with the pace of modern business.
I know I am safe. My retirement is close. Ease me out now and it will cost him twice as much to let me go. I am slow but thorough; the office can rely upon me. My boss gives me the boring jobs no-one else wants. He knows they will be completed, eventually. My bus is slow, packed full of passengers at the end of the day. The Park of the Palace drifts by; the university engineering building; the tennis school; the whole sweaty length of the Diagonal.
At my stop I am the last to leave, the automatic doors shutting close on my heels. Tonight I will tackle the hill in a single stage. No stopping for thought or breath. Determined, I scan the road. Clear, save for a single slow-moving bus. No point waiting for the lights. I can easily cross the road ahead of the bus.
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