The Gold of Mezzo-America
Sixteenth-century Spaniards conquered America by sword and cross destroying the Aztec Empire (not a good one), Conquistadores became Mejicanos. They still call the natives "Indios". In 1990 a Spaniard studying Prescott's book lands in MezzoAmerica.
The Gold of MezzoAmerica
Fernando García Izquierdo
‘With the first streak of morning light Cortés was seen on horseback, directing the movements of his little band. The natives were thunderstruck. An undefined religious awe crept over them as they gazed on the mysterious strangers and felt themselves in the presence of supreme beings who seemed to have the power of reading the thoughts scarcely formed in their bosoms. Timidly, as when one is in the presence of an all powerful god, they confessed all and more. The Spaniards, assuming an air of higher indignation, assured them that they would make such an example on them that the report of it would ring throughout the wide borders of the entire land. The fatal signal, the discharge of an arquebuse, was then given. In an instant, every musket and crossbow was levelled at the unfortunate natives and a frightful volley poured into them as they stood crowded together like a herd of deer in the centre of the large courtyard. They made scarcely any resistance, and there was no escape possible. The invaders followed up the discharge by rushing upon the natives with their lifted swords and, as the half-naked bodies of the latter afforded no protection, they hewed them down with as much ease as the reaper mows down the ripe corn at harvest-time.’
Resoundingly closing the leather-bound volume he had been reading, Hernan Balboa covered his eyes with a black cloth or mask (given to him at the Xochimilco coach-station with his tickets), which at once cut him off from any visual contact with the world outside, slouched sideways, pressing his tired head against the chilly windowpane and, after a while, fell asleep… and dreamt a fearful dream.
… that old Pancho Villa was holding up the coach with his band of revolutionaries, forcing the passengers to climb down on the gritty road in a mountain pass between two snow-capped rocky peaks;
… that we were obliged to complete our journey on foot, along a very narrow path, through intricate gorges and other kinds of very abrupt terrain, entering deep valleys, climbing up again… and a small hamlet appeared in the background among the shadows;
… I felt lost in the moonless night and yet the others were following me, and I had no notion how many of us had been stranded on that barren country; it was cold, bleak, biting weather… someone gave me a light tap on the shoulder;
… I turned round; there was a group of Castilian Hidalgos walking next to me; they had come all the way from my granddad’s village (‘Medina del Campo,’ they said) in search for gold; most of them carried swords, one carried a cross;
… I was stamping my feet when I felt another (this time furious) banging on my left shoulder; unless I was swinging my arms in a semicircular motion to try and hit my back with the palms of my hands to get warm. ‘What?!’ I cry.
Hernan Balboa woke up. The coach was static. His wife had been calling him. ‘Do you want to eat something, darling?’
Inside there were a few tiny yellowish lights high up, on the roof, but the rest of the coach was a blank shadow. One of those lights, the one opposite the couple on the other side of the corridor, gleamed directly upon her flowing auburn hair, making it look black and shiny; and her blue eyes glowed. ‘She’s deliciously attractive,’ he thought.
Balboa made a positive sign with his head in answer to his wife’s query and, without waiting for her next move, turned to gaze out of the window. They were static, in what seemed to be a mountain hamlet. Two or three gas-lamps threw a feeble bluish light upon a row of small adobe houses in the street where the coach had stopped. People, wrapped in blankets, were ambling up and down like phantoms in the night. ‘Such a spectral aspect all around,’ he thought; ‘am I still dreaming?’
He felt Tessa’s gentle nudge on his left elbow. Some severe-looking but otherwise friendly Indians, in their colourful ponchos, were coming along the corridor, carrying wicker baskets and busying themselves among the hitherto quiet travellers. A most delicious smell of fried onions now pervaded the heavy nipping air that had been coming in, apparently, with the newcomers who had left the doors open.
Soon he found himself with a pancake or tortilla in his hands, surely the most fantastic meal he had ever had, and he turned again to glance out of the window: the houses, the smoking chimneys, those three or four luminous points in the night, and a crew of Indians coming along slowly or else standing like statues. He wondered about primitive communities and life in general, when all of a sudden the whole prospect moved, the hedge of trees, the little houses, the people, all gliding away.
It was the coach, that was continuing the journey. The road, the rocky barriers, enormous shadows… Balboa was still thinking of the Indians, all gone, disappeared, mysteriously and frightening. Frightened he was indeed, specially because of the speed the coach was now taking, going up and down most dangerously.
‘An abandoned hamlet on top of the sierra, just passed.’ (He was at times a slow fellow, his mind occupied with what his eyes had perceived minutes ago.) ‘So full of life, so late at night!’
The tortilla woman must have also sold him a drink, for in his left hand he had a waxed container which was now empty but had a delicious odour emanating from it (‘tequila,’ he thought.) The pilot light was off when he looked about in his seat for a way to dispose of the paper-cup and, not finding it, left it on the floor at his feet. He lay back on his seat. What he did find, when he bent down searching, was the Prescott volume on the floor under his seat. He put it on his knees to keep it safe and, replacing the mask around his eyes fell asleep, still with the smell of the tequila paper-cup in his nose, and feeling the touch of the book on his fingers.
The day was breaking when he woke up, the sun was rising over the outline of the mountains and a strip of very pale yellow light, on the horizon, was running from one end to the other of the cordillera. And he felt a ghastly pang, all of a sudden, being as he was sure to be on the very roof of the world.
The coach was now rushing downhill, now uphill, turning this way, turning that way and downhill once again, and all the time at a maddening speed. As he bent his head down to retrieve Prescott’s book (which had again fallen to the floor), he felt dizzy, specially when he saw and smelled the tequila paper-cup under his heavy boot.
The air, as they ascended once more to the top of the cordillera (he thought) became keen and piercing. There was some heating inside the coach, but even so he was getting colder all the time, specially as he saw the snow peaks gliding past, at times far away, other times quite near, and each one looking, on its own, like a most threatening white mass soaring high up in the now clearing sky, with the most outstanding of them reflecting like diamonds in the nascent dawn.
‘Quite frightening!’ The vision scared him out of his wits. An unstable character, poor Balboa: it was that ceaseless gloom he bore that made him often feel so sick and tired, as if he had aged ten years in a few months. And in this instant (the taste of the tortilla in his mouth and the smell of the tequila in his nostrils) he felt worse than ever.
It was his spirit awfully altered by the view of those abysmal cliffs and those silvery barriers appearing and disappearing almost instantly before his eyes that finally caused the trouble. More than he could withstand. It was worse when the descent began in earnest, and he did not fail to notice it even when he closed his eyes. His gaze was fixed on the back of the coach exclusively, for he had peremptorily stood up. His stomach climbed instantly up to his throat. Icy winds were blowing alarmingly, sweeping down the side of the mountains, bringing with them arrows of sleet and snow. And Balboa was holding on to the back of his own seat, slouching. Such an impossible descent! (he thought) and his tummy was rumbling, his head had begun to reel, wondering as he was, whether the driver might not be up to the job of negotiating so many bends and turns of the narrow road at such a crazy speed. And with the way becoming more inscrutable at every turn, he abandoned himself to despair. Hernan Balboa, an Australian in his forties, had always been an orderly and cautious man, and had of course inquired at the bus station, before embarking upon such a hazardous journey, about the distance, the travelling time, every how often the drivers were to alternate, and so on; and he had been given assurances that everything was according to rule, and told not to worry. But now, nearly ten hours running, and with the certainty that the very same little man he had seen at Xochimilco was still at the wheel (and the vision of such big mountains gliding past) he became very worried, and more so when he noticed everyone including Tessa was asleep. He began to doubt about himself, thinking that it was all his fault, always the one odd man.
