The clock-radio buzzed for three minutes. The beep, added to the radio speaker’s voice, took a long time to wake Keith up. His head was aching. His eyes were hidden behind heavy eye-lids. Not for the first time. He stretched out his arm and turned off the radio. He cursed himself, looked up angrily at the ceiling and rubbed his eyes.
“What about not going to the paper ?” That was out of question. He looked down at the bedside-table and saw a photograph of his children. He was still drowsy, being half-awake, half-asleep, floating in a kind of day-dream.
His life had been great. At the weekends, in his country house in Sussex, fishing with Karin on the lake, the beginning of his notoriety in the international press. His friends coming and going, the country house, the music of that time… the 60’s giving a special rhythm to the dates. Beth, Millie, Lizzy… Those girls attracted him. His affairs were nothing that would last or interfere with his relationship with Karin. She knew all about those feelings too, and they didn’t hurt each other because of them. That was until she met that tall, quiet guy … Mike … and the trip changed page and author.
For Keith, worse than that bitter moment of remembrance, was to come back to reality and find himself thumbing through his paperback. It was there, in his hand, a series of lines and shapes. They made his uneasiness worse on that morning of pallid sunlight. An attempt to register contemporary European ideas, a collection of interviews and essays on the pioneers of Old World thinking.
“Why did it go wrong ?” His friends knew the answer. The theme wasn’t strong enough, his readers should’nt be dissuaded from thinking that they lived well in Thatcher’s era, opinions like that. Ralph’s opinion was worse. He did’nt understand why Ralph touched a nerve by saying that he didn’t find his truth in the text.
The book could have been the thing that was missing, preventing him from emerging with his own style, abandoning the idea of being a prize-winning reporter to become a journalist and a writer with his own ideas. That was it: Keith O’Brien, a winner, didn’t find the fame and the fulfilment which followed him when he wanted to do something out of the ordinary. Some notices had been favourable, but he fretted about the ones that attacked him. As for his readers, the small quantity of books sold didn’t give him the feeling of success that he had been expecting.
He got up and walked over to the curtains, pulling them aside. Morning light flooded the room. He only glanced at the day, a rarity in the London winter. A clear day with no clouds. The sun was over the roofs. He turned back into the room.
His room was a complete mess. His bed, pushed into the corner, was surrounded by a pile of paper, videocassette tapes and old newspaper cuttings. Beside it, the television, two bottles of whisky and some glasses. Near the headboard there was a pile of books waiting to be read. Two of the wardrobe doors were wide open and inside there were suits, jackets and shirts, jumbled together over the drawers. Some of these were open, revealing bits of paper, pairs of socks and belts.
“Heaven, I’m in Heaven
The record was on the deck: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald. The sound of the water running into the sink came from the next room. Keith was having a shave.
He noticed the first grey hairs on his chest. The hand holding the razor blade stopped in mid-air, while he looked at his body reflected in the mirror. He hadn’t looked at himself in the mirror for a long time.
He looked at the outline of his chest, the muscles still firm, but he noticed that the curvature of his spine was not as regular as it used to be. He looked up and started to analyse his face, part of it covered with the foam of the shaving cream. His features were subtle, a little rectangular. The mouth was open in a half smile. He remembered Karin’s great attraction towards thin lips with a firm line. He stared at his eyes, that gave little away, usually hiding a certain air of mystery and malice; but which came out at the right moments and was worth more than a good right hook.
He applied the razor to his face. He let the blade slide over the surface. As soon as he had finished, he opened the wardrobe, exchanged the razor blade for a pair of scissors and moved his arm, cutting carefully a long hair that was coming out of one of his nostrils. He observed his nose, well sculpted, almost square. He slapped his face gently with hands. He washed his razor blade and the scissors. He put them into the wardrobe and left the room.
He went to the front door, fetched the newspaper and the milk. He went to the kitchen, put out the things he needed for breakfast. He went into the living-room and laid the table. Then he had milk, cereal, grapefruit, some toast with blackberry jam. He made eggs and bacon and finished his meal with a cup of coffee and two aspirins. Forty minutes later he was on his way out of the house.
The London Chronicle’s research department was in a small room, full of files and computer terminals. There were full-time librarians and computer analysts who searched for the necessary data for articles that were to be published. The newspaper’s international section demanded most from the department’s resources. For Dorothy, the chief-librarian, Keith’s visit was more or less routine. The journalist entered the office in a hurry, grumbling. He looked for her and went straight to the point:
“Have you got my files, sweetheart ?”
She looked sternly at Keith. He didn’t bat an eyelid. He took off his sunglasses, came up to her and said:
“You owe me that dinner.”
