“Are you going to Buzios?” Jane asked Nelly shortly before Christmas.
“Yes, I’ve decided to go for two reasons, one is that Robert has asked me to persuade Violet to let him have Bobby there in February and the other is that I’m dying of curiosity. Isn’t that too shameful, darling? But I want to see that relationship with my own eyes. They’ve both got such strong personalities, which of the two will cede, I wonder?”
“Poor Bobby, caught in the middle,” Jane said. “If Violet has to cede, he’ll get the back-lash.”
“Well, I want to go and find out.”
“Oh, fine,” Nelly said offhandedly.
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost interest!” Jane exclaimed.
Nelly busied herself serving more iced coffee and lighting another cigarette. “No. On the contrary,” she said at last, looking like a cat which had swallowed a whole cup of cream. “We’re planning to get married!”
“You’re not! How fantastic!” Jane cried, jumping up and giving Nelly a hug. “That’s the best news I’ve had in months. When? When? You cagey old thing, you. ‘Oh, fine.’ As if Leandro meant nothing more to you!”
Nelly laughed delightedly. “March, I think. We’ll see. Imagine, Jane, I get on so well with his daughters, and their children. I’ll have Leandro and five grandchildren all in one fell swoop. I can’t believe it!”
They spent an hour talking about Leandro and his daughters and grandchildren, and the house they were planning to buy quite near them all.
“I shall rent this apartment and give up working,” Nelly explained. “That way I shall still have a little money of my own.”
“I really am so happy for you,” Jane grinned.
“I’ll get nice and tanned in Buzios,” Nelly said, stretching out a slim, pale arm. “I hope it won’t all have faded away by March.”
Jane got a job looking after an old man, and found her days very full and busy. She arranged to spend Christmas Eve with Aunt Georgina and Robert, and Christmas Day with her parents. Soledad invited her to spend New Year`s eve with them. A heat wave had smothered Santa Laura, and its overworked electricity network kept breaking down due to the thousands of airconditioners working day and night.
“I’m getting in a stack of candles,” Soledad laughed over the ‘phone. “But let’s hope we don’t get any more electricity cuts. Hopefully this heat wave will be over by then. Guess what – Javier and Lucio are both going to be with us. You knew that they are sharing an apartment in Buenos Aires, didn’t you? Yes, well, Daniel realized how silly and stiff-necked he’s been and has decided to make his peace with Lucio and let him learn how to act and do what he wants to do. Isn’t it wonderful? You’ve no idea how much Daniel has changed since I was so ill. It’s quite incredible. We go to a prayer group together, which I heard about. It’s run by a very open minded Catholic priest, where every one is welcome, not only Catholics, you understand, and one can talk about all sorts of subjects, and nothing is taboo. We’ve talked a lot about life after death and reincarnation and all that, apart from a number of other subjects. And then, too, I can talk to Daniel, tell him about what I feel and think and what I’m reading and so on, without feeling that he`s going to disapprove all the time. That experience I had really changed my life, you know. Our lives. We’re just not the same people we were three months ago; which makes me think of Robert, poor thing. How is he, do you know? We haven’t seen him since all this business with Violet.”
“He’s climbing out of the hole I think,” Jane said. “It’s not easy.”
“I should say not. As you know, I was struck rigid when I heard.”
“How are you? Quite strong again?”
“I still have to rest a lot, but I’m feeling very well.”
“Great. Yes, I’d love to spend New Year’s eve with you all, Soledad. What time?”
“Nine-ish. We’re going to be just family so don’t come all madly dressed up. We’ll have cold supper, and champagne at midnight to welcome in 1989.”
“88’s been quite a year, hasn’t it, what with one thing and another? What good news about Lucio. It’ll be wild seeing them both again.”
Jane had invited Aunt Georgina and Robert to her flat for Christmas Eve. She bought a tree, decorations and presents. Wrapping up her parcels and placing them under the tree, resplendent with coloured balls, tinsel, and real candles, she remembered the fun of her childhood Christmases with Brian, and the hollow emptiness during her years at the British Hospital. She had always offered to be on duty and, understanding the loneliness of many of the patients away from their families, had done her best to cheer them up and help them enjoy their day.
She cooked a tasty dinner, set the table with crackers, and thought of Bobby, and, fleetingly, of her own child. Poor Bobby! She wondered what sort of a Christmas he would have this year.
Aunt Georgina and Robert arrived together at nine, carrying their presents. It was still very hot, but a faint breeze drifted through the open window. Placing their parcels beside Jane’s under the tree, they accepted potato chips and iced white wine.
“Every time I come, this flat looks more charming,” Robert said, raising his glass. “Chin, chin.”