He whisked his way past his wife, trying not to awaken her, and came out into the aisle, feeling very dizzy indeed. The bus, the passengers and everything inside the bus, and the prospect outside which he could notavoid seeing as he moved towards the toilet: the mountains and the woodlands all turning around most confusingly. Holding now on to the seats of either row, now on the vertical bronze bars, now bending down to clutch the armrests, he sidled with unsure foot up the passage and stumbled into the clean little place. At last. He at once fell down on his knees, emptying his sore stomach and filling the place with a horrible acrid smell.
As he trudged back to his seat he became aware of a small person sitting on a high stool at the back of the vehicle, beside a big thermos container. The man was offering him something. Balboa drank a very hot, very sweet coffee and after that felt better. There was an expression of genuine happiness on Tessa’s pretty face seeing him back. She had stood up to let him make his way through to the window, and when he was seated, she tore open a tiny paper bag and handed him a perfumed piece of paper which he applied to his face.
‘Are you all right, Nano dear?’ she murmured, kissing him.
… it did him good to hear his nickname on her pretty mouth; when Lara started with her baby prattle, in Coogee, she had called him Nano, and Tessa had laughed, making the poor child weep: she had rushed to embrace and kiss the little one.
… ‘Now, Baby,’ she had said, still laughing, ‘say Hernan, again… Hernan!’ And again, no matter, she had cried Nano in answer. However many times she was asked, as many times the dear one had repeated the distorted name. And ‘Nano’ Hernan had come to be for his dear wife ever since.
… a truly loving family, always youthful, always united. Sydney, Coogee Beach… always enjoying life, playing, the sea and the sun and happiness. He felt like an old man now. His career had literally imploded. From being a celebrated international lawyer he had become unemployed, a redundant worker.
… when the time came for him, eight months ago, to take a decision about leaving Paris and getting away from it all, he had very much feared she might leave him. But here she was, accompanying him into exile.
… ‘My pretty blue-eyed Tessa, always with me. The same woman of twenty years ago, when they flew around the world. Now traversing with him the cordillera, towards the unknown.’ He thought of what he had left behind in the capital, Mexico City. Would Universidad Íberoamericana help him to publish his ‘Dorotea’?
With this thought in his mind and Tessa’s excellent head of hair now resting on his shoulder, Balboa replaced the black mask over his face and again fell asleep. When he opened his eyes next, the coach was speeding down to the coast. The whole jungle world around him was sparkling and full of life. Alas! he found that with the rumbling of the vehicle and the purring of the engine, his enjoyment was somewhat spoiled. He was a rather nervous person and would not perceive, in the circumstances, the greatness and the splendour of the world outside awakening to life; that fresh fertility he saw, the intense colours of the tropics, and specially the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, the cries of wild animals and the singing of the birds. Matter and motion: the murmur of streams and waterfalls, all the pleasure beauty brings, not only to the eyes, but to all the senses, the gentle morning breeze like a caress on your face.
He felt well for a change, but not fully satistied. To combat the fear of a catastrophe, still in his mind, he decided to go back to his reading, and thought of the valiant Conquistadores of old making this same journey on foot or horseback, four or five centuries back. Nature then was undisturbed.
… he felt, as he read, that he was one of them, castellanos… ‘como fuimos a Iztapalapa con Cortés, y lo que allí encontramos, y como quedó Gonzalo de Sandoval por guarda de Tezcuco…’
Outside, parched and sandy plains were intermingled with fields of exhuberant fertility. Trees of gigantic proportions, thickets of aromatic shrubs and plenty of wild flowers. Hernan Balboa was not looking. And when the jungle was no longer and he looked up, rows of lofty palmeras, flexible in the breeze which blew from the sea beyond, the first glimpse through the trunks of the thinner trees and… Voilà, the Pacific Ocean!
The windows were closed, but it became apparent that outside the weather was getting warm. All the same poor Balboa, after such a long night, huddled up in his seat with extraordinary fatigue. He was trying to convince himself that all was over, that having come out safe and sound after so many dangers, across so many canyons and mountain passes, without getting any the worse for it, there was now reason to be optimistic. He saw the individual with the thermos container coming to offer him a second cup of coffee, which revived his cold and tired body. This brought back some of his initial enthusiasm (that mood of ten days ago when he was talking to Antonio Salas in the capital), specially when the chap comfirmed that the dangerous descent was now over and they would soon reach the terminus.
The coach duly arrived at Lázaro Cárdenas, an unpretentious industrial city of which he had never heard before. The man, whose name the city had taken, had been president of the republic when Mexico so graceously welcomed thousands of Spaniards, escaping from the terrible repression of the new fascist state, in 1939 (Balboa learned about this afterwards), and many of them occupied university chairs, for they were the most learned professionals and professors that Spain had had in the thirties.
As he was climbing down upon arrival, he gave the driver a friendly shaking of hands, patting his shoulder. ‘Hello, hello! So, it’s goodbye for now, isn’t it? Bye-bye!’
And on the ground he said to himself: ‘Yes, absolutely! The very same man I saw in Mexico City jumping onto the driver’s seat. This is unbearable!’ he screamed mentally, ‘a thousand miles or more, and no change at all. A man of my own age.’ And he felt ashamed of himself, having remarked that the little fellow was twice as fresh as he was himself. ‘After such a long hazardous journey, driving in the dark most of the time!’
… the sun had by now climbed in the middle of the sky, over the mountains, a dazzling ball of light which made me think of what I had just read in Prescott’s book; that the Aztecs revered the sun as their God, a most terrible one who made the Almighty Father of Abraham look soft and mild by comparison.
… oh, the god of Tenochtitlan who had to be fed periodically with the blood of thousands and thousands of maiden girls… beautiful Sparkling God, red at night, sinking in the ocean in the evening, powerful instrument of life and death.
… wanting blood-victims, for which the Aztecs had to make war against the Tlascalans and other natives all around, who were always defeated, allowing the savage people of Tenochtitlan to go back to Mexico with a train of beautiful young women for their sacrifices.
‘Come on, Nano, let’s go!’ he heard his wife who was waiting with the luggage. Even when she was feeling tired, she had a delightful sweet voice.
‘You’re holding everybody up.’
‘A terrible god, my adorable Tessa,’ Balboa said, getting hold of her waist as they proceeded, each one with a couple of cases.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You see the sun up there, don’t you? It was adored by the Aztecs (among other gods) and it was the most sanguinary of all. They needed victims, blood, you see.’
One of the first things the Balboas did in town was to go to the Post Office and get a telephone connection with London. Or rather Tessa did, for she particularly wished to get news from their daughter, Lara, while Hernan waited outside the door. She got a line and learned, to her great satisfaction, that the young woman was perfectly well. ‘Why worry, dearest,’ he said, ‘she is twenty, older than you were when we had her.’