“Oh you rascal”, said she smiling,”this time you had a good excuse.”
“You’ve got my documents, haven’t you? Dorothy, what’s happening in Central America right now? Any attack from the Nicaraguans? Any treasury minister offering his resignation in San Salvador, sending Wall Street into a panic?” he asked ironically.
“Keith, you’re crazy! What’re you going to do there?”
“I want to sunbathe and clear up a mystery.”
Dorothy smiled. She asked him to wait and went out to get the files. As she left, her thoughts were very much with Keith.
“At least a good luck kiss,” he asked before he went away, with a very serious expression. When I come back, I’ll ask you to marry me,” he said, leaving with the files.
From the door he shouted:
“And I’ll also take you up on that dinner.”
The boxer in the red-stripped shorts came from the left side, weaved and struck with a jab and two uppercuts. The other, in black shorts, protected himself and counter-attacked with two crosses. They backed off and then started in again. The first man seemed a little dizzy so the second went in to get through his guard, trying a more sustained attack. He let go a jab to the chin and another to the forehead. Sweat sprayed. There were five clinches one after another. Muscles were taut, legs were working. The referee separated the fighters. He signalled with quick and agile gestures.
The fight went on. Excited, the audience applauded. The forehead of the man in red began to bleed. Rabid looks from the man in black. Two attacks. Tight defense, a counter-attack at the right time. They broke. The audience was cheering, shouting and clapping. The seconds looked at the bell. The camera showed a close-up of the cut man’s face. It was stiff and his mouth was twisted. A gum-shield between his teeth. The rhythm was fast again. The fighters seemed to sense the chance of a knock-out in the ring.
Two punches, a counter, good lateral protection. Another punch. The man in red was feeling it in his ribs. He tried to keep his breath. A flash of thought:”One last chance ?”
Between two jabs, he threw an uppercut. He was hurting, dizzy. He took a punch to the side of his head. There was a buzzing in his ears. He reacted. He dug out all his energy and threw two blows with all his strength. One was a sideswipe, the other was right off-target. A feint. A crack. A black mist swam before his eyes. The man in red fell. The audience cheered. A little confused, the fighter in black raised his arms, exhausted and shame-faced. The gum-shield was visible.
An MC started to talk about something. Keith looked down and saw the pile of papers. He thought of the monotonous succession of accusations between Sandinists and Americans, Castro’s threats, the explosive but localized guerrilla actions. He thought about the rhetoric of world leaders. He looked through the newspaper cuttings that he had in his hands. Maps of Central America, telephone numbers for further contacts. He tried to find a place to begin his business on the Central-American continent.
He looked further down the page. He glimpsed the vague brown of the bed-cover. He got up and walked to the office, leaving the documents on the bureau. He stopped and listened to the murmur of the night.
As was his habit, Keith decided to go for a walk. His children would get out of school at five and he wanted to see them before he went away. He started by going down Fitzjohn Street and from there he turned right into Finchley Road.
Winter brought the evening on early. The sun had already set, leaving only traces of light, a kind of background for the variations in red of the houses and flats. At Finchley, the shops already had their windows lit up, attracting the odd customer. Near the Canfield, the Italian who owned a greengrocery waved. A bit farther on, Keith came to Swiss Cottage tube station. It was twenty to five by his watch.
The passers-by didn’t interest him. In winter everybody looked alike. Keith saw them in their overcoats like brown smudges or dark grey blurs moving through the streets. He would rather look at the buildings and the shrivelled branches of the trees. He walked a bit more and saw the school gate still closed. Some parents were already waiting for the end of classes. He decided to go into a nearby tobacco shop.
“Good afternoon”, he said.
“Yes, sir ?” said the man behind the counter.
“Benson & Hedges.”
Outside, the streetlamps were coming on. The tones were fading, giving way to black. A soft noise of cars passing. At the tobacco shop door, a tall man, with large shoulders, small eyes and hollow cheeks was staring intently inside, following Keith’s movements. He put a cigarette to his lips. His left hand took out of his pocket a silver lighter, with the design of a Mandragora. When Keith left, he turned his back.
“Unfortunately it won’t be possible. Even knowing that you are going to be away for a few days.”
“Karin, it won’t be difficult for you to do it for me. In fact it’s not only `a few days'”, Keith replied.
“Roger arranged a trip to the country for this weekend. The children have talked about it for more than a month”, she said.
Keith became angry. For some minutes he had been trying to convince Karin to let his children stay with him. Her intransigence upset him. He was feeling something like jealousy. He resented it.
