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from the November 2007 issue

The Shakes

Now I have to get the fourth glass down me before I can operate. I mean, the fourth glass, filled to the brim, full of the amber stuff. Yes, now I drink the amber, Scotch. Because of my liver, you know. Why should I try to kid you, we go back a long way, and just between you and me, you're my best friend, you rallied to the cause, you're a great colleague. I went for some liver function tests, and things aren't looking too bright. Anyway, since they let me back into the Health Service, and along with my patients in the private sector, I make enough to get by, and I can afford those little luxuries so dear to the middle class, which is, all things considered, the class to which old doctors like me belong. That's why I treat myself to scotch.

No, I'm telling you, in the Medical Association they've really played the game, I can't begin to tell you how they've put up with me, and keep on putting up with me. The thing is, I need that fourth glass. Look at my hand: the tremor begins in the supinator of the forearm, and goes down to the wrist. From there it branches out in all its glory along the bundles of fiber attached to the proximal, medial and distal phalanges of each finger. No, it's no joke. Look how I shake. My right hand looks like a little Christmas tree in the northern hemisphere, a stunted conifer on a stormy night, up there by the Arctic Circle. The five branches carrying the veins shake as if I had Parkinson's disease. But I swear, after the fourth glass it's as still as Pocitos Bay on a calm day, steady as a rock.

After the fourth glass, I achieve total control. That's why I operate. If I noted the slightest tremor after the fourth glass, I can assure you I would give up surgery forever. You know me, I'm a responsible sort of fellow, I always have been. I believe it is precisely that sense of responsibility which has kept me sane all these years. I don't mean to be nasty, but do you remember those binges you went on when we were doing our clinical training? I worked like a dog and you, you miserable sod, you were living it up with those prats from the third year. And there I was, in the meantime, working myself into the ground with my studies. Do you remember how I got you through Psychiatry? Even you had to admit more than once that you would never have finished your degree if I hadn't been such a pain in the ass. Pour me another. Yes, of course I remember how you covered for me in Dermatology, but then, as you know perfectly well, that's a much tamer specialty, for those who like an easy life. When I was in prison I could have done with reading up on that. Have you any idea how I suffered with that eczema of the scalp? Just when it was beginning to clear up they cut my hair off, they shaved my head all over again and the wound became reinfected. At first I thought it was a fungal infection, because of the mycosis, but afterwards it swelled up and in winter (the temperature was only five or six degrees in jail) it began to suppurate. You've no idea what a nodule there was! I had a lump as big as a hen's egg on my cranium. Estévez, the lecturer in Dermatology, would have been thrilled. In my ignorance, I thought it was caused by a chilblain so I lanced it. A veritable flood. I still have the scar. After a time, I came to the conclusion that I had a bacterial infection. If I tell you how I cured it, you'll never believe me. Oh, I've already told you? It's worth hearing again. I kept stale bread in a corner of the cell, moistening it with the few drops of water they gave me. A week later the bread grew a greenish black fungus. I made a paste with the upper layer and kept the lower layers damp so that the spores would yield yet another harvest. I spread the damp paste over the open wound and down the sides so that the abscess wouldn't spread all over my head. I can't guarantee that the moss was Penicillium, or Clostridium, or whatever, or whether what healed me was the placebo effect, or the fact that I had something to keep myself amused. The fact is the infection, chilblain, abscess, whatever it was, slowly gave ground and here you have me, alive and kicking.

Yes, well. I have to say, I missed the scalpel. Surgery was my line, and those bastards took away what I most love doing in this life. But I didn't lose my touch. I'm still an ace, and you've seen my patients: an absolute joy. Yes, I know I am operating on Raquel tomorrow. But that's the reason why I'm having this drink with you. Believe me, after the fourth glass I'm as keen as mustard and my hand is like a precision tool, calibrated to a hair's breadth.

What do you expect? You can't laugh off eight years in jail. But the worst thing is when they let you out. Because even though everything inside was dark you knew who was who. I even used to clutch a pen in my right hand and draw silhouettes you could barely see on the concrete floor. On each silhouette I marked out the anatomical regions and practiced imitation cuts and ligatures, from appendectomies to incisions to remove the head of a fractured femur (and you know perfectly well I never enjoyed working directly with bones), but it was useful revision. I even practiced suturing and gave orders to invisible housemen. I was a real hotshot and I must have been the best surgeon in the prison at a moment when there were at least a score of trained doctors taking a forced rest. Moreover, it was useful because the guards were convinced that I was absolutely crazy. They watched me making stitches with suturing silk that did not exist, and they must have believed that I was imitating my grandmother darning my father's socks. They heard me giving orders to nurses or calling for heart massage, and as they couldn't see the nurses or the patient, they gathered that I wasn't right in the head. But the truth was, I was practicing. And I practiced so hard that I became the best. Just the opposite of Molière's character, I was the Imaginary Doctor. But when I got out, you can be sure I was up to sticking a knife in any hypochondrium, left or right, without any ideological distinctions. The shit hit the fan afterwards.

