Authors: Iosi Havilio
I leapt back onto the street and caught the first bus that passed, which, by chance, was going my way. There were no passengers, the driver was alone, listening to the radio at full blast. I sat at the front.
Intrigued by what he saw reflected in the rear-view mirror, that confusion of lights and shapes, shrinking into the distance, the guy asked me: Did something happen?
Someone wanted, I say, to throw himself off the bridge.
From the smells, the creaks and the mechanical, laboured breaths multiplying around me, I knew it was the middle of the night. The middle of the night, in one of those strange pre-dawn hours, and I knew that if I wanted to I could open my eyes again. And right away I knew they had been closed for much longer than I could imagine. I could open my eyes if I wanted, but not yet, I resisted. I was returning from a deep and pleasant sleep, my body warm and my head spinning. Everything weighs more than usual, my eyelids, my jaw, my ears, especially my ears, they’re throbbing too hard, echoing a painful humming that starts in my temples, a cross between a lullaby and altitude sickness. Then, before anything else, before my conscience begins to string together the things I’m starting to take in here and there, a phlegmy voice, partly distorted and forming flecks of saliva, asks my name.
He says I fainted on a bus on Sunday night. He’s a young guy, not more than thirty, with two-or three-day-old stubble, a touch of grey lightening the lank hair around his forehead. He’s wearing a white coat but he doesn’t look like a doctor. He asks me if I remember what happened. I tell him yes, perfectly, up until I fainted I remember everything. He asks if I want to tell him anything. Not now, I say, maybe later. He asks if I know what day it is. Monday? He shakes his head with an inexplicable hint of satisfaction. Today is Tuesday the thirteenth of February. Tuesday the thirteenth, he repeats. Anything else? the guy asks me, his slanting eyes narrowed, yet shining intensely because of his contact lenses. I raise myself up, look him in the eye and he holds my gaze for a few seconds, then gets annoyed. I want to know when I can go home. He says it’s nothing to do with him, I’ll have to wait until the duty head finishes his rounds and anyway, I should be taking things easy. That’s fine. Right, I’m going, he says, hanging his stethoscope, which he had put in the pocket of his white coat, round his neck. Why wouldn’t I take things easy?
I’m surrounded by another ten trolleys, most of them occupied. Bodies passing through, like me, waiting to be discharged. My eyes close and I sleep again for I don’t know how many hours.
In full daylight, a nurse wakes me up to take my pulse. She says that the duty doctor won’t pass by for about an hour. I ask if I can make a phone call.
The owner of the veterinary surgery is all worked up when she answers, she says this isn’t the way things are done, that if I had some kind of problem she’d understand, but that I have to let her know, that’s what phones are for after all, that yesterday afternoon she missed an important meeting with those people who want to start a rabbit-breeding business, the Dutch folk who don’t speak a word of Spanish, all because I left her hanging and didn’t let her know, didn’t I realise? It’s four in the afternoon on Tuesday, she complains, sighs, and repeats herself in more or less the same words as before. My call time is running out. Before we’re cut off, she remembers that I didn’t call her to tell her how I got on with the horse in Open Door either. You just disappeared, she persists. There are ten seconds left and I don’t have any more coins, if I want to speak it has to be now, right now, five, four, three, I manage to say: I don’t know what happened, and the line goes dead. I was going to tell her that I was in hospital and that apparently I fainted on a bus on Sunday night. She wouldn’t have believed me.
I hang up the phone and it gives me back more coins than I put in. That’s hospitals for you. I slot them all back in and dial.
Aída’s voice answers, recorded on the machine:
This is Aída, I’m not here right now, say what you want or call back later, bye
. I hesitate for a second but I don’t leave a message. There’s too much to explain.
They discharged me at six in the evening. Before I left, the duty doctor asked me if I took drugs.