“Couldn’t you be less rigid ? I’m going away, I’ll be away for some time and I’ll miss my children. Why do you insist on being so insensitive ?”
Karin pretended not to hear. The gate had been opened and the children were running towards the couple.
Keith accompanied his ex-wife and children home. On the way he bought sweets, put little Elaine on his lap and told them that he was travelling to a strange and distant country. He said to Arthur that he would give him a present if he knew where El Salvador was. He was formal with his wife. He couldn’t convince her to let him have the children so he stopped trying. They carried on in silence. After leaving them at home, Keith went straight to the newspaper.
His mind was in a whirl. His head ached a little. His ex-wife’s attitude bothered him a lot. He felt sorry about the situation divorced couples found themselves in and sought to forget what had happened, trying to concentrate on the job in hand.
He couldn’t concentrate. Images of his marriage troubled him. Karin’s body appeared before him more than once. Her curves, the comfortable sensation of touches, whispers. Sentences echoed, segments of final quarrels. Fragments of remembrances came together, with sadness. Some happiness, the birth of the children. He felt nostalgic. Everything came together: the wedding, adolescence, the games of cricket, his dissatisfaction with the life he was leading, the failure of his book.
From the window of the tube he saw flashes against the black background. His fingers scratched unconsciously at the material of the seat. His body sensed the inertia as they came to a halt at the stations.
At a quarter to seven he arrived at the door of the newspaper building. He went in. The same man with small eyes and hollow cheeks passed by and stopped on the corner under a lamppost. He lighted a cigarette, opened the newspaper and started to read.
“OK, Ralph. What can I do for your socialist sympathies with the Central American nationalists?”
Ralph was finishing an article.
“Calm down, will you? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Keith sat in a plastic chair, near the window. The boss, impassive, remained bent over the table, correcting that day’s articles in ink.
Some minutes later, Ralph started to speak.
“The situation in Central America is getting worse everyday. The countries are in no condition to endure long wars that make economic stabilization impossible. The Americans are back with the big stick and the guerillas are becoming more and more experienced. Between the two poles of this confrontation are the people, every day suffering more and more. In addition to that, I voted for the Liberal Party. “While he was talking, his eyes were on the article he was editing. Keith amused himself by looking out of the window.
“I can’t find a solution for those poor people”, continued Ralph,”for me they will be in this situation until the end of time. Something drastic must happen to put an end to those people’s suffering.”
“Come on Ralph, if you keep on being so vehement, they’ll fire you. The big boss is not so fond of radicals or socialists.”
Ralph became angry.
“Me? Radical? Come on Keith, give me a break! You know that’s not true. Whoever listens to what you say would think I was an agitator. I’m only using my common-sense”, he said, getting up from the desk.”
“And a little bit of pseudo-innocence.”
“Go to hell, you pretentious bastard. Who do think you are ? I was a journalist before you were even born !”
Keith went over to him.
“When will you be through here ?” he asked, pointing to the proofs on the desk. “We need to talk. I have to discuss latest report from `our correspondent’ and the stuff I’ve been reading about El Salvador.”
“Now. We’re going to talk about it now”, answered Ralph.
They sat down on the sofa that was in the office.
“Still here, boss ?” asked one of his assistants. Outside the office it was snowing heavily. It was night. The computer terminal was on and was casting a pale light over the office.
Sitting in his velvet chair, the director was trying to calm his 92 kilos. Restless, he recalled the latest information about the Cayman Operation. With these thoughts in his mind, his body was fidgeting in the chair. His legs swung back and forth ceaselessly..
In Europe everything was going well. The containers with the secret material and the group taking care of them had embarked without a hitch. The files on the crew had revealed nothing. Agents were following the people involved in the operation and nothing unusual had been detected.
The director sighed and scratched his head. Only he, Yuri and the three auxiliaries present at the last meeting knew everything about the operation. On land, Alonso was establishing contacts to the north of San Salvador. He was following his instructions to the letter. Agents infiltrated amongst his assistants were sending in reports. Everything was in perfect order.
Informers had reassured him that in El Salvador none of the journalists were either snooping in suspicious places or talking to people who could tell them anything about the operation. There was just one small problem. The correspondent from the London Chronicle had contacted people connected with the guerrilla leaders. It would be necessary to send him after a red herring so as not to put the project in jeopardy.
But it was advisable to be calm. Keith O’Brien would arrive from London to take over Barry’s mission completely. It would be better to wait and watch his behaviour. Reports on his activities had arrived from England. Nothing special had been noticed. With him in El Salvador it would be easier to guarantee the development of the operation.