No, I tell you, the chaps in the Association behaved very decently. What is more, I got back my place in the Health Service and got back on to the books of three health insurance companies. Things weren't easy to begin with. It was a matter of starting again and re-learning how to operate on flesh and bone instead of in the air or on a concrete floor. In that respect, Raimundo outdid himself: he took me to theater a good ten times, and he let me try my hand almost from the very start, above all in minor surgical procedures, so that I could regain my confidence. Which is why I'm telling you I'm quite sure I'll manage with regard to Raquel. But getting back to Raimundo, he really surpassed himself. He gradually let me build up my confidence. And in one operation, he gave me free rein, at his own risk. He merely looked on. That's how I got my nerve back and returned to normal. At that time, I didn't drink so much, I drank a little, at weekends, when I didn't have to operate. And that's how it went.

I began to knock back the booze a little later, when I came to work in the same practice as Furest. You know, Furest, the one who checked me before and after I was interrogated. There in prison. I didn't know what to do. Furest, somewhat afraid but ironic, bowed and said, "How are you, doctor?" I didn't reply. One day, later on, I decided to go across to the bar opposite the hospital: I knocked back six grappas one after another and plucked up the courage I was lacking. I returned and faced Furest in a corridor. It was clear he saw me. It was clear he noticed my glazed expression. He probably caught a whiff of the grappa as well. What is certain is I thought he was really scared now. Or rather, I didn't think that. I was sure that Furest would shit himself if I went one inch closer to his round face. I was on top of the world. I had thought long and hard about what I would say to him, I'd rehearsed two or three ways of dealing with him, of accusing him, but in my opinion, what came out was the best of all. I leaned over his fat face and skewered him with a simple, sarcastic and lapidary "How are you, doctor?" That showed him. He was expecting anything but that: a punch, a gobbet of spittle in his face. I'm sure he suffered the biggest adrenaline surge in history, he must have aged ten years in that instant. He had not dreamed of a simple, arrogant, guttural, boozy greeting. It was like giving him back part of what I had swallowed during so many years, but done up in gift wrapping, like a present. I left him to imagine the rest. When I told my ex-wife about the encounter, she said that Furest probably hadn't batted an eyelid. On the contrary of what I thought, my attitude would have reassured him and allowed him to shrug the matter off within a couple of minutes. My ex-wife said I had mistaken relief for terror. But I know it wasn't that. He was expecting an insult, a blow, anything, not that I would rise above him, not that I would let him off the hook.

That was one of the first times when I drank too much for a genuine reason. But I didn't care then and I don't care now. It was worth it. The sordid part came afterwards. Now I'll tell you.

Eight years are no joke, you know, and I understand your concern for Raquel. I appreciate your gesture and I don't think I've misunderstood your reasons for coming here. But take it easy. I think things through, I know how to take on risks and responsibilities, just as I've told you.

I can't keep my temper? I held Furest's gaze without punching him or spitting in his face. I can't keep my temper? Look how I kept my temper with that stupid shit of a son of mine, Pedro the charming asshole who was just a snot-nosed kid when they took me to the prison, that time he came back from a rock concert as high as a kite, spouting his postmodern European pity at me, his commiseration from someone grafted on to the First World, telling me that the Revolution is a tragic farce, and saying it to me, of all people.

I put up with him in silence, resolute. Look, I've knocked about and I know that you're saying all this out of friendship and fellow-feeling, I know that you love me like a brother. That you're one of us.

Yes, if you want, I'll tell you about Pedro. I met him a few months after I got out of jail. He came with his mother, from Stockholm. I didn't recognize him, why should I pretend otherwise? I left behind a small, timid child, a twelve-year old brat. And back came a twenty-year old man who claimed he was my son. He talked with an accent, you know. I had real difficulty understanding him at first. He didn't give me a hug.

On the night we were reunited I downed my first bottle of whisky. Let me make myself very clear: a whole bottle, the first one in my life. I got drunker than ever before. Absolutely legless. My ex-wife says that after dinner I began to talk crap and two or three times I tried to embrace Pedro, I don't remember. It's sort of clouded over in my mind since that day. My ex-wife says that I sang and shouted questions at him without listening to what he replied. I don't know.

No. But that has nothing to do with Raquel. Don't worry. Easy. Look at my hand. Is it shaking? No. It isn't. Not at all. Where are you going to find another blade like this? I know what I'm doing. If I'm telling you all this, it's precisely so that you stay calm, we're not going to lie to one another, we're professional colleagues, I've already told you. I'm being honest with you. I don't hide the fact that I drink, but believe me when I tell you everything is under control.