Back at the bus station they recovered their luggage and sat on a café terrace, waiting for the local bus which would take them on the last leg of their expedition. They ordered some tacos and icy drinks, and after the meal, Hernan was seized by the whim of being served a whole coconut, as he had seen others being served. He called the waiter once more. From the coach, just an hour ago, he had seen row after row of palm-trees loaded with tons of the oval brown fruit, balancing in the wind. The waiter came, opened a coconut in two with a sort of machete, and Balboa drank the milk and parsimoniously ate the rest, scraping it out with a sharp knife, while his wife ate an icecream as her ‘pudding’ (as she said.)
Suddenly, a tom-cat entered the café terrace, moving slowly about the tables and chairs, tail on high, probably in search of some scraps of food that might have fallen on the floor. She was a cat lover, if ever there was one, and at once bent down on her seat to caress the feline, who for a moment looked hopefully at the beautiful lady, while refusing to let himself be touched, and, after a while of semi-confrontation, the pussy mewed loudly and stalked away.
Hernan smiled, wondering what kind of satisfaction his wife could derive from touching such a mangy little creature, ugly and full of infection. To stop him from laughing at her, she got hold of one of his hands, caressingly, and searching for a subject of conversation, said:
‘Oh darling, I’m glad we left, at last!’ she breathed in the breeze coming directly from the ocean, her lips and cheeks showing a most beautiful smile.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘That job was killing you, my dearest love.’
‘Adieu Paris, la plus belle capitale du monde,’ he said in a sing-song voice. He was looking and wondered whether Tessa was really saying what she thought. Lately there had been some discussions between them, precisely, about the convenience or otherwise of leaving France. Of course, if he had gone on working for the Americans, he would have sooner or later given up the ghost. That he knew; but about emigrating to Mexico, even he was not sure. His mind often turned out to be full of hairbrain ideas.
‘Sooner or later you’d have had to leave,’ she said, as if guessing his thoughts. They would have burned you out.’
She was right, of course. However, it hurt him she should have raised the subject now. She knew it would make him feel unhappy. Now it was he who decided to change the subject.
‘Has Lara asked,’ he muttered, ‘I mean, has she said something about… mentioned me at all?’ There was a tinge of irony in the question, mingled with infinite sadness. And he obtained no reply.
‘I knew she wouldn’t,’ he concluded, bitterly.
… he was a man with a chip on his shoulder: from a respected international lawyer he had become a redundant worker and that was what troubled him now. The rest was… ‘Boloney!’ he thought. He had come to Mexico, what for? to be buried?
… the truth, the end result of all this was that he had never really cared for the law or finance, and much preferred poetry. His love for literature had destroyed his life. His daughter was right.
… once upon a time he had insisted on leaving Australia, thus cutting her roots with the only country she knew and where she was born. She was then only eleven. And he went happily knocking about, thinking an offer might come from a publisher.
… his recent quarrel with his American partners had been the last straw; thus ruining his life and the life of those who loved him. Ricky was right, it he had thought of Lara, he’d have kept his job, a partnership. How long would it take for Tessa also to call him a failure?
And a sad Hernan Balboa, who had been playing nervously with the bits of coconut-shell on the table, turning and turning them in his ten fingers, by an association of ideas again thought of the palm-trees, full of coconuts, the flexible trunks, the wind and the Pacific. Like in Australia!
Again he failed to notice that his wife was talking to him. ‘Australia, you know, this place reminds me of our home in Coogee. Only the ocean there, facing east, from Coogee I mean. Whereas here, west. Lázáro Cárdenas, a city on the Pacific, like Sydney. Now I think of it, I had never heard of this city before.’
‘As a matter of fact, neither had I,’ he replied. ‘I think I’ve already told you.’
‘I like the place,’ she said, that beautiful smile on her face.
Indeed, Lázaro Cárdenas was a lively place; the sound of music everywhere; a fine scent of flowers and good cooking, and the people, quite interesting too, crowding the streets and gardens and plazas.
‘Full of vitality,’ he said, ‘as most Mexican towns are, including the city of San Antonio… remember? which just happens to be stranded on the other side of the border.’
The terrace where Tessa and Hernan Balboa were sitting became crowded in a moment, quite unexpectedly. They were in a big square, the conjunction of three main streets; and this circumstance provided the couple with a live spectacle they had not anticipated; for the place became full of animated people in a moment, all shouting and chanting together: men reciting slogans, women raising their hands and dancing, perhaps playing castanets, and men and women singing revolutionary songs, accompanied by sort-of-mariachi groups, men strumming guitars and mandolins. They saw by the many banners and flags in the air that it was a movement of teachers and other educational staff asking for change. A man standing on the back of a utility van, which passed by at low speed, surrounded by militants and demonstrators of the working classes, was shouting communist slogans through a megaphone. Another man nearby was handing out political propaganda of some sort to the the militants surrounding the vehicle. The printed matter was instantly distributed among the strollers or bystanders on the footpaths: stickers, pamphlets and other material. One of the two men standing on the van was dangerously bending down to hand the material to those moving along raising their hands to reach the vehicle. The other militant with a megaphone was telling all and sundry about the injustice of a system which allowed the privileged few to monopolize wealth and power, consuming everything and poisoning in passing air and water, nature and all natural resources. Theirs was a rich country and the government should plan for a better distribution of the produce of labour, and not simply allow a privileged few to accumulate their capital and use it to exploit the people.
Hernan looked at the man bending down to pass his material on. ‘Watch him!’ he shouted to his wife. But lovely athletic Tessa (who had felt itchy all this time) was already running to join the demonstrators. Her father had been a militant tradeunionist and her mother a teacher of French in Liverpool, who had come from Paris and married Peter McNally in the years between the two wars, also a leftist. And she stood up full of enthusiasm. She had given her husband an unclear slap to follow, which was not followed by any effect, for someone had to stay looking after the suitcases at their feet.
She had such a slim waist and long legs that it was a thrill to watch her going away, in her short skirt, clapping her hands together every time the public shouted a revolutionary slogan (she was a tradeunionist herself) thinking of the days she was an English teacher. Indeed, there was a spirit of revolt in her, partly inherited from her ancestors, partly born in the days when she was at university (a leader then in a students’ union.) Specially when she read in the biggest of the banners the two words ‘Educación Nacional’, she couldn’t be absent, she thought. Repeating in an undertone the slogans she was hearing, she stalked to the middle of the square, the point where two or three groups of protesters converged together, from the main avenues of the city. She approached one of the militants, who despite the fact that her interlocutor had spoken in Spanish, answered back in perfect English (thinking no doubt that she had to do with an American citizen) and Tessa’s excitement knew no limits. For the woman explained that the demonstrators were asking for their rights, good teaching conditions, reasonable salaries, better schools for the children… words that Tessa kept echoing, with much feeling, as the other was uttering them.
‘The same all over, dear Hernan,’ she exclaimed panting, as she recovered her seat at the café-terrace, sighing and out of breath.
‘Bravo!’ said the husband, placing his book inside his travelling bag and snapping the catch. ‘You might have tried harder and fared worse.’
