A short story by K J Orr
September 18, Buenos Aires
The beginning is simple enough: I find myself in the park due to a sudden and overwhelming urge to go to the museum.
People speak of the shock of retirement. They warn of the possibility of profound depression. However, this is not something I expect for myself. The life I have built here over the years keeps me more than occupied, regardless of work. And so it comes as a surprise to me – this nervous and shifty feeling on waking. It is as if I can only sidle up to the day, like a neurotic suitor.
My restlessness increasingly translates itself into abrupt impulses. To put it bluntly, an urge presents itself much in the manner of the need to urinate or defecate, and demanding immediate action. It is due to just such an impulse that I find myself on the steps of the museum at an absurdly early hour without any real justification for being there.
The museum – established many years ago, and in part with my family’s money – houses a moderate collection of European art, mostly paintings, some sculpture, in a building of national importance, warranting both attention and preservation. It is a while since I’ve been there. Not since ’93 perhaps.
It is closed, of course. Everywhere is closed at this time of day.
I consider my options. I could return to the apartment. Carolina will be there soon enough to make my coffee and breakfast. However I have woken to a clear sky and it remains fine. It has been neither a long walk nor an unpleasant one, passing through the park. Under the circumstances I decide to walk on.
The jacarandas are coming into bloom. It is spring – and early enough in the day to find some moments of peace before the city’s traffic starts spewing noise and fumes.
I find myself gravitating to the edge of the park in the hope of locating a newspaper stand before heading for home.
It is odd how places local to us can remain invisible for so long – until one day they simply present themselves.
The café sits directly on the corner of what is, by day, a busy avenue. It is set back however, separated by railings, a broad curve of paving stones, and the beginnings of a long colonnade.
I cross the avenue and look in. I see a mahogany bar and small, round tabletops. There is no one in sight.
I try the door; it opens. I enter, and take a seat.
From my table I can see the park opposite, with its careful beds of colour, its gravelled paths and ornamental fountains.
As I wait, I watch light enter through the deco windows that overlook the colonnade. I watch greens and reds and blues from the stained glass play across the black and white tiling on the floor. They meddle with its orderly geometry.
I glance up and see a woman standing behind the bar. I have not been aware of her. She wears a pressed white shirt, a long black apron tied tight about her waist.
Cafecito, por favor.
When she serves me I notice her hands.
It becomes a habit. I spend every morning at the café, at the same table, served always by the same woman. She is the only person working there at this hour.
I wake myself up every day at five. It becomes automatic, no need for an alarm. I throw on clothes, and head out. I stroll in the park – without fail I go to the museum. I stand on the steps, look up at the door – it is always closed, the museum always shut. I observe the building for a few moments, and walk on. I trace my path beside the row of jacarandas.
At the edge of the park I cross the avenue. I look through the window of the café before entering and sitting in my usual spot.
The first morning I order my coffee in Spanish and every morning afterwards I do the same. This is unusual. Both in my line of work and in my social life I have been most used to speaking English – other than for that period at the start of the ’80s. I was schooled in England and trained for my profession there, so the language is habitual. It would be accurate to say that by and large I reserve the use of Spanish for communication with Carolina, and other help.
I might also mention that the clothes I am wearing on the first day I continue to wear every day, at this hour. I dress in haste – and while I do not quite head out in night attire the general effect cannot be far off. I am not one given to wearing sporting clothes outside the home, but a tracksuit is near enough the truth. I look as though I might have been speed-walking, for health. Suffice to say that according to my usual standards I am unrecognisable.
Now, therefore, I find myself each day close to home, in my neighbourhood, but at an hour when no one I know is about. I do not look as I usually would. I do not speak as I usually do.
The moment anyone else enters the café, I leave.
The rest of my day continues as before. I go home. I shower. I change into something more appropriate. Carolina has my breakfast prepared, as ever. I spend the day in social engagements.
I have spoken of my retirement as something unnerving, but I am not to be pitied. I live in the city’s most expensive district. My work introduced me to the wealthiest and most beautiful of Buenos Aires. I made them more beautiful under my knife; they made me wealthier. I was adopted into their circle, popular for my skills as a surgeon, but also for a family history woven through the streets in plaques and memorials: a flawless pedigree.
It is in truth quite some time since I’ve paid much attention to family. As a young man in the fifties, I longed to be rid of the burden of their decency. I could not bear the thought of following their traditions, their moral imperatives, faithfully treading the path of generations like a mule. I had inherited a good mind, and after some years of training in Oxford, England, I qualified as a surgeon, only to turn my hand to facelifts. I considered myself very clever indeed. I believe I was in pursuit of something perverse – the more vulgar the better. I returned to Buenos Aires and set up shop on home turf to make an exhibition of myself. The family were appalled of course, and I stopped seeing them.
It was a game. I took pleasure in playing the subversive. It suited me well.
The waitress asks me what I do for a living.
