Dead Mother’s Whispers

The Sombrero Galaxy. Photo: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

I died about twenty years ago, but I haven’t been conscious of that fact until now. Why, I don’t know. I’ll rephrase that. I wasn’t conscious of being dead because you’re not supposed to be conscious when you’re dead; especially after twenty years. What I don’t know is why suddenly I’ve regained consciousness. I could think of a couple of reasons, in light of what I’ve discovered in the last days -supposing they were days and not hours or months. We can always think of reasons why, if we set our minds to it. It’s difficult to set your mind, though, when you’re dead. It feels as if you had put too much water into the jelly mix. And then, again, it’s difficult to know what you’re feeling. 

Let’s try again: I’m a woman, or I was. A mother, I was. I don’t remember how I died or what I died of, but I remember I died at that age when you wonder whether to stop saying ‘I’m getting old’ and start saying ‘I’m old’. In any case, it could be considered that I died, as people say, ‘before my time.’ However, people can also say ‘her time was up’ or ‘her time came’, regardless of your age when you die. If humans are confusing in life, you can’t blame them for sounding confusing in death. 

I don’t remember that much about my life, but I remember I had a daughter. I should say I have a daughter, because even after death your children are always your children and you never forget that. At least, I hope I’m not forgetting any other children I might have. What a horrible thing that would be, even if they have no way of knowing whether their dead mother has forgotten them or not. From their point of view, it feels like she has forgotten because she’s fallen off the face of the Earth. I know how it feels because my parents died when I was in my late twenties. I learned since then the true meaning of being alone and left to your own devices, even though I had been away from home and earning my keep for a decade by the time they had their absurd car accident.

What am I saying? I did forget about my daughter for twenty years for God’s sakes! It’s only now that I begin to remember her. Talking of God. I have to confess that I was an agnostic when I was alive and my condition hasn’t improved in death. Given that I’m not completely dead, I can confirm my belief in life that there is a part of you that exists without the aid of the organic body. But, as for the concept monotheistic believers uphold that God created Man according to His own image, well, so far I haven’t seen anything resembling anything in this… place.

Never mind all the questions about God. They don’t seem to be relevant here. I just hope I don’t bump into Santa Claus in a nightdress one of these eternal days. I don’t think I could cope with patriarchal society being ratified. I’d probably ask to be transferred to hell; if there is one. 

I said I haven’t seen any living beings here, but I’m having trouble seeing and finding out exactly what ‘here’ is. I’m in a nebulous otherworld of enigmatic sensations and ambiguous ideas. As if you were in a permanent state of being about to fall blissfully asleep, images come and go; they flow like cotton-like clouds in a Parrish blue sky, and you let them go on in their journey, unhindered. You don’t have a body, but you drift, too, as if you had one and it floated down in a river of warm water, twitching occasionally when brushing against an imaginary pebble or swaying around a theoretical bend. You let your hypothetical self by taken by the fictional current. You don’t see a stream or trees, but can hear them. You can’t smell them, though. You see only light and shadows. 

Sometimes you hear fragments of music. Classical, pop, jazz, like a radio changing stations. I recognise some of the pieces. They don’t last long. You don’t mind that. You don’t mind anything. It’s like being in love without the sickness. You might think it is a fool’s paradise, but there’s no doubt about it in my soul: This is heaven.

A couple of days ago I started seeing the world of the living from above, as if I were perched on a cloud or were a cloud myself. I saw fragments now quite sharp. They fade in and shortly after they fade out, the way images do sometimes in films. Black and white or colour. It varies. 

The natural world is still magnificent. As it happened when I was alive, its impervious beauty enraptures me every time like the first time. On the other hand, the living creatures, the human ones in particular, look small from above, puny, their struggling pathetic, their worries insignificant. I feel like laughing when I see them. Not at them. No. I want to go down to them and spread the news: none of that matters. But then, it’s easy for me to say: I’m dead. 

I didn’t feel that way when I was alive. When I was in the world of the living, I recall most things were of terrible importance to me. For the life of me, now I can’t understand why. But if I were to go down as a human being again and insisted on saying to those having a hard time that nothing really matters, they would look at me as if I were mad, I’m sure. 

It’s a matter of perspective, I realise. Nevertheless, I wish the living had a little bit of the view from where I’m standing. It tickles me. I’m dying to talk to the soul next to me about it. But there are no souls next to me. I’m alone. And yet I don’t feel alone. You can’t feel alone when you’re not a separate entity, but an indivisible part of an infinite and eternal whole. It tickles me that people down there don’t seem to know this, don’t believe it. Even those who know it or believe it, on the whole, don’t feel it. That’s it: if they felt it, they would be able to see my view.

I have to help my daughter with this or something to do with it. I think that must be the reason for my regaining consciousness of… myself. How prosaic, how inefficient, how typical of life and living creatures. But it has to be, hasn’t it? If you come back after twenty years, it must have something to do with your family or your friends, mustn’t it? Or they would have woken up somebody else’s individual consciousness. 

They. What do I mean by THEY? Please, don’t tell me that there is someone in charge here, a government in Heaven! No, no, there can’t be. It’s just me and my tired old notions regurgitated from my past life on Earth and its country-states and recalcitrant nationalities. I can’t help laughing. I hope you don’t mind. Now I’m quite glad I’m dead.

Anyway, I’m sure it was some remnant of my individuality that decided to come back and not an imposition from God or any other type of governmental body. How confusing it is to be part of everything at the same time as being an individual. Nevertheless, there has to be freedom in heaven if it is to be heaven. Right?

I saw my daughter yesterday morning. At least I think it was yesterday, but I’m sure it was the morning because she was getting out of bed and she never slept during the day, unless she was very ill. She didn’t look ill. Tired, yes, but not ill. I didn’t expect to see her and, after the initial shock, a current of euphoria ran through me, turning me less unsubstantial. As if the feeling could somehow access some vestige of my molecules and submit them to a centripetal force that had the power to amalgamate them. 

My beloved daughter has aged, naturally, after twenty years. She’s lost her puppy fat and her features are sharper, harder. Her hair is streaked with premature white. The corners of her mouth are turned down. Her eyes look sadder. But they still have the dreamy patina they had when I knew her. She preserves that from childhood. She lost her chiming laughter when she was eleven, but she hasn’t lost the gleam in her eyes at forty. That is good news.

She faded out of sight after a few seconds and along with it my slight materiality. I’ve seen her again today, though, and this time she lasted longer. She has a partner. I haven’t seen him, but I sensed him around her and I could hear his voice. He sounded stern but kind. I couldn’t see or hear any children. That is a shame. I wanted her to be a mother. I thought she would have wanted to be a mother at some point. I wonder what’s happened. Maybe they can’t have children. There’s still time. My mother had me when she was forty-two.

It’s coming back to me that nasty feeling: frustration. I don’t need it, but it is frustrating for me now that I’ve seen my daughter, not being able to be with her, talk to her. She definitely seems to need help with something. Of course, all living creatures need help with something. But how can I stick around when I’m in a cloud most of the time? When I am a cloud myself? If I were a ghost to my daughter, perhaps I could make my presence felt. I myself never felt any otherworldly presence when I was alive and I suspect my daughter has inherited my disability in that area. She has clearly inherited others, like a bad sense of balance and a weak digestion. She’s also inherited good traits, naturally, like beauty, intelligence, modesty.

I’ll think of her all the time; see if that improves my control of the situation. One of the first things I should do is remember her name, because, hard as I’m trying, it doesn’t come to mind.


My daughter and I didn’t part in good terms. At least, that is the feeling I’ve got. It might be guilt, about leaving her, about not being a good enough mother. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to be a good enough parent. And yet, I couldn’t have been a terrible one, or I wouldn’t be in Heaven, I suppose. 

In any case, perhaps something did happen in the last days of our being together – or not being together – and we didn’t part in good terms. I can’t tell. And this not being able to tell is further discombobulating me. I recall this is how I often felt in life: the more I craved for harmony and clarity, the more conflict and arguments there were in my life. It was like being in a nightmare from which now I have wakened. I don’t want to fall back into it.

Her name might be Constance. I think I heard her partner calling her Constance. Never mind the name. Perhaps they do have children. At least one. I feel a human presence in the house that doesn’t belong to either my daughter or her partner, but I can’t determine what or who it is. At the moment, there isn’t a strong sense of happiness in the household. Perhaps that presence is a teenager. That would explain it. I remember the horrible time my daughter and I lived through when she was a teenager. So many times we wanted to strangle each other. So many times I said to her I was throwing her out of the house. So many times she said to me she was leaving for good. 

I didn’t throw her out in the end and when she finally left because she had to live her life, we didn’t see each other for a long time. I can’t tell how long. What I can tell you is that she came back and we lived happily under the same roof for a while. I recall watching silly tv shows together before me having to go back to the office in the late afternoon, and watching sublime black and white films together in the evening while having dinner. We talked about the films afterwards, but I don’t recall us talking about our lives. We shared the same black flag politics – yes, I’m proud to say, that’s another trait she inherited from me -, but we didn’t talk about important things or much about anything else for that matter. She didn’t want to; that wasn’t the kind of thing my daughter did with her mum. Perhaps it is like that with all children and their mums. 

This is provided I’m remembering things correctly. Most of your past, you forget, even in life. When your loved ones die and you eventually brave reading again the letters you wrote to them from a far away place and they kept amorously in a tattered blue folder for twenty years, you can’t believe you were that person and did all those things once. You wonder how much more you have been and how many more things you have done that you didn’t write down.

I don’t know. I seemed to have left the world with a virtually empty bag of knowledge. I just hope I don’t have to go back and relearn it all. I don’t think I could cope with going through The Teen Age again, either mine or my child’s. I wouldn’t drag myself through that hell again if they killed me again. Indeed, like the concentric circles in Dante’s Inferno, each teen year in my life was heavier and cloudier than the next, culminating in my eighteenth year on Earth, when I left home, school and lost myself for years. Perhaps, in some respects, I lost myself irreparably. It’s difficult to tell; as I said, the state of affairs is not less confusing when your dead than when you were alive. And when you were alive I think life felt like a collection of fairytales all brewed together in the witch’s cauldron. The happy ending all broken up in little bits, floating around cruelly among the big chunks of misfortune and hardwork in the slippery soup of time. 

In any case, if they offered me to be born again and live another life, I’d say, on one condition: no adolescence. If they tell me that is not possible then I’ll tell them to stick their life where the sun don’t shine. 

There I go again: they-they-they. What is wrong with me?

‘Look at the sky today, mama!’

That’s my daughter’s voice!

‘Isn’t it beautiful? I know you would like it.’

She’s talking to me! The words are muffled, as if she were in another room with the door closed. She’s walking along the dirt track in the woods and she’s talking to me as if I were there. Which I am, because, right now, there is here. But, does she know? Or is she just wishful-thinking I’m there? She stops to contemplate the tawny cows gracing in the bright green field behind the dry stone wall. I think my daughter sent me a postcard just like that during the year she was living in Switzerland. No, it was me that lived in Switzerland and sent the postcard to her.

‘Constance?’ I call -now I remember her name is Constance, like the lake. ‘Can you hear me?’

She doesn’t answer. She’s smiling but she looks troubled.

I call again softly. If she can hear me I don’t want to spook her. ‘My dearest, what’s the trouble. It’s not love, is it?’ 

The question was rhetorical, because her look carried a different misery. It wasn’t the melancholy that can give the lovelorn the bearing of a heart-wrenched poet; it was the soulless, unattractive dejection that comes with financial problems. It could also have to do with the things one ends up doing in a desperate effort to mitigate the said problem. Things that have nothing to do with poetry, or music or love. None of the things that make life worth living and humankind worth saving. Too much of those things you do for money can kill you just as surely as having no money, except you don’t die. You can live like that for many years, as a smiling undead, an organic machine. 

‘I know all about it, my dearest,’ I whispered. ‘Try not to worry.’ Easier said than done, I knew. But I couldn’t help saying it. ‘I worried, and fretted, cried and failed to sleep… None of that helped. Look, I’ve turned into these beautiful flowers all over the green grass, just for you to…’ I stopped myself before I said rejoice. Why would I want to sound like a Christmas song, dancing and throwing streamers? How was that going to make things better for my daughter? No wonder she can’t hear me: I don’t seem to have anything to offer but platitude. So much for ‘only say the word, and I shall be healed.’ But I’m no Jesus, no divine physician, no bread of angels to offer or turn into. I’m just an ordinary disembodied spirit with no apparent special powers.

‘I wish I could ask you things,’ my daughter was saying. ‘About how you managed… what would you do if you were me…. It’s funny, in all the time since you died, I never wanted to talk to you. I wanted to see you, go to a cafe together, but not talk. Now I wish I could talk to you. I’d so much want you to be with me. It’s selfish, I know. Wishing you were alive just because I suddenly need you.’

Tears ran down her face. She wiped them off and resumed her walk into town. She stopped talking to me or to the sky and she faded away.


It’s the winter. The world is covered in snow. I can still see the deep green of the conifer trees and the hollies tearing holes here and there through the pure white blanket. A pure black bird alights in the middle of the pure white garden, the grass dormant underneath. I am the black bird. I take flight into my daughter’s house through the closed window. It doesn’t break. I perch myself on Constance’s shoulder, but she doesn’t move. She can’t feel me. She’s talking to the unknown presence with words I don’t understand. New technology perhaps. I’m tired of being an ignored ghost. It is me who is not worthy of entering her house. I won’t talk. But if she can’t feel me either, if I can’t even be here for her, what is the point of my being here at all?

Black Bird, Si Griffiths, Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been thinking about when my parents died. They didn’t ‘fall off the face of the Earth.’ The truth is I felt them everywhere, as if their substance had permeated everything around me. After a while, I stopped feeling it, or perhaps I got used to it. Maybe that’s why Constance ignores me: I am everywhere, like God. I’m part of God now. I am God. Why do I feel so powerless then? Why can’t I affect my daughter’s life? Why can’t I give her the hand she needs?

‘How’s your flu?’ her husband asks. He’s just coming out of another room.

‘The flu is doing great,’ Constance answers while she’s peeling a fruit. ‘But I feel like crap.’

I feel myself being pulled away. While I ascend vertiginously back into the empyrean, the way is pervaded with a strong scent of tangerine. Is it possible that after twenty years of being in heaven I’ve gone to purgatory? Did they make a mistake with me? Wasn’t I as good as they thought I was? Of course I wasn’t. And now I’m so unhappy. I don’t want to go back to being completely unconscious, but perhaps consciously unconscious. I want to be high again. Have I lost that?


A house. Today Constance was making a house with an empty biscuit cardboard box. She was making the pitched roof with the flaps that closed the box at the top, but they were not long enough and she had to look around for more cardboard. It was a surprise present for somebody’s child. Not hers; she definitely has no children. I sat on a chair and looked on while she did this. That’s all I can do. Since I can’t be here for my daughter, I’ll be here with her. Even though she doesn’t know.

Once the shape of the house was built, Constance started glueing bits of gift wrap all over it. When she finished, it looked like a magical object… It dawned on me: 

Many years ago, when she was little I had done the same thing for her. Door, windows, curtains, roof-tiles, chimney, exactly the same: a humble biscuit box turned into a little doll’s house. 

Constance had been ill in bed with one of the childhood diseases. She had been off school for a few days. She was beginning to feel better and I was beginning to worry about her missing important classes. I wanted her to do some homework. But first I gave her the biscuit box house I had just made for her. You should have seen her face, as if I had just presented her with something out of a fairytale. She couldn’t believe I had done it myself. Just for her. A few months earlier, I had made her first communion dress myself, but that was normal: any mum can make a white dress with a chantilly lace bodice and a tutu skirt all the way to the floor. This dolls’ house, on the other hand, was something that not all mums could, or would, make.

I told her she could play with her new toy for a while, but then she had to do some homework. I gave her a couple of school workbooks. She put them down on top of the bedside cupboard and, propped up against the wooden bedhead with three white pillows behind her back, started playing with the house. Her brown eyes wide with wonder and pride. 

Connie was a wilful girl. Just as I was. Were we not to be, as grown women we could get trodden upon and worn down like cheap carpets. Some hours later, I went to visit her in her childhood bedroom. The workbooks had an air of desolation about them, as if not only the student hadn’t opened them, but hadn’t even bothered to throw a glance in their direction, poor things. Poor me, too, her conscious mother. My girl looked at me with a cheeky smile; she still had the decorated box in her hands, she had put little things inside to turn it into a home. I screamed at her in a rage. She tried to explain. I snatched the cardboard house off her and tore it to pieces.

Now, many years later, Constance is making the same house. But if she’s making it for a child, she’s not going to bother about useless homework and she’s not going to tear the house down. She will make her own mistakes and she won’t be forgiven for them either. It just occurs to me that perhaps she is trying to fix things by doing them again. Perhaps she is trying to forgive me. I’ve forgiven her completely for all she’s done, including her stealing money from me that she never knew I knew she had stolen. But then it is easier for parents to forgive their children than it is for children to forgive their parents.


I’ve got a bad feeling about this one. Constance has been going through her papers, looking for my death certificate. My death certificate! What the hell does she want that for? If she wants an autopsy, it’s a little late. If she wants to know what I died of, I could tell her, if I could, since I remember now: I died of leukaemia and despair at the state of the world. But I’m not dead! Not completely! I’ve noticed in the last couple of days that materialisation is taking a hold on me.

I don’t feel half as dead or absent anymore. Heaven and Earth are not nebulous places any longer, the shapes are sharpening and the colours saturating. I don’t know what it means and I’m not sure I like it, but that’s how it is. So my death certificate can’t be relevant to anybody because it doesn’t apply anymore. That contract was been declared void by me. It is my body and soul and, mark my words, I’ll be the judge of that. 

My daughter can’t understand why she can’t find the damn paper, but when she looks in her files, I move it to a cupboard, and when she looks in the cupboard, I move it to a drawer. I’m very good at that sort of thing now; it’s like magic, which I was always good at. Let me find out first what she wants the paper for and then I’ll decide if she can find it or not. I hope I can hear the conversation that will tell me what I need to know. I can’t choose what I hear, and I still can’t make myself heard or felt, no matter how loud I shout or hard I push. I feel present and alone now in Heaven, happiness folding up on itself, the completeness of the universe receding into its infiniteness. Oh, well, I hope this transition is not as painful as my death.


This morning in Heaven, I heard a voice next to me. It electrified me. I had never heard a voice in Heaven before. 

‘I knew I would see you again one day,’ the voice said. It was as clear as a bell. I turned cautiously, as in a horror movie. I thought I was going to fall down to Earth when I saw it was my ex-husband, Constance’s father. He was standing tall, as he was tall, in a rippling background of dark green water.

‘What are you doing here?’ I blurted out. I couldn’t speak his name. The anger and grief I had suffered for years due to his abandonment of us, daughter and wife, flared up for a brief moment, like a will-o’-the-wisp. What can anyone expect, nearly forty years after having been expelled from the fool’s paradise of romantic love. Oh, how I believed. I believed so blindly. The dark green water rippled some more.

He chuckled.

‘I wasn’t such a bad person,’ he complained. ‘But I have to admit, I’m a bit surprise to find myself here. I’m not sure I deserve heaven straight away.’

I thought of saying ‘I’m not sure either’ but I couldn’t be too snug about the subject; I wasn’t sure I deserved it myself. 

‘I didn’t know you had died,’ I said instead. 

‘It was coming for some time. I kept wanting to sound the horn but I wasn’t brave enough.’

I looked at him. He must have been in his late seventies, but he look about 40, the age he was when we separated. His face took me back: handsome, sensual, weak in places. I looked away. I thought I heard anger again, coming from around the corners of my mind, screeching: How could you do this to me and our daughter!

‘What are you doing here?’ I repeated. ‘Next to me, I mean.’

‘I have no idea. I have no control over this. I’m new to it,’ he said in that arrogant foreign tone of his. I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, tell me about it’.

‘I’m sorry you died so young. I called when you were in hospital but…’ He said this in a softer tone with a kinder accent. I had loved this man to the point of disintegration. I shook my head in disbelief. I wasn’t in the slightest interested in anything he had to say. Still, I was puzzled by his presence. I wanted to know the meaning of it. Something occurred to me.

‘Do you know why Constance might be looking for official papers?’

‘What? Constance, our daughter?’

I nearly said ‘no, my daughter, since I had to raise her without you,’ but I checked myself. 

‘No, the neighbour’s daughter!’ I said instead. ‘Yes, of course, our daughter!’

He thought about this. As it had happened to me after regaining consciousness, he was confused about what was going on. He hadn’t been asleep in heaven for twenty years, like me, and yet he had been away from Constance’s life for nearly 40. All this provided I was getting the times right.

‘She was looking for death certificates yesterday,’ I said. It occurred to me that it could have been the day before that, or an hour ago, but I didn’t say anything. It didn’t matter because it was still happening.

He nodded. ‘It has to do with my will.’

Yes, I thought, I remember: everything had to do with your will.

‘You know,’ he looked at me, his eyes dark and sad. ‘My last will… and testament.’

Right, I thought, a tenuous light flickering inside me. Again, like a will-o’-the-wisp, but this time not fading so fast.

‘What’s in your will?’

‘Not much,’ he admitted. ‘And she has to share it with her… half-brother. It’s the law,’ he explained.

I felt good for a moment. The fact that he was sharing whatever little assets he had left behind with our daughter, after a lifetime of not given her anything, could do something towards redeeming him. Then I realise what ‘It’s the law’ meant. It wasn’t necessarily his will to give our Constance half of what he had; it was the law, whether he liked it or not. The little warmth he had kindled inside me, he snuffed out already. Deja vu all over again, as they say. Still, money is money, and money was what Constance and her partner needed right now. Provided I was getting the picture right. 


‘Constance,’ I call softly. She’s lying awake in her bed at night. She’s alone. Her partner is in another bed, sick with the same flu she has just overcome. Or perhaps they had a row, I’m not sure. She’s terrified about tomorrow – about the future. She hates the future. She doesn’t remember much of the past and the present is a short dark night.

