The speed and brutality of recent events were enough to shake the journalist’s morale. Keith began to feel even more involved in a war that seemed to be unreal, although it was cruel enough and certainly connected with the present. He was taking risks in the streets of a country where he wasn’t even known to most of its citizens. Although he was trying to understand the situation he was in, his thoughts gave rise to no conclusions. What had happened seemed to have floored him; what he needed was a new focus for his investigations.
The government and the guerrillas were fighting to win, there was no place for delicacy in this struggle. Keith felt guilty about the deaths of the guerrillas.. He had certainly been followed the whole time and he had been a fool in not taking the minimum necessary precautions to protect his informers’ lives. Clearly the opening that Barry had carved during these past months was now closed. Everything was lost and he was back to where he’d started.
It was already night in the Avenidas and the party in the Vidals’ mansion seemed to be appealing. It would be an excellent opportunity to relax and if possible to pick up some new information. The old deputy seemed to be willing to help and the opportunity couldn’t be lost because of a psychological indisposition. Keith felt that something was in the air. As usual at times like these, he had a bath to recover his energies and decided to go down for a drink before he joined the celebrations.
By the lift he met Phillipe. He found it strange that the Frenchman was well-dressed for once.
“You’ve changed your style, haven’t you ?”, he said ironically.”You don’t look like the usual righteous photographer that’s always looking for new ways to defend the down-trodden poor.”
“So what’s the problem ? Is it because I don’t fit in with your cliches ?”
“You look great.”
“Thanks. I don’t want to look like a screwed-up American that comes here in a mess looking to get involved.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Haven’t you seen the film `El Salvador, the suffering of a nation’ ? After all, one of the heroes was a photographer like me.”
“I had to see it before I packed. I thought it was alright.”
“Alright ? The American way of looking at other peoples comes out even through the cameras of a pseudo-progressive. They always like to put the emphasis on the people and their search for justice, the constitution they have and stuff like that. It makes me sick.”
“It’s not as bad as that. I think you’re changing the subject. We were talking about your clothes.”
“I decided to find a woman, Keith. I’m tired of living alone. I’ll marry a Salvadorean.”
The lift arrived. The lift boy opened the door and waited for them. They entered.
“Are you going to the Vidals’ party ?” asked Keith.
“Have they invited all the journalists?”
“It seems that people are going to do some drinking at the farmer’s expense.”
“Keith, I heard that you were in trouble in the beginning of the week.”
“Just like the Lebanon?”
“A bit worse.”
“Was it? A situation worse than in Lebanon? There you stayed in the cross-fire, hidden behind a lot of garbage, pretending you were dead. I know this story very well. Sometimes you go off your head.”
The lift arrived at the cocktail bar.
“Drink ?” asked Keith.
“Why not ?” answered the Frenchman.
A noisy group of journalists was having a good time on the hotel terrace. The two men went over. They sat down. The night was mild. The men were talking excitedly. Some of them were a little drunk. Keith ordered a vodka with lemon and no ice.
“Did they all die?”
“I think so.”
“It was no picnic, Keith. In your place I wouldn’t have escaped.”
“Bullshit. In these situations you use your instincts.”
“Anything else new ?”
“Nothing. I wasted my time with a man called Tachito, that’s all.”
“Tachito,” said Phillipe, raising his voice. “People, guess who went to visit uncle Tachito?”
The others stopped talking. They looked at Keith. Most of them were smiling openly.
“Our champion journalist?
“Come on Keith, don’t get angry. I’ve already been there,” said another.
“How many dollars did you spend before you discovered the trick?”
After some time the men organized a kitty full of dollars. The one who had spent the least money on the huckster would win the pot.
At the top of the hill, more than ten miles from the villa, the white, verandaed mansion seemed detached from the other elements, illuminated by more than a dozen spotlights. A large, airy residence with several levels and a lot of windows, it was in exemplary taste. The view from the verandahs was one of the most envied in the city.
