An excerpt from a novel called
(a Saturday & a Sunday)
translated from the Spanish by Jessica SEQUEIRA
In Chile, the word “live-ins” (allegados) refers to people who stay with relatives because they can’t afford a home of their own, often leading to complex psychological and social situations. Ernesto Garratt’s novel focuses on the relationship between a mother and son in these circumstances, and mixes in more fantastical elements as the son takes flight into a world of fantasy, an attempt to mentally escape from his reality. Events move between the 1980s and the future, but this prescient novel is very much tied up with what is happening now in the country.
I wake up with fever and a cough, my nose runny and congested. I’m in bed and feel a stabbing pain in every bone, every muscle. My old lady, tiny and industrious, is taking my temperature with a thermometer she inherited from her mother, a self-sacrificing seamstress who inherited it from her own mother. The instrument is slim and beautiful, with more mercury at its tip than the thermometers my aunt has in her house on Grand Avenue. My old lady treasures little antiques like this; now they’re souvenirs of a time I can only imagine, but in her care and custody they remain useful to us.
Her grandparents, my maternal great-grandparents, were born—she told me once—at the end of the 1800s, in San José de Maipo: Ema Castañeda and Emiliano Gamboa. My old lady was born in 1928, and when she talks to me about her family, about my family, she tells me stories that seem to be part of a distant past. As a boy I remember having visited great aunts and great uncles who were almost a hundred years old, real living mummies: grumbling beings who with wrinkled fingers examined my pristine set of teeth and smooth skin as if they’d forgotten what a child looks like.
“Look, what a good set of teeth, look how white they are,” my great aunt Magdalena would spit at me, as she scrutinised every centimetre of my mouth, face, hair.
Her house on Matta Avenue was a museum from the nineteenth century, with oval-shaped portraits I was convinced were daguerreotype images of lost souls, deceased figures tinted in sepia with the men in top hats and the women in billowy dresses, crushed under their hairdos. I had no doubt souls had been trapped in that dark, cold, sad house.
I grew up watching how these physically deteriorated ladies and gentlemen died, struck down every winter. For me it was as normal to attend a funeral as it was to go to the birthday party of one of the few friends I managed to make at school.
As a boy I attended countless funerals. It was always the same routine: I’d put my hands on my lap, lower my eyes, feigning prayer and response, and hear my old lady’s weeping. Later I understood that every death of an uncle or relative represented the death of a luminous past, to which she clung in gloomy times. My aunt Magdalena, who wasn’t my aunt but my great aunt, died at ninety-six years old, and her wake came as a blow to my old lady since she was her favourite, the one most similar to her mother and the one who took the best care of her and me.
In a prosperous past turned to myth by my old lady’s tales, her grandparents had been the owners of a well-established, thriving chain of drugstores. She told me they’d let her play on the counters, tap on the keys of the cash register with the wooden cover and stick her hand into the brimming sweet jars. From those golden years, inside the drawers of her sewing machine she still keeps a small mortar, three glass jars and of course the thermometer.
Now my old lady removes the thermometer from under my arm with a look of concern. The mercury marks forty degrees. She already knows the routine: first I’ll begin to suffer from feverish shakes, then my body will began to tremble uncontrollably, and finally I’ll start sweating and talking in my sleep.
In spite of my old lady adding a new layer of covers to the bed, made up with red plaid blankets, my feet are still frozen. She sits next to me, blowing out cool air, then looks at the ground, because she knows what she has to do. Holding back her fear, she leaves the room. Before she goes, she takes a plastic bag from the closet and ties it around her head, then explains:
“I’m going to ask for credit. I’ll make you a chicken stew and then you’ll feel better, my boy.”
With my eyes half-shut, I see her go out the door. The fever’s hitting me hard; I’m aware of the rain as a sound hammering into my head with increasingly unbearable pain. What’s left of the wallpaper, those scraps that hint at life beyond the barrier and make me dream, swirl in circles and I realise I might need to vomit. But better off dead than forced to use the bathroom in this shared house, without my old lady to cover my back.
I twist and turn and hear my mother close the doors, the one to our room and then the one to the apartment. I keep twisting. It hurts so much. The shakes have begun. First the rattle of my teeth, chattering against each another, and then my legs, and so on for my entire body in a light vibration, until I can no longer control the movements.
My old lady always tells me my shakes remind her of earthquakes, because they start at a low intensity and build up to the big one. I’m not sure how much time passes when I close my eyes, and I don’t know if I’m thinking or dreaming, but there he is: I see Remo, my father, as a Young man, not like in the black-and-white photos my old lady jealously keeps tucked away in the drawers of the sewing machine. His jet black hair sports a rockabilly quiff that crowns his head, and he laughs with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, full of life. I know he’s my dad because he looks at me with complicity and moves his lips to pronounce the word “son”, but he doesn’t make a sound. The dream, thought, or delirium is in mute, and all of a sudden he has two crying babies in his arms and I despair, because everything keeps going on in mute, even though right next to him some women are shouting and to my surprise I can hear their howls.
“But how can you drop the plates like that, lady, pay attention!”