The director took a sheet of paper and wrote:”Redouble the watch on the London Chronicle’s journalists. If necessary, avoid press interference.” Still holding the pen, he wrote in the middle of the page:”Eliminate”. He drew a head then scored an X through it. He started to think again, while he was crushing and throwing the paper at the bin.
Two light knocks at the door. His personal assistant entered, walked to the videocassette and read the reports from the men involved in the operation.
“Is this Spaniard really reliable?” he said, getting to the point. The boss looked up and opened his hands.
“Yuri has been working with him for more than eight years”, he said.
“Do you really believe in Yuri?”
“Of course not. I’m having him followed. He’s betrayed once, so he might do it again.” “And the other men?”
“Everything in perfect order. The ship is leaving. Our men ashore are already covering the tracks.”
“And in Central America?”
“Up to now everything’s calm. The London Chronicle’s man’s about to make contact with the guerrillas and that could be a serious problem.”
“Do you want us to take care of the correspondent?”
“No, no, he’ll be back in London this week and our man’s about to arrive in San Salvador. We must take care of him.”
“He’s already being followed in Europe.”
“I know that. You must understand that, when I ask for someone to be watched, I’m not asking for trivialities. Take a look at the reports coming from London: `Monday, 4:50pm, he went out to buy some cigarettes, later he picked up his children at school’. Or this one: `Wednesday, he spent the whole morning shopping at John Lewis’s department store’. Can’t these people send something more substantial ?”
Keith checked for the last time that everything was in order in the flat. He went through the living-room, unplugging electrical equipment and closing the curtains. In the study he opened and closed the bureau drawers and disconnected his micro. He looked at the shelves, chose two books and went back to his bedroom.
He checked the luggage for the last time. Summer clothes, striped trousers and some light-coloured shirts were arranged on the left. On top of them there was a towel, a toilet kit, a razor, socks, underwear, two lightweight jackets, two pairs of swimming trunks and an umbrella. He opened the kit. Shaving cream, shampoo, soap, aftershave, toothbrush and toothpaste. Amongst the”pharmaceuticals” there were sleeping pills, antidiarrhoea medicine, aspirins, chlorine for the water and quinine. To prevent them from leaking, he wrapped the shampoo and the aftershave in a small plastic bag.
He looked in another bag to see that everything was OK. The typewriter, sheets of paper, files with Barry’s reports, material collected by the newspaper’s research department, notes, address book, some books on Central America, guides.
He closed everything with a sort of despondency. Ahead of him there were the endless hours of the journey to Panama and from there a connection to San Salvador.
He looked for the last time at his passport, press identification, visas, vaccinate certificates, tickets and traveller’scheques. He replaced them in the inside pocket of his coat. He telephoned for a taxi and waited.
There were thirty minutes before the flight was to be called.
The two journalists were having coffee at the airport restaurant.
“We’re going to miss you” said Ralph.
“Oh come on, don’t be a hypocrite. You’re going to feel relieved. I’m the only one on the paper that argues with you,” Keith said, trying to provoke his friend..
“That’s it. I am going to have another cup of coffee. Do you want one ?”
“Of course,” answered Keith,”Brazilian, with cream.”
“I hope you like Salvadorean coffee.”
“Me too. If I don’t, I’m going to suffer.”
“And the cigarettes?”
“I won’t find them there.”
“I’m going to buy some at the Duty Free.”
“Don’t forget to take some good brandy. You’ll feel good sipping it while you are writing your articles.”
“Ralph, you can’t stop winding me up all the time, can you? Thank Christ I’m taking a break, otherwise we’d quarrel. I hope you’re in a better mood when I get back.”
They joined the queue at the self-service.
“I’m going to be straight with you, Keith. What worries me about you is your arrogance, your exemplary professionalism which you seem to think is the ultimate. There are important things that we learn as time passes.”
” Do we learn how to be more easy-going ?”
“Amongst other things. Age allows us to say what we think. Keith, you’re a guy that’s never written about what you think. People who read your articles read about what’s happened, but never your opinion about it. You must express what you really feel inside.”
“We’ve talked about this before …”
“Careful! Don’t spill your coffee. Let’s get back.”
“Listen Ralph. Do you really think that Barry’s about to get in touch with the guerrillas?”
“It looks like it. But from what I know about the region, things can change overnight.
Another thing, Keith. Watch how you go. I know all about your carelessness in Libya and your crazy behaviour in Poland. Listen to me. I know you love travelling to take risks in other places. That’s a problem for your psychiatrist. Now you’re going to Latin America and there things are, to say the least, worse than anywhere else. I don’t want to lose a friend.”