‘Constance, my dear,’ I whisper. ‘I’m here. Things are going to be all right. Do you remember things are always in the last place you look? Well, that’s where I’ve put my death certificate!’

But she doesn’t want to know. She’s tired of all the million little things she knows, most of them been forced to learn throughout this life as well as past lives. A lot of them inaccurate, misleading. None of them she invented or thought of. They now seem irrelevant, a ridiculous burden she will soon enough be rid of, whether she wants it or not. The truth is, she doesn’t want to be this limited being anymore. I know how she feels. I want to go back to not being a little thing. But I fear it’s too late. I’ve gone too far down into Earth and into human life, I have been sucked back in. Oddly enough, I’m too interested. It’s beginning to dawn on me that what my daughter and her partner are seeking is not money but a child.

It is possible all this awakening has to do with me living again. I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was alive and yet I had always said that were I to come back after death, I wanted it to be as a bird. A black bird or a coal tit. Then I would be heard for sure. But would I be understood?

No, I’m clearly not going to come back as a bird. I’m coming back to be near my daughter, and perched in a tree in her garden is not near enough. I’m coming back to listen to her and be listened to by her; chick-a-dee-dee-deeing all day long, as lovely as it is, wouldn’t do the trick. I want to be close to Constance, not fly away every time she comes near me.


The universal soul took a chip out of itself and that chip was me. Now I’m coming back as a round egg -ovule is the scientific name. It’s like being in Heaven again, but with a detectable current of electromagnetism, as well as something else to which I can’t give a scientific name. Is ‘life’ a scientific name? Is it ‘soul’? Condensed life and soul in an organic capsule. I’m bursting at the seams, expanding and expanding, like the Big Bang in its beginnings. But I am in a confined space and, as happy and as comfortable as I am in here, I know I will have to come out and forget who I am and how I was. I wonder if my daughter will recognize me.

I feel the current of Constance’s warm hand on her belly coming through to me. She bursts out laughing. Her jubilation makes me grow some more inside her.

When you wake up in the middle of the long winter night a revelation might unexpectedly come to you. You repeat it to yourself frantically to ensure you will remember it in the morning. You mustn’t forget something so important, so paramount to your existence. You fall asleep again and when you wake up in the morning, try as you may, you can’t remember.

I will forget. I will think I am living for the first time and learning everything for the first time. And thus humanity keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, in a cruel relentless loop. We don’t learn from history because we don’t take it seriously. We think it’s just a story inaccurately written by an anonymous hand at a no particular time about people other than us. In the beginning, we ate from the tree of knowledge. Then we regretted it, and in an effort to return to paradise we insist in remaining stupid.

Spermatozoon and ovum. Mark Garlick, Science Photo Library.

Vivi, 24 July 2022

© Viviana Guinarte

Tom Better Boy


My name is Better Boy, Tom Better Boy. You might not want to know this, but I’m a tomato. After this admission you could very well decide not to carry on reading. There’s a lot of prejudice and xenophobia among species; hell, there’s even a lot of that among different tomato varieties within the tomato kind. For a while, I thought of lying to you, pretending that I’m one of those gigantic creatures that water us, feed us and, generally speaking, take care of us, as well as decide our entire life for us from the moment we are born; even before. 

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are, in fact, one of them. As it happens, I did ask one of you to write my story down. I had to, since I can’t read or write, not because I didn’t go to school – my parents gave me a good education – but because tomatoes simply don’t do those things. In fact, nobody else does but giants. However, as has probably become clear to you by now -if you’re still reading- we tomatoes do think, in our own way, and can communicate, in our own way. Hopefully, it will become clear, if you keep reading, why a tomato would go to the trouble of telling a story. This is not only my story, mind; it’s the story of all my fellow tomatoes, Better Boys or not, and it’s an important one, because it affects the present and the future, not only of the tomato kind, but of all living creatures on this planet. Giants included. 

The tomato civilisation, if you can call it that, originates in America. My family, the Better Boys, is a very large one. We have relatives all over the world. We come from another ancestral tribe called Big Boy, founded by the prophet Teddy Jones. That powerful ancestry confers us a lot of something called Hybrid Vigour and that fact inevitably makes us feel very important. Many members of my family call themselves the chosen ones, because we’ve heard the giants -the animal species that takes care of us- say time and time again that we are the ‘choice tomato’. It takes one easy step from that to believing you are superior to everybody else. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many in my tribe climbing that step down, as if hypnotised, into the realms of mystical idiocy. 

The truth is, on the whole, my family is snobbish at best; at worse, outright racist. Something I don’t identify with myself. My parents imprinted a different trait on me and educated me to understand that just because you turn out redder or rounder, or your name is Better, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually better; we’re all tomatoes with different qualities. Mind you, we are nowhere near as stiff-necked as those nouveau riche, the Kumatos. Listening to them anybody would think the sun shines out of their stigma. Just because they end up being a few shades darker than us and have thicker skin. Don’t they know? We’re all hybrids!

It has to be said that this fetishisation of difference emanates from the giants. I didn’t understand it until very recently, because until very recently I, like most, couldn’t see their overall master plan, but it’s an essential part of that plan. By concentrating on our differences, we separate and mistrust each other, and if we separate and mistrust each other, we don’t help each other, we don’t work together, and, if needs be, we won’t fight together. And, let me tell you, needs will be. Unless we want to be dead tomatoes, or worse, robot tomatoes. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do think differences should be respected, even cherished, as lovingly as only cherry tomatoes know how. But I think it’s terribly important, a matter of life and death really, that we don’t forget we are more similar than we are different. I don’t want to go on about this, but sectarianism amongst tomatoes is a serious subject that we need to address, especially in light of what’s looming. 

I’ll conclude my introduction by letting you know about my best friend. Under the same plastic roof as my family, lives another less extended one called Raf. A couple of months back I made friends with a tomato from that family, a guy named Fabio. I say ‘guy’, even though, as you probably know, we tomatoes are both boy and girl in one, because this Fabio, for some reason, has always been a little bit on the male side, like me. Anyway, we were very young and small when we met, but despite looking like cherry tomatoes, everybody around us kept saying we were both going to be tasty when we grew up. In case you don’t know, the Rafs are considered high class. And yet Fabio Raf is not a pretender. He’s a real guy who, like me, understands that unless we see past our respectable yet little differences and work together we are doomed. 


One day in June, after evening watering, I heard two giants talking with a representative of Angelito Chem, also known as ‘the comical company.’ The giants had been agitated all day, because the drip irrigation wasn’t working properly. By the evening they were forced to give us what we call a shower. We love showers, but unless the drop-by-drop watering system doesn’t work, we don’t get proper showers, because they waste water and nutrients. Getting water little by little through our family plant roots is much more ecological, better for the planet. It’s a good idea, but frankly I don’t mind that occasionally it doesn’t work because I can have a wonderfully cooling shower in this awfully hot hothouse I live in. So, you see, I’m not a saint; I can be individualistic; selfish, too.

These two giants were talking in loud voices, which is not their normal way of expressing themselves. They hardly talk to each other, but when they do, they normally mumble in a bored tone, or whisper as if they don’t want us to know whatever it is they’re talking about. The giants today were too excited to keep their voices down. They completely forgot we were there. 

They were talking about Angelito Chem and some new technology the company had come up with. At the word ‘technology’, pearls of water started coming out of my lustrous green skin, spoiling the heavenly coolness the shower had graced me with. That word brought back the early stages in my life, about a month ago, when the giants, dressed up like spacemen, had brought a ‘new technological product’ from Angelito Chem. This product, a liquid with the name of Squaredown, was sprayed all around me and my family, as well as around the Rafs and all the other tomatoes I hear about but cannot see in this seemingly interminable plastic house. That Squaredown thing turned out to be a serial weed killer that didn’t just go after weeds but everything that lives and breathes, and made a lot of my fellow tomatoes ill, despite the giants having turned off all the fans to avoid the stuff drifting everywhere. Luckily, I’m a strong guy and I resisted, but others weren’t so lucky and they ended up pushing up daisies with the daisies. The poor souls weren’t even fit for tomato puree. 

That is what technology can do to you. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but it can be, because, shockingly – and frighteningly – the masters are not always masterful. Bearing that in mind, when that morning I heard them blab breathlessly about some even more ‘new technology’, I got more than a little bit frightened. New means it hasn’t been tested for long and I know from the knowledge my parents – bless their souls – have passed onto me that we tomatoes are often the guinea pigs of the edible vegetable kingdom. More than that, what the giants were saying was frightening, even if it had been well tested all over the world, especially if it had been well tested all over the world. Because this new technology involves sterilising us. I’m sure you know what sterilisation means: interfering with your reproductive system so that you can’t have babies.

Life is short. The life of a tomato is very short. But it all makes sense if you can leave your seed behind in the knowledge that it’s going to grow one day into beautiful flowers that will turn out glorious tomatoes. Tomatoes that will carry the genetic traits, the knowledge, the soul of thousands of years.

The Angelito Chem rep was explaining to the giants that the new technology will cause our seeds to commit suicide. But I know that can’t be true. Giants might commit suicide, but tomatoes don’t. We love our brief lives too much to kill ourselves. Sure enough, the giant went on to reveal that my fellow tomatoes are going to be genetically modified in a lab so that they will be coded for immolation whether they want it or not. So what the masters, be those giants or Angelito Chem’s reps, call suicide, I call murder.

I got so agitated and angry about what I was hearing that, had I been older and more mature, I would have ripped my skin open from the internal pressure. Unfortunately, my emotions prevented me from hearing the rest of the conversation, which wound up shortly afterwards. The last phrase I heard from the rep was: ‘We’ll explain this in detail over dinner and drinks on Friday at the Golden Egg. Our treat, of course, as usual.’

This was terrible news. I was well aware of how powerful the comical company was. They were the small bunch of giants who told the rest of the big bunch of giants what to do. I know: it should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? But, no, Angelito Chem are the real masters with the master plan. 

When I calmed down and the giants and the rep were gone for the night, I talked to Fabio next to me. It turned out he had heard everything and was on the verge of crying. 

‘What are we going to do?’ I asked, more to myself than to him. The rest of the tomatoes around us were already asleep. They seem to doze most of the day; I can’t blame them, there’s not that much to do or see here. But now we should all be waking up and thinking of something to do.

‘What can we do?’ Fabio asked me. The poor soul looked terrified out of his mind. ‘I wanted to have lots of kids. It’s always been my dream. I’ve heard they’re going to take us Rafs to a supermarket in the West where bumblebees still exist that pollinize us in the open. You see, Angelito Chem doesn’t have a market there yet and their chemicals haven’t driven the bumblebees away. I was looking forward to that. I hate the fact that I come from an onanistic flower in an incestuous hotbed. It’s so artificial, so oppressive. If it weren’t for my friendship with you, this plastic house would be a lonely cage. I thought I could give my children a better life!

‘We’ll think of something,’ I said to trembling Fabio, who, like me a moment earlier, looked as if he were going to have a stem attack and turn to sauce on the spot. I was trying to calm him down for his sake, but also for mine. I didn’t want to get infused with his tension now that I had managed to relax a notch. However, the truth was I didn’t have a single idea about what to do next. I felt so powerless attached to my family plant, like a dependant child, so impotent. Yes, impotent is what my next generation is going to be if we don’t remove this imminent danger, I thought. But how can we, puny tomatoes, change anything when we don’t even have hands or feet?

It was that question that gave me the answer.


About three weeks later, one early morning, the giants did the harvesting in our plastic world. That is, they came in good numbers to pluck us off the tall plants that had been our homes since we were born from their big yellow flowers. I was surprised to be picked so early; in the last few days I had started feeling myself turning pink in certain areas, but I was mostly still green! I started asking around in a panic. One of my relatives explained what was going on: we were destined for grocery stores and supermarkets, not processing plants to be turned into puree. This meant we had to last longer, hence being harvested so young. Lasting longer sounded good to me. I cooled off and let myself be amorously embraced by the gigantic hand; not that I could have done anything to stop any of it. The plucking didn’t hurt, probably because I relaxed. 

I was excited to finally move and go out in the open. It turned out the Better Boys were going to exactly the same place as the Rafs. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going for exportation abroad – I’d always wanted to travel abroad – but I was happy to be journeying along with Fabio. It would be a real advantage if we ended up next to each other in the shop too, because we could unite our strength in our idea, instead of having to carry it out separately. We were going to need all the help we could get. 

The giant labourers carefully loaded us into black plastic boxes with lots of holes in them. Each box held 20kg of tomatoes. Naturally, Fabio and I were placed in different boxes, since we came from different families, but luck would have it they placed our boxes next to each other and we could talk. Our respective relatives didn’t say anything about this interracial exchange. They had long given up trying to destroy our friendship.

We waited for a while outside under the shade of a large porch. I was lucky enough to be in one of the boxes at the top along with my immediate family. The air outside was deliciously cool and fragrant, something I had never experienced before. My skin rippled with pleasure and hopeful trepidation. A golden light was softly glowing from behind the distant hills in the horizon. I had never had such a magnificent view. In fact, I had never had a view at all before. The Earth was beautiful and the light of the sun that had given me life and sustenance felt in my skin like the most loving of caresses, warm and fresh at the same time, perfumed and odourless at the same time. Before, I had only experienced the substitute that filtered through the tight plastic containing our claustrophobic world. The warmth had been sticky, the scents noxious.

The world was big now and the possibilities of existence infinite, even though I knew that, for me, it would only last two more days, if that. The refrigerator truck came a couple of hours later and the labourers swiftly and carefully loaded us into its large thickly-walled box. Back into a cage, this one with no light, and no windows, not even plastic ones. At least it was cool, pleasantly humid and airy. Twelve degrees celsius, 85% humidity, we heard the truck driver say to the farmer. Where the air was coming from nobody found out, another mystery of life. But it was good to know that we weren’t going to dry up and suffocate on the way to the shops. We wouldn’t have been any good to anybody, shrunken and dead, not even for cheap ketchup, we would just be thrown in the waste.

Even though the long truck journey meant going back to a confined life, we knew it wouldn’t last long. Nothing lasts long for a tomato. The humming and reverberating of the truck were reassuring too: it meant it was moving. And it was moving fast. Even if we were in the dark, the fact that we were going somewhere was encouraging and kept our spirits up. That is how trusting tomatoes are. Stupid? No doubt.

The orderly habits of the skilful labourers in the farm ensured that Fabio’s box and mine were again next to each other in the truck. We didn’t talk much during our moving, though. The polyphony of the huge wheels on the smooth road together with that of the powerful engine, even though quite loud, acted on us like a lullaby and we dozed off for most of the time. Only with the sporadic bump on the road, we jumped a bit in our boxes and were wakened for a while. Falling asleep for the umpteenth time, I had a dream; the roof of the truck was carefully lifted, as if by a powerful but genial wind. I was awash in the light and warmth of the sun, the roof was now the great blue sky, which I had only seen in dreams and now I was seeing in this dream. 

I felt myself being lifted by the same friendly wind that had got rid of the heavy metal roof. I saw my fellow tomatoes around me being lifted into the air too. We gently soared into the sky, left the truck far below, which kept running along the road, unaware of having lost its cargo. It looked like a tiny toy truck the child of one of the giants had played with a couple of times in the plastic house. The black boxes were nowhere to be seen; perhaps they had gone with the roof to the place where boxes and roofs go when they don’t have work to do.

I was not afraid: not a single one of all of my fully oxygenated cells felt fear, and that realisation filled me with juice almost to the point of bursting. I thought, in fact, that being out in the sun, exposed to the elements, which even though natural, are chemical too, would cause me to wrinkle and lose my youthful looks. The truth was my plant had sucked up all the sun for me that I had needed to grow all I could grow. My plant with its green leaves had been the one with the chloroplasts and, hence, the power to carry out the photosynthesis thing. I was now as big as I would ever be and from, that point on, it was all downhill. For a free tomato, the sun is a recreational drug: gratifying but harmful.

Still, because this was a dream, I did OK. I lost my greenness, turned bright red and plump and stayed there; I didn’t ooze, shrivel and die. I lived, as I never lived before, because I was more alive than I had ever been before. The joyful wind made us dance as we kept soaring into the stratosphere. I didn’t know where it was taking us, but any design was better than landing on a supermarket shelf awaiting eternal darkness, knowing that when I was eaten, my seeds would be discarded with the inorganic rubbish, because they would yield nothing after me.

Gently we came to a halt. The electrical smell was overpowering but not unpleasant. I knew what that was: the ozone layer the giants often talked about in the plastic house, the layer that was breaking down and letting too much sunlight through, endangering all life forms on Earth. Was this the design? Dance across an ozone hole and turn instantaneously into a sun-dried tomato?

I still wasn’t scared. We had stopped dancing and we simply lulled, suspended in the pellucid blue space, like round red stars. Suddenly we turned pitch black and I knew: we were the ozone holes in the ozone layer. I felt the sun searing through me; it wasn’t friendly fire. The atmosphere cracked open all together. Without the restrain of the atmosphere, the sun turned into an omnivorous predator. I witnessed with horror how it devoured all living beings in all the kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi and protists. Only the inert rocky crust remained. I remember hoping there were a couple of protozoa and a few non-GMO seeds, as well as some nice mould, somewhere, hidden under some stone, waiting for the atmosphere to heal, and start the cycle of love, life and death again. I woke up shivering, 12ºC was too cold for me after all. But the truck doors were open now (the atmosphere cracking in my dream) and the warmer open air rushed in.


‘Don’t bust my pectins!’ a tomato with a girl’s voice was saying to another. 

The boxes had been taken out of the truck via a conveyer belt into a high roofed metal house, which one of the giant workers had called a ‘where house.’  Well, it didn’t sound very reassuring if they didn’t know where we were.

I heard Fabio Raf giggling in the next box. 

‘Are you OK Fabio?’ I asked. I felt disoriented and still unhinged by my dream, which had turned into a nightmare. However, I was reassured by the fact that I was still green. The moment I turned deep red, my life on this Earth would be nearly over and I had something to do before I went into somebody’s salad.

‘Hey, Tom!’ he said cheerfully. ‘Not bad, and you? Quite a journey, eh? Do you hear that girl over there? She’s got a funny accent. I wonder where she comes from’.

‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ this tomato, slightly smaller than me, was saying in a very loud voice. She did talk in a different way, different to what I was used to hearing. It was quite attractive. ‘Why would they want to kill our seeds? It doesn’t make any sense? Who would benefit from that?’

‘The comical company?’ I shouted, my seeds pounding inside me.

‘The what?’

‘Angelito Chem,’ I clarified. ‘The comical company.’

‘Chemical,’ I heard Fabio whisper next to me.


‘Chemical,’ he repeated, still in a whisper. ‘Chemical not comical.’

The tomatoes around us started laughing out loud. ‘Oh, yeah,’ said the girl with the foreign accent. ‘You are comical.’

‘Shame Angelito Chem isn’t,’ Fabio stated.

I was grateful to Fabio for his support, but in my mind I had shrunk to the size of a tiny cherry tomato, one of those the giants pop into their huge mouths and gulp without chewing.

‘What is it that you can’t believe?’

‘The idea that Angelito Chem wants to terminate us. What’s in it for them? They sell all these… comical chemicals to the farmers who plant the seeds they saved from the previous crop. If they don’t have crops to fumigate, they won’t need the chemicals.’

‘Yes, that’s true,’ I granted. This round little tomato had a lot of juice, even if she hadn’t grasped the masters’ master plan. ‘But Angelito Chem will provide the farmers with the seeds, because they will be in charge of creating the seeds that will grow.’

‘Don’t bust my pectins!’ the girl protested again. Perhaps it was an expression autochthonous to the place she was coming from, or a product of an individualistic tomato. ‘That’s got to be a conspiracy theory!’

‘Another conspiracy theory that will be put into practice,’ said Fabio calmly but audibly. ‘The plan is real…’

‘Yes,’ another Raf agreed. ‘A lot of us don’t see the reality, as if we were inside Plato’s cave!’ 

‘Who’s Plato?’ another one wanted to know.

‘A Greek giant,’ somebody explained.

‘What’s a Greek?’

‘Oh, it’s too complicated: A giant that loves tomatoes.’

A kerfuffle of tomato voices ensued. Some thought like the girl: it was all pulp. Some were with Fabio and me. The same old story; tomatoes divided over a decisive issue at a crucial moment. Unless we were together on this, we would never achieve anything. Our side had to convince the other of the truth before it was too late. But that’s easier said than done.

‘So you think Angelito Chem is going to just collect all the seeds in the world and turn them into their seeds, which the farmers will have to buy off them,’ said the girl, whom I’d heard somebody call Rocy. She had already turned fully red. She looked hot and tasty. 

‘Come on, they don’t have the power to do that! Who’s in charge, the farmers or the chemical company?

‘The chemical company!’ a few of us shouted in unison.

‘They are the real masters,’ I added quickly. ‘With a master plan.’

Before Rocy could reply to that, another small tomato of her kind said something in a little voice, which I could still hear over the murmur of the hundred conversations going on among the thousands of tomatoes in the where house:

‘They’ve already changed us into hybrids and…’

A big noise stopped her and everybody else from talking. The noise was coming from a long line of extractor fans along the top of the walls in this artificially lit metal house. I knew about extractor fans; we had them in the plastic house to bring air in from outside and extract the excess of CO2

‘The ethylene,’ said a tomato, one of my kind. ‘Prepare to blush.’

I had missed that lesson in school.

‘They are gassing us so that we turn red,’ the same tomato explained.

‘Yeah,’ snorted another tomato, a Raf this time. ‘Prepare to go to sleep first.’

I thought of Rocy and the other little red tomato.

‘What happens if you’re already red?’ I asked.

I could tell the Better Boy didn’t want to answer, but in the end he said:

‘You go redder.’

‘Yeah,’ the Raf snorted again. ‘You go too far down the red road, and we all know what that means.’ 