I laugh. I’m an old man. I’m retired.
She persists. She wants to know.
This is not a conversation I want to have. I enjoy being a stranger. I like this woman knowing nothing of my life, or who I am. I would like to keep it that way.
But it’s the first sign of interest she has shown me, and it would be rude not to respond. Our relationship until now – though largely mute – has been a thing of pleasure. It’s hard to explain.
I pause before speaking. I can say anything. I can say I was a poet. I was a road sweeper. I was a baker. I was an architect. She’ll never know.
I thrived. It didn’t matter who was in charge – throughout the decades, through all the ins and outs, the various shenanigans our country went through. While the leadership had wives and mistresses I was in demand. And while I have never possessed matinée idol looks, I flatter myself that I was their Hephaestus – these women love being done by an ugly man if he is craftsman to the gods.
I tell her I was a surgeon. I am not more specific than that.
I think it will end there, our chat, but she interprets what I say – she assumes I was a general surgeon, and goes on to tell me about the man who saved her brother’s life when she was eight, at the time her father disappeared. Of course, not everyone has had my easy run through the years.
Her eyes are warm as she relates this tale, nonetheless. She even takes a seat on the chair across from mine. When she has finished – the story is not long, but quite moving – she studies me in open admiration.
I know that I can end it there and then. A couple of words would suffice. But I don’t.
She holds out her hand and shakes mine, solemnly – as if we have some pact – before standing, putting the chair back in position, and resuming work.
I remain at my table. I finish my coffee. I retain the sensation of the smooth swell of scar tissue I felt against my palm as she took my hand. Not burns as I had first thought, but what must have been deep lacerations, horizontal, on both of her palms.
I think to myself, again, what does it matter? What does it matter what she thinks I did, the sort of man she imagines I have been.
When I get up to leave she stops what she’s doing and smiles at me from behind the bar.
I’m Beatriz, she says.
I maintain the illusion she’s created. It’s not hard. If she likes thinking of me as some sort of hero, should I stop her? I like these mornings, and am loath to disrupt them. I like the silent agreement, the way she mostly ignores me, works around me. And she obviously admires the work she thinks I have done.
Our mornings continue. The days are warm. The jacarandas bloom like fists unfurling underneath clear skies.
Irene Varela-Morales. She is an acquaintance – in her fifties. She doesn’t see me sitting in the corner, and I have no particular wish to be seen.
I gave her a noble nose. It improved things immeasurably and she’s well aware of it. She carries herself in such a way that her profile is always seen to full advantage.
Irene stands impatiently – though making sure she’s side-on to the approaching waitress – unwilling, it seems, either to take a seat or stand by the bar. There is a brief exchange – she doesn’t look at my Beatriz – and then she takes a table near the door. She faces away from the bar, towards the street.
Beatriz leaves to fulfil the order she has been given but is called back. Irene stands, and – visibly irritated, still side-on, without looking at Beatriz – casts her wrap across the table, into her face, with great force. Such is her surprise, and the speed with which it is slung, that it is all Beatriz can do to catch the thing before it slips to the floor.
She takes it, smooths it, hangs it on the stand beside the door. Irene could have done it herself. The stand is right there.
Beatriz says nothing. She returns to the bar.
Soon she is back at the table, putting down a coffee, milk and water, with a plate of medialunas.
The moment she has gone Irene calls her back. She speaks in English with a phoney American drawl. She says, ‘I don’t want that,’ of the medialunas, and ‘I asked for hot milk. Take this back.’
Beatriz doesn’t answer. She looks at the jug that Irene’s holding out. ‘Leche. Caliente,’ Irene says slowly.
Beatriz goes back to the bar and, moments later, returns with another jug.
‘It really shouldn’t be this complicated,’ Irene says. She speaks first in English and then follows it with Spanish.
She plays this game a good while.
A clean one.
Beatriz adjusts the awning over the windows, outside – the sun is in Irene’s eyes.
When she departs, she doesn’t leave a tip.
It is true that the people can be rude here in Recoleta, where there is so much money. The very wealthy too often forget their manners – maybe because they have no cause to remember them. Often they give the impression that it is not forgetfulness at all but clear intention that makes them do it, a kind of assertion of their greater importance in the world; a ruse of sorts that often works – at the very least, superficially.
I see it in Beatriz’s face.
It is true that many of them are my neighbours – these people are the sort of people I have known, my friends, even; though I have had no reason to discuss this with her. We have set the parameters of our acquaintance.
She pulls out the chair that sits across from me a second time. She lights a cigarette.
‘When they want to take their time, they take their time,’ she says. ‘When they want to get out of here quickly, they do. They want what they want and they make it known. “This is what I want. This is not what I want. What is this? This is not what I ordered. Get the manager – my maid called to reserve and this idiot didn’t write it down.” These people – they throw their money at you. They never look you in the eye. They like to assume that you are stupid. Maybe it’s more fun that way.’