No. That business with my liver is nothing. The tests showed a minor complication, that's all. But if I give up drinking from one day to the next I'll crack up. You know how these things are. And my working life is by no means over. So I'd better not crack up. Anyway, who are you to come here and lecture me about alcohol abuse? Do you remember how you used to get as pissed as a fart after every exam? I remember when you passed Anatomy. We had to take you to Skinny Lucas's place because your mother wouldn't let you set foot in the house. So—as the kids say nowadays—chill out and stop winding me up. I drink a little, no more than the strictly necessary, to keep things ticking over normally, and keep the instrument in tune, as they say. I can't allow you to say that. I love Raquel and respect her as much as you do. She's one of us and I know that she went through hard times as well. She was inside longer that I was, and she probably went through a lot worse. And she stood up to it all. I don't just love her. I also admire her. But I'm a professional. I'm going to do my work with her as I would with anyone else. Properly, I mean. Don't worry.

Yes, Pedro went back to Stockholm. And I tell you something—in some ways it was for the best, we couldn't stand each other any longer. Of course I miss him. Do you think a man can have children without any consequences? Having a child is an incurable illness. Even when he dies his absence or whatever it is stays with you, inside. And if he goes away, you can't understand it or it screws you up, it's the same thing. He keeps on being your child, incurably. Of course it has affected me. I can't lie to you. You come out of prison bewildered, your head full of unhappy illusions, as Gardel used to sing. You're moved by the display of solidarity from everyone, even from those who don't necessarily believe in the same things you do but still come up to you and give you a hand. But it's hard. It's hard when a shitty kid, still wet behind the ears, your own son, takes the piss out of you, tells you, "Dad, you brought it on yourself". The day I came out of the jail, I listened to Zitarrosa, I spent the afternoon listening to the same song over and over again. I was alone in a room in someone else's house. And my son was in the next room with his mother, my ex-wife. At one point I got so worked up over Zitarrosa's music I went looking for Pedro so we could weep together. Pedro was smoking what I found out afterwards they call a joint. He was the way you used to say I am sometimes, out of his head. But stroppy with it. He didn't sit down. He looked at me pityingly and said that I was a lost soul. I didn't understand him and made the mistake of asking him to explain. He said his piece. And it was hard. I could have coped with him calling me a silly old sod, a son of a bitch, anything. But no. He kept repeating, obsessively, the same refrain: "Your day has been and gone." He studies engineering. Electronic engineering, the lad. No, there, in Stockholm. I don't know, I would have to be a pretty mean-spirited petit bourgeois bastard to blame his mother. The kid shook me. And ever since that moment, I have doubts. At one point in the conversation I stood up and took a swing at him. The lad stayed put, explained God knows what crap about the authoritarian discourse, and finished up saying I was just like them, that he wouldn't be able to distinguish, in the prison, between the jailers and the prisoners. He left me reeling. I swear, he knocked me out without moving from his seat. I think it was then I decided not to speak to him anymore, to limit myself to contemplating him. So that's what I do. I assure you, Raquel will come through the operation absolutely fine. After the fourth glass I'm as tough as nails, no one can stop me. There won't be any complications, I reckon about three hours and anyway, I always hand over to Rodríguez, so he can close up and suture when I'm tired. But I don't think even that will be necessary. If you want, examine Raquel yourself or come to theater if you don't trust me and you think I'm going to do something stupid. I know, I know you're not a surgeon, but you've got enough about you to know whether I screw up. Put on a gown, a mask, and you can keep an eye on me. As my son said: there won't be any difference between the guards and the guarded. No, I'm not taking the piss, but you've really got up my nose with your unwarranted lack of confidence. Raquel is a friend, Raquel is one of us and you don't have to keep on telling me so all the time. Have any of my patients died to date? Since I got out of the prison, has anything gone wrong?

All my operations have been a success. Those who died were destined to die. Like that old woman of eighty-three, because of post-operational complications. But that had nothing to do with me, she left my operating theater clean as a whistle, meek as a lamb, ready to sponge off the state and collect her old age pension for the next five years. The other one who died, the girl, that was because of a hospital infection and that's what it says on the death certificate. Anyway, at the end of the day, if you're so worried about my professional competence, why don't you take your complaints to the Ethics Committee? I'll end up thinking you're confusing me with Furest. Take me to the Committee, you'll see that I come out of it without a blemish to my name: like others, I am a symbol. I kept my integrity for eight years inside. But let's leave that. I'm telling you: Raquel is going to be fine. I ordered the analyses and checked them, and tomorrow, at ten o'clock in the morning, after the fourth glass, I operate.

Translation of "El temblor." First published in El mar interior, 1990. Copyright Rafael Courtoisie. Translation copyright 1997 by Patricia Anne Odber de Baubeta. All rights reserved.

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