At times, she truly failed to understand her husband. That odd sense of humour! She knew for a fact that he was as conscious a revolutionary as she was. What was he playing at? At that moment, in point of fact, he was thinking with some resentment of their daughter. And Tessa of course knew it.
‘Such a lovely dear child!’ he thought (voluntarily underrating himself). Why had he not directed his life more sensibly, and the three would have still been the happy family it had always been. (‘Hernan, be pragmatic, mate,’ everybody told him, ‘care about your job. Forget about the rest.’)
‘Think no more about that, Nano.’ It was Tessa. So agitated just now with her recent little adventure. Were they going to quarrel now? A perfect married couple, destined from birth to meet together and always understand one another. Was vulgar misunderstanding to crop up between the two? She had been telling him about the teachers’ demo and felt both disappointed and very angry when he did not listen.
‘No way in a so-called free world,’ she shouted, getting hold of her husband’s coconut shells and passing them on to another table with a banging sound. ‘No way, my dear Nano,’ she went on, more sweetly, ‘where learning and culture count for little or nothing. To make governments change?’ A guffaw. ‘Of course there’ll always be protests, and one day….’
‘One day the smart will become still richer, dirty rich,’ he interrupted her discourse, ‘then they will become so wealthy and so big they will burst, and the poor will still have nothing to eat and will die.’
Tessa and Hernan had been married for nineteen years and had during that period emigrated several times. They had met in London, while studying at university, she having just started a Bachelor of Arts course and he, a postgraduate student from Madrid, trying to obtain an economics degree. The encounter took place in a small eating-room, in a narrow lane in Soho, which was very popular with students. Hernan had entered the place to have a quick lunch and be gone to attend his afternoon lectures. He was sharing with other students one of the six or seven tall round tables at which customers rather stood than sat while consuming their meagre portions, even though there were some stools for those who wanted to use them.
The waiter quickly brought Balboa’s meal over, and the latter had hardly begun to eat, when he became aware of the presence of a very pretty girl sitting on one of those tall stools, next to him: her hair was a lovely glossy auburn, gracefully curled around the neck; her forehead was high, and her eyes not only denoted great spirit, but in addition they were perfectly blue, the colour of a clear sky in summer, and Balboa particularly liked that, to the point of becoming impertinent in the insistence of his regard. He went back to his big steak-and-kidney-pie, guiltily casting his eyes down.
After a moment of confusion on both parts, she said, with a smile full of sweetness, ‘Hello!’ And now it was his turn to be very embarassed. He stammered some words in his broken English; and she laughed, no doubt at his accent. At once she covered her rosy lips with her hand and mumbled an apology, blushing. He coughed. Soon thereafter the two were engaged in conversation. The girl wore a brown jacket and a straight skirt of the same colour, rather short. He wore a rather worn-out flannel suit, and a grey tie. During the whole of their talk (she sitting and he standing) the girl was at pains to hide her fresh round knees from him, pulling the hem of her skirt down with both hands all the time. For on her high stool and with her feet resting on a little steel-bar below, the student boy might be visualising her white thighs.
The poor girl became agitated now, noticing he was staring, and the student again guiltily cast his eyes down. But the confusion, beween so handsome a young couple, in fact only lasted a moment. He thought she was adorable, sweet-tempered, always smiling and quite natural. She flew into a rage, just an instant (perhaps she misunderstood the Mediterranean fellow), but calmed down just as instantly, and laughed again; and he laughed with her. Those wonderful eyes, superbly expressive: there was joy in her face. And in his too.
A conversation had begun. She introduced herself as Tessa McNally, and he at once asked her if she was Irish. For he had read about Ireland, Irish literature, and thought he knew. She answered in the negative.
‘But, your name,’ he said, trying to be gallant, ‘ and with your eyes and hair…, a specimen of real Irish beauty.’
She stood up, tossing her head to one side, that marvellous auburn hue, now shining in the sunshine which entered through the window as they went to pay the bill, one following the other. For he had also stood up, his gaze fixed on her all the time, and as she turned round to let him go on, he saw her face again. It was the white of her eyes that brought out the shining blue, and that circling darker line which he now saw in all its splendour of the sunshine in the street.
‘Sorry, I have to go now,’ she said, half unwillingly, as he thought in a kind of bliss.
The girl now remembering he had asked something, muttered: ‘Yes, Irish origin; but born in Liverpool.’
Luckily, they found they were going in the same direction, for both had classes to attend in the afternoon, and when four or five minutes later they said good-bye, shaking hands, they had made plans to meet again.
For Hernan Balboa that chance encounter was divination. For ever more, only one idea occupied the foreign-student’s mind: the image of the girl of the blue eyes. He had never seen anything so adorable as that English-Irish girl. He constantly thought of those rosy cheeks and her smiling face, her long athletic legs so white and lovely. And that one single thought persisted in his mind at night, and during his quick breakfast in the kitchen, and the whole morning during the lectures; and in the faculty library where he often went to take notes, and consult books... always and everywhere blue-eyed Tessa was in his mind.
They chose for their subsequent meetings a tea-room which had the Spanish name of ‘Flor y Nata’ and which reminded Hernan of a cafeteria in the centre of Madrid, he said, where he often had coffee, ice-cream or a milk-shake. She liked the place, too. She was so nice that she liked everything he liked. At first it was for her an adventure, going out with a Mediterranean fellow, then she began to like him. They spent many afternoons in the place together, talking animatedly while having capuccino coffees and cake. She spoke of her life in the north of England, of her parents, her years at grammar-school in Liverpool, how she had obtained a state scholarship to come to university. He spoke of his life in Madrid, under the boot of savage fascism, and of the day when his heart was suddenly filled with a deep desire to become a writer (for he was in a rush to tell this), listening in Spanish to stories by good authors, like Dickens. His father had bought a big radio for Christmas, 1940, after the war. He had then started to read classical novels, borrowed from the public library, beginning with Dickens, followed by Fenimore Cooper, Pérez Galdós and others.
From the moment he met Tessa, Hernan’s life changed. He no longer felt homesick: there were many good things in England, and he began to love his life in London as a visitor and student. Though, if the truth be told, he still found it hard to keep a fast hold on his life (that dreamy life of all displaced persons), specially when he got up in the morning and found himself in a small shared room, where he no longer watched, in the mornings, from his window the sunny street of old. Yet, with a lovely English girlfriend, little by little he forgot about the old country and his comrades back home. The idolised image of a most adorable English creature ocupied all his mnd, made him forget all the rest. In the morning during lectures; in the afternoon if it was not one of the days when they met in the cafeteria, and at night in bed, always and everywhere he thought of Tessa. He had never before been so deeply in love. In fact, he had never had a sweetheart or a girl he could call his. He had occasionally, during his law studies, dated young ladies, often from other faculties, as very few girls studied law those days in Spain. But he had never had a peseta in his pocket to take an attractive girl anywhere. Nor did he have a penny now. He tried to find temporary employment, washing dishes in a restaurant, and earn some pocket money; but it was not sufficient. And he feared she might leave him. But Tessa turned out to be a most loving girlio. A sweet smile on her face, she told him one day that he needn’t spend any money on her. They would stroll in the park or walk in the big avenues under the plane-trees, or do other things that cost no money; and if one day they had to enter a tea-room because of bad weather, she always rushed to offer to share the bill. She even suggested opening a joint account in a local bank, which would serve, she said quite seriously, to make sure neither paid in excess, when they entered a café, and for when one day they got united in life (if they chose that path, she added quite seriously.)