It was well protected, located in the most exclusive part of San Salvador, near the mountains. The district was quite remote and the war was a long way away. You couldn’t make out the mansion from the road. After stopping his car at the entrance gate, the visitor had to pass through a small wood and only then did he arrive at the top of the hill. There was a lawn with palm trees and a dozen of flower beds that surrounded the verandahs and the swimming-pools.
There were tables and kiosks spread out over almost the whole lawn. There were about three hundred people milling about. The night was starry and the weather was mild. There was almost no wind. At the most there was a delicate breeze diffusing the scents of the garden.
Don Carlito was receiving people on the verandah of the main salon. The host was sitting in his favourite suite: black chairs, covered with red velvet and decorated with bronze details. Around him there were some of his private assistants and political friends, among them the Treasury Minister. The greater part of the ornaments in the room were either from the beginning of the century or even earlier epochs. The deputy was one of the most well-known collectors of antiques in the country.
“Man, I didn’t think I’d see these things here !” said a surprised Giovanni, an Italian correspondent newly arrived in the country.
“So, prepare yourself, because you’ll be invited to a lot of these,” explained Philippe.
“Take a look at the cake behind the swimming-pool. It must be about 2 metres high !”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Don’t you think that women here seem to be different ?” Hermann asked Keith.
The Englishman was looking around the extensive lawns. He eyed the guests, seeking out their characteristics. The sound around him was a babble of languages. Keith passed groups of people speaking English, Spanish and even French. He admired the architecture of the house and soon he saw the first kiosk in which he could check the origin of the whisky.
“The best,” he said.”As for the women, I’m really surprised. They are sensual indeed, Hermann! You already had something going with someone?”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Come on! There are no frontiers for love,” said Keith, smiling.
“Let’s go this way,” said the correspondent from UPI.”First, compliments to the main man. It’s the rule. In fact, this is his party. After that, I want you to behave yourselves, boys. I don’t want any trouble.”
Some journalists jeered ironically. Others started talking of other matters.
“Does this approach the Russians made to Brazil and Argentina represent a change in Soviet Union’s politics towards Latin America?”
“I can’t understand what’s happening. The diplomatic policy doesn’t fit in with what I see here. The revolutionary struggle is bogged down. They’re setting traps,” said Octavio.
“I don’t agree.” Hermann spoke as they walked to the verandah.”The Soviet Union isn’t interested in taking risks during a period of tension in Europe, especially over an insignificant country like this.”
“It’s not easy to come to any conclusion in these conditions, we need more information.”
“Of course, but who is going to take the risks looking for them? You know what happens to informers here, don’t you? Smarten up, we’re nearly there,” said Philippe.
The journalists went up the stairs which gave on to a verandah. The security guards watched them. They got together and formed a kind of queue to greet the deputy and the other dignitaries. Don Carlito spent some time with each of the journalists. The old deputy had a fantastic memory and picked up with each of them the thread of conversation they had previously. He was warm towards Keith.
“Good evening and congratulations,” said the journalist.
“Mr. O’Brien. It’s a pleasure to have you here.”
“You’ve got a good memory and a beautiful house.”
“Do you like it ? You must come here one day when things are quieter and I can show you my collection.”
“Do you like antiques?”
“Interesting,” said Keith, hesitantly. “Your house seems to be so modern…”
“Only on the outside. Come in and see. Do you know Deputy Perez ?” he said, indicating a man at his side. Keith nodded. They exchanged compliments.
“What do you think of the country ?
“It’s very friendly.”
“People here are very happy, despite everything. We’re good-natured, open-minded and we like parties. Have you been to the coast?”
“Not yet, I’ve been very busy.”
“Making `inquiries’, eh ? You didn’t listen to my advice and you got into trouble. I warned you. Come back later. I’ll be free then, when the guests stop arriving. Minister,” he said speaking a bit louder,” I’d like you to meet my friend, Mr. O’Brien.”
