Well, so much for the buzz and resonance I expected. Two days on, zero comments. Is there noone out there who is at least intrigued by the fate of our Jim? I was expecting a deluge of demands for chapter 2 to be posted immediately, right now, or else something so unspeakable was going to happen, so horrendous that the threatening party wouldn't have the nerve to put it into words. This did not take place. Instead, silence. Is there anybody out there? Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod.
Bo Nesto is chuffed to see the book here, so we'll continue with this endeavour, like Sancho P and Don Q. (But which one is which?) We shall post them on the blogs, we shall email all our friends, we shall
send them to the publishers and to the agents, we shall even pay to see it in print; we shall never surrender. Ok, so maybe a vanity edition is going too far. So here's the next lot.
A House With No Name
Despite her clutter of amulets, trinkets and dopey boyfriends, my mum Joanne has influenced me deeply. She’s taught me the value of harmony, for example, though it’s a state rarely achieved in her own life. So I have the sense to distrust this volunteer house immediately.
Luis has skidded to a halt with a flourish. “Your new home,” beams Ana reverently, hands on hips. We step back to appreciate the construction in its full magnificence. A 2-storey box, provided by Copropac for my comfort and isolation, looms like a threat on the landscape.
Osvaldo selects a key from the bunch on his belt and unlocks the door to the yard, leaving Ana and Julio to struggle with the luggage. They won’t let me help; visiting dignitary, I’m being coddled. On three sides neighbours gape from upstairs windows on my arrival. I wave foolishly, they stare back.
The dismal yard is a jumble of stones and rubble. A cement path slices at an ill-judged angle towards the building which squats sullenly, the model of non-zen. A very prim model of brick and peeling plaster. If I assumed that life in the Alto would mean roughing it in some humble adobe abode, this building disabuses me, fast..
Hey, over there, some adobe. Ana’s pointing to a plain mud-brick room camouflaged between wall and latrine. “That’s where your caretaker lives,” she says. In mangled Spanish, I attempt to convey how little I need taking care of.
“Ay, you’re thinking of cooking and cleaning and washing clothes yourself, aren’t you?”
“I’ve always looked after myself,” I parry, kicking at the dusty ground
“Here is very different from your country. You do realize that, knowing a gringo lives here, the thieves will empty out the house first chance.” I’m from the East End of London, lady. Don’t tell me about the horrendous crime wave in the Alto. I’m sure I’ll drift around unharmed, inconspicuous as an iceberg in the Mediterranean. My untidy appearance will fool the thieves.
“I prefer to look after myself.” I insist.
Dropping the heavy bag onto the rubble, Ana changes tack to guilt-tripping the foreigner.. “And be responsible for having Doña Asunta thrown out? Sabes, ella no tiene dónde vivir.” Nowhere else to live - as likely a tale as not.
At which point a silver-haired, sparkly-eyed old woman emerges from a corner of the yard and shuffles over. In her threadbare faded clothes, she really is extraordinarily shabby, though not dirty, no way, merely organic. The old dear sums up all my preconceptions of Andean wisdom and dignified poverty. When I try to shake her hand, she murmurs an Aymara welcome and pulls me down into a back-patting embrace of surprising energy. From first hug, it’s clear that here stands one unwrinkled soul.
Ana’s argument has left me just the gentleman’s option of offering to swap our accomodation or submitting. A glance at the shack, and I submit to the game-plan.
Osvaldo’s clearing his throat. He wants to make a ceremony of presenting the house-keys. Then he pushes the metal door open to reveal an interior of. loud rugs over concrete floors, walls shaded too deeply blue, and, get this, a pink sofa with matching armchairs covered in thin plastic, which I’m immediately forbidden to remove. The dust, don’t you know? A tv, also in its plastic sheath, has place of honour, the sofa and chairs ranged round in audience.
This is my home? A cluttered parody of bourgeois dreams foisted on one of the poorest neighbourhoods on earth.
“Bonita, no?” coos our radical student Julio, prodding and inspecting the furniture.
“No falta nada. Ah Jaime, you’ll lack for nothing,” is Ana’s summary. “The last occupant, el Inginiero Gunther, was most extremely careful.” Indeed, I doubt he dared sit on the sofa.
