‘Where are you going?’ Inez asks ‘Nowhere,’ says Raoul. ‘Just out.’
The door slams and the house is empty. Raoul has gone and the children are at school. She thinks of grabbing her coat and following him. If she follows him, if she can get away with it, then she might find out where he goes for hours when he’s supposed to be doing something useful, when he’s supposed to be out finding work. She might discover why he comes home with the look of a man who’s been digging holes. He tries to hide it. Does he think she’s stupid? No. He relies on her sympathies. But her sympathies are wearing thin. If only he would say something then at least they could begin. If he would say something she might not be left fearing the worst.
He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t ask her. Does he think about what it means to her, the cost of it all? Does he think of that? What it’s like for her to live here in this cold, damp country. Five years now, and she’s forgotten what it is to be warm. And the vegetables, like the shipyards they came in search of, are dying and cold, the life sucked out of them. All she asks is for a zuc- chini with mirrored skin, green as a horned frog, and a peach that blushes and spills juice in her mouth. But there are no peaches in Paradise, at least not worth the name. And how has a place like this come by the name of Paradise? Inez is forced to go into the town on market day to find the fruit and vegetables fit for her carbonada and even then they are a poor substi- tute. She checks the kitchen drawers. It’s always the same. Why is it that Raoul takes a torch with him? And where is the filleting knife?
Outside the morning is grey. The pain in my back bites in the damp. I feel in my pockets for the torch and the filleting knife. I hear the river rolling down from the hills full with summer rain. The nearer I get the louder it rushes and the louder it crackles over the stone bed. I shake my head to rid it of the noise and the smell of burning that hangs in the air. As soon as I can, I take the path away from the river across the fields. I stop at the pumping station and breathe like I’ve been taught: slow and deep, drinking not gulping. But not for long. My hand sweats on the knife. I hold it fast. Then I step among the dog roses and the nettle bank and through the gap in the undergrowth.
I lift the torch from my pocket and switch it on. I shine the spotlight down through the gaping hole in the brick that must once have sealed the en- trance. I climb over and inside. I sweep the walls with torchlight, checking it out, making sure there’s no one hiding inside. I make sure they are not waiting for me just when I think I might be safe. Then I go into the dark with the light in my hand.
Five years and still she dreams of Buenos Aires. Day and night. In her dreams Inez walks the streets of her old neighbourhood: La Boca. She calls out to her family. She remembers the beginning, how she and Raoul met in the fish market and how later they danced and she wore tea roses in her hair. They haven’t danced now in five years. She cannot think of a man less likely to dance and her shoes stay wrapped in brown paper at the bottom of the wardrobe.
When she thinks of going back she tries to put her thoughts away, saving it up for when Raoul is out of the house and she’s preparing food. She saves it up for the carbonada: beef stew with sweet potatoes, corn, zucchini, pep- pers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches if she can get them, occasionally peas. If she closes her eyes Inez can see the fruit and the vegetables spread out on the scrubbed table in her grandmother’s kitchen, chopping boards and knives, the brittle leaves of bay, fat bulbs of garlic, a jar of green oil and the deep, black pan. She hears the pulse of Miguel Calo on the old gramophone as the stew simmers. It is her grandmother who teaches her the tango. ‘Dance like a cat Inez,’ she says. ‘Close your eyes Inez, that way you will feel the dance.’ And Inez closes her eyes and dreams of the man she will dance with while the kitchen fills with steam and the smell of the hot earth.
The children don’t eat carbonada. They ask her for mince and dumplings; fish and chips. They barely remember La Boca and she notices how they grow silent when she calls it home. Raoul too. Hasn’t she suffered enough? Her father disappeared, her grandmother marching with the Mothers. It was meant to be a better life. But then the banks closed and what choice did they have? She was hiding the silver spoons the day Raoul was arrested. After that she collected cardboard to sell. That’s how she kept them alive. Raoul was not the only one to suffer. They have all suffered. And look what it’s done to them. Look how much it’s changed him. Inez is married to a man full of secrets. A man who frightens her.
She puts a good face on for the neighbours. She shares her recipes. She tells them she appreciates her life here but one day they will be going home. This is temporary.