After the series of presentations, Keith talked privately with Rodrigo Martines, one of the most well-known Salvadorean businessmen.
“If there weren’t for the guerillas this country would be a kind of Switzerland in Central America. You’ve only to look at Costa Rica. Have you been there ? The left wing lives on the suffering of the people and because of it they don’t let us develop the country. They need the poverty to convince the people of their doctrine. A lot of people died here and others will die for nothing. The war won’t end while Cuba exists.”
“Comparing the situation of the country today and before, at the time of Dom Oscar Romero’s death…”
“Now things seem to be calmer, but I think that these recent attacks are a symptom. The guerrillas will return to sabotage and murder.”
“The police also do these things. I saw a police raid where they killed all the guerrillas.”
“And if they hadn’t done so? Would the guerrillas give them chocolate? A common misjudgement that you foreigners make in a country like ours is to think that solutions are easy to find and you look for a simple explanation for what has been happening,” replied Martines, in another tone.”I sometimes have the impression that you’re daydreaming. The guerrilla is transformed into a beautiful woman and the army into a hairy gorilla. A war has neither generosity, nor rules. The strongest will be the winner. Losing the country means more deaths. Have you seen what happens when the revolutionaries come to power? Have you seen Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua? It’s hard, but war is a preferable option to what can happen under a communist administration. Do you remember Stalin? The peasants were their first victims, weren’t they?”
A waiter passed. They helped themselves. They went on talking about the reality of the country and the prospects for local industry. Rodrigo was speaking:
“I didn’t imagine that we’d speak English for such a long time.”
“You speak English very well.”
“I have relatives in Miami. I lived there when things were worse. Now, with ARENA, if things aren’t calmer, we at least have a more powerful government.”
Keith was talking and glancing around at people, scenting clues, feeling the atmosphere. The drink had left him feeling somewhat sluggish. He kept up the conversation with an effort. His attention had wandered to the scents in the air. His ears were listening to noisy vowels of the Spanish spoken around him.
Antonia crossed the verandah, kissed her father, said hello to a circle of people near-by and went downstairs towards the swimming-pool. She left only the fragrance of her perfume in the air. A mild bouquet of eau de toilette by Yves SaintLaurent.
Keith’s eyed the woman passing in the distance. He turned to his companion. Rodrigo noted Keith’s distraction and repeated himself, finishing his point.
“I like your style. You’re less daring than the majority of the journalists I know. They always think they know everything. I’ll tell you: the truth, if it exists, is shared by very few. Keith, let’s go to the swimming-pool. I want to introduce you to some people. My glass is empty…”
“I’ll see you later,” mumbled the Englishman.”I’ll take a look at the living-room. Don Carlito told me he has some beautiful Mayan pieces.”
“His farms are near the border with Guatemala. Well, I’ll see you later anyway.”
Despite the breeze, Keith was sweating under his brown blazer. He wandered about, passing amongst guests, coming and going in and out of the rooms. He ate here and there. He had some more drinks. He talked happily to the journalists that were standing at one of the bars.
The swimming-pools with spotlights illuminating the water had attracted people’s attention. Keith saw the sillouette of hills dotted with palm trees. He was feeling more and more remote and was undergoing a strange sensation of lightness. His legs sought movement. He walked among the guests sometimes stopping for an introduction and sometimes to be admired by Salvadorean eyes. For the first time he felt comfortable in that country.
He passed through a big group on the verandah at the side of the house. He heard a familiar voice. It was Rodrigo Martines again.
“Come here. I’ll introduce you to an interesting person.”
“Stop asking questions and follow me.”
They walked towards the garden.
“Here’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
“It’s a pleasure.”
Antonia was a tall woman with a slim body, a lithe figure, brown eyes and long straight hair.
Her face was smooth and oval. She had a red mouth, in proportion. Her teeth were strong and her nose was small. The cut of her dress revealed part of her well-shaped breast. Her waist and thighs were suggested without breaking the harmony of her lines. Her back was visible, smooth and sensual. There was a birth mark on her right shoulder blade. At the knee, the dress was cut to show her sun-tanned legs. She was lightly made-up and was wearing her favourite jewels.