‘When we get united in life?’ he echoed her words later in bed, and got suddenly worried. The truth was that he had never thought of the future in that sense. Though he was the son of a high civil servant in Madrid, he was too stupid for numbers, and in fact he had imagined he would never be able to unite his life to a pretty fiancée, for lack of money, unless he took one day a liner to emigrate to New York.
But Tessa was wonderfully natural, downright real, the least artificial young woman he had come across. He knew. He loved and he understood her: she had come to think that their relationship could one day become permanent, because she truly loved Hernan and was sure that her love was reciprocrated, and there was no second thought or fantasy of any kind on it. Indeed, they were two loving creatures, who met purely by chance, and being together soon discovered they were made for one another.
All this had happened so quickly that Hernan had not even noticed the change. He was caught in her embrace, so to say, as when one is caught in a net, a lovely tinted veil, and the colours were Love, Companionship, Bliss.
‘Durable love,’ he cried. ‘This is what I sought. She knows best, oh, my pretty little bue-eyed Tessa, cross my heart I love you best of all!’
And as he caught her fine body round the waist, saying goodbye, now every evening, her mouth glued to his in a long voluptuous kiss, he knew he was the happiest of all mortals. Crushing her soft body to his own, a tumult of wild dreams and real happiness mingled with a sense of fear and undefined danger… he only knew that he wanted more and more. His heart was brimming with supernatural bliss!
Tessa was a most exquisite lover, the more so because she feared so much to love her Hernan. At times, in his arms, she was trembling. And yet, she followed him wherever he wished. Only one thing: she was reluctant in the end to allow him… wouln’t let him go all the way to the natural goal… the completion of their love. She was determined.
A most exquisite girl, falling in his embrace and trembling. Tessa had become indispensable to him. And yet, he still thought of his career, his country, his friends, his past, was he to say goodbye to all that? Worse, he couldn’t ask her to join him and constitute a family; he would never find a job in England corresponding to his qualifications. As for Tessa, she was nineteen, still a minor. How was she not to hear and consult her parents. Also he could never ask her to give up her studies at university, her state scholarship and all that. She had just started.
The kisses, the hugs, the laughs together, they both shared with delight. While these went on they forgot that anything else existed in the world. More and more loving moments, invariably more entangled together, her warm lips, her endearing forms so angelical, and at the same time so mature, a fine athlete, that girl! He searched, and found so many reasons for loving her so madly, the pretty face, her body, her clear intelligence, their conversations, her innate sympathy. As the days and then weeks went by, meeting regularly and spending longer hours together, either in a café or the cinema, or strolling in the streets, he felt that deep compulsion, so irresistable in a man, they say, that strange femenine perfume lingering around her neck doing the rest, which at once sent through him a keen pang of lust he at times could not master, always seeking ways and means for touching one another, cuddling in the dark. And she somehow could not but follow him wherever he chose to lead her. Hernan Balboa was not, by any means, an insensible lover who always sought physical contact; it was her spirit he loved best. And getting to know her very well, he sometimes brought with him a bunch of wild flowers he had gathered at a nearby green he had to cross in order to arrive at the meeting point, two or three blocks from the girls’ university residence. Such a pleasure when they met, to observe the charming smile she offered on seeing the lovely posy, her pretty face, her lifted arms, her whole figure glowing and giving. And when he held her in his arms, both her hands pressing round his neck, saying thank you and offering her mouth to kiss, he felt again that desire, which always cropped up at these moments, to possess her, to posses her!
It happened that his room companion, Klaus Antmann, went to spend the Christmas holidays in Dortmund with his family, and Hernan Balboa had suddenly the little room for himself. It was not at all surprising, therefore, that at a certain stage of this constant and friendly loving and touching, whatever contradictions there might still be in both of them, or perhaps because of them, a rather dangerous step was now taken, and what was bound to happen did of course happen… accidentally. He had invited her one afternoon to have a cup of tea with him, in his room, and these visits were repeated, for a cup of tea in her room in the residence was impossible, visits by men being absolutely forbidden. In his room all happened.
One evening, poor Tessa threw her lovely arms around her lover’s neck, crying most miserably. He did his best to calm her; for they had met for a walk in a park. All to no purpose.
‘Oh, I’m pregnant, Hernan, my Hernan, ay. ay. ay!’ The regular time had passed, and her periods were missing and so on. The outburst having taking him by surprise, he did not know what to do or what to say, like the poor immature young man he was, despite his twenty-two years of age. ‘I don’t want it,’ she cried. ‘It’ll change my life. Oh, it’s horrible!’
‘Oh, darling Tessa, he mumbled. ‘It’s… it is not. We shall feel more… more united.’
Her arms were still around his neck and shoulders, and he heard her weeping and murmuring, ‘How will I do my uni… course…’ She broke into a torrent of tears.
They were strolling along one of the avenues of a park they knew well, where the smell of flowers was mingling with the precious perfume he had come to identify with his young lover (a tiny Lancôme bottle he had given her as a present.) But there had been that change in Tessa. She had ceased crying as they walked; but had refused to take his hand this time, and each one moved at a different side of the narrow path. Tessa was inconsolable.
Shortly afterwards they visited the Australian High Commissioner’s office, which happened to be very near her residence, in the Strand. A number of papers were filled in, and after some time Hernan was granted an entry visa. Because of her status as a British citizen Tessa herself did not need to comply with many requirements, Australia then being a British Dominion. And one day they flew to Australia together. There were those days many liners doing the passage Southampton-Sydney, among others, starting from European ports, and at least Tessa McNally would have qualified as an assisted-passage migrant (if they had gone by boat); but they chose to fly to the new country, by Qantas, because of her pregnancy.
Ten years thereafter they did the return trip, via the Pacific Ocean, this time on a big modern liner, ‘SS Canberra’, of the P.&O. line, and with them, this time, there was a little girl, Lara. They spent some time in North America, a stop-over which had not been envisaged when they embarked in Sydney, and which altogether changed their plans. For when finally they settled in Paris, where they lived and worked for another ten years, he was no longer an Australian patent agent, but an American attorney.
The road which the local bus was to take the Balboas to the village of their destination ran most of the time alongside the ocean coast. The vehicle itself was a fifty-year-old wreck which threatened to break into pieces any minute, once started on the badly-tarred road, popularly called the guagua (or ’ómnibus’) in local language. It was already at the bus-station when they arrived punctually at two o’clock, talking animatedly and carrying two cases each. There were other people there waiting for the guagua, lying on the ground or standing up.
At twenty past two the driver made his appearance. A man of authority, in the circumstances, he held back the poorest of the travellers, obliging them to wait on the road until the European-looking, better-dressed citizens had climbed in and taken their seats. They were ‘indios’, the poor people, who fell back on the ground or squatted for the time being against the wall of the building, with their tickets in their hands, which were in due course punched by the proud fellow, allowing them to clamber up then.
… they’re the people I saw selling their produce in the open-air market which we crossed this morning to reach the main plaza. Figs, berries, and some big yellow flowers, which they kept in rusty buckets, humbly offering them for sale to the passers-by, but almost never exchanging a word with the purchasers.