I didn’t hear her come back to the apartment. The shouts come from one of the Floozies. I can also hear the faint noise of pans. It must be my old lady trying to take one out to make stew.
“Daaaaad! Come and impose some order, this crazy lady doesn’t want to leave the kitchen!”
A few seconds pass, but I don’t hear my old lady’s voice. Over the last few years she’s lived almost without speaking, and when things are complicated like this, she becomes even more quiet.
“Daaaaad! Come here! The crazy lady won’t listen!”
Over the last four months things have got worse, but we’ve never reached this level of insults. We know we’ll have to leave the place soon. My old lady has looked at the options: she’s praying—I’m not exaggerating, that’s the right verb—for social housing. She’s been saving up for years to apply for a government subsidy, and an option has opened up in Puente Alto, but the apartments are next to a forest—we went to see them with the social worker—and they’re still not finished. To be honest, it wasn’t clear whether they were half-built or in ruins. Bricked-up windows without finishings, ceilings without roofs, floors of sill plate or sand, weeds growing up from cement. Looking at them you didn’t know if buildings were growing up amidst scrawny trees and dry pastures, or the opposite.
The other option is to rent a room for twenty thousand pesos a month on Rodrigo de Araya Street, near Zañartu Plaza in Macul, from Señora Lucía, a morbid Pinochet-supporting vendor at the market my old lady knows from back when she worked as a live-in maid in the neighbourhood.
The walls are booming. My uncle’s come out of his bedroom, infuriated by my old lady’s provocation. When he strides down the hallway past our door, I, between fever and terror, think everything will collapse at last. The idea is a relief, for a few seconds.
“You’ve made a bloody mess, you motherfuckers! You’re gone, gone, gone! I won’t put up with any more of your shit in my house. You’ll leave right now! Now! Ouuuuut!”
While my uncle shouts, my old lady stays silent. When his tirade is over, she speaks.
“We’ll go, Pancho, but let me cook a stew for the boy so he can get a little better. Let me make him a plate of food, Pancho!”
I’m crying, and don’t know how much time passes before my old lady opens the door to bring me a dish of boiling chicken stew on a tray. I try a few spoonfuls. She also brings me part of a bread roll and water from the tap, and makes me take a few painkillers.
While I eat, I involuntarily slosh some pieces of chicken and cooked vegetables onto the sheets; when I finish, my old lady looks at me without saying a word. She only transmits to me her clearest thought:
We have to go.
She opens the closet, and for what’s left of the afternoon following her miraculous lunch, she begins to organise our belongings: a pile of cardboard boxes crushed and laid out in flat sheets in the corner, tied with a white string, ready to be used again. We don’t have suitcases, only these boxes we fill up yet again.
Moves and funerals. I’ve been through many of them. They confuse me because where one ends, the other begins. A move is like a death: the difference is just that at a funeral we don’t just leave a place, but also someone in a wooden box.
I still have a bit of fever and tell myself it’d be funny if my coffin were made not out of wood, but cardboard. And if, as I went about disintegrating, the box started to decrease in volume with infinite folds, until it turned into a thin line. A thin line, folded onto an even thinner one... which folded onto itself, until it disappeared.
The fever and shakes make me delirious for almost the entire night. Shakes goes go hand in hand with shades, the ones on the windows. I feel like my legs are crippled and I don’t know my Peruvian family and I hate those floozy twins and there are the shades, moving with shakes of their own, not lame, could they be from Lima? I dreamt of shades. Bloody shades covered my aunt’s grape trellis on Grand Avenue when I tried to launch into the heights in frustrated flight. I took off from the red paving stones, and when I looked up the beams of the trellis were covered by those horrible blinds. Every one of them had ropes, ropes that made them rise and fall, and I tried to pull them so they’d move aside but couldn’t manage it. I kept rising and couldn’t stop and the metal bent as my head and neck passed through them and the heat of my graze made the flight into a burning and unbearable experience.
“You talked in your sleep all night long, son,” my mom tells me when I open my eyes. I have a splitting headache. I still don’t know what a hangover is, but I know that soon I’ll know, and I know it must be similar to the splitting ache that divides the left side of my face from the right. I can’t transmit thoughts in this state, so I let out a murmur.
“What happened, Mom?”
“No, no. Calm down, son. We’ll go in a few days, I’m looking into it.”
Her “I’m looking into it”, I know, means writing letters of requests for help to the social workers, authorities, First Lady. It means going downstairs and making calls on the public telephone, even in the rain. Her “I’m looking into it” means begging for assistance to find a new roof over our head, asking and pleading for handouts to get us out of this jam. Life goes by as we escape from one tight spot after another.
Today Aunt María Piedad is coming, says my old lady. Usually we see her at Sunday lunch on Grand Avenue, but I can read my old lady’s mind. Despite my headache, I’m able to see she’s begged for her to come. It’s an act of diplomacy to pacify the mood, and along the way, lift my spirits.
I get out of bed in my pyjamas, synchronise the beloved old IRT, and leave it on Teleduc; then I look in my backpack for my notebook of drawings and stories.
I go back to sleep with my feet frozen and press them together under the sheets, while my old lady brings me a wood tray with a bread roll covered in margarine spread, and a cup of milk made from wáter and dissolved powder, which she’s poured from the Purita box. Outside—I catch a glimpse through the blinds—it’s overcast.