It’s not all bad, she’ll miss the river and the fields and the way everything greens up in spring. The way the river is so clean you can see through it, not stuffed with garbage from the factories, like the Riachuelo: a river strangled, gasping its way into the city, a grey, pulpy skin of waste. It was bad for the children. Here it is good and most of all Inez likes the rain, es- pecially when it’s soft, when there’s no wind from the east.
‘Where are you going? Inez asks. ‘Tell me.’
‘Nowhere,’ says Raoul. ‘Just out. A walk.’ He says.
Every morning it’s the same but this morning Inez decides, no more. This morning she’ll follow Raoul and she doesn’t care if he sees her. She has to know. She watches him from the upstairs window, making his way towards the allotments and the river. She goes downstairs, puts a black scarf over her thick, red hair that has only the hint of grey at the sides, lifts her coat from the peg in the hall and closes the door behind her.
At the end of the row, Inez makes her way through the allotments. Raoul is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he’s reached the river. For a while now she’s thought of renting her own patch of land here, then at least she’d have a chance of growing vegetables fit for a carbonada. There is comfort in the order, in the neat well-tended rows. But allotments take time, years even and it can’t be easy in this grey climate. She’s seen how the men – it’s mostly men – tend their plots. How they grow giant leeks and cabbages, pumpkins and even zucchini, sacrificing flavour to size. This isn’t some- thing she understands but she knows she would like being outdoors, breath- ing the air, away from the black, umbrella of fear that lives in the house.
Raoul says he likes to sit in the fisherman’s hut at the bend in the river, that he sometimes watches the grey heron there, or the pair of buzzards that wheel overhead. What he wants a torch for she can’t fathom and she’s frightened to ask about the knife. Raoul is like a watermelon ripe to the point of bursting. She isn’t sure what she would do with all that juice and seeds running away or the left over skin.
I switch the torch off when I know there is only me. I can see enough and there are no shadows. I can look back to the light that comes in through the gap in the old wall. The air is warm and damp. The walls are crudely cut not bricked, shored up with old timber. In places the black soil breaks through and threads of pale root. Life grows from them even though they are wrin- kled and dry as a river bed in summer. I don’t go far, just far enough past the debris, past the bones and litter of cans and the cake of ash where a fire was once lit. My footsteps echo down the tunnel. I walk as quietly as I can. There are no hard soles here, no loud boots. When I reach it I sit down on my cushion of cardboard and newspaper and press my back and head against the rock. The pain in my back eases. My spirit lifts. Sometimes I am the grey heron looking into the bank of nettles and the entrance to the mine, sometimes I am the buzzard’s sharp eye. I see myself curled like a foetus in a belly. Like I once was in my mother; the children inside Inez. It smells of leaf and iron here and safety. There is no smell of urine or flesh. I like to doze here. I like to dream. I think of before and of going to the university. How I was full of fire and hope. How I wanted to travel, become a professor, teach in another university. Even afterwards when I could not finish and I was forced to train as a welder I think of that time. Of sparks flying up in a blue arc like the fireworks at carnival. How we spoke up for each other. How we were not afraid even when the power went off and Buenos Aires became a dark grave.
Without power, days are shorter. Once the sun sets there is not much you can do. I would read then under candle light and flashlight but after a while my head would hurt. Still it did nothing to prepare me for the dark of a world where men lived in their thousands without natural light, where our skins turned green and we prayed to be taken anywhere but to the basement.
I try to think of better times. I think of meeting Inez, of her making me chimichurri and of how her lips tasted of parsley and lime, and when I think of Inez I think I should go home and listen to Carlos Gardel sing of Buenos Aires and I should dance as my father did. I think of my father in his hospital bed wired up to the machine that breathed for him and fed his body and the transistor radio at the bedside, close to his ear, tuned to 92.5FM pouring tango and nothing else. And I think he was dancing even then, in his dreams.
For a while I stop dreaming. I stop wondering how it will all end or how to tell her I’m never going back. I cannot go back. Each time I come here I think I will decide on a plan, on finding work, anything, on telling Inez, but only here can I imagine telling Inez and it doesn’t happen like that. Each time I think of the knife, of cutting open a seam. Of the blood red of the tannery water at the river mouth.