Yes, I thought, we all know: you go bad and die. I worried for the little red ones.


I woke up in a supermarket. I knew it was a supermarket because the giants had talked about them in the hothouse. It had high ceilings with tube-lights running along them. There were stacks of shelves along the corridor where I was. My shelf was at some distance from the floor, but not too high. I looked for Fabio and the girls, as well as other familiar faces, even though I knew it was unlikely they would be in the same supermarket as me, let alone nearby, but, miracle of miracles, Fabio was there once again, for the last time, in the box next to me, to the right.

I was still woozy from the ethylene and the accelerated changes that had taken place in my body, which felt like somebody else’s. Yet Fabio’s presence filled me with indescribable euphoria, as if, like in my dream-nightmare, I was floating in the air and not trapped in this box to be sold by a giant, and bought and consumed by another. Being consumed by an animal was the way of nature, the way of the Gods. And it was fine if that’s what it was, but not if it was going to be the way of Angelito Chem, the Chemical Company. They were not the Gods, even if they liked playing their role. I had to stop thinking though, haranguing myself. That was as fruitless as the ‘suicide’ seeds. I had to start haranguing others.

Fabio and I looked at each other across the boxes and the other tomatoes around us. We had talked about it a few times. We knew what we wanted to do. We were redder than we would ever be. Bursting with juice, we wouldn’t go without a fight, even if by impositions of our phenotype it had to be a kickless and screamless fight.

The first customer I saw came from the left. It was a he-giant, quite old judging by the wrinkles on his skin. He picked up a huge beef tomato from a few boxes away from me, then put it back in the box. I heard the tomato sigh a deep sigh; I couldn’t tell whether it was relief or regret. 

The giant resumed his stroll along the aisle and, when he was near enough, I started talking to him. I’d never done this before; I’d never talked directly to a giant. We all took for granted they wouldn’t understand us or even hear us, as we… well, we don’t really ‘speak’ in the strict sense of the term. Yet, the strict truth was, I had never tried it before. In the hothouse we’d been careful not to address the giants, but also not to talk among ourselves when they were near. We resented them for keeping us imprisoned under plastic and for constantly spraying us with foul-smelling, suffocating liquids. They called them ‘pesky sides’ and they often talked about how good they were, but the fact was the labourers always looked like astronauts when they came to ‘apply’ them all over our plastic habitat. Don’t ask me how a tomato knows what an astronaut looks like, because I don’t know how I know; it must be one of those collective subconscious memories.

Anyway, just like that, I started talking to this giant, telling him about our plight. The tomatoes around me, which up until that moment had been completely still, as if they were dead, started vibrating, as if somebody were about to pick them up or tread on them. The giant guy looked at the round red things in my box. For a moment, I could have sworn he looked straight at me, but then he carried on, walking a bit faster than before, along the aisle past the tomato area. 

Two younger giants appeared from the left, a he and a she. They were funny those two, from the go: their hair was long and straggly, they wore baggy clothes; perhaps they were farmers. They seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere and yet they were standing still in front of the tomato shelves. With a sudden infusion of energy I started speaking again, explaining one more time:

‘I don’t know whether you know this, but Angelito Chem, the co… chemical company is planning on changing our seeds so that…’

‘I don’t know whether you know this!’ the she-giant interrupted, her voice boomed over mine. ‘But something terrible is happening.’ She very obviously wasn’t talking to me, but to other giants who, at first, I couldn’t see because they must have been somewhere else in the shop. How funny, I thought, that she’d just repeated what I’d said. Could it be that she had heard me and she was ‘translating’ to the other giants? But how could she know that what I was about to say had any interest or relevance to her? I stopped myself from blabbing to myself and carried on talking to her:

‘The company is going to create seeds that grow only one crop and then die…’

‘Angelito Chem, the chemical company!’ the she-giant’s voice thundered again to her audience. ‘is creating seeds that don’t prolong life after their first yield!’

I couldn’t believe it, she could hear me and understand me! What’s more: she believed me!

‘I can’t believe it!’ I heard Fabio saying. 

He hadn’t said anything so far because our plan was for me to give an introduction and then, when I was tired – it is exhausting to try to communicate with beings who are not equipped to listen to you – he would carry on.

‘I can’t believe it!’ other tomatoes echoed him. We were all shocked out of our skins. And just when I thought I couldn’t be more shocked, she went and picked me up. Out of all the tomatoes in all the boxes she picked me!

She embraced me firmly but gently in her warm colossal hand. I felt her powerful vibration running through me like a pleasurable current. I was sure she was feeling mine. My seeds trembling with emotion, I continued explaining:

‘Our lives will be extinct beyond our lives, we won’t have offspring that will carry on with our history.’

‘This tomato is a hybrid,’ she said in her passionate but steady voice. ‘It’s already some way towards this terminator technology.’

‘Terminator’, I thought. Had I heard that expression before?

‘We have been improved in the last decades,’ I said out loud. ‘Isn’t that enough?’

‘When are these people going to stop!’ she carried on. ‘Doesn’t introducing artificial traits to make tomatoes last longer bring enough profits to the chemical company? Isn’t transgenic bad enough? When we don’t even know what effect it is having on our health, and, particularly, that of our children?’

I realised she was adding her own bits to my speech, and that was fine by me. It was good that she knew already about the consequences this technology would have over her fellow giants. But then I realised she knew a lot more about me than I did, too. I didn’t know that being a transgenic hybrid was a bad thing. I wanted to ask her something.

‘So, even now my seeds are already bad and will create defective children?’

The he-giant next to her answered, again, addressing the other giants in the shop, who, by now, were beginning to gather around the two of them. 

‘If you plant the seeds from that tomato in your garden,’ he pointed at me. ‘You wouldn’t get the same tomato but a defective one.’

My seeds froze. So, it was true, we didn’t have to wait for the next generation, the nightmare had already started. I still couldn’t quite believe it: my parents were hybrids and I was a perfect tomato. Perhaps the problem was in that other word ‘transgenic.’ I was about to start crying my juice out through the pores of my skin. I couldn’t speak, I was so upset. Fabio relieved me.

‘We have to find a way to stop Angelito Chem from carrying out their evil plan,’ he said to the baggy-clothed giants.

The he-giant reached out and picked Fabio from his box.

‘We don’t agree with their plan. We have to get together and stand in the way of the chemical company and their unethical technology,’ the giant declared to his fellow giants. ‘We have to fight for the preservation of life, the lives of farmers and their families, our lives.’

‘Millions of people around the world,’ the she-giant contributed, ‘live off saving the seeds from the previous crop. They’re not able to do that now: they have to buy the expensive seeds off the agrochemical company each year if they want to have food. There’ve already been countless suicides of farmers in poorer countries.’

Another thing I didn’t know. I realised something else: everything, all of us, were more connected than I had thought. In fact, we were all completely connected. Perhaps that’s why these giants were understanding us tomatoes against all odds. Other tomatoes had started talking, among themselves and to the giants. That was good, they were waking up. What a shame, though, that they had needed others to start things up for them. If only we were all more awake, then perhaps the Angelito Chems of the Earth wouldn’t gather so much power.

‘We sacrifice our lives to you,’ I managed to say. ‘Only with the understanding that you are going to lie our seed to rest in the ground so that they can grow and live again.’

‘Tomatoes,’ the she-giant said, ‘potatoes, peppers, pumpkins… they give us life because they have life in them. And it’s a life that doesn’t belong to a company: it belongs to the fruits of the Earth and to us!’

The tomatoes in the boxes were all echoing the same message. Perhaps the potatoes and the rest in the shop were doing the same. I couldn’t tell. My seeds were ringing.

‘Excuse me!’ I heard a different giant say. ‘You can’t make a racket like this in here. If you want to shout your message go to the street or to the town square…!’

‘But they are right,’ another giant said. ‘And what better place to start than in a supermarket where you sell…’

‘I sell! I’m only an employee here…!’

‘Yes, we’re all only employees!’ said the he-giant with the straggly hair and the baggy clothes. ‘And that’s how the company accumulates power and rakes profit, because we are only employees and the company is our boss. It’s time… hey, hey! Don’t grab me!’

‘If you don’t leave the premises I’ll call the police!’

Suddenly they were all, giants and vegetables, communicating at the same time, which, as we know, is not very good for communication. Predictably -although I couldn’t tell you exactly how I was able to predict it – a magnificent fracas ensued. Voices were raised and tomatoes were lifted. The customers waved the tomatoes in the employees’ faces and the employees waved empty hands in the customers’ faces. 

The giants are not so giant, I thought. They’re as pathetic as we tomatoes are. And yet I felt hopeful, confident that we were going to get somewhere. I felt my seeds vibrate with merriment. Customers and tomatoes had woken up and were fighting back. Tomatoes started flying. The customers were picking them up and throwing them high up and across the space in the supermarket. Still on my throne that was the she-giant’s hand, I looked down at the boxes, concerned for my fellow tomatoes, and I swear I saw a lot of them lifting into the air without any giant hand picking them up. Perhaps it was a hallucination; I was very hot and turning soft inside this girl’s hand. 

The tomatoes in the air shot across the shop and then back, as if they were remote-controlled missiles, and began immolating against people, walls, tube-lights, pumpkins…

The pandemonium reached terrific proportions. I remember wondering how it was all going to end up. Abruptly, the din around me ceased to deafen me and turned into a loud beautiful, if atonal, symphony.

I looked up at the she-giant holding me protectively in her hand and she looked down at me. Her eyes resembled the sky in my dream. I could tell she wasn’t going to throw me across the air, or down on the floor… She wasn’t going to waste me.

‘I swear to God.’ I could hear her perfectly above the clamorous music around me. She said this to me. ‘I’m going to make you right. I’ll try and try, again and again. Until I get it right. Until you come out right again.’ Huge diaphanous tears were coming out of her eyes and rolling down her cheeks like tidal waves.

‘If it’s the last thing I do.’

Oh good, I said to her, my seeds beaming brightly. 

As it should be: the end of this story is the beginning of another story.

Vivi, June 6th 2022

©Viviana Guinarte

Sugar, ah, honey-honey

‘Look Fay,’ little Anna called to me. ‘That girl over there.’ As her grown sister, I felt it only right to remind her that it was rude to point at people.

‘But she’s so thin!,’ she explained, as if that in itself authorised you to forgo your manners. 

My eyes searched for the thin person ahead of us in the queue inching towards the string of cash registers. The city’s Fnac was swarming with people that Saturday morning. Next time we would come any other morning in the week, from Monday to Friday, I kept reminding myself all throughout our journey inside the four-storey megastore. I find shops oppressive; shops full of people, claustrophobic; the advent of on-line shopping has been a godsend for me. Still, my ten-year-old sister wanted the going-shopping adventure, and the leisurely pace of the customers, encouraged by the store’s policy of laissez faire, made it just about possible to bear even for me. The fact that we found what we were looking for was a pleasant surprise, too. At least, the pain had not been suffered in vain.

I spotted the ‘she’ my sister was talking about six people ahead of us: A woman in her early twenties, just like me. She wore a black summer dress that tried unsuccessfully to cling to her body, and hair a la garçon, as black and as limp as her dress. She was indeed very thing, skeletally thin and the skin on her bare arms and legs made me think of a mortuary sheet removed from a casket that had been in a tomb for at least a century.

I bent down towards my sister. ‘She’s anorexic,’ I whispered.

‘Anorexic,’ Anna considered. ‘I thought she might be.’

I ignored this remark, as Anna often wants to make herself appear knowledgable about things of which she knows nothing. Instead, I signalled my sister to keep her voice down and explained:

‘She hardly eats because in her mind she’s never thin enough.’

‘But she is very thin!’

‘I know, I know,’ I waved her hand down. It was her style, inherited from our father: my sister was speaking too loudly. 

‘But she doesn’t see it,’ I explained further.

‘I’ve heard of it on Youtube,’ she nodded. ‘It’s a mental illness.’

‘That’s right.’ 

Youtube, I thought, mental illness. Kids these days.

We both looked towards the girl. I was shocked to see that she too was looking in our direction, with the exorbitant eyes of a starving woman wearing mascara. I looked away more frightened than embarrassed.

‘Don’t stare, Anna, it’s not polite.’

‘I’m not staring,’ Anna protested, ‘she’s staring.’ 

I looked again and the thin girl averted her eyes. A young man standing next to her turned his head towards my sister and me, and immediately put his arm around the woman’s boney shoulder, proprietorially, protectively. The boyfriend or husband. It occurred to me that the couple’s grave demeanour didn’t denote criticism or embarrassment, but acknowledgment that a serious problem existed, that they didn’t see Anna’s stare or mine as morbid interest but concern, which it was; a concern they shared. Perhaps, I speculated, the man had come recently into the thin woman’s life to help her. I considered myself fortunate for not having the same problem; how much better it was to be ten kilos above zero than ten kilos below. Unhappy as I was with my weight, I sincerely believed it was better than that other extreme eating disorder.

I didn’t look at them again, it wouldn’t have been fair on them. Anna lost interest too once she stumbled upon the enormous choice of squishies by the tills. Our turn to pay eventually came, we forked out our bank notes and went away, back home, to enjoy our new movie, CD and squishy. 

Some days later I was given a red dress by one of my mom’s younger friends. Red is my favourite colour, especially the deep red this dress had: the colour of poppies in the shade, only redder for being more extensive and uninterrupted by patterns of stigmas, stamens, sepals or pedicels. In short, only the petals, hundreds of them, sewn together with thousands of invisible stitches, like the ones our mother sews in the clothes she makes for fun.

I tried it on. I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror. But I had to. I had to see how the dress looked on me in order to decide whether to keep it to myself or pass it on to somebody else. It couldn’t look good, but it had to look reasonable. I braved it and looked at the mirror head on, with both my eyes, tears already welling behind them. Ok; it wasn’t too bad, given my seize. It was reasonable. I turned around slowly, carefully. I puffed: that big belly of mine; that was the main problem. My ass was big too, and my breasts, but for some reason I don’t mind those as much. I puffed again, this time sucking my belly in: it was still big, but almost normal. Still, the dress was flattering for a big woman. I sighed with a feeling that would have liked to be contentment and wiped a couple of tears off my face. I took the dress off, careful not to glance at the mirror again while doing it, in case I caught myself in a less flattering position. 

My thoughts and emotions about my body are fluctuating and conflicting. I love it because it is mine, because it is a big part of me — no pun intended — and I can’t help loving it; much like I love my sister and I imagine one day I will love my children. But I also love it for the fact that it works, bar my weak digestive system, like the most magnificent machine, and it keeps me alive and mostly well every day. Moreover, I consider I have a pretty face, not film-star pretty, but pretty enough, with beautiful skin and hair. I make sure that every now and then I thank the gods and goddesses for all of that. And if all of that weren’t enough, my corpulence is fairly harmonious, bar my big belly, my fleshiness firm; only a little bit of the abhorred cellulite in me. In fact, some of my friends my age, who are much thinner than me, have more cellulite. That makes me happy, I’m ashamed to admit.

Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for and I feel stupid, vain, superficial, selfish, narcissistic and all the synonyms for still agonising over something as unimportant as my weight. It’s like complaining about not being able to afford to eat out, when millions of people in the world can’t afford to eat every day. All I have to do is to be in solidarity with those millions and stop eating. But that is a confused thing to say, because, given the chance, all those wretched people would rather be fat, I’m sure. The best thing would be for me to share my surplus of food with them. Then I wouldn’t be fat and they wouldn’t be starving. How I could go about doing that, I don’t know, though. Anyway, it’s just an idea; nothing I consider seriously. The food companies and food outlets throw tons of food away every day; they could solve the problem in a heartbeat if the set their minds to it. But, do they have a heart? And are their minds set in anything else other than making a profit? Nevertheless, I sometimes feel I contribute to the problem for being, in my own way, as greedy as a multinational. Only when it comes to food, mind. Not like my friends, who change their wardrobe every season and can never have enough lipstick, shoes and necklaces. 

I often wonder what it is that makes me overeat. I like food, yes; nothing wrong with that, it’s only natural. Some good for you, some bad. But I know that I don’t eat only for my enjoyment. I use food as a drug. More specifically carbohydrates, the things that turn into sugar once they get absorbed into your body. Actually, those in themselves are not the bigger problem either; the unhealthy carbohydrates are the ones that come with real sugar dumped into their recipe. Cupfuls and more cupfuls of the white stuff added to the mix. I consume those carbs the same way a heroin addict consumes heroin and a cocaine addict consumes cocaine. The same way some people drink alcohol, which by the way also turns into sugar, I eat things that turn into sugar laced with sugar. If it sounds crazy is because it is. And yet, there’s nothing I can do about it. My name is Fay and I’m a sugarholic.

It took me a very, very long time to admit to my problem. I used to be a sugar addict denier, but now I know that those man-made edible crystals, white, golden or brown, solid or liquified, whatever their source, are my ruin. As I said before, I’m not talking about bread and rice, which I just find difficult to digest but are supposed to be healthy —although that is also currently under debate— I’m talking about the heavy duty ones that not only turn to sugar themselves but have sugar added to them during their confection: cakes, biscuits, cookies, ice creams, ice lollies, gummy liquorice, gummy bears, gummy berries, gummy eggs, gummy everything, and, last but in any way least, CHOCOLATE. Whoever came up with the idea of adding sugar to cocoa was of the same demon species that thought of making heroin out of opium and crack out of cocaine.

I’m tempted to say I don’t need my fix every day, but it would be a blatant lie. I do eat my drug everyday. I might hold the craving by the leash in the mornings, when it’s not so strong, but by the afternoons it begins to trot, and in the evenings it is running and jumping, dragging me after it.

It has often entered my mind the question, if I love my body so much why do I abuse it? But my mind is part of my body, and my mind has a mind of its own.

* * *

On Friday evenings I go out with my friends to the beach and then to the club; some Fridays, the other way around, when we decide to end the party on the beach. I like the night. In the night there is little light. Because we can’t see each other in our real form we relax and achieve an intimacy that is unthinkable during the unforgiving daylight. In the night we show ourselves in a good light. I can make others believe it, too. I’m not the kind of girl who would make love with anybody, but occasionally I can also make myself believe that I’m in love. Then my heavy roundness is infused with a potent sensuality that engulfs both the incognisant male victim and me. Yes, in the night I can believe that I am an alluring odalisque. Sometimes I feel sorry for my victims, usually drugged, because they don’t know what they are getting themselves into until it’s too late, and yet early, too early in the morning to be strong enough to come to terms with reality. 

I just realised that I should have added Turkish delight to the list of my favourite sweets; one of my most favourite, but not easy to find. Crystallised fruit, that’s another one; I know a very good shop that sells it in town, if you’re interested; expensive though, good crystallised fruit is; there’s no point in having cheap crystallised fruit, it’s as bad as cheap chocolate.

But I digress. After the swirl in the sand, which I have to confess doesn’t end up in Turkish delight often enough, I wipe the sand off me and disappear before dawn, before the male victim sees the light. After those nights I don’t need chocolate or jam for breakfast. Perhaps if I had a good husband one day, I would grow thin and healthy.

Saturday evenings are a different kettle of sweet. That’s when mum and dad go out and I come to my childhood home to look after Anna. We sit together and watch movies, mainly horror movies – her favourite. Before we sit down we supply ourselves with anti-terror weapons: marshmallows, pieces of chocolate cake and drinking chocolate for hydration; nuts, also, for strength of mind (my mum says raw nuts prevent you from going nuts.) It is important to understand that cake and cookies (that is, the combination of flour, sugar, fat and salt), as well as a substitute for love, constitute an antidote against the stress and distress of life, and bad movies. I’m not the only cake addict I know. 

There are other reasons to make cake, cookies and their variants your drug of choice:

  1. They are legal.
  2. Easier to get than love. Indeed, they are readily available everywhere. What’s more, sugar is added to lots of foods you might not even think they had it, and don’t even need it.
  3. They are cheap. Cheaper, in fact, than any other food; cheaper than fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, cheese, fish or meat. What is that about?

Yes, sugar is dirt cheap. It’s hard to believe that a whole packet of chocolate buns can be cheaper than two apples, but it’s true. And even when you believe it because you see it day after day in the blessed supermarket, it’s hard to understand how or why we’ve come to this. Especially when the sweet invention used to be so expensive that only rich people could afford it, and indeed its producers and traders made fortunes selling it, not less fabulous had they been able to turn its crystals into diamonds. 

A long time ago sugar was considered a ‘fine spice’ and a luxury commodity in the same way some spices used to be a luxury commodity: Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, black pepper… Imagine: just like those spices, the ‘sweet salt’ used to be considered a medicine —Sugar, a medicine! Imagine: all the black people that were enslaved to live until death manufacturing that delicious, demonic creation; all the soldiers that fought wars and died on the other side of the planet protecting and expanding its commerce in the name of the King, the Queen, the Company… What if they had been told that a couple of hundred years later sugar and spice, and all things nice —except for opium and its derivates— could be purchased by everybody and anybody for tuppence in hundreds of uninspired warehouse-type shops called ‘super-markets’? Would they have believed it? Would it have made any difference to them? Probably not. Mad world we live in, always has been. And I’m afraid it’s probably not going to get any less mad.

* * *

My youngest cousin, my mother’s youngest sister’s son, came over to my place one day. He’s two-years-old, thin as a pencil, smart as a whip, scrumptious as an upside-down carrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting. Joe is his name. I keep him company occasionally when my aunt, who works from home, needs to do this or that, or go to this place or that place on her own, and her husband, who also works from home, coincidentally needs to do this or that or go to this or that place in the same day and time of day. Sometimes I also babysit Joe when they want to go out together in the evening. I’m still without a full-time job after college and my aunt pays me, so it’s all good. All the better for the fact that my little cousin loves me and I adore him.