Keith liked her firm and confident way of speaking. Her English was perfect, as was her smile. Her mouth was what most attracted his attention. The white of her perfect teeth impressed him when she smiled. He scrutinised her body rapidly with his eyes, without lingering on any part. He sensed only the mild feminine scent that had caught his attention earlier.
“She’s Don Carlito’s daughter,” said Rodrigo.
“My father told me about the conversation you had in the Congress,” she said, looking at the journalist.
“We had lunch together,” said Keith.”It’s a pleasant night, isn’t it?”
“Very pleasant,” answered Antonia.”It’s common at this time of the year.”
“I’m going to look for a glass of something,” said Rodrigo, turning his back on the couple.
“Do you know Rodrigo ?” she asked.
“Your father introduced him to me. You speak English very well.”
“My mother is American. I’ve lived there more than here. Can I call you Keith?”
“Of course .”
“Would you like something to eat? Come with me. I’ll show you a delicious canape. Would you like some more scotch?”
“If you have one too, OK.”
“So, let’s go.”
Around the table with canapes and hors d’oeuvres there was a group of local journalists talking to two representatives of a Spanish textile group. The directors from the”Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” were talking about the constant flight of foreign money from the country.
“Since the war escalated we’ve lost millions of dollars per year already in foreign investments. Previously, our country offered an excellent return on multinational capital investment, because labour here is very cheap and we’re near the United States. Now we’re obliged to watch these businesses reduced to the minimum possible, without being able to do anything about it.”
“You’re right,” agreed one of them.”Nowadays only American help is keeping us going. You yourself, from Santa Matilde, do you intend to enlarge your cotton processing works in El Salvador ?”
Keith and Antonia joined the group as they sampled the pat‚. Antonia introduced him to the executive directors of the local press.
“We’re pleased to meet you. Antonia, take him to visit our newspaper. You know,” said the director of La Prensa, turning to the others,”this man works for one of the best newspapers in Europe.”
“It’s not quite that,” answered Keith, pleased.”We’re interrupting an interesting conversation, aren’t we?”
“Not at all. We’ve been talking about the war and the reduction of investments in the country. What do you think about that ?” asked one of the businessmen.
“Come on, my friend. Today we’re having a party. Let’s not talk about unpleasant subjects with our guest,”
Her intervention was decisive. The men lowered their tone of voice.
“You’re still the same, our darling Antonia,” said the director of Diario de Hoy.”You’re very beautiful today.”
” Thank you,” she said.
“People,” he said, turning to he companions, “she is one of our most dynamic businesswomen. She runs a group of companies with a turnover of millions of dollars per year.”
“Excuse us, but we’re going to eat some of the excellent canapes that Rosa makes. Would you like to join us?” “Thank you. They’re very good, Mr. O’Brien,” said the Spanish businessman.”I’ve never eaten any as good as these.”
Antonia took Keith by the arm and put some of the sweet on a plate for him.
“Well ? ,” she asked.
“Very good, very good indeed.”
“They’re my favourite. They remind me of my childhood.”
They stayed there for a while, listening to the men discussing coffee quotations, business and investments. Antonia was eating slowly, letting her eyes fall on the landscape around her. She sometimes glanced at Keith’s face or took part in the journalists’ and businessmens’ talk, criticizing and being ironical about the situation in the country. She criticized the lack of a more effective business policy and complained about everyone’s acceptance of armed conflict.
They said goodbye to the four men and mingled with the other guests. Antonia sought from Keith his first impressions about El Salvador. She spoke directly:
“The war’s destroyed everything in this country, even the topics of conversation. People only talk about. We all know one thing. What’s the point in talking about it night and day?”
Keith nodded in agreement.