Raoul is not at the fisherman’s hut. Perhaps he’s gone to the wood. Inez will not go wandering in the woods. She was not made for that, she was made for the city. The rain has stopped. She unties her scarf and stuffs it in her coat pocket, then sits down on the bench in the hut, leaving the door open. From here she can look out on the river, from here she smells the damp that’s so much part of this place. Perhaps she’ll see the grey heron stalking the shallows, looking for fish. The sun appears and throws sparks up from the water, casting a shadow of leaves on its silver back. She wonders how far Raoul has gone. What does she know? Perhaps he doubles back, catches a bus into town, perhaps there’s somewhere he goes that she knows noth- ing about, or another woman perhaps. Inez sometimes imagines life with another man, what that would be like. Whether in the end all men have thin skins fit to burst. But then she thinks of Raoul when they first met and she knows that it’s the climate that grows the skin.
I lose the sense of time passing. If it could be like this, then perhaps I could live. What I don’t understand is how? But I daren’t ask, else the prison and its iron bars, its filthy walls and blood stained floors will come raging back at me, for sure. No matter that the letters tell me it is demolished: gone. I still feel the humiliation. I feel the anguish of all the men who suffered there long before me. I feel its bag over my head, sucking at my mouth, tak- ing my breath. In there I learned how to make the faca. Out here I have no need of homemade knives, I have a knife. Inez keeps any number of knives for cooking. Sometimes I watch her slit open the zucchini and I want to plead with her to take the knife to my back and open it.
I need to sleep. I need to rest my head and back. I listen for the voices of long-ago miners, for the hum of their world. I think of my letters. I write home to everyone about our life here. Some of my letters return unan- swered, like those to my brother Juan and I wonder where he is.
We were six when we dug the hole in Estrella’s garden. Our aunt Estrella, my mother’s sister, lived out in the Tigre Partido, in a grand house north of the city, in a place where men once hunted the jaguar. One summer when my mother was ill we stayed with Estrella for the school holidays. Her garden was wild and we went to the very bottom of it, where it came close to the canal and dug a hole big enough for both of us. We made a cover of woven branches and sacking and we hid there even though nobody was looking for us. We hid from the jaguars. We were invincible that summer. Now in this summer, here in my safe place, I am reminded only of what I have lost and I smell the jaguar. I feel its breath on my shoulder, its teeth biting through the bones of my skull, piercing the brain. I put the torch and the knife in my pocket and prepare to leave.
Inez thinks she’ll go back. There’s no heron today and the sky threatens rain again. She stands outside the fisherman’s hut and takes her scarf from her pocket. Above her the crows are circling and calling. She sets off on the path until she comes to the clearing by the pumping station near the entrance to the old drift mine.
She hears it first, a rustling in the grass. A fox perhaps, they come into the garden sometimes but usually at night. She moves towards the sound. It’s overgrown here with banks of nettles and wild roses. She stands and waits. The pale flowers of the wild rose begin to nod, then slowly, where they part a head – surely it is a man’s head – appears as if coming out of nowhere. Inez thinks she should turn and run now before … but it’s already too late. There isn’t time. She is fixed to the path as she watches the stooped figure emerge from the undergrowth. It is her husband. It is Raoul. As he pulls himself up to standing he sees her. She hears his sharp intake of breath.
‘What are you doing here Inez?’ He pulls his coat around him and begins to brush the leaves and soil from his jeans.
‘What am I doing Raoul? What are you doing for God’s sake?’ He doesn’t answer. ‘For God’s sake Raoul. Is there someone there with you? Is it a woman? Don’t lie Raoul, don’t lie to me.’
‘No, there is nobody. Look, see for yourself.’ Raoul moves forward and touches Inez on the arm. ‘Here, come with me.’ He takes her back through the nettle bank, parting them, holding them back with his arms to prevent her from being stung. At the entrance he says, ‘See, it is the old drift mine, that is all. Somewhere I come.’ Raoul shines the torch into the hole in the brick. ‘Come with me?’
