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from the February 2004 issue

from English Craft

The narrator is visiting London, sent by a Buenos Aires newspaper, to interview the famous British author Davies. She is haunted by a profound early friendship with Ana, and equally by a relationship from fifteen years before, with the artist Bruno. Here, two of the protagonists' lives come together again, while Ana persists in memory between them.

The newspaper gave the story a splash. It was the first time that Davies had agreed to be interviewed for the Argentine press, and they hungered for still further details, which I promised to provide on my return. In Buenos Aires, the rain was bucketing down, and another cold snap was on the cards.

On a sudden impulse, I decided to dial Andres' number. No reply. A blonde woman was yelling at the top of her voice in a neighboring phone booth and, in the next one along, a man in a dark suit was gesticulating wildly, swaying from side to side like a caged animal. I cut the line but went on standing there, glued to the receiver, unable to decide whether or not to hang up. It was then, I think, I first noticed Bruno in the third phone booth along, beyond the gesticulating man and the blonde woman. I pressed up against the glass wall, receiver still in hand, and waited for the best possible conjuncture of movements between the blonde woman and the man in the dark suit, in order to be able to study his profile until, finally convinced of the uselessness of the exercise, I went out. I approached slowly, never taking my eyes off the third phone booth, the moving body kept its back turned toward me the entire time, as if trying to keep itself hidden, just in order to prolong the suspense. I paused at the door, alert to every movement, struggling to identify Bruno by his posture, his haircut, his hands, the portfolio under his arm. Someone kept pushing me forward and, in the tumult of people heading for the turnstiles, I must have been distracted for a few moments. When the booth returned to eyeshot, Bruno was in front of me, cradling the receiver on his shoulder, frozen inside the door, his eyebrows raised in an expression of astonishment, so he resembled an agnostic confronted by an apparition. He was still talking, now using only monosyllables, odd words, clearly awaiting some indication on my part that would substantiate the sight before his eyes.

I think I smiled, and went right up to the phone booth door, nodding in recognition. Bruno smiled back and continued staring at me incredulously, then, like a robot, hung up the phone and opened the door. We remained immobilized for a few seconds, studying one another. I think I murmured something under my breath, and we stared some more at each other, still wondering as if there were some error, some aberration. The portrait on the dust jacket had prepared me for the fact that times had changed, but Bruno's vivid smile, and the vestiges of youthful torpor in his adult body, left me dumbstruck.

I can't tell you precisely what we then said to one another; I can just recall a hug, and a confused sequence of stupid remarks, banal questions, both of us rooted to the spot where we had met, until someone else obliged us to move on, in order to let him use the phone. Bruno took me by the arm, steering me in the direction of the station exit. "We need a beer," he said, "to recover from the shock."

Outside, the daylight was dazzling. The four or five characteristics of the city I still remembered before going down into the tube station returned with a new substance, a weightier texture, like the salient features of a bedroom that rapidly regain their consistency when you wake from a dream. We headed for a pub on the nearest street corner, and sat down at a table by the window.

"To tell you the truth, I've no idea where to begin," said Bruno, before going up to the bar. I couldn't take my eyes off him until he came and sat down facing me: the image of Bruno by daylight, carrying two mugs of beer over to a table in a pub, finally created an unexpected symmetry, to balance the image of Bruno fifteen years earlier, in that house on the Tigre riverbank in the middle of the night, forcing me to take off through the brushwood thickets, that time when we still had no perception that our fight, punctuated by screams, was a farewell. As he pushed his way back from the bar, Bruno was staring at me so hard that he bumped into a waiter, spilling the beer, but he shrugged and laughed and laughed, as if happy to acquiesce with relish in his own impatient clumsiness. I found in this particular behavior a historical parallel with Ana, persevering over time: a repressed and effervescent laughter, bursting through his attempts at keeping a straight face.

As soon as he sat down, he wanted to know what I was doing in London. So I told him about Davies; the newspaper; the unexpected trip; the translations. He listened without interrupting, every now and then glancing out of the window, tying and untying the ribbon that held his portfolio of drawings together. Journalism as an excursion away from home, I resumed, without knowing how to go on. I swallowed a gulp of beer and changed the subject: I had come across one of his books in a bookstore, but I wanted to know more about him. "What the cover blurb doesn't reveal," I corrected myself. Bruno knocked back the rest of his beer in a single gulp, made a mental calculation, and looked me in the eye for the first time. "Fifteen years?" he queried, "how long have you got?" I looked at the wall clock behind the bar: "Less than a day," I answered. "I leave tomorrow. Is that long enough, do you think?" Bruno lowered his gaze and studied the empty bottom of his glass. "That depends," he said, "you're the journalist, so you'll know the right questions to ask." "Don't you believe it," I replied, "sometimes questions escape even me".

To break the silence that followed this response, I asked what he was carrying in his portfolio. He showed me some sketches of the Globe, overflowing with details of the theater's reconstruction, to which I paid serious attention, feigning ignorance. He admitted that it made him happy to unburden himself of the day's sketching session; on Sundays the theater was full of tourists, and he preferred to work there when it was quiet, in the early hours of the morning.

Over a second beer we talked about London, avoiding speaking in the third person plural, sheltering beneath allusion and elision. Even so, I gathered that he lived on his own, in a rented flat in Notting Hill Gate. Between us there still remained an unnavigable distance, whether down to the fairly exceptional nature of our chance encounter, or to the perspective lent by a distance we were constantly having to adjust, but which gradually softened as our glances became less and less furtive, mingling surprise with recognition.

From Oficios Ingleses (Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2003.) By arrangement with the author.

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