As soon as I opened the flat door, Diki threw himself on top of me, making a superhuman effort to support himself on his single back paw. He was like a wild beast, or at least as wild as a disabled dog confined within four walls could be. It was a struggle to get him off me, but I managed to calm him down at last with some rice I found in the freezer. He was really hungry.
Everything was just the way we had left it on Sunday when we went out. In the kitchen, the dirty plates were piled in the sink and a bowl of peaches in syrup was now covered with a film of mould. The bedroom was the same as ever; the bathroom much dirtier, and the whole living room had become Diki’s latrine. Either Aída hadn’t been home or she’d abandoned herself to absolute neglect.
I sat on the sofa in front of the blank television screen, which reflected my whole body in scale. I looked a bit like an X-ray, ghostly, with no identity. I listened to the answerphone messages in an attempt to work things out. There were seven. The first two, blank: they hesitate then hang up. The third is from Beba, one of Aída’s aunts who lives in Asunción, the only one of her relations I know of. She says: Aída, it’s Beba, I arrived a few hours ago, you must be working, so, I’m going to walk around for a bit and I’ll phone you later. I left my case at the bus station, so don’t worry, I can get about easily. Can’t wait to see you. Love, Beba. She spoke as if she were writing a letter, with full stops and commas. In the fourth message, I hear the voice of a man, who introduces himself with his full name, leaves his number and wants Aída to phone him tomorrow before twelve. He doesn’t say why. The fifth is Beba again: Well, Aída, it’s ten o’clock, you’ve not been in all day, you must have forgotten I was coming, never mind, we’ll talk tomorrow, I’ll see if I can get a cheap hotel in the centre. The sixth and seventh are blank: they breathe and hang up. One of them is mine.
I have a sleepless night, partly because I’ve already slept a lot and partly because I’m expecting Aída to arrive at any moment and surprise me. I feel like an intruder in a bed I’ve barely used. I try to empty my mind, I think about Jaime, the horse with the nodules on his tail, about the girl with plaits spying on me from behind the piles of sweets in the kiosk window. I think about anything to stop myself thinking. The bridge invades my thoughts, it’s inevitable.
The phone wakes me at seven. It’s Beba. I explain that I’m a friend of Aída and that I’ve been living in her flat for a while now. And Aída? I tell her that I haven’t seen her since Sunday and that it doesn’t look like she’s been home since. That can’t be right, I spoke to her on Friday and told her I was coming to visit. I don’t know what to tell her. I’m coming over, she says and hangs up.
Beba’s name suits her, despite her age. Her complexion remains so impossibly soft, so polished, like a newborn baby. Iridescent glasses, a silk scarf round her neck, magnificent nails, neat mouth, and yet so old.
It’s just not possible, she says, nobody disappears overnight. We’ll have to find her somehow. I have to go to work, I say. Beba tells me not to worry, that she’ll take care of everything and we’ll see each other tonight.
I arrive at the surgery at ten to nine, like a model employee. The owner is already there. She greets me with a grumpy look. I don’t understand why she’s so annoyed.
We need to talk seriously, she starts to say from the other side of the counter, but she breaks off when a guy, a bit of a punk, comes in carrying two enormous boxes that half cover his face. The owner gestures for me to take care of receiving the merchandise and locks herself in the bathroom. I sign the slip and the guy goes on his way. It’s two packages of disposable syringes. The owner shoots out of the bathroom, even more furious than before.
‘We have an understanding,’ she says, ‘a pact of trust.’
I listen without listening while I focus all my attention on checking the order. She doesn’t tire of talking. The thing is that she gets on well with me and she doesn’t want to fire me but I have to pull my socks up, because the foundation of work is mutual respect, so she told me.
‘It’s a two-way street, I place my trust in you and vice-versa.’
I don’t know how many times she repeated the word trust. At one point she even became friendly, she came round the counter and seemed to be about to hug me. She scared me.