He’s a very active little guy and can’t stand still for long, as it is often the case with kids his age, so we run and jump around until he uses up enough of his energy to sit down for a while and I’m exhausted. We then do sedentary things like paper cutting or folding (one of the funniest things on Earth: watching a two-year-old doing origami). We’re also allowed to watch some telly. So, yesterday, after successfully making a paper cup and drinking water from it until it turned to mush, we sat down and turned the tv on to watch reruns of his favourite program: Balamory. He prefers it to new programs and, I have to confess, I enjoy watching it in his sweet company. ‘What’s the story Balamory,’ he recites in his ragged tongue when he sees the coloured houses coming up on the screen.

That day, after one episode, the tv channel went to commercials. The last one after the next program advertised the coming Fashion Show in Paris with models hurriedly sashaying along a catwalk. Do I need to inform the reader of the fact that they were all skinny? I looked over at two-year-old Joe; his light green eyes seemed hypnotised by the screen, and while I marvelled for the millionth time at his godlike beauty, I wondered semi-consciously what the boy thought of those girls. No sooner the commercial ended and the next Balamory episode was starting, I found out.

‘Cushion Fay when ar de peetee guls aggen, you sink?,’ he said, the green in his eyes, still fixed on the television screen, rippling like soft waves in a pool, his freckled cheeks shining, gently flushed. It least I think that’s what he said; I was so shocked by the revelation that I’m not sure my recollection is accurate. His speech is very developed for his age and it is a feature of his to say things, in his own way, like ‘When are we going to eat, you think?’ So it is possible that he ended his question in that manner. I’m also sure it had the intonation of a question. But more than anything, there is no doubt in my mind that he used the expression ‘pretty girls.’ I wanted to ask him where he had got that from, the expression I mean, but I have already said, I was in shock. Was it just an expression he had heard somewhere in relation to women on the television? I had never heard him using it before. Did he really think they were pretty?

I didn’t want to admit it, but yes, of course, two-year-old Joe thought those girls were beautiful. To me they looked like crack addicts in expensive nighties and tons of make-up. But that was me, obviously, since a two-year-old had very quickly come to the conclusion that they were indeed pretty. How on Earth had he acquired that misshapen concept of female beauty? ‘That’s the wrong canon Joe!’ I wanted to tell him, ‘That’s the canon imposed by society! And it’s completely unrealistic! And it hurts women all over the world!’… But you couldn’t say that to a two-year-old. Well, you could, but he would look at you as if you were mad. And, indeed you would be mad, because, How is society going to impose a canon of any kind on a two-year-old? 

Venus of Willendorf

So who else could have taught him to feast his eyes on fashion models? It hadn’t been me, that’s for sure. Let’s see: Both his parents, mother and father, male and female, were staunch feminists, and the rest of the family weren’t far off the mark. He didn’t go to a kindergarten, he didn’t have a nanny but me. He wasn’t allowed to see any programs or movies that weren’t adequate to his tender age. Of course, his parents weren’t fundamentalists in any fashion, so Joe did have contact with other families and played with other kids. It must have been another family, I said to myself. But I felt sick with the certainty that Joe had his own opinion about what a pretty girl looked like and it had nothing to do society’s beauty canons but his own internal canon that came, where from? His DNA? The collective subconscious? God knows where; yes, He must know. 

We watched another episode of Balamory. I glanced from time to time at his sweet profile and caressed his lovely ginger hair. He didn’t mention the ‘peetee guls’ again. I didn’t tell his parents. I mulled over it for days. I still do. It occurred to me, for example, that what had made the girls pretty in his eyes were the dresses, the hair, the make-up… That had the girls been rounder he still would have considered them pretty. So much for you ‘don’t need make-up and high heels to look pretty,’ I thought of that. Oh, là là, one way or another, quelle catastrophe!

* * *

A week later, the following Friday, I met someone. I young man my age, a boy, one could call him, the same way people call me a girl. I was wearing my new second-hand red dress. I was in the club by the beach. I had been dancing and drinking with my friends. I went to the restrooms and then decided I needed some fresh air. I stood right outside the club’s entrance looking at the sea, black as tar in the dark, not daring to wander any further on my own. 

He was coming from the right, leaving the promenade to go into the club. He was alone. As he walked in my direction he studied me with a soft smile.

‘Wow,’ he whispered, ‘that’s some dress.’

‘Thank you,’ I said smiling back. He was dark like the night sea. I remember thinking he had come from it, all the more so because he seemed to carry with him some of the mist that was coming off the sea after the long hot summer day. Befittingly, a disco version of ‘Smoke gets in you eyes’ was coming from the club. It sounded far away behind the glass doors that kept the cool conditioned air inside the club. One of my favourite songs, I thought, although I would’ve chosen the The Platters’ version for the occasion. Dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes, he had. A kind face, too. To me, breathtakingly handsome, although my friends wouldn’t agree with me. He stood in front of me and took to studying my face. His interest in me wasn’t offensive, like sometimes other boys’, who looked at you as if they were inspecting a thing they were thinking of buying. 

‘I don’t know,’ he doubted. ‘Too much red I think.’

‘What a nice way of calling me fat,’ I retorted, brightening my smile.

He opened his eyes and lost his smile. Shaking his head he proclaimed:

‘Oh, no, no, no, I didn’t mean that! And you’re not fat! You’re not fat at all!’

I laughed out loud at his consternation; it seemed so genuine. He was exactly my height, which meant we could look straight into each others eyes, and embrace and kiss without straining. His frame was light, but not too light to feel like a child in my arms. He was so perfect, so gorgeous, I felt dizzy and I could have collapsed in a red heap hadn’t it been for the 1.5 gallons of blood rushing through my body like a freight train. I was galvanized by an extraordinary force I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t know whether this force originated in my own cells or was coming from him, or from the universe. It didn’t matter to me. 

However, the miracle of miracles that took place that night, wasn’t that I had found him, it wasn’t that I had fallen in love, just like that, like in the songs: it was that I could see he was feeling the same. For me. How ever was that possible! But there it was, the way he looked and smiled at me, how he followed me and talked to me all night, as if he couldn’t bear to not be with me, knowing me. Yes of course it occurred to me, him loving me was too good to be true, but I was determined to let the smoke get in my eyes. Tarik was his name. It still is since he’s not dead, God forbid. 

The next weeks I couldn’t see anymore that I lived in an ugly world where States’ wars and poverty kill innocent men, women and children every day, where industry implacably destroys plants, animals and humble people’s habitats, making you feel so impotent and sad that you wonder whether there’s any point in being on this planet. I couldn’t see it because the thick smoke surrounded me night and day, the smoke of the clouds in Paradise that Tarik and I inhabited. The state of the world wasn’t relevant anymore because it wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t feel other people’s pain. And I was anaesthetised against my own. Love is the drug, the song goes. It certainly acted as a painkiller. It was all supremely selfish but I didn’t feel at all ashamed. I, like so many people, had some time or other believed that love could be the answer to the world’s troubles. But how can that be when love is narcissistic? It makes you feel good, but to what extent does it infect or affect other people? Jesus and Gandhi were probably talking about a different kind of love than the one I felt for Tarik.

The Song of Songs says: ‘Your love is sweeter than wine, the smell of your perfume is more fragrant than spices.’ Yes, I got all the songs then. Love, I said, was the drug for me. Not sugar anymore. Tarik’s kisses were sweeter than wine, than chocolate fudge, than gummy bears, and had a sweeter effect on me than anything I had tried before.

* * *

After a week of being with Tarik I began to concern myself again with my appearance. For a whole week, it hadn’t occurred to me once that I was too fat or not attractive enough for Tarik. I find it difficult to believe now but it’s true: I was able to see myself through Tarik’s eyes. My parents had always told me I am beautiful, but I believed only Tarik. One day though, I saw him talking to a young woman outside the restaurant where he worked, somebody I didn’t know, a peetee gul, and that changed things. I felt a deep stab in the chest that made me gasp for air. I secretly made the decision there and then to lose weight. Even though Tarik wasn’t complaining, I felt compelled to make myself look better for him. I wasn’t going to let the fat surrounding my body get in the way of our love.

I stopped having sugar altogether. As I said, it wasn’t the drug for me anymore, so I was already skipping some of my carbohydrate snacks without even having to think about it. But after ‘the decision’ I cancelled any kind of sugar or carb intake completely. I even started inspecting labels to look for the undemocratically added sugar in preserves; not just fruit preserves, but vegetable preserves, tinned meat, tinned fish, sauces… Anything and everything. Take a magnifying glass to your local supermarket and weep. Sugar is used as a flavour enhancer and a preservative, enhancing and preserving the obesity and the hyperglycaemia of the population. Another crime perpetrated by the food industry against the people under the protection of the law. Some of the prepared foods take the cake, like corn: GMO and preserved with sugar. Perfectly evil.

I don’t have Tarik’s love anymore. I was blind but now I see. Again. It was all a mirage. When he left and I started seeing reality again whether I wanted or not, I thought I would go back to sweet food with a vengeance. That’s why psychologists say you eat candy in the first place: to fill the hollowness inside you, as a substitute for love, for sex. But nothing is sweet enough anymore. Everything tastes like cardboard. Coffee tastes like liquid cardboard.

We argued about food, Tarik and I, if you can believe it. That’s what did it. He didn’t want me to go on a diet. ‘This is you and I like you the way you are,’ he would shout angrily. ‘You are not fat, you’re perfect to me.’ My girl friends disagreed with him. They explained to me that he said these things because he was a Muslim and he wanted to control me, he wanted to keep me all to himself, not being appreciated by anybody else. Of course, they added, when he has you looking like an eyesore he’ll leave you for somebody else that doesn’t look like an eyesore. My dear friends: always looking after my own interests.

The truth is my friends had never liked Tarik. At first I thought they had concerns regarding his religion and its moral code, and the effects those could have on me and my life. I also suspected them of racism. I never voiced any of my concerns. The truth is I didn’t care what they thought and didn’t want to care, didn’t want their negative outlook to taint my love. Also, some of their criticisms clearly didn’t match my circumstances with Tarik: he never raised any objections regarding my clothes or my make-up. Not that there could be anything to declare, since my clothes are attractive but modest, a constraint imposed by my size —I could never be one of those overweight girls that go about in cut-out shorts and a tank top. 

It is true that I hardly saw my friends after meeting Tarik; one of the reasons they didn’t like him and one of the causes of their concern. But that wasn’t Tarik’s doing. He never stopped me from going out with my friends, male or female. There was no need for it: It was me, I didn’t want to be with anybody else but him. Of course, that is what happens when you are in love as I was, when you can’t get the person out of your mind all day; wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whoever you are talking with, in your mind is always that person; there isn’t room in your mind for anybody else, and hardly anything else, unless it’s got to do with him and the things you’re going to talk about and do with him. 

At night, when I wasn’t with him, I dreamt of him. It was like an illness. I felt ill in fact, in the most delightful way. Yes, yes, as if under the influence of a powerful recreational drug. I wonder if heroin makes you feel that way. And when you withdraw it from your diet, perhaps you feel like I felt when Tarik was late for our date; I couldn’t understand it or accept it and I immediately would think that something terrible had happened to him, that he had been run over by a car or a metro, or had been stabbed in an alley for his wallet. I would cry and roll on the floor in terror, until he finally knocked on the door and I jumped to my feet, smoothed my dress and my hair, wiped my tears and smiled; forgetting just as immediately that a second earlier I wanted to die.

My state of mind was crazy and I did suspect at times that the whole thing was unreal, but my faith kept me riding the moon while seemingly awake. We both did. We talked about how the feeling would eventually subside —please, let it subside— then we could get married and have kids. This would send us into a paroxysm of laughter. Yet, deep down, we meant it. Tarik particularly would grow very serious at times, look at me melancholically and say ‘how I wish we had been together for a long time and I didn’t want you so much, and I knew you very well.’ I disliked the ‘didn’t want you so much’ bit, but I knew what he meant. And yet, after all that, we are not together anymore, and probably never will be. I wish I could disintegrate into the atmosphere and be me no more. Hideous me.

As I said, I went on a diet, a very strict diet. No carbs, no fats. I just wanted Tarik to able to lift me, perhaps even carry me in his arms. Just for two or three yards, like he did with his fourteen-year-old sister one day in the pool. How effortlessly he picked her up in her modest swim suit, transported her to the edge of the pool as if she were a sack of wafers and dumped her in it. No extra work of his lungs or muscles. How he laughed at that, and how she screamed with pleasure. I daydreamed he carried me and dumped me on the bed. 

I hardly lost any weight with my diet. I didn’t know why. My mum warned me I would end up anaemic if I didn’t eat enough, how important healthy food was, how, if I wasn’t eating carbs I must it fats, healthy fats, like nuts (mum and her nuts). ‘Never mind the calories,’ she said, ‘You should go to the doctor and have a blood test done; see if you have some metabolic disorder, hormonal imbalance…’ 

Mothers: always blaming the gods, the world, or themselves for their children’s problems. The problem was me, my mind; not my body, but me-me. My mind couldn’t change so that I could stop this craving for food. How could I end up anaemic if I didn’t stop eating? And you can’t stop eating carbohydrates unless you stop eating all together because, just like with sugar in supermarkets, in more or less quantities, carbs are present in all the foods! 

There were brief moments when I have believed I could have it all back, that not all was lost, that the companionship, the complicity, the embrace, the fullness and the ecstasy, which had slipped sneakily out of my life would be coming back into it, that it was all just around the corner, walking towards me, almost within my grasp. Brief moments. Seconds. Then my mind and my body would rush back to the world, to the dreadful mediocrity of a ordinary life, the life without passion, without creation.

* * *

‘Shoo-shoo-shoo, shoo-shoo-shoo,’ sings the song in the bar’s radio, ‘shoo-shoo, shoo-shoo, shoo-shoo Sugar Town.’ Yes, where is my sugar, where is my de luxe chocolate cake? Why did he have to go? I think while a sip my bitter black coffee. I don’t care for any other drug but love. For me, no white sand disappearing into the black pond; even though it doesn’t alter its blackness, as if it weren’t there at all! Maybe like sugar, I diluted in Tarik only to provide sweetness. And when the sweetness went, Tarik went bitter. What am I saying? I’m going bananas. No, bananas are too sweet. Fruit in general is too sweet. Forbidden or legal: Off limits, fruit. Except for blueberries and strawberries, which they can go and fuck themselves because they have been poisoned with pesticides (in an updated version of Snow White, the evil step-mother could use those instead of an apple), and organic is so expensive… Pineapples, which I used to love, are GMO… It’s better to do away with fruit altogether. I stir my coffee needlessly; there is nothing to stir in. I stirred up the love when it wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.

‘Fay?’ I heard behind me. I swivelled round at the sound of that sweet voice. There he was: my love, my de luxe chocolate cake.

‘Tarik! There you are!’ the barman shouted, giving voice to my thoughts. ‘I thought you’d forgotten it’s Tuesday.’

Tarik took his black eyes off me for a moment to look at the barman.

‘Hi Andy,’ he greeted. ‘No, I didn’t forget.’

‘Go to the kitchen. Is there just you to pick up the food today? Because there’s quite a lot from the weekend. It’s frozen, of course. Almost as frozen as business lately.’ 

‘Right,’ Tarik said sighing with impatience. He wanted to get back to me. I couldn’t get my eyes of him. I was as frozen as business lately. I managed to part my lips to say ‘hello.’ But chatty Andy got in there first, again.

‘Where are you taking it?’

‘Down to the church and the mosque, half and half, as always Andy,’ Tarik proclaimed, in his proclaiming manner. Then eagerly turned to me. Andy moved down the counter and disappeared into the kitchen.

‘Hi,’ I finally said and tried to smile. I almost added ‘What’s the story in Balamory?’ but I held my madness firmly by the reins. How are you?’

‘Ok,’ he said. He looked me up and down, down and up. He didn’t like what he saw. 

‘How are you?’ he asked reluctantly.

‘Good,’ I lied. ‘Good.’ I nodded my head for emphasis and that made me feel dizzy. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to hug him, go on my knees, hold his legs and ask for forgiveness, for him to come back. If only I knew it would work. But I knew it wouldn’t, so I remained perched on the edge of my stool, like an oversized pigeon.

‘You don’t look good,’ he said.

That hit a raw nerve.

‘What is it to you!’ I shouted. ‘It’s not like you care. You left me…’

He opened his eyes and mouth widely, like that first time we met.

‘I didn’t leave you!’ he shouted back. ‘You left me! Remember?’

‘Yeah, right!’

‘Yes, right, yes, right! You accused me of not caring for you! Of not accepting you they way you are!’

‘The way I want to be! The way I want to be!’ I screamed at him. It was an important distinction. But he ignored this.

‘And now you accuse me of leaving you and not caring for you? When you are the one that left me, the one that only cared about her looks! I accepted you the way you were! You are the one who doesn’t accept yourself the way you are!’

His chest heaved with indignation, his handsome face inches away from mine. I froze again. Even though he had never been violent with me or anybody else, the intensity of his anger used to frighten me. I thought there would come a day when he hit me, but that day never came. Perhaps today?

‘Look at you!’ he seethed. ‘You were beautiful…!’

‘No I wasn’t!’ I screamed. ‘And don’t pretend that you didn’t care about my looks! You all do!’

He grabbed me by the shoulders and swung me around to face the counter. I writhed with rage, trying to free myself from his grip, but Tarik was much stronger than he appeared to be. Appearances are deceptive, I reminded myself in the middle of the conflagration.

‘Look at yourself!’ he demanded.

The mirror at the back of the counter run along the wall, as it often does in bars, mirroring the bottles, glasses, vases, plastic flowers and toys sitting on the shelves screwed onto the glass mirror. From one fragment of the mirror, behind a bunch of plastic red roses, a girl looked at me. I knew that girl. I was sure. I had met her before. And not that long ago. That’s right at the Fnac. Suddenly it felt like a lifetime ago. I was with my sister and she pointed at her rudely because she was… What was the word? Anorexic. And there she was, in the bar, looking at me and Tarik. Other people reflected on the mirror were looking at us too; all this shouting had called their attention. I wanted to turn around to see what table the girl was sitting at and tell her to stop looking at me, that it was rude. But Tarik wasn’t easing his grip. I used to be stronger. 

Then the scene turned surreal. Well… It was already surreal, but turned surrealer. People in the bar kept staring as if we were aliens from out of space, my head was swimming and I saw Tarik pinning the anorexic girl down. It wasn’t me. I had been hallucinating lately —my mum said it was the lack of nuts. But right now Tarik’s touch was doing the trick; the touch I had missed so much. After another couple of seconds the veil in my mind was drawn, the mirage in the reflection came into focus and was correctly interpreted. My blood ran cold as the emaciated girl in the mirror opened her eyes and mouth wide in horror. Mum and Tarik had been right all along: Fay, you don’t like yourself; Fay, you don’t know yourself. 

Myself is the girl in the mirror.

Vivi, May 29th 2022

©Viviana Guinarte

Ligeia, Harry Clarke, 1919

Save Energy

It was impossible to get it right, Kate thought. She was trying to draw a hand. She had been advised by her art teacher to draw hands separately from the rest of the body. ‘Practise drawing lots and lots of hands, precisely because they are so difficult to draw,’ he said.

Kate was eleven, but her teacher thought she was talented enough to be pushed well beyond the usual limits of her age. Her parents were happy to hear that. Kate wasn’t so sure, especially that evening, seeing the difficulty she was having with her fifth hand.

‘Katie!’ her father called from the kitchen. ‘Beddy-byes!

Kate, not Katie, how many times! The girl wanted to shout, but she couldn’t be bothered; nothing could penetrate her parents’ thick skulls and, anyway, she was tired: it was time for beddy… Jeez, beddy-byes? Really? How old did her father think she was? Three? And the next day he would complain: ‘Kate, stop behaving like a three-year-old.’ If only her parents would make up their minds about what age they wanted her to be. To hell with the hand. And to hell with brushing her teeth: she was too tired.

‘Don’t forget to brush your teeth!’ Papa shouted from the kitchen. ‘You had sweets today, remember? You can’t forgo it today! And don’t forget to turn the wifi off on your phone!’

It would take too much energy to get up from her bed where she was sitting propped against the wall, walk all the way to the bathroom across the corridor and brush her teeth, all of them, then rinse them. No way she could do that. She didn’t even have the energy to watch a short video on her phone. Thank God she had changed into her pyjamas the moment she got home from sodding school. She put her phone on airplane mode and slid onto a lying position. She fell asleep saying to herself: Oh no, where are you blankety-blank blanket? I need you… And I left Brownie Bear sprawled on the floor… I’m not doing very well today…

*  *  *

She was watching a program on the TV with her mother while her father stayed in his bedroom/study/office working and her brother Edmond stayed in his bedroom doing teenage things. Five minutes into the program, mama had to go and make dinner and Kate was left to watch the rest of it on her own. It often happened. Sometimes it happened the other way around because Kate would rather go into her room and watch videos of her favourite youtubers or check on her Instagram account.

This program had managed the monumental feat of catching Kate’s attention, although initially it wouldn’t have been her first choice. It was part of a series about how things are made. All kinds of things: aluminium foil, violins, toothpicks, helicopters, bubblegum… This one was about trucks. About one particular truck, in fact. However, it wasn’t about how it was made but how it was fixed, as it happens, in Italy. It was only a five-minute program and yet half way through it there was a four-minute break for commercials. 

She didn’t need to go to the toilet, she had her glass bottle of cold water with her, and she knew mama wouldn’t let her eat anything before dinner, so she stayed put, gazing longingly at the moving pictures of, first, ‘American-style cookies’, then, chocolate spread —part of a healthy, balanced breakfast, the voice in the advert swore. Sure, Kate thought. It wasn’t fair: two of her most favourite things on the TV, while she was starving. Knowing her mother, they were going to have vegetable soup for dinner or something else made with vegetables, like vegetable curry or vegetable couscous or vegetable pie… Kate shivered and turned the sound of the TV off; she hated the false voices in the adverts and the stupid music accompanying them. How could anybody believe anything these people said? She didn’t need her parents banging on about it: anybody with a bit of brain could see that they were lying through their teeth. Part of a healthy, balanced breakfast? Are you kidding me? Delicious, yes, but everybody knows tons of sugar are bad for you, duh, and this choc spread had like A TON of the stuff. Guys, don’t worry, I’ll enjoy it grossly on my Sunday pancakes, but don’t lie to me, I’m not stupid. 