He helps her climb over the brick. Inez sees the dark earth at the hole’s sides threaded with small white roots. They are like the silk of the corn in its sheath, the pulp of the zucchini, they remind her of home. ‘So this is where you go.’ She whispers.
Raoul nods and leads her into the tunnel, shining the torch before them. ‘Sit down with me,’ he says when they reach the cardboard cushion.
The rain is falling as they climb over the brick and emerge from the warm, humid air of the mine. It’s falling on the leaves of the rose and nettle and a wind has blown up from the east; a wind like the polar air of the Pampero that marks the end of the long heat.
Inez shivers and puts her arm through Raoul’s. ‘Let’s hurry,’ she says, ‘be- fore we get cold again.’
In the kitchen Inez dries her hair on a towel and puts water for coffee on the stove to boil. Her back is to Raoul. ‘Do you remember,’ she says, ‘how I dug a hole and buried an egg in the ground and how I took eggs to the Sisters, all to prevent the rain falling on our wedding day?’
‘Of course,’ says Raoul. He’s seated at the kitchen table, watching Inez at the stove, the curve of her back, her still small waist and her dark hair. ‘I remember,’ he says, ‘and how it rained. The rain took no notice at all.’
‘But rain can bring luck on your wedding day.’ Inez puts coffee and cups on the table.
‘So they say,’ says Raoul. He has brought her nothing but bad luck and exile. He has taken her from everything she loves. They have not danced once in five years. Her shoes lie unwrapped at the bottom of the wardrobe.
They drink their coffee in silence and listen to the rain filling the gutter, making its way through the downpipe and into the drains.
Raoul takes a bath. When he gets out Inez rubs ointment into the scar that runs the length of his back and leaves him to sleep.
In the kitchen she takes the carbonada off the stove where it’s been simmer- ing. She’s going to make mince and dumplings. By the time the children come home from school the kitchen will be full of the smell of onions and flour. It will be a long time before Inez makes carbonada again. Never mind her grandmother’s kitchen, never mind the streets of La Boca. If she is ever going to dance again. If they are to dance it will not be there.
The rain has stopped.
‘I thought we were having carbonada,’ says Raoul when he appears in the kitchen.
‘Not today, not now. I’m tired of it,’ says Inez, ‘the children don’t like it anyway and we don’t live in Buenos Aires anymore.’ She turns away from him to the sink so that he won’t see.
‘But we can’t waste it.’
‘It won’t be wasted. I’ll give it away to the neighbours or I’ll take it for the horses. Inez pauses then turns to face Raoul. Her hands are covered in flour. There is flour in her hair. ‘I’ll still make chimichurri though but with my own parsley. I’ll grow it myself.’
Raoul sits down at the table. ‘I could make a window box,’ he says.
‘No, I’ll grow it in the allotment.’ She wipes her hands on the tea towel with the map of Argentina then puts it back on the sink side. ‘I’ve decided,’ she says, ‘I’ll get an allotment. I’ll need help. There’ll be plenty of digging. It’ll take a while but it’ll be worth it. You’ll see in summer when it’s green with all the rain and vegetables, and we can have flowers too. Tea roses, like the ones my grandmother grew in among the chillies and we won’t have to worry about the heat or shade. No covering up.’
Raoul gets up from the table, the sun is coming in at the kitchen window, catching the red in her hair. He waits for the pain in his back but it doesn’t come. ‘I can help you dig Inez and we will grow everything we need, eve- rything and flowers too. We will have roses, for sure, beautiful tea roses like your grandmother’s,’ he says. Raoul leans on the chair back, stretches out his arms and begins to hum the Tango des Roses. He finds the rhythm with his feet. Inez feels the blood rise to her face. Her feet step to his.
Raoul lets go of the chair. Stands upright. He moves: slowly, unerringly, across the floor, fixing his prey, his hips shifting from left to right. When he reaches Inez he straightens his spine and lifts his chest. She holds her breath waiting for the arm to encircle her waist; the hand to press at her back. They lean towards each other. Their foreheads touch. The kitchen fills with steam. Inez closes her eyes.