Aunt Georgina admired the tree, the decorations, the table with its bowl of yellow roses, and the bright crackers. “All very nice,” she said cheerfully. “Reminds me of when I was a little girl.”
She began to describe her childhood Christmasses, her eyes shining as memories lighted up one after another. Robert and Jane listened to her fondly.
“Well,” Jane said at last. “Let’s eat.”
The thought of Bobby miles away in Brazil was in all their minds as they pulled the crackers, laughingly donned the paper hats they contained, and read aloud the jokes on the slips of paper accompanying them.
It all seemed to be over too soon, Jane felt, folding up the wrapping paper and stacking her little pile of presents while Robert began to open the bottle of champagne.
“Wait,” cried Aunt Georgina. “Let´s go downstairs and sing for a while and drink our champers in my flat. How about that?”
Minutes later Jane and Robert were standing on either side of her by the piano, keeping time with their champagne glasses and singing all the well-loved Christmas carols.
“Hasn’t Jane got a sweet voice?” Aunt Georgina cried. “Have you ever thought of singing in a choir?”
“No,” Jane shook her head, colouring.
“Robert sings very well, too. Let’s try something in different voices.”
After a few faltering starts and much practice and laughter, Jane and Robert were able to sing three songs in two voices, accompanied by Aunt Georgina on the piano.
“Lovely,” she pronounced, clapping her hands, “Now stand over there and sing them again, but a capella this time.”
Dutifully, they walked over to where the old lady had indicated and stood beside eachother. She played Jane’s note and then Robert’s, and then raised her arms to direct them, her bracelets tinkling. They sang together, concentrating on her gestures, and when they had finished they were surprised at how happy and refreshed they felt.
“That was fun!” Robert said, and Jane noticed that his expression and tone were almost the old Robert’s. They finished the champagne, kissed Aunt Georgina goodnight and took their leave. Robert did not offer to accompany her. Waving goodbye, he ran downstairs, while Jane walked up to her flat, deciding to wash up the next morning.
The following day, Jane went to church. She missed the Christian Community service she had grown to love in Buenos Aires, but she decided to go to the Anglican service to see what it was like. She sang the hymns and carols soflty and listened attentively to the words of the service, remembering her concern when Javier and Lucio had told her she would have to go to church with them in Santucho. A lot of water had flowed under her bridge since then! The sermon was a little long and not very original, but the parson’s sincerity made up for that. Jane realized that he suffered from a stutter, which he had been able to overcome almost entirely, and she admired his courage at becoming a parson despite such a liability.
“I must read the Bible,” she thought later, sitting on the bus heading for her parents’ home. “That will be one of my New Year resolutions.”
Dora and Eric had been busy. They had decorated the living room with bright paper garlands and set up a Christmas tree and decorated it. A photograph of Brian smiled from a little table beside it, with a bouquet of flowers in a vase by its side. For atheists it was quite a show. Jane added her presents to the little pile under the tree after she had kissed her parents, and noted that they both seemed to be bursting with pent up excitement.
“We’ll have lunch first, shall we?” Dora said vivaciously.
She too had bought crackers. The meal was a cold one; chicken, Russian salad and ice cream. The airconditioner hummed gently, and the room was cool and pleasant.
Jane took a deep breath and said, casually, “I went to church before coming here. To St. Bartholomew’s.”
“I didn’t know you had become religious,” her father said.
“I haven’t. I used to go to the Christian Community in Buenos Aires, in Olivos, when I could, but this is the very first time I’ve been to church since I came back to Santa Laura.
“Was it a nice service?” Dora asked, remembering going to St. Bartholomew’s with her family before she married Eric. They had not had a church wedding.
“Hymns, carols, prayers and a sermon.”
“What was that about?” Eric asked, somewhat sarcastically.
“Nothing very original. Christ was born two thousand years ago and every Christmas we celebrate His birthday. But in fact, what is really important is that he should be born in our hearts and live in our thoughts every day.”
Eric shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just a lot of tommy rot. It’s quite obvious that all religions have basically sprung from fear, and the need for comfort; from feelings of ignorance and incapacity, the impenetrableness of the future, of impotence. Fear and need, these are the feelings which create the notion of a God, or gods, who are strong and invincible and all that nonsense about angels and archangels and hypothetical songs and trumpet soundings.”
Jane’s fingers touched her lips but she carried on with the subject. “I agree that the idea of an old man with a long beard sitting on a cloud in the sky is tommy rot,” she said slowly, helping herself to more Russian salad. “But what if the ideas about the Gods and angels and spiritual beings were based on the fact that many, many men and women have actually experienced them and talked about them, and so, from that, religions have grown up. Belief in a world most of us can’t see, but that some have. After all, you believe that Australia exists, don’t you?”
“That’s quite another question; if I had the money I could go to Australia tomorrow, and you know that very well.”