She yawned, reminding herself that she had to eat less sweeties. The yawn settled into a self-deprecating grin. The moving advertisements on the screen caught her eye again: a man was leaving the fridge door open while he pottered around in the kitchen, then the image changed to huge pieces of ice coming apart from an icy land, plunging into ocean water. Kate knew what that image meant: the ice melting in the polar ice caps. Her Biology & Geology teacher had told her and her classmates, partners in misfortune, about this aspect of his favourite disaster topic among many: the greenhouse effect/global warming topic. 

The image shifted again to the previous one of the guy shuffling around the kitchen, his fridge door still wide open. Then, one more time the picture of the ice melting into the warmed-up water. Kate got it: the two concepts were linked. You leave your fridge open, you melt the ice in the North Pole and probably the South Pole, too. Jeeezz, what a huge responsibility. If the guy knew he was fucking up the planet like that he would feel like a total twat. Then Kate remembered that it was just an advert, a TV commercial. What was it selling though? It didn’t seem to be trying to get you to buy anything. Did this mean for once they were telling the truth? Who made the advert? She missed the name at the end.

A couple of car adverts later, the truck being fixed in Italy came back into the screen. They would have to hurry up, Kate thought. They only had 2.5 minutes left to finish the job. She hoped no more commercials would get in the way. It turned out these Italians needed to replace one more piece in the truck. This one piece, however, wasn’t made in Italy or anywhere else in the European Union, or the rest of Europe, but in California, USA. So, the Italian mechanics had to wait until the Californian manufacturers sent the tiny piece to be set inside the gigantic truck like a precious gem. 

The image of the ice plummeting into the vast water came back into Kate’s mind. She didn’t know why. It just did. She wondered, while she waited along with the Italian mechanics for the piece to arrive, if from now on she would associate big trucks with melting ice. One summer afternoon, a long time ago, she had watched a movie on TV about astronauts in outer space right after she had burnt her right hand doing an experiment in her room, and since then every time she saw the image of an astronaut she remembered the pain in her hand, the bandage, the smell. 

She then asked herself if this Italian super-repair shop had Amazon Prime. It would be good if they got free shipping for this piece, especially since it actually came on a ship. The narrator in the program explained that this piece was being transported by a massive freighter full of containers packed with stuff ordered from the EU. Duh, Kate said out loud, they didn’t expect the transatlantic cargo ship to come all the way from California, USA, carrying only this one piece. She laughed at the idea. She saw the chunks of ice melting again in her mind’s eye. 

‘Are you all right, Kate?’ Her father asked from the bowels of the next room.

‘Yes, papa, I’m just laughing! Why wouldn’t I be all right?’ Kate shouted back at him. He could be so annoying.

‘Mama!’ she shouted towards the kitchen at the end of the corridor. ‘Is dinner going to be long?’ She actually meant to say: ‘Is the fridge door shut?’ But she was hungry.

‘No!’ was her mother’s curt answer. She didn’t like being pressurized. Understandably, she had a lot to do and everybody kept asking her to do things. Kate felt a pang of guilt; and there she was, sprawled on the settee, watching telly. She reminded herself she had to help her mama more often. She felt sad and defeated. 

When the piece finally arrived at the Italian port, the truck was made like new in a matter of seconds and the program was suddenly over. As Kate stared at the credits rushing passed the screen so that nobody could read them, an idea began to take shape in her mind: Wasn’t this coming and going of a million things, big and small, from one end of the planet to the other, on planes and ships and trucks, a huge waste of energy? Wasn’t all that long distance transportation melting the ice caps more rapidly than idiot adults leaving their fridge doors open? 

*  *  *

Her friend next door, Lisa, came to visit after lunch the next day; a Thursday. Kate heard her mother saying ‘hello’ to her in her happy voice, followed by a ‘she’s in her room.’ Kate knew what her mother was thinking right then: With a bit of luck Lisa will convince Kate to go out of her room and out in the world, and she’ll stop watching videos on her phone and making videos on her computer for a while. Kate huffed. She loved Lisa, and she did need some air and sunlight, but she was in the middle of an important search. Tired of hearing about pollution and the end of life on Earth, she was trying to gather information on global warming to see if there was something she could do about it. Perhaps not now, but in the future, if there was still one when she got there. When Lisa knocked on her door, startling Mr Red, the cat, lying on her bed, Kate was staring at a mathematical equation she had come across inside a lengthy and mostly incomprehensible article titled Impact of Globalization on Energy Consumption:

ECt =α+ φEC + ωG + λGDP + θK t

She hated Maths because she couldn’t understand it and as a consequence feared it greatly. Maths can be fun, she was told. Yeah right, do them yourself then, they’re no good to me and I’m sure they’re not going to be useful in my life; a calculator with long-life batteries would suffice. She was sure, too, that Mathematics weren’t going to provide the answer or the solution, no matter how mathematically correct the results of that strange equation were, to global warming or any other problem on the planet.

‘Come in!’ she said to Lisa.

Her friend cracked the door open, slid in and quickly shut it again.

‘Are you coming out?’ She asked with a tentative smile. She had been turned down quite a few times by this increasingly strange girl.

Kate’s eyes went back to the computer screen. She read in silence:

The expansion of globalization is usually associated with an expanded use of energy due to the established empirical connection between economic growth and energy demand. 

‘Ok,’ Kate conceded. ‘Let’s go out.’

‘To our secret place,’ Lisa demanded.

‘Ok, to our secret place.’

Before she left her room Kate wrote down the word globalization on one of the myriad of paper scraps lining her desk. She had to look that one up later. Interesting word. She had the feeling she had heard it before. What could it mean? Turning into a globe… No. It had to do with global, as in global warming; that’s why it was mentioned in that article. Perhaps it was another way of saying global warming. Or it could be a particular form of civili-zation. Global civilization? Her head was starting to hurt; some oxygen, while there was still some left, and a little exercise would do her good. 

First they had to go to the bins to throw away two bags of rubbish. Kate didn’t know why her mama was doing this to her; she had never asked her to throw the rubbish out before. Well, she had but not in a serious way. More like, ‘on Sundays you have to throw the rubbish out,’ and she would have said it on a Monday and it be forgotten by Sunday. Today, of all days, when she was going out with a friend, mama meant it. I need you guys to help me a bit, I’m running out of energy, she had stated with her no-bullshit look. Ok, yes, yes, she had to help her mother more. Never mind. 

The two girls went to the bins along the back street. When they got there Kate couldn’t remember which bag went where. Her mama had told her but she hadn’t been listening. Not because she didn’t want to know but because she thought she already knew. After all, she had gone to the bins with mama on their way into town plenty of times. In fact, every time someone went out of the house there were rubbish bags ready to be taken to the bins, especially one filled with plastic bottles and cartons. Nearly a bag of the stuff a day. When I was a kid, we had one sole container where we threw everything together, Kate recalled her mother saying. But it was only one bag a week or so.

‘This one seems to have plastic in it,’ Lisa offered, pointing to the fuller yet lighter bag.

‘Oh yes, this one goes in the yellow bin: cartons, plastic bottles and plastic containers.’

‘Yeah,’ Lisa encouraged. ‘The other bag is not paper or glass so it must be organic.’

Kate lifted the heavier bag by the handles and tried to peer through it.

‘Hmmm,’ she pondered. ‘It looks like there’s other stuff in there.’

‘Yeah, yeah, but it’s mainly organic,’ Lisa assured her squinting to see inside the bag.

‘But,’ Kate objected, dropping the bag on the ground again. ‘It can’t be mainly organic, it has to be like totally organic: this stuff is dumped onto the countryside, you know….. er…, the environment.’

‘It does?’

‘Yes it does.’

‘So that’s why my mother is always saying that recycling is fake, you know, like fake news.’

‘Really?!’ Kate shouted. ‘You gotta be kidding me! Recycling, too?!’

They watched the remaining bag for a moment as if the bag itself could tell them what to do. It makes sense, Kate thought. If paper went in the blue bin, glass in the green, and plastic bottles and cartons in the yellow, EVERYTHING ELSE had to go in the green, the one that was supposed to be strictly reserved for the organic — the food remains, the dead leaves from the garden… What else could she do? There wasn’t another bin with yet another colour. It didn’t make any sense, though, to put plastic wrapping, sanitary pads and all the thousand and one little plastic and metal things one tossed away in life in the same bin with the compost. No sense at all. 

In a fit of rage and frustration, Kate grabbed the second bag and hurdled it into the green bin, the organic bin, without further consideration. She was tired of fake news. She was tired of feeling confused. She was sick and tired of bad news.

‘Maybe there should be a black bin for fake and bad news,’ she said to her friend. Then she reconsidered:

‘No, that’s racist. Purple… A purple bin for rubbish news to be recycled into good real news.’

‘Come on,’ Lisa urged. ‘Let’s have a good time before we’re nuked!’

They started walking away from the bins. Kate gave a long and noisy sigh, then proclaimed:

‘We were happier when we were little and didn’t know shit.’

She broke into a run and Lisa followed her. They screamed all the way to the end of the street.

*  *  *

The positive environmental effects of globalization could be greater than the negative effects, the article said. That is good news, Kate thought. Just for that, she would read one more paragraph and then she would get into bed and watch a video or two, or three, on her phone.

As globalization worked its way over the globe, so will the world’s demand for energy. That will bring about serious environmental problems. OMG, Kate thought, did these scientists just contradict themselves? Why did adults do that all the time? No wonder the world was in such a mess. People didn’t know what to think, or how to think. And they say they want to educate children… Puhh. 

She had looked up globalization earlier and it had turned out to be more or less what she had thought: the global integration of international trade, investment, information technology and cultures. She only vaguely understood what integration and investment were, but she believed she caught the drift of the whole concept. Now she knew where she had heard about globalization and global trade: when her mother had helped her order things from AliExpress, she had mentioned those words and the fact that ‘none of this was possible when I was little’; she was lucky if she could get something from the store down the road. It made Kate feel guilty and proud at the same time. Her generation definitely knew a lot more about the world than her parents. They would find a way to fix it. They had to or they were all screwed.

Now we know, the article went on, that capital increases economic growth and economic growth leads to higher energy consumption. The bio-geo teacher had told them what economic growth was: the amount of stuff a country makes to sell to people in their country and other countries –  that is, export. Something like that. But ‘that capital’?… Which capital were they talking about? They were quite a few, only in Europe. 

‘Kitty-Katie-Kate!’ her father called from the other side of the door. ‘Time for bed.’

  Yes, she should stop now. She was too tired to think.

‘When are they coming to install the natural gas?’ she heard her brother asking from his room.

‘Next week!’ papa shouted.

Kate dreamed that night about the article she was reading. In her dream the bio-geo teacher was pointing to Oslo, capital of Norway on a digital map of Europe on the classroom wall. Kate was desperate to go to Norway, the country where one of her favourite youtubers came from. The map kept shuffling about as if it wanted to detach itself from the wall and fly out of the window. Only, the windows were closed and Kate worried for the map’s future. Would it crash against the windows and die?

The teacher faced the students and proclaimed: 

‘Natural gas consumption leads to exports and economic growth.’ Then he pointed to Kate with the digital pointer and said:


‘Therefore,’ mumbled Kate in her sleep. ‘Therefore, the capital of Oslo is Norway.’

‘No,’ said Lulu, a clever/asshole classmate. ‘Norway is the capital of Oslo.’

‘No, no, no,’ the teacher shook his head. ‘Therefore, exports and economic growth lead to a natural gas explosion.’ He made a circular gesture with his arms and shouted:

‘BOOM.’ He blew up in a myriad of colourful pixels. And the whole class went: ‘WOW.’

Kate wriggled in her sleep. Wow, yeah, she thought dreaming, we’re all gonna die. It’s all fake news. Fake news, she mumbled.

*  *  *

Next day was Friday, thank God, and after two in the afternoon it was the blessed weekend. Kate made plans to go out at about 4 pm with Lisa and Thomas, another neighbour/friend. She hoped she didn’t change her mind. She felt exhausted after the horrid school week and it was tempting to cocoon in her room, stretch out on her bed, do her own thing, talk to nobody, see nobody, be held to account for nothing.

But she didn’t change her mind and they walked all the way to the Chinese shop by the railway station to get some sweets. It was cloudy, but it didn’t rain.

The three of them went into the shop in a bundle and the Chinese woman kept her beady eye on them. After years of minding the shop she knew well about little children, little money, and sweets. Not a very good equation; it often turned out wrong. But Thomas, Lisa and Kate were not like that. They always had been good little children. Not so little anymore, but still good. They respected private property and paid what they owed with their parents’ hard-earned money.

‘Hey,’ Lisa warned Kate, pointing to another set of shelves full of boxes of sweets. ‘These over here.’

‘Why,’ Kate wanted to know.

‘Are you blind or stupid?’


‘They are CHEAPER.’

Kate considered this. Then she said:

‘If they’re cheaper it means I’ll consume more.’

Consume?’ Lisa looked at her friend as if she had been suddenly possessed by an alien. ‘Jeez, you consume me, girl.’

They bought three big plastic bags of plastic looking sweets in all shapes and colours; the cheaper version. The plastic bag reminded Kate of rubbish again. Nowadays, everything had to go in a plastic bag, or on a plastic tray and even then wrapped up in plastic. But it didn’t used to be like that, her mama had explained, that’s why they produced a lot less rubbish in her childhood days: they just took a little old bag to the rubbish bin, the only one in the long street, every now and then; tossed all together in there. Kate reflected on this while she savoured a gummy egg, her most favourite gummy sweet. 

Wouldn’t it be better to go back to that? To taking your own bottles and containers to the shops and buying things by weight from big tins and barrels? Didn’t that make more sense than having to recycle afterwards? But no; instead of that her mother had to be told off by ignorant costumers in the supermarket for not using a plastic glove every time she wanted to pick up a piece of fruit or veg. You’re been unhygienic and it’s affecting us all, one woman barked at Kate’s mother last time they went food shopping together. The one point six million square kilometre island of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean is affecting us all a lot more, her mama answered in a levelled tone, if a tad trembling. It would be better if we went home and washed the fruit, don’t you think? But the woman didn’t think; she just turned around and walked quickly away without further comment. The size of Mongolia! Kate’s mother shouted after her. The woman turned her head without stopping. ‘YOU are the Mongolian!’ was her answer. You see? Kate’s mother explained to her daughter. People resort to insult when they don’t have reasons. Kate was quite embarrassed by the whole scene and a bit pissed-off with her mama. Why did she bother explaining things to stupid people? And why did she consider ‘Mongolian’ an insult? That was racist! And her mother, God forbid, wasn’t a racist.

Too hell with it, Kate thought, popping a second gummy egg into her mouth. She decided she was going to stop reading the article on globalization. It was doing her head in, mostly because she wasn’t really understanding it. The problem was, what could she do then to learn about global-ization-warming? It was either kiddy/fake news type stuff or university level stuff. Anyway, she believed the solution resided in finding a way, in the very near future, to use energy more efficiently, so there was still economic growth, but without damaging life on Earth. Something she had already heard from parents, teachers, the Internet, the TV… But for real, like we meant it. No more little pieces being brought from California USA, for starters.

They were walking back home now. Good old Thomas suddenly veered to the left to help an old lady put glass jars and bottles inside the glass-recycling container; not an easy task for either children or elderly people since the holes where placed at the top of the rather tall container. Kate and Lisa went over to help too, only there weren’t enough holes to go round. Thomas had the front to explain to the old lady:

‘You’re supposed to take the tops of the jars off before putting them in the bin.’

‘Oh yes?’ the little old lady said with a grin. ‘And what do I do with the tops if I may ask? Eh? Throw them away with the plastic? Because you don’t want me to throw them in with the organic stuff, do you?’

‘Oh no, no!’ shouted Kate and Lisa in unison.

‘So? What are we supposed to do with the tops then?’

‘Good question,’ Thomas admitted looking at a jar the woman was holding, half full of mouldy beans.

‘And I’m not going to clean them either!’ the woman added, guessing the boy’s thoughts. ‘They tell us we have to wash the glass thoroughly first. They’ve got a nerve asking us to do that! They’re going to clean them themselves anyway, with very powerful machines they’ve got. And they’re going to make money with this glass!’

‘What?!’ shouted Kate. She didn’t know that. 

‘You thought recycling was an altruistic endeavour on both sides,’ the woman shook her head. ‘No dear: it’s a business on the other side. Just like everything else. Some people are making money out of this, pretending they are doing something ecological, and they’re not even doing it right. Never mind, you’ll find out when you grow up. Thank you for helping me!’ She smiled kindly. 

‘I would give you money for sweets but I see that you’ve already got some. Too many, in fact. Did you know sweets are very bad for you? Not just for your teeth, but your health in general. My husband is a diabetic and…’

They children said goodbye and walked away quickly. They didn’t want to be rude, but they didn’t want to hear any more bad news, fake or real. It was Friday and they were done with classes for a couple of days. And they wanted to enjoy they’re cheap, disgusting sweets to the fullest.

Nevertheless, the notion that the recycling of rubbish was yet another economic growth thing, just to make money, made Kate very unhappy. It was everywhere. Well, it was a global thing, wasn’t it? Money buck, money quid, money yen, money won. She wished money didn’t exist at all, anywhere, that there was some other way of getting things.

That night she didn’t read. She just did video-editing with pictures of her favourite Korean pop artists. She would find a way to change things when she grew up. Her generation would stop all the nonsense. That was if they survived global warming, pesticides, medicines, recreational drugs, GMO, palm oil, white sugar, wifi, chemtrails, water pollution, water shortages, terrorist attacks, drone attacks, forest fires, nuclear war, copyright laws and stress over the next seven years of school tests…

‘Who left the light on in the bathroom!’ papa shouted.

‘Sooorry!’ Kate shouted back. ‘That was me.’

‘Jesus, Kate! I thought you had been learning about global warming in school. WE HAVE TO SAVE ENERGY!’

Yeah, Kate, thought, like that is the problem, I little bulb in a bathroom, a fridge door open. Not industry and technological… what’s it… growth. Growth and more growth; some people are never done growing; THAT is the problem.

She didn’t want to get into a lengthy discussion with her father about the subject, though. She knew him well: he would find it interesting, and he would refuse to let go of her for at least an hour! She did realize, of course, what her father meant by ‘we have to save energy’: we have to do everything that it’s in our power despite how little of it we have. We being the rest of humanity outside the greedy bunch. Like Kate herself: She was she but she was part of we, too. For starters, she was going to stop buying so many gummy-plastic sweets, and when she did she would take her own plastic bag to the shop, even though that was as little a gesture as turning the bulb off or closing the fridge door. At the end of the day, everything counted and if more and more people did it, it could lead to something bigger, a bigger power. Perhaps enough power to counteract the dark forces of the greedy bunch. Certainly, doing nothing wasn’t the solution to anything.

It occurred to her it would be a good idea to talk about rubbish and recycling in the bio-geo class. The real reality of it, not the fake one. Perhaps she could start by writing a composition about it. Then she would read it in class. Teachers liked that: compositions and children reading them out loud. Easier said than done, though; if only she could shake off some of her crippling shyness… But what happens if all the people in the world who have something important to say, didn’t say anything because they are shy? Wouldn’t that be worse than not turning the light off? Wouldn’t it be more like turning it off, in fact, and wasting energy at the same time?

‘Are you listening to me, Kate?!’ She heard papa shouting. ‘WHAT ABOUT THE LIGHT!’

She definitely wasn’t going to talk to her father about her ideas and plans right now. Instead she said:

‘Well, papa, if you want to save energy, STOP SHOUTING!’

Vivi, May 1st 2022

©Viviana Guinarte, 2022-

La niña y la gata

No sé por donde tirar, no sé de qué tirar

Las luces cambian,

Las nubes se levantan.

Sentadita me quedé,

De repente, me levanté.

Que caiga un chaparrón encima del ladrón

Y abra los cristales del espejo.

Llevaba varios días diciéndose que tenía que salir de su habitación. Lo empezó a ver como una responsabilidad que tenía que asumir, como pedir comida a su madre, llevar los platos a la cocina, lavarse los dientes, o responder a sus amigos en las redes. Sus padres ya no le decían nada, porque sabían que no servía de nada, que incluso empeoraban la situación insistiéndole. Una vez a la semana la niña salía al comedor a comer en familia. Se sentaba a la mesa envuelta en su manta preferida de pies a cabeza, como si hiciese mucho frío y la calefacción no funcionase. Era julio.

Ese día, un miércoles, decidió que al día siguiente iba a salir. Le dio la noticia a sus padres brevemente y se dio media vuelta enseguida para no ver sus caras de sorpresa y alivio, para no oír sus cansinas preguntas. Pero no pudo evitar oírlas ni responderlas (¿Mañana jueves? Sí mamá, hoy es miércoles, mañana es jueves ¿Y a quién vas a ver? ¿A qué hora? ¿Dónde era que vivía?). Esa tarde se duchó en preparación para el día siguiente. No dejarlo todo para mañana.

El jueves amaneció soleado, como el día anterior, y el anterior al anterior. En su cama la niña oyó los pájaros chiquitines cantar, como todas las mañanas… Y un día más les envidió el entusiasmo con el que se daban la bienvenida nada más comenzar el día. Con un gran esfuerzo de voluntad, se levantó y se puso la ropa limpia que había preparado el día anterior. Estaba siguiendo las sencillas instrucciones de un vídeo de youtube sobre como vencer la pereza en 20 segundos (“haz que lo malo sea difícil de conseguir y que lo bueno sea fácil de conseguir”). 