She shrugs. She stubs out her cigarette, and then she gives me that smile. ‘These people,’ she says.
I don’t know how to respond. I reach across the table to take a sip of coffee but somehow – my hand is trembling, it’s been happening of late – I spill it. ‘Stupid,’ I say. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘They have been working hard, these hands. Give them a break,’ she says.
She takes my hand between her palms.
I cannot remember whether my acquaintance with Irene was simply professional, or more.
I have been acquainted with a number of women. The term ‘acquaintance’ is undoubtedly correct. I have not been one for long alliances.
I was married – once – an odd, abortive affair.
I have been so used to unravelling women, peeling back their faces, constantly imagining them into something other than they are.
It is not that I have not enjoyed them – far from it – but they are no more or less than the sum of their parts.
Irene Varela-Morales returns to the café. She brings a friend, Valentina – I forget, but I think the surname is Suarez.
They assault my table.
‘I told you he was hiding out in this place.’
She claims she spotted me from the first – knew she recognised me, but couldn’t place me in those ghastly clothes.
Valentina launches herself. ‘Look at you! I can’t believe you thought you’d get away with it!’
‘What a bad, bad, naughty boy,’ adds Irene.
Impossible to pretend that I don’t know them, that they’ve made a mistake. I’m just not quick enough off the mark. It’s far too complicated to attempt.
They seat themselves. Beatriz approaches. I try not to say more than I need, although the damage is done.
They order in English. I order another coffee, in Spanish.
She walks away. I watch her shoulders become small, like those of a child.
The conversation develops. I try to resist the talk of mutual acquaintances but can’t for long. Impossible to sit there and say nothing.
They talk loudly these women. They dominate any space they are in. It’s their way. If Beatriz were hiding in the kitchen she would hear every word.
‘So, Alfredo Martinez is dead.’
‘Not before time.’
‘Irene! Terrible!’ Valentina snorts.
‘Come on, but it’s true. He was ancient. They absolutely stuffed him for the coffin. He’d lost a lot of weight.’
‘And such a handsome man once. He really could have done with some work before such a public display.’
‘Mean of you not to offer, Julio Ortiz. A gentleman like you.’
‘I’m no longer able, as perhaps you know – my hands,’ I say. ‘And it’s not yet standard practice to offer a facelift to a corpse.’
‘You can do me any day,’ Irene drawls. ‘Dead or alive.’
‘Me too!’ Valentina adds.
‘But what about your hands? Don’t you try to tell me that they’ve lost their touch.’
‘Now, don’t be coy. We all know who has the magician’s fingers in BA!’
They laugh together. They are in fits at this smut.
I can’t help it; I am chuckling too.
They leave ahead of me, with promises of drinks, very soon, from all of us.
I linger on in the café, not sure what it is that I am waiting for. Beatriz has left the bill on the table. There is no further need for her to appear. I know she will not.
I take out my wallet and rifle for notes. My hand is shaking, yet again, and I drop it on the floor.
I have to get down on my knees. I gather up the notes that have fallen, pick up my wallet and, overheated, sit back in my chair.
I am still clasping a handful of notes. I put them away, and leave the precise amount on the bill, no more, no less, in small change.
I walk away from my table and out of the door, without looking back. I feel profound melancholy. The door swings shut.
Pay attention. This is important.
She is not beautiful. Her face is not symmetrical. As a rule of thumb beauty requires symmetry, and as with so many people, the two sides of her face don’t match.
Her left eye opens wider than her right – when she is tired her right eye can look half closed. In fact, there is a kind of heaviness to the right side of her face, as if it were somehow more susceptible – to what . . . gravity, grief?
Her lower lip is larger than her upper, and there is a jaggedness to the outline of the upper that is at odds with the whole. She has a dimple that is stretching to a deep line on her right cheek.
A smoker. Indeed, we have smoked together. It is a passion we share. I know, regardless, that she has smoked for some years, from the traces of lines on her upper lip; again, on the right.
Her left-hand side is something else. Her eye is bright and alert, a sense of humour always close at hand. She has green eyes, I may not have mentioned. Whereas on the right the lines that cluster around her eye add age and some sadness, on the left they appear to bear witness to laughter, joie de vivre.
She has a minimal cleft in her chin – almost another dimple – which lends her face strength overall.
When she smokes, she plants the cigarette between her teeth, in the very centre, as she lights it. Her first drag then is forthright, determined, before the cigarette wanders off to the right and hangs loosely, as if it might drop from her lips.
She has dark hair. It is of medium length, and most often tied back.
She is moderately tall.
She is – to hazard a guess, taking into account the puffiness beneath the eyes, the lines now visible on her forehead, the loss of youthful volume in her lips – in her late thirties.
She has a small waist. She has scarred hands.
‘Disappearances’ was the winner of the 2016 BBC National Short Story Award. An anthology of the award’s shortlisted stories is published by Comma Press and also as an ebook.