“Don’t take me so seriously,” she said.”I know that you’re here because of it. But life is much more than crises and men fighting, isn’t it? There’s an invisible adventure that isn’t printed in the newspapers. That’s what I like talking about. Come with me. I’ll do you a big favour. Then we’ll go for a walk and forget about motives.”
Keith didn’t understand. Antonia was shining but her light was confusing. At certain moments he felt she dazzled the whole atmosphere, but at others she seemed to disappear. The certainty of her decisions, the refined way of speaking and the presence of her body alternated with silences and long gazes into the distance.
They walked a bit more and then went to a kiosk where they were serving drinks.
“I know you aren’t fond of mixing your drinks, but I’d like you to try this cocktail. Hector, one of those ! Keith, can you see those two men ?” she asked, pointing them out. “They are my father’s private assistants. They both have connections with the police and in the secret service. See, they’re watching us. I don’t like the man on the right. He is much too coarse and he’s of limited intelligence. But Domingos, the man on the left, is one of the most fantastic men I’ve ever seen. He’s been working with us for more than twenty years. Since he was a child, my father helped him to study. He comes from a poor family in Los Chopos, a small village near one of our farms. I’m sure that he’ll be willing to help you. He can use the influence he has in certain police departments to ask them to stop bothering you. My father won’t complain. He likes you very much.”
She waved at the two men. They both made a sign asking which one had been solicited. Antonia solved the problem by pointing at Domingos. The short man, with a steady and slightly reeling walk, crossed the lawn and came towards them. Keith observed him closely as he approached. He noted his crossbred ancestry. He observed his Chinese-like eyes, round nose, his black, fringed hair and olive complexion. His big face, rather square, couldn’t conceal his origins.
Domingos was wearing a light blue safari suit and white shoes. With a smile and a little shyly, he held out his hand. Antonia introduced Keith and then explained his problem. She gave him a cocktail of coconut and rum and asked him to help the journalist with whatever he needed. Keith said it wasn’t necessary, but finally agreed just to avoid a refusal that might offend his friendly hosts. He arranged an appointment for the following morning. From a distance, Juan Carlos, the other of Don Carlito’s assistants, never took his eyes off them.
Then Antonia took Keith for a stroll through the garden. They walked to a raised terrace from where they could see the city and the villa. The place was a corner with railings, near a cliff. A small garden, an arrangement of trees and a table. They talked there. They spent some time looking at the landscape. Keith’s mild drunkenness had blunted his senses. The scents, the night, the perfume and the presence of Antonia. From off could be heard the murmur of the party and the calm sound of the New York pianist Bob Kavanaugh. There was a scrap of moon in the sky, silvering their faces.
He shook off the last drops of water. The towel rubbed the hairs on his nape. Keith’s muscles were stiff and were firming up. He looked at himself in the mirror. His sunken eyes revealed that he had slept very little. It was five to nine. He put the toothpaste firmly on to the brush. He opened his mouth and started to massage his gums. He passed the toothbrush over his teeth. His breath was fresh again. He started slowly to come to.
He left the bathroom and went into the bedroom, while he was rinsing his teeth. He looked at his unmade bed, opened the curtain and the light hurt his eyes. He went and spat everything into the sink. He gargled four times and breathed deeply through his mouth.
He was late for his meeting with Domingos. The Salvadorean must certainly have been waiting. He grumbled, stammeringly,”This isn’t the way an Englishman behaves.” He looked once more into the mirror.
He recalled last night’s party with mixed sensations. Antonia’s face and her direct and sensual way of declaring preferences. The tropical night that had passed. A confusing feminine image formed in his mind while he was looking for his shoes. He found them. He sat up and tied his laces. Above all, the contradiction. The confusion and the strange feeling of unreality. His actions were mechanical.
He dressed. He was in a hurry. He brushed his hair. He telephoned reception and asked for a taxi. He closed the door and went downstairs almost at a run.
