This when I was someone else. Like every day since we moved to the town, that Monday morning I got on my bike and started pedalling. Coming out of the tunnel, with the heavy air of the viaduct blowing in my face, it occurred to me that Antonia might remain pint-sized for life. The idea distressed me and at the same time was oddly cheering. That’s what I was thinking about on the way uphill, at the exact moment when I noticed a thick column of black smoke leaning against the clouds. Three hundred yards on, at the top of the slope to the industrial park, I could no longer doubt it, the blaze, what remained of the blaze, was coming from the fireworks factory. The premises were surrounded by patrol cars and fire engines. I recognized some of the workers from afar, clustered behind the police cordon. I didn’t have the heart to go nearer. I turned around and made for a sizeable tree perched on a hill. I settled at the foot of the trunk to follow events as they unfolded. The swarm of police cars was joined by a few mobile television units. A sort of paralysis gripped me, physical and spiritual. It’s impossible to say how long I remained beneath that tree. Encroaching hunger brought me back to earth. I left the scene gnawing on a composite sensation, a mixture of gloom and release. The first few yards I walked beside the bike, so my retreat wouldn’t attract suspicion. I called Laura, told her I would be free earlier than usual and suggested we meet under the pergola of the lakeside walk. We’d have a picnic to celebrate Antonia’s first birthday. I crossed the drawbridge and sat at a food stall by the canal that was popular with workmen and drivers, where I often went when my thoughts needed tidying. I ordered the dish of the day: roast beef and potatoes. The sight of the mountain of rubbish and the scavengers flapping in circles above it moved me to review the last few years of my life. Somebody once said of me that I was a wonder kid, able to turn anything I touched into gold. I wasted half my life feeling convinced that sooner or later this would come true. The sky cleared, the wind must have changed, the morning’s sultriness was dispelled by a refreshing breeze. Our birthday party for Antonia was an intimate, intense occasion. So much so that I vowed to repeat the picnic ceremony until she was grown up. We sat on the steps down to the lagoon and ate white-bread sandwiches, a family favourite. Antonia seemed determined to show us how happy she was, buzzing here and there like a young bee. The way she mesmerised the herons was the clearest evidence of her uncommon life force. Laura and I were moved. That evening, I shut myself in the workshop to finish the doll’s house I was making her as a birthday present. I was late with it. All of a sudden the door opened, Laura came in and stood staring, open-mouthed: You didn’t tell me! I said I hadn’t wanted to upset her on such a special day. I saw the pictures on the news . . . It’s a disaster! What are you going to do? I don’t know, I said in all sincerity, let’s see what happens. I worked late into the night under the stimulus of the paint fumes. I wanted to get the job finished and I did. When I entered the bedroom Laura had fallen asleep with the TV on. A black-and white movie set in Venice occupied the screen. I turned it off and went online to find out more about the fire. It was everywhere. I read a few reports, theories on how the fire had started, whether due to a short circuit or the explosion of a service-lift fuel tank. There were pictures of the buildings at the end of the day, the devastation was almost total. You could also watch videos taken by local people and motorists at the moment in the small hours when the whole stock blew up: thousands of multicoloured flares bursting over blackness. The crackling flashes were reminiscent of a far-off, spectacular war. The images inevitably wormed themselves into my dreams. Next day I woke up at the usual time. I showered, dressed, switched on the radio, ate breakfast, and was about to mount my bike when Laura stopped me from the doorway: Where are you going? I wanted to flee, no matter where. I called the firm’s various numbers, tried to locate the proprietors on their mobiles, nobody picked up. I entered a catatonic state. Every movement I made seemed false, as though someone had taken over my body and mind. I wandered about the house like a mummy, unhinged, incapable of uttering a word. At night, while Laura slept, I tortured myself by watching clips of the factory blasting into the sky. I watched them obsessively, over and over again. There were shots of every kind and quality, some from the most unusual angles. On Friday the redundancy telegram arrived. Laura reacted coolly, saying that we had to be sensible in the circumstances. She could go back to work; her year off was beginning to feel too long after all. At first, with unthinking conformity, I objected, but the prospect of hunting for a job soon shut me up. Rent and food were non-negotiable expenses. Within the week, Laura went back to the publishing house and I was forced to become a housewife. The initial period was an earthquake. The hours of the day conspired against me, spinning themselves out to underline my uselessness. Worst of all was that dreary stretch in the middle of the afternoon, that sluggish, creeping time between lunch and Laura’s return. I entered a black hole in which I could will myself with equal conviction to change the world or to vanish without trace. My spirit had become a permanent hologram. No matter what attitude I tried to take, I’d end up falling into a trap; no initiative ever got beyond the limbo of assertions. Antonia, for whom I’d become indispensable, took over the management of my emptiness. Without her I would have been consumed by depression. Bowing to the evidence after a run of non-existent days, I swapped frustration for negative revolt, abandoning myself to total and deliberate indolence. In my determination to do nothing about anything, time slowed down more. And everyone knows that idleness is the shortest road to filth and moral degeneration. As for Laura, once the novelty had worn off, the working life began to tire her out again, and she started to show impatience with my apathy. After all, she’d had to return to work at the drop of a hat and in tough conditions: two hours there, two hours back, and an inferior position; she’d been demoted from editor to proofreader. You can’t let yourself slide like this, she