I make another attempt at reasoning. “Ana, this is totally not my style. Don’t you have menos, menos,....... less?” the word, perhaps the concept itself, dissolves confronted by this perfectly hideous room. Osvaldo assumes cost is the problem and with his trademark smile-cum-sneer assures me that this classy cage is rent-free, except for electricity and Doña Asunta’s wages, who has just nipped in and is staring open-mouthed at the blank tv screen.
“Listen,” I appeal to no-one and everyone, “ I’m not used to such, such a....... ” what? Test of my discretion? At least the net curtains block the view of the yard.
“This is the second time, Jaime, that you’ve told us how different you are,” Ana reprimands. “Now that you’re here, try to adapt. Don’t expect your life to be the same as it was.” Cunning spin - forget your so-called values. Maybe she’s right; I will have to chuck my excess baggage overboard. On the other hand, who is she to decide between the excess and the essential? This woman is going to cause me problems.
Englishmen, when in doubt, search for the kettle. At my prompting, the figures in the ideal homescape scatter. Julio to pace the yard with agile steps, measuring the site of the vegetable plot, he says. Ana rummages in cupboards for cups and sugar, rehearsing her next assault on my attitudes. Doña Asunta wields a broom, spreads the dust around the room. And Osvaldo? He’s at ease on the couch, which squeaks in delight.
The company busy, I can sneak up the stairs, gingerly, gingerly, because my head is swirling in the altitude. The bedroom is yellow, the bedcover lilac, curtains are lace. The window looks onto a distant mountain, a collosal chunk of rock topped by the requisite amount of snow. The view, however, is fragmented by an elecricity pole, cables, neighbouring balconies and a curious steeple. Mt. Illimani vandalised, like a moustachioed Mona Lisa.
No surprise; every room in my life has had a flawed prospect. I grew up in a beautiful Lancashire valley, but back-to-back housing blocked any sight of Pendle Hill. Or that last one in London, giving onto the jutting corner of the Hackney Asylum. I don’t choose them; they pick me. But this crate is a classic; an ugly, dissonant house that squanders the gifts of sunrise, sunlight and sunset.
Julio has joined me upstairs, his physical proximity unsettling. “Trees thrive here once the roots take,” he comments and points to a fine example some blocks away. I’d have thought concrete grows better. “No, no, really, a little protection and the saplings shoot up.” The boy fancies himself an expert; and I fancy the boy.
“Vengan a tomar técito!” - the summons to tea.
I manage to stagger downstairs, though I seem to be wading through a medium thicker than ordinary air. Doña Asunta bustles in with the steaming mugs, Ana is seated at the table making notes. Osvaldo’s gone.
I clutch at my forehead.
“Try some of this coca tea.”
“Is it legal?”
“Claro, the leaves are a very fine tonic. None of my business what you foreigners convert them into. In the Andes this is la planta sagrada, the sacred plant, and if you’re invited by anyone, you’d better chew and enjoy it, amigo mio, otherwise you’ll find it hard to work with anyone.”
“Why? Ouch!” Sipping the maté, I’ve scalded my lip on the metal rim of the mug.
“Because if you don’t accept hospitality, who’s going to trust you? No eres uno de estos vegetarianos, no?”
“Well actually for the past few years......”
“Forget it,” she cuts in, shaking the mass of her long, straight hair. “You are no longer a vegetarian. When someone kills their best pig in your honour, you eat.” She flashes a smile, incredulous and provocative.
“Is that likely to happen?”
Doña Asunta has folded herself onto the floor between sofa and armchairs, her silver head at our knee level, not rejecting the furniture, simply in her natural posture. She’s sitting strategically in front of the tv, hinting. A humble, stubborn woman who wants very little and will get it.
Leave us here, sipping our coca tea. For the moment, seduced by novelty, I’m accepting the whole tasteless set-up as an unavoidable burden, the better to focus on the work ahead.
The chorus of a golden oldie has lodged itself in my throbbing head: “been through the desert in a house with no name.” That can’t be right.