Around him, impressions formed pallidly. The musty seat of the antique Ford, the passing streets, the strangeness of the people and the noise of Hispanic voices talking on the radio. Keith was trying hard to recover his normal way of thinking. The car swung wildly, beeping at pedestrians and braking violently at every corner.
“I’m fed up with everything, Ralph. You can’t imagine what this country is like. I know, the line is terrible. They’re incompetent. It’s unbelievable how they manage to survive. I’m talking as loud as possible. It’s not my fault. I’m not the one who’s making this noise on the line. Be patient. And how’s the old country.”
“I miss you. So what? You’ve told me a lot of things, but you haven’t said anything substantial. By the way, what are you doing there? Are you playing a game Keith, risking your life doesn’t make for good journalism. Have you got your head sorted out ?”
“I can’t really talk seriously with you. The same mother fucker as usual.”
“I don’t like this foul language. Are you learning from the natives?”
“Fuck off, Ralph. I’m not spending money on this call to listen to your bullshit. I want some help. Come on, let’s think together. I need some advice. Do you think I can still believe in these people?”
“Are you talking about the guy that offered to take you to Colonel Felisberto?”
“You have to build up a game plan. You need to trust someone, even temporarily. If you don’t, you won’t get anywhere. Did you find him convincing?”
“He told me his family mourns the dead on both sides…He seemed to be sincere. He wants the war to end. At the same time… I think his connections with the secret service are a little strange.”
“Not that much. In these small countries everybody knows everybody else. At last he works with deputy Carlito. And the press?”
“The staff want a good time. As always, the usual reprobates. Do you know who’s been here? Hermann Fenbert.”
“Running away from his wife!”
“It must be that. If I get safe-conduct, I’ll look closely at this stuff.”
“Great ! That’s the Keith I know. More experience, more action. That’s what I was waiting for. The insect sting. The pepper in the eyes. My favourite journalist can’t lose his way. Wasn’t it you who discovered where Moczulski was in Poland and got an exclusive interview with the heads of KOR ? I like your metamorphoses. Come on, my young Frankenstein. But be careful! I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
“I’ve always been careful. Send me some decent newspapers to read.”
“Dorothy sends her regards.”
“Tell her that I haven’t forgotten. I’ll be back to get married to her.”
As soon as he put down the receiver, Keith stretched out across the bed. He pulled off his shoes with his feet and flexed his legs, moving them up and down, exercising them. On a chair near the bedside table was his shirt, soaked with sweat. On the table were the notes taken during the conversation with Don Carlito’s assistant. Keith had had a long and tiring day.
The doorbell rang three times. The journalist got up, grumbling. He hadn’t ordered anything. Who could it be? He wasn’t expecting anyone at that moment. He thought the waiter must have lost his way. He put on his slippers and his shirt and answered the door.
Antonia stood before him.
“I decided to pop in,” she said, smiling a little shyly.
Keith tried to organise things. He closed the door a little.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” she said.
It took Keith some time to answer her.
“Not at all,” he murmured.”It’s good to see you.”
“Would you like to have a drink with me ?” she asked.
“Of course. What time is it?”
“Twenty to ten.”
“So let’s do this… Can you wait for me at the bar by the pool? I’ll take a quick shower and go down. Or do you want to meet me in the shopping arcade ?”
“By the swimming-pool. What about going out?”
“I don’t know the city.”
“Hill’s Cottage? It’s a mixture of a disco and a restaurant. It’s a pleasant little night-club !”
“Not tonight. I had a tiring day.”
“Well, at least a dinner at Lopez’s place.”
Half an hour later they left the hotel. Antonia’s car stood apart from the others parked nearby. A metallic-red Pontiac. They walked over to it chatting casually. As soon as they got in Antonia asked:
“Any musical preference?”
“I like a lot of things, specially jazz.”
“What about this one? Do you know it?”
“I’ve heard it before.”
Antonia started the engine, put the tape into the cassette player and drove away.
“Hey Mr. Tambourine man
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Chapter 34 (click to continue)