remonstrated. Start with something small, she said one morning before leaving the house. Why don’t you tidy up the CDs? We’re going to have to some day, even if it’s just to bin them. I felt humiliated. Stoically, I shook off the affront, made some extra-strong coffee and settled on the floor with the apple crate where we kept our dust-covered CDs. Piled in an awkward corner of the house, holding out against imminent species extinction, those empty boxes and scratched discs were evidence of a brilliant past, teeming with interests. The task took me all day, and though I’d started off unwillingly, moved entirely by defiant pride, my excitement began to rise from the feet up with almost imperceptible warmth until I couldn’t hide it any longer. I don’t remember exactly which album it was that clicked, setting off an irresistible urge to hear it again. Probably something by Manal. Or Liszt’s rhapsodies. The effect was instantaneous, like a magic trick. Everything was in there! Those neglected discs were where my power lay dormant. Thanks to music I passed from idleness to action, from despondency to hope, and to the ideal management of time. I chose a different album every day, sometimes at random, sometimes intentionally, to set as the rhythm of my movements: opera, blues, folk, rockabilly, and all those bands that had accompanied my adolescence and which I’d consigned to oblivion so very long ago. Thanks to music, by midmorning the house was spotless, lunch was ready and the laundry was drying in the sun. Laura viewed this change of heart as suspect: No need to play the superhero either! I assured her that my energy was genuine. Once I’d cracked the petty jobs, I moved on to the second phase: that of major works. I threw myself into clearing the attic, unblocking the gutters and sorting old clothes for charity. Then I tackled the garden. I started by raking the leaves and mowing the lawn, next I pruned the lemon tree, treated the bark for parasites and laid out a vegetable patch. I bought seeds and bulbs for various kinds of lettuce, garlic, tomato, carrot and beetroot. The first thing to do, according to a gardening manual I found in the library, was make a compost pit to fertilise the soil. And that’s how it came about that one Thursday evening around eight o’clock, when Laura got home from work, I went next door to borrow the neighbour’s spade. Out on the pavement, with a fabulous moon hung between the jacaranda branches, some lines of a poem my grandmother used to recite came into my mind: To become a mother / the barren earth needs / some mother’s hand to free it / from its litter and weeds. The neighbour had moved in a few months before, after doing some considerable work on his flat above the pastry shop. The refit had interfered with our lives: the strange hours he kept and the noise of hammering and drilling had woken us more than once. Every day I used to see the builders mixing cement by the kerb. I rang the bell once, twice, no response. At the third ring, the peephole cover swung back. Hello, I live next door, sorry to bother you so late. I explained I wanted to borrow his spade. The door opened and a bright light shone in my eyes. A deeply tanned man in his mid-thirties, wearing jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, was greeting me with a broad smile. He proffered his hand, I pumped it. We introduced ourselves: Guillermo, José. I followed him down a hallway lined with boxes of tiles, rolls of roof insulation and ventilation pipes. The spade stood wedged among bags of sand and lime by the foot of the stairs. We stopped and looked at it without speaking. Guillermo glanced at me with a mischievous grin: You’re a music lover. . . It wasn’t a question but a statement, in which I couldn’t help detecting a reproach. Ever since I’d rediscovered my old sounds I listened to them at all hours and at top volume, never stopping to think whether this could disturb the neighbour. I smiled back sheepishly. But I was wrong, there wasn’t the slightest recrimination in his words, rather a strategy for making friends. Come along, he said, the spade forgotten, I have something that might interest you. And I had no choice but to follow. The house was modern in conception, while preserving a classic distribution of space. Each object was in its proper place and everything shone with the gloss of the new: the blackerthan-black screen on the far wall, the white bookcase, the leather kidney-shaped couch, the standard lamp with the flounced tulip shade, the glass-topped coffee table with marble legs and a contrived jumble of art books on the lower level. Guillermo invited me to sit down and offered me a glass of wine. So promptly, it was as if he’d been expecting me. He asked me about myself and I told him a little. I told him about Laura and our little girl Antonia. I lied about my job, saying I was employed by the council. He wanted to know which department. One just being formed, I dodged. He drained his glass and launched forth. I myself, he said portentously, rotating both forefingers in the air, am in interior decoration. . . But above all else, what I am is a jazz freak. The phrase gave me the shivers and I took another gulp of the very fine wine he’d poured. From that point on I sank into a hypnotic daze. Guillermo carried on like a magician showing off his tricks. He produced a superb cheese and salami picada out of thin air. My palate began to get as worked up as my head. Guillermo presented his record collection: Five hundred and thirty-three jazz albums. It’s all here, from A to Z. He made me listen to an endless succession of tracks, the hours fled by faster and faster. At one point, as a honeyed, rhythmic trumpet was sounding, Guillermo started bopping around in the middle of the living room. I was surprised at how relaxed he was. Just look at the time, I said like an automaton, but something had already gone awry inside me . . . and he, with a giggle: Mustn’t forget the spade! We staggered downstairs, me behind, hanging on to the banister, Guillermo ahead with a big glass of wine in his hand. On the last step he made a deceptive movement, mumbling something I failed to catch about the spade and the builders. I edged past, offering to shift the sacks that were trapping it. Guillermo shook his head but he couldn’t manage either, his glass of wine was in the way and he didn’t seem to realise.
From Petite Fleur. Used with permission of And Other Stories. Copyright © 2017 by Iosi Havilio.