I keep drawing and writing the story of diabolical Mihai, and I say diabolical because my old lady, somewhat overwhelmed by my satanic drawings and my texts she no longer finds so funny, has forced me to go to therapy with a psychiatrist who works at a support centre in Ñuñoa, two streets from Rosita Renard Clinic. I go a few days of the week after school, and the psychiatrist, Hernán Concha, white-haired and wrinkled, with thick-rimmed Popular Unity-style lenses, looks at me in an intimidating way like the reckless cross between Allende and Pinochet, writing what I say to him on a notepad without telling me if I’m crazy or not.
He analyses my drawings.
“They’re disturbing,” he frequently opines, and asks me if I believe that I’ve needed and still need my father. Every so often he inquires into my thoughts about death; occasionally he asks whether I believe in the Devil and whether I think hell exists. He also asks if I listen to satanic music.
“Satanic? I like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica, but I’m not a metalhead.”
“Ah, so you know that music...”
“From the radio and from classmates who listen to it in private at the high school, but I’m not satan—”
“—that is, you listen to satanic music...” he interrupts and jots it down in his notebook, shaking his head, as if I were the source of a grave and contagious infection.
After months of going to this therapy, one day my mother tells me that I’ve been called for a meeting. We go to the psychiatric wing of Salvador Hospital, and there, after waiting for almost two hours, with me biting my fingernails and her smoking one cigarette after another, we’re moved to a room with huge mirror windows.
There we find the unpleasant shrink, accompanied by two young girls and a boy in white lab coats. They start to ask us questions from the other side of the table. We’re all sitting down, but there’s no equality of conditions or knowledge. The same topics appear that the head doctor hurls at me every time he can: my absent father, death, Satan or the Archfiend or Beezlebub, suicide, satanic music, depression, vampires, my texts, my drawings.
“Who’s on the other side of the mirrors?” I ask softly, with genuine curiosity.
“Psychiatry students. They’re here to learn,” says sinister Doctor Concha.
“Yes. Learn from this case.”
I still don’t receive the all-clear, but the shrink says there’s been progress and maybe this is due to my strategy: I’ve been offering him appearances and smoke shields in exchange for a tranquillity from this hell. In place of the demons and vampires and naked women inspired by porno sessions at the Burgos kid’s house, I’ve begun to show him banal drawings and stories about happy people with their feet on the ground, looking to the right from the point of view of the one looking at the drawing. If the drawings look to the left, it indicates that one is obsessed with the past. Traumatised. Doomed. So I take him on a journey through happy-faced people holding hands. My scheme is a way of avoiding that this idiot treats me like I was abnormal. Who knows what I am, but I don’t need a specialist who drugs and stupefies me. I don’t need Lorazepam or Alprazolam. I don’t need to put a bloody little pill under my tongue three times a day. No. I need to travel in time to stop my father from dying and my mother from being left alone, and at all costs, to struggle to throw off the mantle of suffering to which we’re condemned. But the psychiatrist doesn’t grasp this. Nor do I speak to him about my abilities to see the future and fly, let alone the telepathy.
He wouldn’t understand.
When my old lady is lost in thought looking at old photographs or cleaning her sewing machine, when she assumes that I’m doing homework, I’m really writing notes for my story about Mihai. I do it for myself, and for someone else. I’ve seen her again. The new girl at the high school, Paula González. She’s in eleventh grade too, in Group A. I know she has a boyfriend, she likes to read, she’s the middle sibling in a family with three children and her father is very sick. She doesn’t know it, but her father’s going to die soon. I also know she likes the solitude that I project. Some days when I’m at the library, she comes up and talks to me. I’ve been bloody awful at making chat, speaking in shy monosyllables in the poor attempt to start a conversation. But I’ve dared to do it, and keep daring. I showed her some of Mihai; she loved it.
“It’s weird but good. Really, really good. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Approval. I had, and have, her blessed endorsement. To have my scribblings praised by her is enough. Tomorrow I want to go to the high school, even if I have to crawl. I still haven’t gone through the phase of coughing, spitting up, rattling my lungs, but I’m resolved to be strong.
Ernesto GARRATT VIÑES (Santiago, 1972) is a Chilean writer, journalist and film critic. He writes regularly for the newspapers La Tercera and the “Wikén” cultural supplement of El Mercurio, as well as for the magazine Qué Pasa. In 2011 he was awarded at the Santiago International Film Festival for his film coverage in the local media. In 2016 and 2017 he won the National Magazine Prize for Best Interview, and in 2017 he was invited to participate in a book celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Cannes Festival. His novel Allegados [The Live-Ins] won the Marta Brunet Prize in 2018. Recently he published a follow-up novel called Casa Propia [A Home of Our Own].
Jessica SEQUEIRA is a writer and translator, living between Chile and the UK, where she is completing a doctorate at the Centre of Latin American Studies of the University of Cambridge. She has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval, the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has also translated more than fifteen books by Latin American authors into English. Her work has won the Valle Inclán Prize for translation from Spanish and been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.