In a while she left. The rest of the morning passed without incident, the same routine as usual: an anti-rabies vaccination for an English Cocker Spaniel, two consultations on Siamese cats displayed in shop windows, a young salesman in suit and tie who left me free samples of a nutritionally balanced pet food that was due to come onto the market over the next few months, and a woman worried about her Great Dane’s continual vomiting. White, lumpy vomit, she specified, excited by the rarity of the case. I told her to bring him in so we could examine him.
Without intending to, just to kill time, I started flicking through the appointments book and, partly by chance, partly because that’s the way things happen, it fell open at J. The name Jaime jumped off the page at me. Just Jaime, no surname, and in parenthesis, ‘opendoor’, strung together, in lower case. I dialled once and there was no answer. I dialled again and heard Jaime’s voice, which I recognised immediately despite the background noise.
‘It’s me, the girl from the vet’s. I just wanted to know how the other Jaime was getting on,’ I say and something tells me that this pleases Jaime at the other end of the line, he must like me speaking to him like this, in this familiar way.
‘Just the same, lying down half the time.’
The silence that follows lasts for several seconds and is filled by ambient noise from both ends of the line: from here, the hum of the fan mingling with street noise, from there, the wind sweeping through the house.
The conversation is minimal, monosyllabic. The truth is that I don’t know why I called, it’s ridiculous, it’s as though I’m flirting with him. But Jaime, when I’ve already said goodbye, see you, and I’m about to hang up, decides to say something else.
‘Another examination wouldn’t hurt,’ he says and we agree that he’ll call the surgery next week.
Aída’s flat looks like new. The floors are shining, the kitchen spotless, as is the bathroom, the bedroom feels like a hotel suite, and even Diki gives the impression of being a relatively normal dog. By the looks of things, Aída has come home with renewed enthusiasm.
It’s half eight, I make myself a cup of tea, change my clothes and flop down on the bed in the dark. Ten or fifteen minutes go by and sleep is beginning to overcome me when the doorbell rings so hard and suddenly that it makes me spasm as I imagine an epileptic would. I’m given no time to react before the bell rings again, this time supplemented by a couple of sharp knocks on the door.
It’s Beba, she’s upset and ignores me completely as she comes into the flat. She is escorted by two uniformed policemen, caps in hand. Beba sits on the sofa and lights a white filter-tip. She smokes using a cigarette holder. The policemen settle themselves on either side of the television, guarding it. They look at me, they look at one another, we all look at each other.
‘Something terrible has happened,’ says Beba, expelling smoke through her nose and mouth at the same time. She breaks off, making the most of the pause to take a drag, and continues:
‘It could be that Aída’s dead.’
The only thing that comes to me is to contradict her. It’s not possible, I say and I become aware that I’m only wearing a blouse, no bra, very provocative. And immediately, or simultaneously, I realise that the two policemen realised this much earlier than me.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I say out loud, to everyone and no one in particular.
I put on the first thing I find, tracksuit bottoms and one of Aída’s jumpers with wooden buttons, and once more I’m back on centre stage with no time to analyse things first. One of the policemen, the less officer-like of the two, takes the floor.
‘Apparently there’s been a suicide,’ he says in a bored tone, and the topic proves to be to be a familiar one. Beba waits for my reaction, rocking on the edge of the sofa, almost falling off it. The policeman proceeds with his report.
‘Last Sunday an individual jumped off the old bridge in La Boca and, according to the firemen’s statement, the description of the victim fits that of the missing young lady.’
Beba breaks down, bursting into tears. She stands up and I have to take a step backwards so that she doesn’t collapse on top of me. But she reaches her arms out to me, she grabs me by the shoulders and lowers her head in search of consolation near my chest. Her nose is running. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to think. I prise Beba off me as best I can.
‘It can’t be true,’ I say, ‘I was there, I saw it all.’
In the police station we have to take a number. There are at least four people waiting ahead of us to make their statements. Beba managed to calm down on the way over here but doesn’t utter a word to me at any point.