Iba a ver a una amiga que vivía junto a la estación de tren: Elsa, la única amiga que quería ver en persona. Por suerte, era la que vivía cerca. Decidió que desayunaría con ella algún bollo empaquetado de la tienda de los chinos junto a la estación. Si desayunaba en casa, aumentaba las posibilidades de cambiar de opinión y volver a meterse en su habitación. Le pesaría el estómago, sus padres le empezarían a hacer preguntas… No, había que hacer lo difícil lo más fácil posible.

“¡Me voy a ver a Elsa!” exclamó la niña desde la puerta trasera. Suspiró al oír a su madre andar deprisa por el pasillo hacia ella. Su madre la miró con esos odiosos ojos maternales, mezcla de alegría y terror. 

“Uf,” dijo. “Vas demasiado abrigada. Hace calor.”

“Bueno mamá, me voy,” declaró la niña, dándose la vuelta para salir.

“¿Llevas el móvil?”


“¿Está cargado?”

“Claro, mamá”.

“¿A qué hora vas a volver?”

La niña salió al patio.

“No sé, como a las ocho o así.”

“¡A las ocho! ¡O sea que vas a comer con Elsa!”

“Sí, en su casa”.

“Vale, pero no vuelvas más tarde de las ocho ¿Eh? Y contesta si te llamo.”


Cerró la puerta del patio tras ella con un sonoro portazo metálico. Era la única manera en la que se podía cerrar, pero le oprimió el pecho. Pobre mamá, pensó, qué mal la trato. Con lo buena que es, y lo que me cuida. 

Anduvo calle abajo y le sorprendió lo fácil que era eso: andar afuera, mover las piernas para desplazarse, con zapatillas de deporte en los pies, encima del asfalto. El cuerpo lo sentía un poco extraño, pero no hasta el punto de producirle ansiedad. Tampoco fue difícil asumir el vasto espacio exterior después de tanto tiempo. Las casas, los gatos, fácil. Alguna persona con la que se cruzó de vez en cuando sí le puso un poco nerviosa. Cada vez que pasaba alguien, sacaba su teléfono del bolsillo y lo miraba; un acto reflejo que le confortaba. Unos cuarenta minutos le llevaría llegar a la casa de Elsa junto a la estación de tren. Andando en la dirección correcta, por el camino conocido, se estaba poniendo lo difícil, fácil.

La gata blanca miraba la noche a través del cristal de la ventana. Con sus ojos aguamarina veía la penumbra geométrica la casa vecina, los bultos negros de las colinas en el horizonte. El cielo estaba iluminado por la luna creciente, casi llena, alta. La gata subió la vista para mirarla de frente y se quedó hipnotizada un instante, hasta que su pupila se tornó una esquirla, entonces movió su cabeza hacia la izquierda, hacia la terraza junto a la puerta de su casa; la mesa redonda de piedra y los bancos de piedra en torno a ella, iluminados por la luna. ¿Cuándo volverían los suyos a sentarse ahí? ¿Cuándo volvería el ser que la cuidaba a entrar por esa puerta? Hacía ya mucho tiempo que no estaban, hacía ya mucho tiempo que estaba sola en la casa. No podía salir. De vez en cuando venía un ser que le dejaba salir un ratito. No le daba de comer primero, para que luego volviese, el ser no era tonto, pero la gata tampoco era tonta; por mucho que le disgustase estar encerrada, no quería perderse, y no quería que cerrasen la casa y quedarse fuera hasta vete tú saber cuando, y tener que buscar comida vete tú a saber donde, y terminar perdiéndose la vuelta de sus seres queridos, sobre todo la de su ser más querido, el que más la quería a ella, el que la alimentaba, acariciaba, sostenía en su regazo.

La gata se puso a cuatro patas y estiró la espalda bajando el pecho y levantando el culo, la cola en el aire. ¿Qué era peor, estar encerrada sin seres ni amigos, o ser libre otra vez y no tener casa? Todavía se acordaba de cuando era más joven y vivía en la calle; fueron tiempos muy difíciles. No quería volver a ellos. Era peor no tener casa, hogar de verdad, con manta, comida y agua. Faltaba el ser querido. Faltaba el cariño. Se había acostumbrado a él durante mucho tiempo. Bostezó. Mejor dormir. Se acostó allí mismo, en el amplio alféizar interior de la ventana. Era verano y no hacía frío. La luna le haría compañía. Pronto soñó con el ser querido, con su abrazo, sus palabras suaves, su mejor comida, su agua más fresca. Ronroneó y el sonido vibró en el hueco de su cuerpo y en el hueco de la casa vacía, haciéndolos uno.

La niña corrió y corrió. Corrió lo más rápido que pudo. Maldijo su suerte, porque, aparte de todo lo demás, se le había caído el móvil del bolsillo del pantalón al zafarse de sus asaltantes. Se maldijo a sí misma por no haber hecho nada de ejercicio durante los últimos meses. Se prometió a sí misma que, si salía de ésta, haría ejercicio todos los días. Haría running, como le llamaban estúpidamente sus amigas, como si no hubiera una palabra en castellano… Pues incluso running haría, como estaba haciendo ahora. Lo que hiciese falta. Si salía de ésta. Rogó a Dios también, por primera vez, en su inestable agnosticismo. Una oración muy sencilla, porque cuando corres por tu vida, el pensamiento no te da para más. Por favor Dios, por favor, por favor, por favor. Se imaginó una tormenta lanzando rayos encima de sus perseguidores. Sálvame, sálvame, sálvame. Se imaginó que tenía alas y la dejaban volar, volar, volar.

De repente, vio que la calle asfaltada viraba a la derecha y que de frente se tornaba en un camino de tierra. Siguió por el camino de tierra sin saber a dónde iba, sin saber porqué. El camino dio a un tramo corto de escaleras de piedra, y las escaleras a una gran terraza de piedra iluminada por la luna casi llena. Estoy atrapada, pensó la niña. Si los monstruos me han visto entrar aquí, estoy perdida, no tengo salida a no ser que me tire… Llegó al final de la terraza y miró por la barandilla de metal hacia abajo, no era muy alto. Se atrevió a mirar atrás, nadie venía. El edificio pegado a la terraza parecía abandonado. Todas las luces apagadas, las contraventanas echadas. Excepto justo al lado de la barandilla, había una ventana sin contraventanas, era de esas corredizas y la hoja más cercana estaba abierta unos cinco centímetros. Sin pensarlo, alargó el brazo y empujó la hoja para ver si se abría más. Aunque estaba algo dura, consiguió abrirla del todo. Por ahí podría caber, pensó la niña. Agarrándose al alféizar externo con la mano derecha primero y luego con las dos, se puso de rodillas sobre la barandilla. Con el corazón en la boca, se puso de pie sobre la barandilla y aferrándose al marco de la ventana, consiguió ponerse de rodillas sobre el alféizar. Si me hago daño, pensó, me hago daño, pero si pienso, será peor. Se tiró de cabeza al interior de la casa y cayó al duro suelo embaldosado, reprimiendo un grito de dolor.

Se golpeó algo la cabeza, pero sobre todo el hombro, la muñeca y la rodilla derechas. Sin reparar en el dolor, se levantó y cerró la ventana, prestando atención de no hacer ruido. Luego se puso de rodillas en el suelo y gateó fuera de lo que resultó ser una pequeña cocina. Siguió a gatas por el pasillo. Las puertas de todas las habitaciones estaban abiertas y pudo ver que estaban en casi total oscuridad, todas las contraventanas cerradas, la luz de las farolas de un lado, la luz de la luna del otro, filtrándose por las rendijas, con la excepción de la habitación al final del pasillo a la izquierda, de donde la potente luz lunar entraba a raudales, proyectándose en el suelo de baldosas blancas. De repente, la niña vio salir una forma de esa habitación y por un momento se le paró el corazón, hasta que percibió que era la forma de un gato, el cual se paró al final de pasillo. Se quedaron los dos seres a cuatro patas, mirándose fijamente. Finalmente, el gato dijo “¡miau!”. La niña no dijo nada. Se puso en cuclillas y buscó por toda la casa por si había alguien. Era demasiado temprano para que la gente se hubiera ido a la cama, pero nunca se sabía, sobre todo si eran muy mayores. No había nadie en la casa y no parecía haber sido habitada en mucho tiempo, por el olor a cerrado, a antiguo, que se respiraba. Decidió no encender ninguna luz, suponiendo que hubiese electricidad, por miedo a que la delatase si sus perseguidores estaban cerca, pero buscó un teléfono en las distintas habitaciones, el gato siguiéndola de cerca. Encontró uno en la sala de estar, pero no había línea.

Cuando por fin salía de casa, le pasaba esto. Por eso no salía, porque podían pasar estas cosas. Ese había sido la idea fulminante que le había venido a la mente cuando aquellos hombres desconocidos la habían intentado atrapar en la estación. Pero hecha un ovillo en el sofá de aquella casa oscura y solitaria, con un blanco gato arrebujado junto a su vientre, su mente empezó a calmarse, como las aguas de un río que se remansa después de un tramo de rápidos. Escuchó el exterior del edificio una vez más, comprobando si habían sonidos sospechosos. Todo parecía en calma; un coche que pasaba por la carretera del lado norte de la casa, un autillo en un árbol del lado sur, con su familiar canto, monótono, hipnótico. El ronroneo del gato junto a ella. Nada más. También pudiera ser que sus perseguidores no la hubiesen perseguido, y estuviera todo en su mente. Agarrarla sí la habían agarrado, entre dos. Meterla en el coche sí la habían intentado meter. Eso su mente no lo había inventado.

No obstante, la niña seguía dudando ¿Y si el haber estado encerrada en casa en lugar de haber prevenido que le pasasen cosas malas, no había hecho sino precipitarlas? Esa idea le pareció extrañísima, pero no se disolvía; ahí se quedaba, suspendida en la oscuridad, como un jirón de luz reflejada de la luz reflejada de la luna. Se estaba quedando dormida, eso es lo que estaba pasando. Y antes de dormirse siempre se le ocurrían cosas muy extrañas. No por ser extrañas eran tonterías, claro. Claro de luna. ¿Y si había sido una irresponsable por no salir, hacer ejercicio, tomar el sol… comprometerse con la vida. ¿Y si era una especie de reacción de la vida? Los humanos tenían que ejercer de humanos, como los árboles tenían que ocuparse de ser árboles y los autillos, autillos. Por culpa de su falta de compromiso con su condición de humana, ahora sus padres estarían sufriendo un calvario.

El gato se puso patas arriba y estiró una de sus patas delanteras, con la que tocó el pecho de la niña. Ella le acarició la pancita y el gato se estiró por entero. La niña le tocó abajo para comprobar… Era una gata. Se preguntó si tenía nombre, y ¿Dónde estarían los dueños de la gata? ¿Dónde estarían los dueños de la casa? ¿Serían los mismos o la gata se había colado en el hogar cerrado y estaba allí de okupa, igual ella?

Esperaría a la salida del sol y luego se iría a su hogar. Durante el día las calles estaban llenas de gente y era más difícil que los perversos hiciesen sus perversidades y los pervertidos sus perversiones. Había que ponerles difícil lo fácil. Sabía que sus padres ya habrían llamado a la policía y no dormirían en toda la noche, los pobres, pero sería mejor volver sana y salva a la hora de desayunar que arriesgarse a salir ahora y que la pillasen los perseguidores de la estación, u otros nuevos. Siguió acariciando la panza suave de la gata; sintió como si estuviera acariciándose a sí misma. Por fin, se cansó y paró, dejando su mano descansar encima de una de las patas, para no poner peso sobre la panza. Así es como hacía con su gato Jesse, el cual estaría dormitando ahora en su cama, preguntándose donde estaría la niña que siempre estaba allí. Pues ahora la niña estaba aquí. Y la niña se durmió.

El día amaneció soleado y con el entusiasmo de siempre. Pronto la fuerte luz del sol de verano se coló por las rendijas de las contraventanas de la sala. Dos grandes ventanas tenía la sala, cuatro contraventanas, muchas rendijas. La niña abrió los ojos y se acordó inmediatamente de sus circunstancias. La gata seguía durmiendo pegada a ella en el sofá. ¡Tenía que irse a casa ya! No podía prolongar más el sufrimiento de sus padres y la búsqueda de la policía. Se empezó a sentir culpable de no haber regresado directamente la noche anterior. Empezó a dudar de haber hecho lo correcto. Se incorporó y la gata saltó al suelo. La niña miró la puerta de la casa, por si la llave estaba allí, pero no estaba, probó la puerta, por supuesto la llave estaba echada. Fue a la cocina, encontró un vaso en los armarios, se sirvió agua del grifo del fregadero dejándola correr un poco primero, enjuagando el vaso; agua sí había. Bebió dos vasos uno detrás de otro. Vio en el suelo junto a la ventana dos cuencos de metal vacíos. Uno tenía restos de croquetas de gato, el otro nada. Echó agua en el cuenco que no tenía nada y la gata inmediatamente su puso a beber. La niña estaba muerta de hambre. La puerta de la nevera estaba abierta, dentro estaba apagada y vacía. Miro en los armarios, pero sólo vio un paquete de pasta y otro de arroz; nada que ni ella ni la gata pudiesen comer. 

Saldría por donde había entrado, no quedaba otra. Acarició a la gata diciéndole: “adiós, muchas gracias por la compañía, gatita preciosa, que todo vaya muy bien, pronto vendrán a darte de comer”. Se le hizo un nudo en el vientre al decirlo, porque no sabía si era verdad. Deslizó la hoja de la ventana corrediza y, ayudándose de un taburete que había en la cocina, se subió de rodillas al alféizar de la ventana, le dio vértigo al mirar abajo y casi se cayó. Miró a la izquierda hacia el patio elevado por donde había llegado y siguió el proceso inverso a la noche anterior. Vaciló muchas veces antes de reunir el coraje para poner la pierna derecha encima de la barandilla y luego propulsarse con los brazos contra el marco de la ventana. Le resultó mucho más difícil salir del edificio que entrar. Lo consiguió al final, acordándose de sus padres, de Elsa, de Jesse. Desde el patio, ya sana y salva, la niña se dio la vuelta y vio a la gatita blanca de ojos verdes, sentada en el alféizar de la ventana. Se dio cuenta entonces de que tenía manchas color arena en la cara y los ojos eran azules.

¿Debía cerrar la ventana? ¿Dejarla como la había encontrado? ¿Con sólo una rendija? No era su gata, no podía llevársela y dejar a sus dueños sin ella. La niña miró al frente y empezó a andar hacia el final del pasillo, hacia las escaleras, olvidándose de cerrar la ventana. Su casa estaba todavía a media hora de camino.

La gata maulló y desde la ventana saltó limpiamente al patio; siguió a la niña y la niña suspiró. Bueno, pensó, que venga y luego ya veremos qué hacemos. La tendría que coger en brazos cuando tuviesen que cruzar la carretera. Esperemos que Jesse no se enfade cuando la vea, pensó. Vendré de vez en cuando a ver si han vuelto los dueños… Miró a su alrededor. Todavía no había gente andando por la calle. Bajó la mirada hacia la gata, y en ese momento la gata alzó la mirada hacia ella. Se entendían muy bien, como si se conociesen desde hacía mucho tiempo. La niña cogió a la gata, que se dejó. Pobrecita que la habían abandonado en una casa abandonada. La niña se sintió agradecida de no haber sido abandonada, de no vivir en una casa abandonada, de no haber sido secuestrada y llevado a la otra punta del mundo o vete tú a saber que barbaridad aquellos hombres le tenían deparado. No quería ni pensarlo, pero sabía que había escapado a un espantoso destino. Miró a su alrededor. Por alguna razón, era un día especialmente bonito, con una luz que hacía al mundo precioso. Como varios tesoros de Ali Babá juntos. Se acordó de dar gracias a Dios, al universo, a la vida, por las alas y la fortuna que le habían prestado la noche anterior. La gata ronroneó en sus brazos y la niña renovó su entusiasmo al andar.

Vivi, 13 marzo 2022

©Viviana Guinarte, 2022


Sierra de Guadarrama, Madrid, Spain

Elvis and Cos were reaching the top of the hill, everything pale and scattered with dark green. The glint of a river far in the distance. Patches of forests, the occasional building smaller as the distance grew, nothing but hints of civilisation all the way to the distant horizon.

‘You don’t say ah-gape,’ Cos said panting. ‘You say ah-gap-ee.’

‘Ah, right,’ Elvis said.

‘You know what the word agape means, don’t you?’

‘No, Cos man, I don’t. I did wonder though, whether it means anything or it’s just the name of a character in a Japanese… you know, one of those anime movies.’

“It means unconditional love, Godlike love.”

“Wow, what a name for a dog.”

“I think it’s perfect for a dog, actually. It’s what they feel for their owners. It’s like the love for your children…”

“I don’t have children, you know that.”

“I know that, Elvis, and as you also know, I don’t have children either. I was going to add, if I may… like the love our parents feel for us.”

“My parents don’t feel unconditional love for me, man. In fact, it’s terribly conditioned, like so many conditions you wouldn’t believe.”

As if by mutual agreement, the two young men stopped and sat on the boulder at the top of the hill. Cos, the one that knew the word agape, quite out of breath. His friend, Elvis, his breathing almost imperceptible, as if instead of looking at the landscape below just after having climbed a steep high hill, he was at home, on the sofa watching tv. Elvis might not have had the advantage of knowing the pronunciation nor the meaning of the word agape, but he didn’t have the disadvantage of eating pastries and gummies as Cos had. They didn’t bother taking off their light backpacks. They were on a mission that might have required getting on their feet again at any second. Awkwardly bending down and sideways, Cos managed to pull his water flask out from the side pocket of his backpack to drink a few sips. Elvis didn’t bother.

‘It’s not as cold as I thought it would be,’ Cos said, looking around, wanting to divert the conversation from his friend’s allegedly unloving parents; something he had never mentioned before. Cos thought about it for a moment. It had always annoyed him, the fact that Elvis managed to hide the utter confidence in himself under an air of diffidence; now he wondered if it hadn’t been the other way around. Sitting there, staring at the landscape below, Elvis looked like the Buda about to achieve enlightenment. Why, despite the love for his friend, Cos always managed to find a moment in the day when to hate him? He despised himself for the feeling and fervently wished he could shake it off, but he couldn’t. He was too jealous of his thinness and his inner peace. But perhaps the inner peace was just a front after all.

‘No,’ Elvis agreed, ‘But temperatures are gonna go down as the day travels. And tonight…’

‘Yes, I know.’ Cos got up from the boulder. ‘We better get on with it.’

‘Just a sec,’ Elvis said taking his phone out of his back pocket. ‘Let me look in case there’s any news from the search group.’

Cos sighed again. He would have heard a bleep from his phone if there were a message at all and he hadn’t, but, never mind, it was a free country, full of free people with free will that one had no option but to respect if one was to be respected in turn. 

‘No,’ Elvis said predictably. ‘No news at all.’ He got up from the boulder and as he turned around towards the clearing on the hilltop, he saw the dog.

‘It’s—it’s that him?’ he whispered. Cos had seeing him too, he was looking straight at him.

‘Yes,’ he whispered back, his eyes growing big. ‘It looks like him.’ It was bigger than he thought, but still a small dog. Grey with a little white, a mix of fox and Yorkshire terrier, his hair cut short. He was busy smelling something in the lush green grass, shining like emerald under the late afternoon sun.

Elvis slowly took his backpack off and carefully opened the zip, the noise didn’t seem to bother the little dog. He took out the plastic bag with the chorizo sausage he had bought for the dog at the supermarket that morning. He hadn’t been an easy task for him because at home they were all fishetarians, except for Totoro the cat, and he only ate kibble and some fish sometimes. The guy at the butcher’s stall had looked at him in a funny way when he asked for a single chorizo sausage. Elvis then explained: ‘It is to lure a little dog, a yorkie, that came from the city for a day’s outing in the valley with his family ten days ago and got lost; he’s still alive because people keep spotting him here and there, but he’s so frightened he won’t let himself be caught, not even by his own owner, who comes every day all the way from the city to look for him. He’s still in good shape, because the little thing runs like the devil whenever anyone comes near him.’ The butcher was sympathetic and slit the chorizo open for it ‘to smell stronger and put it in a microwave for a few seconds, then it will smell even more and will attract the little devil more easily.’

‘Agape!’ Elvis beckoned in a whisper, opening the plastic bag with the little sausage inside. ‘Agape, sweetheart, here is a chorizo for you, you like chorizo, don’t you?’ 

Neither Elvis nor Cos moved from their spot. They had been told again and again by Maria, the dog’s owner, and the locals that had been searching for the dog for a week not to try to catch him, not even to approach him, and of course, not to run after him. A couple of forest rangers in the area, long-legged beefy guys the pair of them, had already tried that. To no avail. 

The dog looked up at them. He looked clean and fine if a bit thin, his light brown and grey hair trimmed close to the skin even though it was winter.

‘Agape,’ it was Cos’s turn to whisper. ‘Come with us, we know your mummy, Maria? Yes? Maria? Look, we have food, look!

The dog kept staring at them. He had a beautiful face with longer hair above the shiny buttons of his eyes and around the mouth and the black little snout. To Cos, he looked like someone’s grandfather turned into a little dog by a witch. To Elvis, he looked like a felt dog turned into a real one by a fairy godmother. 

Cos took out his phone. They were supposed to take a photo of the dog and send it to the search chat group when they found him, sending along with it the location where the photo had been taken. Cos fumbled with his phone; he was extremely nervous and the sunlight obscuring the phone screen didn’t help. He ended dropping the thing and the dog shot out of the clearing and into the forest. Cos snatched his phone from the grass cursing under his breath.

Both him and Elvis called after the dog. They knew it wouldn’t do any good, but they couldn’t help it. They gave up and looked at each other for clues on what to do next, they wanted to run after Agape, of course, that was instinctively what they wanted to do, but in this case they knew instinct was wrong. By tacit agreement they started walking towards the spot in the woods where the little dog had disappeared. They took turns to call him, not too loud, Elvis with the chorizo still in his hand waving it in the air as he staggered along the uneven terrain among the tall conifers. Damn doggie, he thought, why didn’t he want to go home with his mummy-owner? 