… women of little stature with their children and their produce, all on the ground as they are here in this ‘bus-station’; the same buckets they hold in this crowded guagua now; Tessa wanted me to photograph her with a most lovely girl of twelve, one knee on the ground, in the market, the cathedral in the background.
Indeed Tessa Balboa loved people and loved life. She offered her seat to a woman with child who was accompanied, besides, by a girl of three or four. But, strangely enough, the young mother refused the offer, and only consented to pass on her little daughter, whom Tessa placed on her lap, already half-asleep the little angel. Gazing upon the little one afterwards, with infinite tenderness, she got her handkerchief out of her pocket, and wiped the tiny dribbling nose. Neither mother nor daughter uttered a word the while.
All of a sudden, the Indians left the bus at a turn of the road, in a rather inhospitable land, where some men were seen in the distance, working perhaps, under the torrid rays of a midafternoon sun. Yes, they were gathering some fruits of nature. A desolate, irregular primeval garden full of giant cacti like ancient trees of many grotesque forms, with clusters of greenish fruit and dahlia-like flowers of different glossy colours, mostly yellow and pink. The travellers who had recently left the guagua were moving slowly, with their empty buckets and containers towards a village of some twenty houses, very much in the background.
Soon thereafter the bus entered the village, known by the romantic name of Playa Azul. The terminus was in an irregular big square at the intersection of the two main streets, the one going down to the ocean and the other, much longer, running perpendicular to the first, taking the way of the coastline. One of those who had been waiting in the plaza for the guagua to arrive at once approached the two travellers with a broad smile: a pretty, rather diminutive plumpish woman of between thirty and thirty-five, merry and talkative. The Balboas, who had not expected any reception at all, saw her as they descended from the bus.
‘Don Berto ‘phoned this morning, telling me you were coming,’ she said, and introduced herself, ‘I am Lupe.’ A spritely little person, who helped the two travellers, catching at once hold of Tessa’s big suitcase.’
… Don Berto! The same generous Mexican who has offered us accommodation in the capital is now giving us the opportunity of an extensive holiday right on the seashore.
… I had known Professor Alberto Mencía in Paris, by chance, and he is now trying to have one of my books published by Universidad Iberoamericana in the capital. Wonderful useful acquaintance.
Half way to the house (according to what Lupe was saying) they came upon a perfectly oblong little square, with a church at one end and full of palm-trees and flowers of many kinds. There the Balboas became, unexpectedly, living witnesses of a most scandalous affair, performed by about half a dozen stray dogs, some big, some little, and some middle-sized, but all mangy, thin and bony; and every one of a different race, though similar in the degree of dirt that covered them all; the whole pack, a crew of noisy bastards! all howling, barking, dancing and frisking around the most piteous-looking little bitch ever seen or imagined. The poor persecuted female was trying with all her might to break out of the siege. Unsuccessfully. And knowing perhaps that she was caught, that she had not the slightest chance of sneaking away, she finally gave up. One of the attackers, a monster of a big dog, after having turned a couple of times this way and that, round and round his victim, jumped upon her, his long red penis preceding him: and the usual shaking and trembling and tongue-hanging of a suddenly heated manhood now took place. When the performance was over, the monster ran away without even caring to look back at his paramour. All the other dogs began now to dispute rightful possesssion of the bitch, barking and lifting their dirty snouts, and claiming their turn, causing again great din and tumult in the public road. (Oh, the ugliness of sexuality! thought Balboa.) Fighting one another, however, the dogs gave occasion for the bitch to slip out of the siege. She ran away down the road for all she was worth. The machos still fought one another, even while running madly in a pack after the miserable little victim. Their barking and howling never ceased until they all were well out of sight.
As soon as the sombre spectacle, which seemed to have attracted the attention of no one but the Balboas, was over, Lupe turned to the huerita linda, as she called Mrs. Balboa, on account of her clear blue eyes, and invited her to come with her into the church, to say a prayer to Our Mother of Guadalupe. Hernan Balboa could not gather why the young woman had not asked him to go in as well; but all the same he at once followed them. It was a small place of cult, very well looked after. The same as the outside, which was pretty, with a big dark oaken door which was open, and the stucco on the façade was cream-coloured and the trimmings red-brick, the same colour as the terracotta roof, with a rather small belfry in the middle. Indeed, he had not failed to notice the perfect state of the outside as concerned cleanness and beauty.
The interior was grand and luminous, even if nobody was to be seen around or appeared to be expected. And yet, despite its luminosity it was a most depressing place, full of dark corners, locked confessionals, holes and niches here and there. A distant speck of yellow light could be detected in one of these dark secret spaces, which ostentatiously displayed on top the legend of ‘Santa Capilla’. ‘Well, well,’ he muttered, ‘I’m discovering these days a new aspect of my catholic religion, even more retrograde if possible than what I knew in the old country.’ And not only in Playa Azul, for Hernan Balboa was specifically referring in his mind to Mexico City, where he had met an ecclesiastic who claimed to descend from one of the oldest nations of Mezzo-America, the Mixtecos, of whom the Aztec race of warrior was a branch. They had met by chance in the Cathedral, the very spot where the man’s ancestors had been murdered by the Spaniards, some centuries ago, carrying the cross. Yet, this descendant of the Aztecs was performing today the services of mass, eucharist and communion on the very same spot where the carnage took place, under the sign of the Cross. The very cross that had been instrumental in the massacre was being used by the man to impart Christ’s message to the ‘indios’. And Hernan now was thinking of the massive cathedral in the capital and seeing this luminous provincial temple, with a colourfully dressed and exaggeratedly bejewelled Virgin Mother, and enough flowers surrounding her to fill an entire shop. He remained for a long time in the main aisle, far from the ladies, who had entered one of the capillas, contemplating one of the two lateral walls, entirely occupied by about half a dozen large shelves, full of ex-votos, offerings to God Almighty, and to his Holy Mother Mary: guayavas, pineapples, bananas, durangos and many other fruits, some of them in a state of decomposition such that one could hardly see the items concerned, so full were they of flies and wasps and other insects quietly attacking the succulent produce! There were as well other offerings, no doubt brought there by the fervorous people of the place: such as walking-sticks, moth-eaten umbrellas, old and broken spectacles, crutches of all sorts, false legs and arms, bandages with blood-stains turned black, and even human bones and the bones of some domestic animals, orderly laid down in cloth or canvas sacks spread on the floor. But specially there were calaveras, human skulls which might have been there one week, or a year or some decades or more; all now arranged on the shelves.
The cottage Professor Mencía was so kindly offering the Balboas was right on the other side of the village. Lupe halted before the small property, opened the door and after seeing them in, also stepped inside. Like most other houses it was made of adobe-bricks, with a whitewashed façade. It was not far from the sands and the ocean shoreline, as indeed none of the village houses were.
‘You sure’ll like it. Anyhow, I’ve shown you where I live, for whatever you may need… I’ll oblige,’ Lupe said, handing the keys on to Hernan Balboa. Before saying goodbye, she hung on Hernan’s forearm on tiptoe and whispered in his ear she planned to come regularly to do the housework and water the garden.