This part of the police station comprises a series of desks in a row and, behind them, an internal patio roofed by hanging ferns lit up with halogen lamps. Apart from one, which serves as a resting place for three piles of folders on the verge of toppling over, the desks are occupied by policemen concentrating hard on their official duties. Only one is using a computer, the rest make do with primitive typewriters in a military green. On one of the walls hangs a vast map of the city divided into different zones by thick, red lines. In a corner, in full view on a white, triangular shelf fixed to the wall, a plaster Virgin Mary with a neon halo watches over them.
Our turn comes and we’re landed with a fat official. Beba takes it upon herself to explain the situation and the guy listens impassively, uninterested. Now I have to give my version of events. I don’t know where to begin. I tell him about Sunday, that we went out at about four, that we went for a walk by the riverside, that at some point Aída went into a bar to pee and that I went for a wander. That afterwards, I went to look for her but never found her. The official types everything I say but he has to go back several times to make corrections because his fat fingers don’t fit the keys and he presses two at a time.
Now that I look properly, I see that the plaster Virgin Mary is plugged in via a long cable that comes out of the back of her robes.
Beba nudges me, she wants me to talk about the bridge. I give a blow-by-blow account, as I experienced it, including all the details, up until I got on the bus. After that I fainted and slept for almost thirty hours in the care of the hospital, I say. They look like they don’t believe me.
We are told that an as-yet-unidentified female threw herself into the river from the old bridge in La Boca at 9.45 p.m. on Sunday 11th February, that the duty magistrate has already intervened and due to adverse weather conditions the recovery of the body by the coastguard’s divers has been postponed until further notice. What’s clear is that, for the time being, Aída is still missing.
After walking several blocks in silence, we arrived at the door of the flat. By mutual agreement, Beba slept in the double bed in the room, and I took the sofa. Despite everything, I fell asleep straight away. That night I didn’t dream.
The following day, too early, I was woken by Beba’s legs, criss-crossed with a thousand tiny veins, sweeping back and forth in front of me behind a broom. It wasn’t even seven in the morning. The television was on a channel showing the weather forecast. The storm wasn’t going to pass until Saturday.
‘I couldn’t get a wink of sleep all night, this is all such a mess,’ says Beba with a mug of coffee in her hand. I could barely look her in the eye, something about her was starting to repel me.
Beba kept talking for some time, it was her speciality. I finished my coffee without paying any attention, spent two minutes in the bathroom, dressed in the same clothes as yesterday and left for the surgery.
What exactly could have happened? I tried to reconstruct the events since Sunday on a piece of paper: the mix-up with Aída, the suicide on the bridge, the faint, the day and a half in hospital, my arrival at the flat, the appearance of Beba, the policemen. I went over the same thing a thousand times, trying to put my thoughts in order, to introduce some logic to the situation, but I didn’t get anywhere. Was it possible that I had witnessed Aída committing suicide without realising it? Yes, it was possible, and at the same time both absurd and in bad taste. A hundred times I replayed the blurred yet indelible images of the negotiations between the firemen and that nameless body, which nobody could even confirm as male or female. I even found myself asking that jaded question, which sounds so stupid in other people’s mouths: Why did she do it? Did she have a reason? Of course she did, everybody does. But as for proper reasons, what you’d think of as reasons, private, weighty motives, none occurred to me. She wasn’t a happy girl, but that doesn’t mean anything. Aída must be somewhere, playing hide and seek, sooner or later she’d appear, and all this delirium would become a dark and amusing anecdote. Things would sort themselves out.
At closing time, I repeated the usual routine: I switched off the surgery lights, lowered the blind, put the chain on the door, but I didn’t leave. I didn’t want to see Beba again, the very idea tortured me. I undressed and lay down on the consulting table. It was a bit narrower and a good ten centimetres shorter than me, but still quite comfortable. I fell asleep immediately.
I had a strange dream that lasted all night. A dream full of animals.