“You’re going to make me cry… Ralph, send me the cricket scores ?”
They sat down again.
“The guerrillas have started attacking again. It looks like you’re going to arrive at a particularly tense period of the war.”
“It means that something must be going on back-stage.”
“I think so.”
“That’s why I want to be there. According to the information that we’ve had from Barry…”
“Do you have any doubts about what we said at the newspaper that night ?”
“I don’t think so, Ralph. I agreed with you. The two opponents know that if there isn’t anything new, they will be weakened by a chronically wasteful conflict. This is especially an advantage for the guerrillas, because the economy of the country will never recover.”
“What’s more, they’d never control the country with the United States as powerful as they are now. The Americans would never allow a new Nicaragua, at least for the time being. And the European point of view of the conflict ?”
“I agree with you to an extent. It’s clear that decisive European support for the Contadora group could be a democratic solution for the war. But for that, our governments would have to be more involved in the conflict. And you know very well that we have no interest in this war. Thatcher wants to be on the Americans’ side so as to get the money from the Star Wars program. Do you think the Europeans would risk their economic recovery just for pure idealism ?”
“Have you seen Carlos Ramiro at the University?”
“We had a good talk. He gave me some important stuff.”
“Are you taking the addresses I gave you ?”
“Yes, everything’s here. This time I’m taking my camera. I want to get some snaps for my album.”
“Has the newspaper reserved your room?”
“And how! I’m staying at the Avenidas, five stars.”
“Good for you!”
“Look old chap, it’s time to go. As soon as I have something interesting, I’ll call you.”
They said goodbye. Keith went through passport control and then to the Duty Free Shop. Half an hour later the plane took off.
A quarter to two in the afternoon, 32 degrees centigrade, good weather in San Salvador.
On a sign which was being waved over the crowd of people was written: Senor O’Brien.
Keith’s head was aching, although he had taken some aspirin in Panama. The trip had been exhausting. Hours and hours of flying, bad in-flight service, the time difference, everything conspired to make him feel miserable.
Keith was summing up each unpleasant detail. The airport was too small for the number of people that were arriving. Service was uncertain. It took him more than half an hour to collect his luggage. The staff in immigration spoke execrable English.
He saw the sign. By means of pushes and `permissos’ he made his way towards the man who was holding it.
“Buenos dias,” he said, introducing himself.
The man must have been in his early thirties. His black, greasy hair was parted in the middle. He had a well sculpted nose, a small mouth, and he was about five-foot ten. He was wearing simple and quiet tropical* clothes.
“My name is Ramirez and… I work for the newspaper. Unfortunately senor Barry couldn’t come,” he said with difficulty.
Keith greeted him and asked how they would get to the hotel.
“This way, senor. Jesus, carry Senor O’Brien’s luggage.”
While they were walking through the airport, Keith tried hard to connect what he had seen from the airplane with what he was looking at now. From the air, San Salvador had seemed to be a calm provincial city, free of a large concentration of buildings. As the airplane was coming in to land, he could make out the topography of the region. Mountains and the craters of volcanoes surrounded it. The sea was close by.
On the ground, one’s impressions changed somewhat. The atmosphere in the airport was tense. There were military vehicles parked at strategic points, soldiers patrolled the corridors and there was rigid security. Those were the signs of conflict in the country.
As soon as the passengers disembarked, they went through a stiff interrogation at passport control, especially the journalists, who had been informed of the risks they would take in being involved with the war. Everybody received a leaflet with instructions on how to act if they found themselves in a combat area.
Keith felt himself strangely surrounded by businessmen, politicians and Americans who were arriving in the country. Their physiognomy was something completely new to him. They were strange people – that was obvious if you thought of the reasons why they were in such a country. He remembered the conversation he had had with an eccentric American tourist he had met at Panama airport. She only travelled to countries which were at war.
The heat was unbearable. The journalist loosened his tie and took off his coat. Beads of sweat trickled down his face. Before he got to the end of the corridor, he heard:
“But it’s not possible! Who’s in charge here ?” someone was saying in English, with a strong foreign accent.
Keith stopped, turned and came face to face with Philippe.
The photographer Philippe Montferrand was an argumentative and excessively outspoken man. His distracted spirit was revealed in the careless way he dressed. That morning, the Frenchman, 34 years old, was wearing a light-green tunic which hid part of his shabby jeans. His thin body almost disappeared beneath his large shirt until only his thin face and his curly blond hair falling over his forehead could be seen. His blue eyes over his long, thin nose were constantly scrutinizing his surroundings, as if they were looking for something.
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Chapter 15 (click to continue)