‘Oh, yes!’ he thought as Lupe went to wish his wife a good night; but why didn’t she tell all this to my wife… and not me?’
When Lupe left Tessa suggested they should not switch the light on. Hernan turned to his wife and hugged her, saying: ‘At last alone, darling. You and me.’ She threw her bare arms round his neck and kissed him. ‘I think we’re going to be very happy here,’ she whispered. He went on caressing her as she was getting rid of some of her clothes. She was feeling too hot, she said, and tired after such a long journey. And he became suddenly annoyed, for no reason, she thought.
‘Now, with this sultry air, to which we’re not used. It’s painful!’
‘What is painful, do you mean… that I’m near you?’
‘No,’ she just said, drawing away. Indeed, her body was warm and moist, and this, somehow, increased his desire to go on kissing her and pressing for more. But Tessa did not respond, for all he came again and caressed her. She was ready to go to bed.
‘It’s not seven o’clock,’ he protested.
‘You may have some supper, if you wish; Lupe’s left plenty of things in the fridge, and drinking water.’
He tried again, but she broke loose from him. ‘No! and please don’t put the light on.’
Hernan gnashed his teeth with uncontained rage. Grabbing her by the shoulder, he cried: ‘But I insist.’
‘Sorry, dear, this is not the moment. I’m very tired, and so are you, by the way. We’ll have all the time in the world for making love. Now I’m going to bed,’ she repeated, firmly.
He felt the need to hurt her. ‘Mind the mosquitoes don’t bite,’ he said, ironically.
‘That’s why I told you not to switch the light on,’ she said, angrily this time.
Her words made him feel frustrated. She was not so endearing as she used to be. If only she were ready to meet him halfway. He did love her and in this moment desire her terribly. All the same he left off trying and moved away, though he did turn his head back once again, and saw her handsome naked body as she was putting on her pyjama-pants, lifting one leg in the air; and a ray of light crossing the room from window to window made the round knee shine gloriously. He would have loved to go back and touch it, but she had completed her preparations and entered the bed, and he now moved quietly on, hoping his bad temper might go away watching the dark-blue expanse outside and the little twinkling stars coming out one after another, so swiftly, so completely! the tremendous spectacle of the starry night in the tropics.
Not many new sounds came to interrupt his reverie; a few calls coming from the village, or else some more distant mysterious sound, coming from what he gathered must be a big forest or jungle, on the right, an indistinct mass of vegetation. And again those familiar sounds everywhere – ah yes! like the barking of dogs. It was indeed hot and sultry, he had begun to glide away from the window because of the mosquitoes when he observed in the corner of the narrow lane there was the glow of a light; and he waited to see if there were moving shadows somewhere. Nothing. As he was moving away from the window, he perceived for the first time tonight a dear sound coming from behind another shadowy chunk of matter, a row of little hovels; and he thought of the billowing sea. He looked at his watch as he finally approached the bed in which his wife was now sound asleep. Seven minutes to nine. And he passed in through the mosquito-net trying to think of nothing but a good sleep, when he heard the call of the first cock. Surprise. What time was it? was it possible? now would he have to withstand that martyrdom… ‘cock-a-doodle-doo!’ for the rest of the night now?
The sound of the ocean, however, coming in from beyond those miserable houses at the beginning of the street, very soon lulled him to sleep. Yes, the beach was near, the billowing of the waves was heard. He saw it all in his dream. Swimming with his young wife, laughing. The fine body falling in his arms, so soft, so endearing. Hot! Long rows of eucalyptus-trees on the left, and the two running naked on the sands of Narrabeen, the blue lagoon behind the tall brown trunks of the trees, the boundless ocean on the right, immmensely long waves constantly advancing, that blue-green hue, the snowy-white of the rollers coming to break on the sands: or the ocean just glimpsed from the guagua through the thin trunks of the flexible palm-trees, so intensely green on top, balancing their brown oval fruit in the wind, the immaculate blue sky. He sighed deeply thinking of the clear blue eyes of his adorable wife, and half-awake murmured words of love. But Tessa was asleep and didn’t hear his lament or feel the touch of his hands caressing her warm body, dreamily, in his sleep.
He lived not in real life, until the parasitic elements once again prodigiously whining round his neck and ears brought his back to this vale of tears, entering and leaving at will despite the net. Mosquitoes, mosquitoes, and Balboa found the whining unbearable. Not only that; more terrible in a way was the itching, the neck, under the beard, and then under his underpants, and particularly his right ankle. Turning the sheet away, he bent his body in two, trying to reach the lower part of his leg and ended thoroughly scratching, not one but two ankles, insistently, desperately and to no purpose. Tessa was likewise feeling uncomfortable; he could see that; she moved, he tried to kiss her on the shoulder. But in her case, a minute passed by, and she was again asleep. Not even the cock’s second crow, which would erupt any moment now, he thought nervously, would disturb her regular sound sleep. Jesus! What’s happening to me?
In the end he could no longer withstand the pain, the anxiety and bad humour, and sat on the bed, searching for his thongs with his toes. He stood up, stepped outside the thoroughly inefficient mosquito-net and put his pants on. There were some clothes-pegs nearby, two or three on the floor, one hanging from the net itself. He picked them up and fixed them on the net after double-folding the two edges at the opening, and moved on, took his guayabera from a hook on the wall and went out for a stroll. It was dark and quiet as he ambled along in a village he still did not know. Along the main street he passed a cluster of tiny houses he had seen from his window an hour or two before; there was a line of lamplights here, but in some cases the bulb was burnt out. He looked at his watch by the light of one of them: ten to ten. A little knot of people were collected on the footpath where the road joined another one crossing down to the sands. Probably people waiting for the guagua to take them to Lázaro Cárdenas for the night, or else workers returning home, perhaps to some village nearby.
He skulked with unsure step about the muddy lanes now in the proximity of the sea. He stopped short eventually, having landed on a sort of tiny plaza with a well-illuminated establishment in one of the four corners. There was a bench on this side of the square, where he sat down exhausted and out of sorts, his elbows on the knees and looking at the prospect with half-closed eyes. Through his eyelashes, without moving, he observed the rather luxurious establishment in the far corner, which turned out to be a restaurant, situated behind a small semi-circular garden. A big sign, 'Don Primitivo’s’, in red-and-green neon lights, prominently displayed on the roof of the large bungalow; but down below the light was white, like daylight. From where he was sitting, he saw the big entrance forming a corner with several windows on either side, where lace-curtains were ballooning in and out in the breeze, letting him see at times the interior of the restaurant with many lively people seated at a dozen tables. A large black electrical fan was seen turning gently on the ceiling.
Goodness gracious! the Lord had caused a miracle: with the breeze from the ocean the mosquitoes had disappeared and he found peace at last, and with the peace sleep came undisturbed, overtaken as he was by the fatigue of the day, his hand still grabbing his chin, his elbow on his thigh.
He was awakened by the sound of an engine, and stayed rubbing his eyes and yawning for a little while before entirely lifting his gaze from the ground to the place where the sound came from, on the opposite side of the little plaza: a hired car had been brought to the door of what turned out to be a luxury restaurant.