It crossed his mind then, for the first time, that perhaps Agape didn’t want to be rescued, perhaps he was happy in the countryside, the valley, the hills, the hospital in the hills where he could steal some of the food people put out for the cats when the little clawed devils weren’t around, the restaurant in the valley where he could wolf down some of the leftovers around the overflowing rubbish bins at dusk before the foxes came down from the hills in the night. It had been raining a lot in the last months, so the streams carried plenty of water. It wasn’t too cold and there were warm little nooks and crannies among the boulders in the hills and the houses in the valley where the dog could safely curl up and spend the night. What was not to like about a life like that? What was to miss of a life in a flat in the city? Human company and affection? Elvis thought about human company and affection and whether he would miss it if he were to live in the wild. Not much, not for quite a while. His sister’s company? He would somehow miss it, but not for a while, not for the ten days the dog had been running away from humans and other animals, not perhaps for another extra week. 

The problem was the coming cold weather. Any kind of animal could very well die in the Sierra’s weather. Even in the summer, people who had lost their way in the long chain of repetitive hills, some had been found dead from hypothermia in a hot day, after having spent the night. 

‘Elvis,’ Cos called. Elvis stopped in his tracks and looked over at his friend.

‘We have to let the search group know I’ve spotted him,’ Cos said.

‘You mean we.’

‘Yes, we. Sorry for the faux pas.’ 

Elvis sniggered at his friend’s French remark, he could be such a pompous fart; for Elvis using the expression faux pas was a faux pas in itself.

‘More like a Freudian slip, man,’ he thought out-loud. ‘Yes, we should tell them.’

‘We have to stop a moment so that I can at least start the audio or the phone won’t be the only thing to fall on the ground.’

‘Ok,’ Elvis conceded holding his arms in front, palms up. ‘Go ahead then. My turn next time.’

Cos pressed the audio button and started recording his message. Elvis took the chance to wrap the chorizo in the plastic bag and put it back in his backpack. For a moment, he considered eating it. He was starting to find the experience all too confusing. 

‘Ok,’ he heard Cos saying. ‘It’s done. Let’s carry on.’

‘God knows where the dog is by now.’

‘What do you want to do Elvis, eh? Do you want to give up already?’ Cos snapped rather angrily, he didn’t know why.

‘What do mean already? We’ve been doing this for days man, and no, I don’t want to give up. Of course, I don’t, you know that, I love that stupid dog even though I don’t know him for shit.’ He resumed walking in the same direction they were walking before they’d stopped. ‘Even though we don’t even know he wants to be rescued…’

‘Of course he wants to be rescued!’ Cos shouted. He was following Elvis along the narrow trail that had appeared in front of them out of nowhere. ‘He’s just very scared and confused.’

‘Or, or,’ Elvis put his right index up in the air, ‘his real name is Buck and he got the call of the wild and doesn’t want to go back to the so-called civilisation.’

‘Bollocks,’ Cos retorted. ‘We have to think differently. Remember what that animal communicator said: we have to visualise we find him and he let’s us pick him up and be taken to his mama.’

‘Yeah-yeah,’ Elvis waved his hand in annoyed acknowledgement. ‘But what if that’s what we want but not what he wants…’

‘Ah for fucksake Cos, give it a rest!!’

After a long trek in silence, they got to the end of the hilltop, a long ridge with a deep narrow drop to the hills in front.

‘Where is the valley?’ Elvis asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Cos admitted. Where the hell are we, he thought, too proud to say it out-loud.

‘This is ridiculous,’ Elvis complained. ‘We better go back and try again.’

‘No, no, no, I think I know where we are,’ Cos fibbed to himself and his friend. ‘The valley is to the East. That way,’ he pointed to the right. ‘That’s probably were the doggie is going, back to the valley where there’s food and shelter.’

‘You might be right, but I still think we should go back where we started and then we’ll know for sure where the valley is.’

‘I’m good with directions man, I know this is West and this is East…’ he started signalling with his arms. 

‘Yeah, ok, bravo tango, but really man, we don’t want to get lost, it’s already getting dark and cold…’

‘We’re not going to get lost and we’re going to find Buck.’

‘You mean Agape.’

They looked at each other for a moment and burst out laughing.

‘We better have something to eat before we make any decision,’ Cos said.

‘Roger that.’

They sat down on a small boulder and ate their sandwiches. Elvis considered the chorizo one more time, it smelled so good… It took him by surprise how much he missed chorizo. He took out a banana instead.

After their meagre dinner they felt happier and bolder. Yet colder. They put the hoods of their parkas up and tightened them around their faces. Elvis saw the sense in not going back and carrying on the way they thought the dog had gone, even though they couldn’t be sure he had actually gone that way. With Agape, you had to go on faith, and after their meal they two young men were fired up with it. The little doggie was going back home that evening. Both of them visualised the event in their minds, as they had been told to do by the animal communicator. 

‘This is what we want,’ Cos said out-loud, going red in the face with embarrassment, ‘universe. Please, give it to us. Thank you.’ 

Elvis sniggered, but funnily enough, this time he believed it was possible. Better believe than not believe; it cost the same and it gives you a more pleasant feeling, especially when you’re facing a cold evening.

They were lost. It was pitch dark now and they were definitely lost. Cos’s phone had died. Elvis hadn’t but it didn’t matter because there was no signal. 

‘You were right,’ Cos admitted to his friend. ‘We should’ve gone back.’

‘Yeah,’ Elvis said. ‘I was right in the beginning but then I changed my mind.’

‘I’m such an idiot, I should’ve listened to you.’

‘Yeah, I should’ve listened to myself. Too late now.’

‘I was thinking a while back “wouldn’t it be comic if we got lost and they had to look for us while they looked for the dog”.’

‘Do you think they’re gonna look for us?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just kidding.’

‘I don’t think we should carry on walking.’

‘You’re right on that, I think we should find some kind of shelter and spend the night there.’

They did trudge along for a while longer, using Elvis’s phone torch to guide them until they found a crevice in a huge boulder next to a ridge. They took their backpacks off, threw them in, went on the floor and slid in head first; big Cos first, then Elvis, thin as a wafer. The crevice was just about large enough to hold them both if the literally stuck together. They would keep each other warm, they agreed, too tired to feel embarrassed and too cold not to welcome each others’s body heat. In other circumstances they would’ve found having a massive boulder over their heads frightening, but in these dark below zero reality they were grateful beyond words. Their exhaustion and their newly found warmth relaxed them straight away and made them sleepy, their last thoughts dedicated to their families and, of course, Agape, the dog, wishing to share with all of them their peace and warmth, if not their very humble and very tiny abode. 

‘You think we’ll wake up?’ Cos mumbled. 

‘I hope so… What a way to die,’ Elvis mumbled back. 

‘I’m sorry Elvis.’

‘For what?’

‘I don’t know, but I’m sorry.’

‘Ok… I forgive you, for whatever…’

‘Thank you… I love you.’

‘Ok… I love you too man… And forgive me too… my tres… passes.’

‘Good night,’ Cos said

‘Good luck,’ Elvis said. 

They both succumbed to slumber.

Cos dreamed he was pregnant. He didn’t know men could dream they were pregnant, although he knew anyone could dream anything, and he was surprised in his sleep that he could be dreaming that, as he realised he was dreaming. Then he forgot he was dreaming and felt excitement about being pregnant. As the pregnancy progressed in his dream and the skin on his abdomen stretched beyond what he thought was possible, and his belly became heavier and heavier and fuller fuller with life, he started wondering what it was that he was going to give birth to. He wasn’t sure at all it was going to be a baby, after all he was a man and everyone knows a man cannot give birth to babies. What does a man give birth to?

Elvis felt hot during the night. A lot of the time he wasn’t sleeping deeply, but more like what Totoro did: catnapping is what Elvis did that night. He didn’t purr but he did something far stranger: his body radiated an intense heat that kept him and Cos warm all night. He wonder if he was ill or about to combust into flames. He heard the wind and something that sounded like shattered glass coming down from the sky, which he interpreted as hail. At some point, he was so hot he took his hood off. He felt the warm skin of Cos’s face against his; he also had taken his hood off, the guy who had fobia to creepy crawlies. Realising they were going to make it, he finally relaxed and enjoyed a fitful sleep.

The morning conversations of the little forest birds woke the two friends up. What a racket they made, they both thought. Then they thought about who would first slide out of the hole and into the day. As each of them thought about this, they felt an animal lying on top of them. Cos remembered his dream. This is the baby!, he thought. Slowly and gently he put his hand on it. The skin was abundantly furry and soft, like that of a felt dog he had when he was little, but unlike his toy, this guy smelled bad; it was alive too, because the body moved up and down with breathing, it made a soft noise when Cos’s hand touched it.

‘Jesus,’ Elvis whispered, fighting the urge to slither out of there like a rat snake. ‘What the fuck is this?’

‘Well,’ Cos yawned, not at all worried. ‘It feels like a dog, but smells like a wolf.’

‘A wolf!!’

‘I doubt is a wolf, Elvis, it would be scared shitless of u…’ Suddenly something dawned on him and he quickly grabbed the little animal with his big hands.

‘Agape?’ he said too loudly. The dog barked softly, more like a whimper.

Elvis slid out of the hole with considerable difficulty —How the hell had they managed to get in there the previous night?— He then proceeded to help Cos come out too by pulling at his legs, but he was too heavy for his strength.

‘Give me the dog!’ Elvis suggested.

‘No, no, it’s Ok,’ grunted Cos, mortally afraid of letting go of Agape, of the possibility of him running away and being lost again. ‘I’ll manage.’

He did by flexing and extending his legs and slowly slithering on his back like a massive worm. With the dog firmly in his hands, he stumbled to a standing position. Both young men looked at the dog: it definitely was Agape. They smiled at the dog and at each other.

‘We’ve given birth to a dog,’ Cos said thought out loud.

‘Haha,’ said Elvis, and then they laughed quietly, not to startle the little animal. They stroke him in turns and said loving things to him. He looked exhausted and very thin, but definitely on the side of the living. What at toughie this dog was.

Elvis remembered the chorizo and a tiny bit of water he had left in his water flask and immediately went back into the hole to retrieve his and Cos’s backpacks. He poured the little water left carefully in his cupped hand and offered it to the dog in Cos’s arms: the dog lapped it up in two licks. Then Elvis took the chorizo out and put it close to the dog’s mouth. Despite looking worn out, the dog ate the whole sausage quickly, as if his mouth had a life of his own.

Elvis checked his phone: it had died during the night. The men started walking, not knowing very well which way to go, but not worried anymore, Cos still wanting to keep the dog in his arms. Half an hour into their journey, they heard voices. They were shouting Cos’s and Elvis’s names. The young men looked at each other, waiting for the voices to call Agape’s name too, hurt when they didn’t hear it.

‘We’re here!’ Elvis shouted with a voice big for his size.

Cos didn’t dare shout for fear of frightening Agape, who seemed comfortably asleep in his arms. He wished he had more water and food to give the poor soul. It didn’t matter because shortly after they were found by five members of the Agape Search Group. 

There were expressions of great relief when the searchers learnt the two men were the missing “boys” the police and the fire brigade had been looking for all night. With helicopters and everything. Then all heaven broke loose when they realised the dog they had been looking for was with them. Expressions of delight and tears of joy went on while calls were made: first to the police and the families of the missing “boys” then to the dog’s owner, who wasn’t with them but on her way from the city. Cos finally let go of Agape, carefully handing him over to Celia, the woman who first came up with the idea of a search group a week earlier. She was still crying softly with joy and relief. She had a blanket in her arms and she lovingly wrapped the little dog in it, who seemed to be ok with the change of hands. After ten days of running away from humans, he had finally surrendered back into their care. 

‘What were you doing out here anyway?’ someone stupidly asked.

‘We were looking for… unconditional love,’ Elvis said. 

‘But unconditional love found us,’ Cos added. The two friends looked at each other and cracked up with laughter. 

Vivi, December 30, 2021

©Viviana Guinarte

The magic djembe

Angela sat down at the little round table in the cafe and looked out of the glass front into the busy street. She was doing the Christmas shopping for her two children and one husband, in the big City, away from her mountains, her little house with the wild garden … She thought of Heidi, the children’s story, and smiled sarcastically to herself. In the last seventeen years, she had become a villager. Except she didn’t have much of a village life. No ‘strong ties with the community’, as they say in American legal TV shows. She still retained her fierce cosmopolitan individualism from the time when she lived in this very same big City. In truth, she had always been a rare, separate specimen, even when she was a little kid.

She looked around for a waiter or waitress. There were quite a few milling around, since the cafe was as busy as the streets outside, but they all ignored her, it seemed to her, purposefully. They knew she was there and looking at them. She knew this because she’d been a waitress herself when she was very young and needed to pay her college fees. The stares of the customers used to bore on the back of her head and she couldn’t breathe properly until everybody was served and sipping or munching away happily. That’s one of the secrets of being a good waitress: having eyes in the back of your head. Another one is caring.

If she didn’t have her cup of coffee and piece of toast and butter soon, she’d start to get pissed off. The balance was precarious. The fact of going all the way to the City – the one-and-a-half-hour-long journey on the train – to do the dreaded Christmas shopping on her own. She hated any kind of shopping, but heavy-duty shopping in the City was a nightmare. She avoided shopping malls and, specifically, hypermarkets. She had never been in a war zone, but failing that, those places were the closest to hell on Earth she knew. Last time she visited one she ended up crying and having to leave in a hurry because the bastards had moved everything around since her previous visit a year earlier and she couldn’t find anything. 

The only way Angela could survive shopping malls and hypermarkets was by writing down everything she was going to get, recalling in her mind where everything was from last time (she did her best to avoid new shops), carefully scheduling the order of the day, and not straying an inch from the plan. In between shops, every hour or so, there had to be a compulsory stop for coffee and toast, or coffee and cake, or just coffee.

Out of the Metro the first shop had to be the coffee shop. A waitress looked fleetingly her way and Angela shot her arm up. She hurt her shoulder a bit in the process. How pathetic; her joints were rapidly deteriorating, even though she was only 52. My grandmother’s genes, she thought. The waitress, middle-aged herself, walked to Angela with confident strides through the myriad of tables and customers, the way only an experienced waitress can. Black heavy shoes, black stockings, black skirt above the knee, white shirt, black bow tie, hennaed hair in a bun and little notebook in hand. She smiled at Angela.

‘Sorry we made you wait, it’s crazy today,’ she explained.

‘Yes,’ Angela agreed, smiling back. ‘I can see that, don’t worry; the longer I’m here, the longer I postpone the Christmas shopping.’

The waitress laughed.

‘Yes, I’m with you. If you want, you can stay here until after Christmas.’

They both laughed.

‘Wasn’t it nice when Christmas day was only about the sweets and the songs?’

‘And baby Jesus, don’t forget baby Jesus.’

They laughed again.

‘Oh, yes, of course, poor baby Jesus has been totally forgotten, isn’t it ironic?’ 

‘Yes, and sad. Not that I’m a Christian.’

‘No, neither am I,’ Angela quickly concurred. These days saying you were a Christian was almost the equivalent of what it used to mean saying you were gay. But even though she wasn’t a Christian of any denomination, she felt the need to defend Jesus.

‘Some of the things Jesus said are worth remembering and it’s a shame we corrupt his principles, in his name, too!’ Then she immediately felt embarrassed by her own passionate declaration. She had broken the rules of engagement; this was only supposed to be inconsequential, good-humoured chit-chat. But the waitress took it in her stride.

‘I couldn’t agree with you more,’ she declared. ‘This frenzied consumerism is beyond the pale.’

Waitress! Somebody called from one of the tables. That was the cue for the two women to stop their banter.

‘Right,’ the waitress said signalling the calling customer to wait a sec, then looking at Angela. ‘I’m sorry, what would you like to have?’

‘Coffee, of course,’ she replied smiling. ‘A large cup of black americano, please.’

‘How americano do you want it?’ 

Angela caught the reference straight away: how diluted in boiling water did she want her espresso?

‘Fairly americano; this is my third coffee already, and it’s only ten in the morning.’

‘It’s going to be a long day, huh?’

Angela smiled. She wished this woman were a friend of hers. She seemed in tune with her and she didn’t have many friends these days. She thought for a moment. Actually, the question these days was whether she had any at all.

‘Yes, very long.’ She thought of her shopping list.

‘Anything to eat?’

‘Yes, please, some toast and butter. Just butter, no jam.’

‘Homemade bread or crappy sliced supermarket?’

‘If you put it that way, homemade.’

‘Thank you. I’ll be right back.’ She left with a wink and a smile. 

Before she went to the counter with Angela’s order, she stopped to attend the customer that had called her, an impossibly well-groomed older man, impeccably coiffed at the top, blindly shining Oxford shoes at the bottom. A stratospherically expensive attorney or something of the sort. Angela looked away cringing. Not her type, even if she stretched her imagination beyond recognition. If they tortured her, she still wouldn’t go out with a specimen like that. Never had, never would. It was all hypothetical, anyway, because she had a husband she was madly in love with after twenty years together. 

She smiled to herself thinking of Jon, and the familiar heat between her legs travelled upwards to her chest, warming up all her insides. Thinking of Jon was more effective than eating hot porridge. It always had been. She still wanted her coffee though. Coffee had no substitute. Coffee had made her feel at home when she hadn’t had a home. And even though Jon and the children had changed that and she would always have a home now, she still relied on the hope of coffee to get up in the mornings.

Angela’s eyes then fell on a young couple with two small children sitting at one of the tables by the large Christmas tree next to the mirrors; the area in the grand cafe away from the glass front with the extensive view of the streets and the roundabout with the massive nineteenth century fountain in the middle. The children were playing with chocolate Santas, making them fight one another. They made Angela feel sad and guilty that her children and husband were not here with her today, but they couldn’t afford the whole family trip, the return train tickets for the four of them, the metro, the meals, the inevitable treats for the children. Edmond and Kate were old enough to understand they couldn’t have everything they wanted, but their parents would never grow old enough to accept they couldn’t get their children a lot of what they wanted. So, coming to the City had become painful, as well as expensive. It all seemed to be about spending money. Money they didn’t have. And they didn’t want to have. They had always hated the whole business of keeping the system in business; which was one of the reasons they refused to have a car, one of the reasons they refused to have a regular job. And yet, it was difficult when you had children; you couldn’t avoid betraying some of your principles. You betrayed them for love, guilt, convenience and exhaustion. 

She took out the shopping list from her coat pocket and unfolded it with a deep sigh. It wasn’t long, but it was costly. She had just about enough money to buy all the items on it; provided the prices didn’t differ from the ones Jon and she had seen on-line the evening before. If only they had managed to put the money together in time to buy everything on-line … Then she wouldn’t be here now, spending extra money coming and going, missing her family, worrying about not being able to find something, about getting back home late, about getting depressed alone in the City, feeling like she used to feel when she was young and she didn’t have a family; looking at the warm lights behind the windows and longing to be like the people in those houses, wondering if the hole inside her would ever be filled. And now that she was whole, she hated being away from her loved ones, her children and partner. Not that they didn’t drive her insane with their demands, their incessant conversations that often ended in arguments. She liked being, needed to be, alone sometimes. But not this far away.

She heard a clinking noise and looked up from her shopping list. It was the waitress with her round metal tray carrying Angela’s order.

‘A lot to shop then?’ the waitress asked, putting Angela’s cup of coffee down on the table with expert balance, well away from the paper with the shopping list, just in case. 

‘Not so much, but expensive. You know how it is at Christmas.’

‘Yeah, tell me about it.’ The plate with two large pieces of toast landed swiftly but noiselessly on the other side of the table. Professional waitressing. ‘Have you got any children?’

‘Yes,’ Angela nodded. ‘Two. Boy and a girl. Sixteen and eleven.’

‘Uff,’ was the waitress’s reaction. ‘Like me then. Girl and a boy. Seventeen and thirteen. What a pain, eh?’

‘Sheesh. I often wonder what those two have done with my real children.’

‘Ain’t that the truth. It’s like they say: when they’re babies they’re so cute you want to eat them, and when they grow, you so much wish you had.’

Angela laughed even though she’d heard the joke a few times before. This woman had a natural sense of humour, like a good stand-up comedian. 

‘Now my lad wants a drum kit,’ the waitress declared with the air of someone resigned to life imprisonment. She put a saucer with two little bars of butter wrapped in silver paper down on the table. Then a fork and a knife wrapped in a red napkin; the Christmas variation of the everyday white napkin, … how thoughtful.

‘A drum kit.’

‘Yes, my dear, a whole set of drums and cymbals so he can play at home!’

‘That rings a bell,’ Angela said. 

‘Funny,’ the waitress said laughing.

‘No, it really rings a bell. I had a similar thing with my boy a few years back; he also wanted a drum.’

‘I think they all want a drum at some point or other. I don’t know what to do. For a while he borrowed one from the music school where he goes to do his lyrical hip-hop,’ she raised her eyebrows dramatically. 

‘But he had to give it back, thank God! It’s been peaceful for a while. Well, peaceful, you know what I mean, peacefuller, but now he wants a whole kit for Christmas.’ She feigned sobbing. 

‘Lyrical hip-hop?’

‘Don’t ask!’

‘I won’t. I’ll look it up though.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you. Anyway, what did you do, did you get your son his drum?’

‘Er, yes, we did actually; for Christmas too, as it happens.’



‘Carmen!’ This time it was a workmate calling Angela’s waitress. Time to stop chatting, again.

‘Sorry, lots of work today,’ Carmen said. ‘Enjoy your coffee and toast; let me know if you need anything else.’


Watching Carmen’s back, Angela sipped her coffee. Piping hot, heavenly smell, the right amount of bitterness, not too toasted. Home again. She looked out of the glass front into the streets with the tall old buildings and the light grey sky. Cars honked. She remembered the words of the writer Maruja Torres: life is like coffee; it always smells better than it tastes.

Cafe Comercial, Madrid, Spain – ©alamy stock photo

She turned her attention to her breakfast again and opened the two little parcels of butter to spread the whole lot over the two large pieces of toast. She thought of Edmond and the drum in his room; his djembe.

When Edmond was ten – or was it eleven? – he was into percussion. At the local music school he was learning to play the piano, but that didn’t seem to be enough percussing for him or, rather, not the right kind, and he started tapping his chest like a self-diagnosing doctor who’d missed his vocation as a musician in a jazz band. Then he went on to striking other parts of his body; every part makes a different sound, of course. His thighs were a favourite, especially when he was sitting down. Studying, watching TV, on a bus ride, on a train journey, on the twice-yearly visit to the pizza place, he would suddenly pick up his pastime, and tap-tap-tap he would go for minutes on end, then he would stop to concentrate on a conversation – talking having always been another of his hobbies – or eat, read, disturb his sister, browse or play on his computer, etc. Sometimes they could hear him, locked in the bathroom, tapping his thighs, … while sitting on the toilet, his parents guessed. Angela often wondered if it helped him with his constipation, but she never dared ask. Some things are better left un-asked.

Jon and she would look at each other and smile. They loved it. Their son was very good at it. He had an incredible sense of timing, a wide range of rhythms, and over the months his ability grew and grew until it became noticeable to people other than his over-appreciative parents. Even strangers stopped and held their breath to listen and smile. 

On the bus coming back home, on a rare occasion when the four of them had gone into the City for one exhibition or other, there was a man in his mid-thirties sitting next to Edmond on the other side of the aisle. Their son began tapping his thighs and clicking his fingers to the frenzied rhythm in his head. Angela thought she recognised the beat, related to a certain melody. Her son had a favourite record at that moment, an early Ella Fitzgerald. The man couldn’t take his eyes off Edmond. The drummer went on determinedly with his swing without the rest of the band. A-tisket A-tasket, I lost my yellow basket. 

Suddenly, the stranger started imitating him, or trying too. Whether Edmond welcomed this unexpected accompaniment or not, was unclear. They just knew it didn’t faze him: he simply carried on as if it weren’t happening. Perhaps he was acting as a jazz musician might, assimilating a fellow musician’s improvisation. After a while the man stopped, pressed the yellow button over his head and got off the bus at the next stop, giving Edmond, who continued percussing, a last bewildered, wordless look.

The following weekend the boy was invited to spend some time with his friend Gabriel, the nine-year-old son of Judith, one of Angela’s best friends. She still had time in those days for a couple of friends. She had to make the time, since her children were too young then to have a social life without mama or papa taking them places. Neighbourhoods teeming with children that came in and out of everybody’s houses and played in the streets at all hours was, regretfully, a thing of the past. It’s not that she minded having friends, of course, it’s just that with the money-making, the home-making, the relationship-making and the parenting, there was little I-making time. And it scared her, the idea that she wouldn’t fulfil her own destiny. ‘Don’t die with your music still in you,’ went the self-help guru’s maxim. She really didn’t want to be prostrated on her crummy hospital death bed having to say to herself: ‘Angela, you’re dying with your music still in you, you moron.’

But she was too old these days to be able to lie to herself. She was a moron. She was a weak woman. She used to make herself believe that she was strong, because, in some respects, she had been. She was psychologically, emotionally and physically very stable. She coped with the various problems, some quite substantial, that life threw at her, with aplomb, even energy, be it with a slight lack of pro-activism, as a well-meaning ex-friend once pointed. It used to be very important for her to believe that she was a strong woman. She despised weak women. But now the truth was out. She was weak. 

She shook her head and drank some more coffee. The idea made her instantly depressed, and she couldn’t afford that, not before she’d even started her shopping, for God’s sake!. She was strong according to Marianismo, but not according to Feminismo. So what? Who cared? Fuck the lot of them! She adored her family and did her humble best to keep them safe, fed, clothed (second hand), relatively comfy, sometimes happy. Sue me, one half of her said to her other half. 

She went back in her mind to her son and his djembe. So, Edmond went to spend that late November Saturday at Judith’s house with her son Gabriel. Come to think of it, Angela didn’t go that time; Judith picked Edmond up in her car in the morning and brought him back in the evening. 

Edmond had a good time at Gabriel’s, as usual, but with a special addition, Judith told Angela, because he had discovered her African drum; specifically, a djembe. He’d seen it before, standing in a corner like a trendy piece of African decoration, but he’d never thought of playing it like an actual musical instrument until that day. He’d asked Judith in his polite child manner if it was OK to use it and she, knowing how respectful Edmond was with things, even his own, had said yes.

‘He took to it like a duck to water!’ Judith explained visibly impressed. ‘It’s incredible. I mean, I know he’s very good with the piano, but the guy’s got rhythm, too.’

Angela proudly agreed and explained to her friend Edmond’s percussional efforts in the previous weeks. She then asked Judith about the djembe. She didn’t even know what a djembe was in those days.

‘A djembe is a drum with a shape like a gigantic goblet,’ her friend explained. ‘Mine is a big one like this.’ She left a space of over half a metre between her hands. 

‘The body is made of wood and the drum head is leather – goat skin. It comes from places like Mali, Senegal… Mine is from Senegal…’

‘Did you buy it on-line?’ 

‘Jesus, no! I bought it in the African Quarter in the City, of course! Little Africa they call it.’ She laughed and Angela laughed with her. She couldn’t imagine anything less Sub-Saharan than their City.

That night Angela told Jon what Judith had told her about Edmond and the djembe. That was it, they decided: that was what they were going to get their son for Christmas. They were very excited: at last a proper present! The first since the pen knife when he was five and the macbook when he was seven. 

No more Lego that year; a djembe. And it had to be the real deal from West Africa. They would have to find out more about it and where to get it. Ah, and they would have to find the money. Judith couldn’t remember how much it had cost her all those years ago, the pre-Euro years. Angela and Jon looked it up on the Internet. Basic djembe drums were around 80 euros, unless they bought a smaller, poorer-quality one, ‘for children’. Jesus, Angela thought, where were they going to get €80 from?

‘Ok,’ said Jon with his habitual optimism when it came to money. ‘I’ll get on to it.’

Little Kate was still easier, and cheaper, to please in those days, poor sweetie. She would’ve been five if Edmond was ten. They wouldn’t get her a pen knife until last Christmas, though. Not because she was a girl. No! It was because she was not as careful with things as her brother. She could be slightly cack-handed, despite being a wonderful artist. Very contradictory. Angela couldn’t remember what they got for her daughter the djembe Christmas, but she was sure it wouldn’t have been dolls, because Kate had never been into dolls. Soft toys? … by the truckload, but not dollies. Wilful, beautiful Kate.

Musical instruments are incredibly precise things. Long before anybody touches them, they have to have the inherent potential to play wonderful music. Very much like people. With a djembe, the timber used for its carving has to be the right one. Lenké, mahogany, rosewood and bush mango are favourite hardwoods for African djembes. The wood block is cut out from one single tree trunk and carved out inside by hand from top to bottom. Needless to say, the whole process requires hard work and tremendous skill. The goatskin used for the drumhead has to be uniform in thickness, unblemished and perfectly shaven. The wood is carved and hollowed in a perfect shape and the skin stretched over its top and kept taught with a careful design of strong cordage, the tension strings, so that the drum shell can exhale its wide array of sounds rather than inhaling them. That’s what it’s all about. That and a good, soulful drummer. 

Eighty euros sounded like a lot in Angela and Jon’s ears, and that loud sound deafened another little voice saying it wasn’t enough for such a humongous amount of skilful work. One doesn’t always have the strength or the generosity to listen to the distant little voices of the five-cents-an hour labourers. Would one stop to listen, one would stop buying things, and then what? The economic system of the big voices would collapse. And one wouldn’t want that, would one?

Angela’s mind went back to the cafe. She sipped more coffee. Wouldn’t one, though?

One more time, Jon and she performed the miracle and managed to raise the money for the djembe, as well as the money for Kate’s present and the train fare into the City. One more time, family and friends came to their rescue, and one more time, they would get their money back, eventually. The same way the bank, the vet, the chemist, the dentist, the health food shop, the handy man, would get their money for their goods or services rendered: eventually. Get it they did, mind, or the support system would collapse, and what would Angela and Jon do then? 

They both went into the City to get the presents that year. It was a Friday morning after having seen their children off on the school bus. Monica, another mum, would take them home after school with her children if Angela and Jon weren’t back in time from the City, which they wouldn’t be, they were sure. They would probably have to stretch the money so that they could have a plate of curry somewhere at lunchtime. That would be a nice reward for all the travelling and troubling. 

They enjoyed their time on their own and away from home as if they had only just met; only more so, because they knew each other. They came out of the main underground railway station in the City. It was a sunny day, warm for early December. They walked all the way to the old quarter, which contained the Latin quarter, which in turned contained the area recently christened ‘Little Africa’. Many worlds containing one another, each smaller than the previous one … like Russian dolls, except these worlds looked totally different, each one belonging to a different nation, culture, background, experience. It made the class system look like child’s play.

They both loved walking through those ancient streets, with recent tacky buildings next to nineteenth, eighteenth, sixteenth, fifteenth century buildings, populated by humans from all over the planet. Walking back in time and around the world. Wonderful, to walk holding hands with Jon, that sexual energy running from him into her. For a few hours not worrying much about anything, except finding the damned drum, and perhaps, in a little corner of their minds, the possibility of being held up and mugged in one of those little world streets. 

None of that happened that day and they got to the square that was the heart of Africa in this European City safe and sound, and with their bank notes still in their wallets. Best to bring cash into this part of the world. 

There were clusters of young black men in every corner of the square. Some of them were clothed in African apparel, but most of them wore simple denim trousers and shirts or T-shirts. There was no need for jackets or coats on that warm midday. Some of the men had their backs against the walls of the old buildings around the square, contemplating life, smoking cigarettes and talking to the guy next to them, all at the same time. There were other people in the square, of course, of both sexes, but they were crossing it. They had other places to go, lots of other things to do, at the same time, no doubt.

Angela and Jon had only one thing to do and one place to go, but they didn’t know much about the thing and didn’t know exactly where the place was. They didn’t want to be mistaken for tourists, appear like overgrown children bewildered by the world about them, but they couldn’t help looking around trying to find the street where the African shop with the djembes was supposed to be. 

Even though they didn’t live in the City, they knew that the square had another look and another kind of urbanites during the night. Drug-buying and -selling was a prosperous business in this area, and even their consumption often took place in the square, as well as in the adjacent alleys. Now it was twelve noon and the people that live by day could pretend for the umpteenth time that it had all been a nightmare. The square was clean, the people in it respectable, the boxes of shiny fruit and veg from the grocery shops out on the pavement, the colourful flower pots out on the balconies, canaries were singing away in their cages, little dogs were being taken for a stroll, female cats walked around at leisure, knowing they wouldn’t be raped by tom cats. For another few hours of sun, life was decent, good even.

That’s why Angela and Jon could fearlessly approach a couple of the young black guys. These two were standing in the middle of the pavement rather than holding the wall with their backs, and therefore visibly doing nothing. The last thing Angela and Jon wanted to do was interrupt anybody’s work. It was hard enough for these people to find any kind of work at all.

‘Excuse me,’ Jon said, throwing in a smile. ‘I wonder if you could help us, we’re looking for a shop around here that sells drums…’

‘Djembes,’ Angela specified smiling too. ‘From Mali.’

‘Or Senegal,’ Jon added.

One of the young men looked befuddled, but the other one smiled back and shot his right index up in the air.

‘I come from Senegal! Oh, yes, yes, there is a shop like this right up the street there,’ he pointed with the same finger. ‘Not far.’

‘Aha,’ Angela and Jon said in unison, looking where the man was pointing.

‘I can show you, I can take you if you want.’

Angela and Jon looked at each other briefly, then at him.

‘Ok,’ they said nodding reassuringly. They were also careful to smile again. 

The sun was shining and there were lots of long-standing locals milling around. Nothing could happen, Angela thought. For God’s sake, she reprimanded herself, he looks like such a nice guy. The police officers standing outside their police car in the next square had probably broken the law more times than this poor man.

Sure enough the shop was in the next building up from the square. It wasn’t very big but it made good use of its space. It was packed to the ceiling with African gear, rows of clothes, pots and other utensils, and, yes, drums, including djembes. Angela and Jon could see their characteristic goblet shape. They were all displayed on the top shelf close to the ceiling. The most expensive items well out of reach of grabby hands. 

The guy that had taken them to the shop was shouting cheerfully, presumably in Wolof -the main language in Senegal- to a woman who looked exactly the part: the proverbial big black African woman, wrapped up in yards of a multi-coloured, multi-patterned fabric, the same material piling up on top of her head. Both Angela and Jon had to make a self-conscious effort to look somewhere else. The wide selection of kaftans exhibited on a long row of hangers was a good spot to concentrate their attention on, while their chaperone continued jabbering to the magnificent woman, who didn’t seem at all impressed by what he had to say. 

Angela soon started pulling at Jon’s sleeve with one hand and pointing at the djembes with the other. She was seeing familiar signs in her partner that told her he was hopelessly infatuated with the garments. They didn’t have money to get one of those; they only had the money for a djembe. Today it was about the djembe. They couldn’t go back home without the djembe. Djembe, djembe, djembe; the word drumming in Angela’s head like the instrument itself, or as if her son was doing his recalcitrant leg slapping behind her back. Jon smiled at her; he knew what she was thinking.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he laughed. ‘I just want to know how much they cost.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she mocked, laughing too. Next to the djembes, suspended from the ceiling, like an African ghost, she eyed a beautifully embroidered gown with a translucent silk overcoat, all in different shades of green. But she didn’t want it. She didn’t need more clothes. She had been wearing the same clothes for years and they still looked good; she was happy like that. Buying new clothes made her feel like a princess who suddenly grows a conscience. 

‘What djembe you want!’ the African woman shouted behind their backs, making them jump. A black man appeared through a door at the back with a step ladder. He put it up next to the djembe area, climbed it and looked at Jon inquiringly. Jon pointed to one of the djembes and looked at Angela. She nodded. The man picked it up unceremoniously and climbed down the steps backwards with no hands. Unfortunately, they wanted to look at a couple more, so the guy had to repeat his dangerous journey twice. 

They felt bad about that, especially because they ended up choosing the first one, as they were sure was often the case. The guy’s smile seemed to signify that. Mind you, Angela reflected, it is difficult to tell what smiles, looks and other body language means in people from other, very different, cultures. For example, Chinese people at the Chinese shop often seemed unhappy, even angry, and she wondered why. Were they unhappy having to live in the E.U.? Were they unhappy working in a shop? Did they all have problems at home? Were they racist? All of the above?

What about white workers at the supermarket? Some of them were nice, but quite a few of them behaved appallingly. Angela didn’t have to wonder why, though. It was clear to her: they didn’t like their jobs – who could blame them -, they were badly paid and didn’t have enough time to put the goods up on the shelves before opening shop, so customers got in their way. Angela wasn’t particularly good at reading people, but being white, she was a bit better at reading whites.

The shop assistant put the drum on the floor and tapped it loudly with his hands to show the customers that the thing worked. He touched the ropes on the drum. He told them it would need tuning occasionally by tightening the ropes, so that the drum head skin was taught. Angela and Jon nodded. They knew this. They also knew it had to be done by someone who knew what they were doing.

They inquired about the wood.

‘Bush mango,’ the guy said. Angela and Jon nodded. The right answer.

They inquired about the drumhead.


‘Seventy euros,’ the woman said softer, now that she saw the customers were serious about buying.

Angela and Jon looked at each other and nodded.

‘Ok,’ Angela said.

The woman appeared vaguely disappointed. Perhaps she had expected them to barter and now she wished she had asked them for more. But if she had asked for more they would have bartered down to seventy, so the result would’ve been the same. They had eighty euros in Angela’s wallet to spend on the djembe and thirty in Jon’s for their Indian or Moroccan meal. Angela took her four twenty-euro notes out and handed them to the magnificent woman, while the other guy was lovingly folding the djembe into bubble wrap and then a large plastic bag. Their guide remained standing next to them; he had grown quiet. Angela got ten euros change and a calling card, Jon the bag with the djembe. There were thank yous, goodbyes and smiles all around before they went out of the shop into the bright light of the sun. 

Angela and Jon sighed in unison. It was done. She still had the ten euro note in her hand. She showed it to Jon significantly. He nodded. She handed the note to the young man who had eased their dealings that day. He accepted it with a huge smile and a string of thank yous.

Come Christmas day, early morning, the djembe stood conspicuously by the Christmas tree. Edmond’s parents had felt bad about the instrument being wrapped up in such a lifeless thing as puffed-up plastic. They felt it needed to breath, so they re-wrapped it solely in brown paper enhanced with some filigree patterns Angela had drawn on it with a silver pen. 

They had their panettone with thick hot chocolate – their traditional breakfast on Christmas day – and when the children were ready to burst with frustration and trepidation, they let them open the presents. Edmond had been eyeing the strange big parcel since he had come into the living room from his bedroom. His parents made lame jokes about what it might be: a huge wine glass? a huge hour glass? It didn’t have the shape of an hourglass, Edmond astutely pointed out, they’re only thin in the middle. A stool? You could do with a stool in your room Edmond, for your piano, when we finally get you one. I’m not sure yet I want a piano, the boy said, glancing at the brown parcel again. He didn’t smile; he looked concerned, as if he thought he was going to get something he didn’t want. He knew by then that Santa Claus were his parents, and parents can make mistakes. Huge mistakes.

  Kate couldn’t cope anymore. She started picking up presents and dealing them like cards. But they opened them one at a time, as it was their house rule. You had to treat presents, and intrinsically the people who had got them for you – in Kate’s case still Santa – with respect and meaningfulness.

Finally, the moment arrived when Edmond opened the djembe. He smiled at it, but he wasn’t over the moon. His parents had noticed that, in general, he wasn’t the expressive, jumping monkey, merry-go-round child he had been until a year earlier. He could be considered, after all, a pre-teen now. He had always been, anyway, mature for his age. Angela and Jon looked at each other.

‘A djembe.’ The boy said out loud, but somehow it sounded like a whisper.

‘That’s right,’ Angela smiled.

‘Yes, a djembe,’ Jon smiled, too. ‘What do you think?’

Edmond smiled at the drum. He tapped it a few times with alternate hands; far more professionally than the guy in the shop. A-tisket A-tasket. Then he brusquely got up, picking up the instrument, one small hand inside the foot, the other small hand around the head, and walked briskly to his room. Angela and Jon put their heads around the narrow hall to see what he was doing. The boy let the djembe down gently inside his room by the door and came back to the living room, sat down on his chair and signalled his sister to fetch him another present.

He looked at his parents with his sharp sea-green eyes.

‘Cool,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

Angela’s consciousness came back to the cafe. The place was just as busy. There seemed to be more families with children and shopping bags. Her heartache for her own. The sky outside had cleared a little and some blue could be seen in between shreds of pale grey. She had finished her breakfast and she hadn’t brought a book to read. There were shelves along the walls with second-hand books for customers to pick up and read there. She thought of starting a novel. It was tempting, but she had to do her shopping. The terrible truth was she didn’t have any excuses now to postpone her duties any longer.

She spotted Carmen, the waitress, coming in from the counter area and she put up her hand. Carmen was looking straight her, so she didn’t miss it.

‘Everything all right?’ she asked when she arrived at Angela’s table.

‘Yes, it was very good, thank you.’

‘So, tell me about your son and his drum, although I think I can guess: he played it at all hours and drove you insane, didn’t he?’

‘Well, I thought you would be interested to know: he never played it. He put it in a corner of his room and that was that for six years. I dust it occasionally.’

Carmen looked as if Angela were talking in Wolof.

‘So,’ Angela continued. ‘In our experience, if you don’t want your child to make a racket at home with a makeshift drum all you have to do is buy him a proper one. Preferably an 80-euro Senegalese djembe.’

Angela could see that Carmen was struggling to find some words to say. Something appropriate. Something relevant, meaningful or even inspirational. But, as Angela and her husband knew well, there wasn’t much to say. 

Finally, something came out of Carmen’s open mouth. 

‘But, why? Didn’t you ask him why?’

‘No, we didn’t. He was only ten and he probably didn’t know why. It wasn’t a bad drum, we don’t think, so it wasn’t that. We didn’t want him to feel bad about it. You know, about not playing it. It’s not his fault. You can’t force these things. We thought he might pick it up and start playing it one day, who knows.’

‘Are you going to ask him why … ever?’

Angela thought about this.

‘No,’ was her answer. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘But, why? There must be a reason.’

‘I’m not sure. Some things can’t be explained. I think it’s the djembe, actually. I don’t think it wants to be played.’

‘Right.’ Carmen stared at Angela again as if she were speaking in Wolof.

Angela ignored this. She knew how it sounded. She didn’t care. A sad smile broke on her face.

‘Or perhaps my husband and I are afraid of the answer.’ She took her wallet out to pay for her breakfast. For some reason, or nothing to do with reason, she saw with her mind’s eye the blue African dress she had coveted in the djembe shop all those years ago; it had the colour of her son’s eyes.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, girl. Children, huh?’

‘Yes, children.’

‘They are so … baffling.’

‘Yes, they are so … human.’

‘Ha, ha, yes.’ The waitress picked up the bank note from the saucer with the receipt. ‘Thank you. I’ll get you your change.’

‘No, there’s no need, you can keep the change: to help towards your son’s drums.’

‘Are you kidding? I’m not sure I’m going to get them now, after your story!’

‘I thought you wanted him to stop drumming.’

‘Yeah, but …’ This time Carmen had something to say but chose not to voice it. Instead, she asked:

‘And what are you going to get your son this Christmas then?’

Angela breathed in.

‘A Ukelele.’

Vivi, December 7th 2021.

©Viviana Guinarte 2021