At that moment a couple came out of the place, but they did not take the cab, of which the engine had been kept running, but simply moved on to another car, parked farther up the road, They both got in, the engine was switched on, and the couple disappeared up the road.
He saw a party of young drunkards, men and women, trudging towards what Hernan knew was an extraordinarily long beach, disappearing into the night. The hire-car still making that unbearable noise. He presumed the car was being kept in attendance for someone of high society who had no doubt been having a succulent dinner inside. The luminosity of the restaurant didn’t prevent Hernan from being entirely in the dark, for he was still on the bench under a rather leafy tree. So dark was his corner that he could not see the time on his watch, while the neon light by the restaurant, some fifty yards away, did not help. The restaurant seemed to be in plain activity, and his eyes were still fixed on that corner, concentrated now on the limousine. He was feeling miserable, as the driver of the hired car seemed to be set on keeping the engine running all the night. ‘An important client, yes,’ he said to himself, brooding.
What particularly had attracted his attention and fired his imagination, was seeing Lupe, bright and beautiful, glowing in the neon light. He knew it was she, despite the distance separating them, because she was little like a child, which made her more appetising in a way. A real female though, in a revealing décolleté, moving on the gravel path as if the world belonged to her.
Sliding along the bench to hide under the leafy tree, if need be, he kept on watching, full of curiosity. There she was, the very same woman who had accompanied Tessa and himself to the cottage that afternoon. She seemed to be going to join the driver of the limousine, who had at last switched the bloody engine off and had come out of the car. A young Indian from the south of the same race (he thought) to which Lupe herself no doubt belonged, rather of small stature. She was wearing an elegant poppy-red dress, with big white dots, and a sparkling long necklace was hanging from her neck. Bright and beautiful like a model! ‘It cannot be!’ he thought. ‘Now, is she turning out to be a woman of easy life? Perhaps a cousin or a relative: all the women in the village seemed to look alike’. And the lights in the portico, as she moved to the open gate, now caught the red of the dress from behind; she looked absolutely ravishing, as the driver spoke to her. And she did all this so naturally and so carelessly as she fluttered round, with the white petticoat showing irregularly all around under her full-skirt, and the beads from the necklace were genuine pearls, Balboa was sure.
Once the man touched her bare shoulder provocatively, and she slapped him on the face, and looked wicked in her anger, like a tigress defending her honour with all her might and main. The man seemed to apologise.
‘Now, she is pretending,’ Balboa said to himself. It was then he realised she was not Lupe. She could not be. Alberto Mencía would have sent her packing if she was…
an Honourable Professor employing a woman of low character!
At that two individuals appeared at the entrance of the restaurant and the little Indian man hastened along the gravel path to pass on some small object to one of them; for they were definitely very distinguished characters, those two, the way the fellow stepped aside, once the mission accomplished, without even speaking. After a while of conversation the two gentlemen took leave of one another, rather punctiliously, taking a long time to exchange a few words. Balboa noticed that one of them, the older of the two, wore some jewels, the wrist specially (a ‘Rolex’ full of diamonds, he guessed at that distance). He also wore an elegant guayabera of glowing pearly white. The other, taller man, was also elegantly attired, yellow guayabera and shiny marengo trousers, but there was something in his demeanor which denoted a lesser fortune or lower standing in society. It was as the two were shaking hands that Balboa, from his seat, recognised the elder gentleman. An invalid. For he changed the leg on which he lent, as he passed his very thin walking-stick on to the other hand.
‘A soldier of long ago,’ he said to himself, repeating the words someone had uttered in a circle of lawyers in Paris in a similar circumstance: indeed, the remembrance struck him quite vividly. The elderly man walked now alone on the path and came out into the muddy street, jerking his way to the limousine. With some slight difficulty at the beginning, he sat on the driver’s seat, and switched the engine on. And the girl with the polka dress at once jumped onto the passenger seat and stamped a sonorous kiss on the guy’s cheek. The younger middle-aged man watched for a few minutes before going back into the restaurant
Hernan Balboa on his bench caressed his chin meditatively. The vision of someone he had not at all expected to see in Mexico made his high blood-pressure rise, he knew he couldn’t help it. In fact he was devastated. Who would have thought he was to find him in such a remote place… the whole world was meddling in his life again, he who had not dared to join the communists for fear of losing his peace of mind. His destiny was following him everywhere! One of his friends in Versailles had warned him. ‘Drugs and criminality. Don’t expect to find much more where you are going.’
The limousine had disappeared, speeding away towards the main street, then turning right. ‘To hit the main road to Lázaro Cárdenas,’ he thought, ‘or maybe Acapulco. Blast the bastard, Doktor Schwindler, scoundrel, captain of modern industry, etc.’ He was stalking along the narrow lanes, still wondering. The day was breaking as he reached the main street. Some of the bars and cafés were now open. He was thinking of Paris and the Big Joint. Were they after him?
To forget he tried to think of his wife. Why did Tessa not try to meet him half way, when she must have seen how desperately he needed her last night?’ But the old fear came back. ‘Stop, Nano, I’m tired!’ And she knows he suffers.
… that invalid, could he really be following him? who could care about an insignificant dissident as Balboa? His feverish mind was playing tricks. He was at this moment back in Paris, in the days when he was a celebrated lawyer representing the States at the International Chamber of Commerce.
… he thought of the last time he entered the famous building; had been going with fast steps all the length of Cour Albert Premier and in the end he had started running. Four lanes for the thick traffic and a series of gardens all about, leaving little space for footpaths: upon the edge of the road to avoid a collision, but risking being run over.
… he was out of breath and flushed, when he arrived. The morning session was over, and his colleagues had gone to Laserre or Maxim’s for lunch (all paid for with expense accounts.) Only Pico Avversari was still there, a great pal, who manned a small Law-firm on his own and could not have spent fortunes in restaurants, enough that he paid for his travelling from and to Rome. He stayed with him, awaiting the return of the others.
… ‘The Boss is here today,’ Avversari commented, finishing his sandwich and swigging the remainder of his ‘Coca-Cola’ bottle. He was referring to the Head of the Commission, a West German called Wolfgang Peter Schwindler. And Pico related Doctor Schwindler’s story. A story of war and murder. ‘They were all great collaborators,’ he said, ‘the Krupps, Hoescht, Siemens, main supporters of great Deutschland Uberalles. Condemned at Nuremberg, escaped the firing squad. Three years and out.’ ‘Pico, I know. Always the same. Putting back the hands of the clock of time.’ ‘Exactly, Hernan, and now leading the way of West-German industry.’
Hernan Balboa walked swiftly back to the little lane where his wife would be waiting. Listening to the sea breaking on the sands, beyond a line of houses on the left. He entered the small street with a glance at his watch. Seven twenty. Sure she would be up already, and they would have breakfast together.
The sun was climbing fast on to the sky, and Tessa was moving about in the house as he approached, not far from the window, the lace curtains ballooning in and out with the breeze; but she went away to another part of the house without noticing him. He rushed to the door and walked in, ready to take her in his arms and patch up whatever quarrel or misunderstanding there might have been between them the night before.
‘Oh, Nano, my Nano,’ she said, kissing him, apparently quite worried. And he knew she loved him. She always used this endearing appelative when she wished to show him her affection. And her frank blue eyes were gazing with infinite love.