“But if one thinks of God as a force of energy – self conscious energy – not electrical or atomic or anything like that, just self-concious energy. And out of that primal energy the universe was created, but, because it is conscious and self conscious its consciousness also forms part of its creation, part of every single thing which existed, exists or will exist, and because of that man too is self conscious, because that is the way man is made in the image of God. Man is the only creature on earth which is self conscious.”
“It’s just a theory – like all the others,” Eric said firmly.
“Do you really believe that after one dies nothing remains?”
“It stands to reason.”
“You know, Soledad Torres Hidalgo died clinically in September when she was so ill. Everything stopped. Heart, breathing… Seconds before, I leaned over her and said ‘Come back. Fight. Come back.’ All of a sudden she shuddered and began to breathe again, and she went on living. Some days later she asked me if I had done that, spoken to her in those words. She said she had been standing beside me and saw her body in the bed and how I leaned over and spoke to her.”
“She was standing beside you, and lying on the bed at the same time?” Dora exclaimed. “But that’s impossible.”
“Her body was on the bed, Mum, but she, her conscious self, was standing outside her body beside me. Many people have had that experience.”
“She must had heard your words and dreamed the rest,” Eric said.
“Dad, she was in a coma.”
He shook his head. “These things will one day be explained scientifically,” he declared. “Just because it’s mysterious it doesn’t mean to say that it proves Spirit exists.”
Jane shrugged and smiled. “Maybe,” she said. “But I can’t tell you how comforting it is to believe that one is part of an immense, multidimensional scheme of creation. That one was created and that one forms part of a creator and that therefore one is eternal, that the creator uses us, human beings, to further his creations, for he has made us co-creators, beings who can think and act consciously. By what I do I can become part of the divine plan, help it along, or not – of course.”
Her father sat looking at her silently, almost respectfully. Dora looked at the photograph of Brian, and said. “I always feel that Brian is, well, near me. Around. That he’s alive, you know.” She looked at Eric. “I’ve never mentioned it, but it’s such a clear feeling sometimes, and special.”
“I’ll get the ice cream,” Jane said quickly, to save her father from having to answer. She collected the plates and dishes, piled them on a tray and took them to the kitchen.
While they ate the ice cream she told them about her Christmas Eve party with Aunt Georgina and Robert. After lunch they opened their presents, and once again Jane became aware of her parent’s carefully suppressed excitement. Once the little ritual was over and they had thanked eachother and inspected their presents and folded the wrapping paper and drunk their coffee, Dora looked at Eric and they both began to smile broadly.
“Now?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she nodded eagerly.
He slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out a set of car keys. “Yours,” he said and Dora joined him in saying, “Happy Christmas, Jane.”
Jane took the keys unbelievingly. “But… what… ” She could find no words.
“Come on outside,” Dora cried.
They trouped outside and Eric walked over to a bright red Renault 12 parked by the sidewalk and stood beside it.
“D’you like it?” Dora asked, breathlessly.
Wordlessly, Jane unlocked the car and looked inside. At last she asked falteringly, “For me?”
“For you, with our love,” Eric said.
And then it was a mixture of laughter and tears and hugs and exclamations.
“I felt you were both chock full of some sort of secret,” Jane laughed. “This is fantastic. I just can’t believe it, my own car, and red too. It’s wild. It’s all just wild. How about my taking you for a spin?”
“I remembered that you’d told me that you had learned to drive in B.A.,” Dora said as they climbed in. “Have you got a driving license?”
“No, but I’ll get one tomorrow!” Jane laughed, letting in the clutch and driving down the street slowly. “I hope I’m not dreaming,” she giggled. “I hope I don’t wake up sitting on the sofa having had a nap and dreamed all this.”
She drove around for a little while and then returned to the house.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful present. This has been a very special Christmas for me!”
She remained for tea and then drove back to the flat, hoping that no overzealous policeman would stop her and ask to see her driving license. She parked it infront of a garage a few doors down the street from the flat, and, as the garage was open, arranged to keep it parked there on a monthly basis, and then rushed up to Aunt Georgina’s flat to tell her the glad news.
Robert opened the door to her knock and took a step back in amazement, for he had never seen her looking as she did at that moment. Her eyes, wide and luminous, blazed with joy, her hair was tousled and her mouth curved into a smile which could almost be described as reaching from ear to ear.
“Merry Christmas,” she cried kissing him on the cheek and darting past him into the sitting room. “MERRY CHRISTMAS AGAIN, Aunt Georgina.”
“Well, and what’s got into you, young lady?” Aunt Georgina demanded, her eyes alight with curiosity.
“I’ve been given a car,” Jane sang, holding up the keys and twirling round in front of the old lady. “My parents have given me a car. A brand new Renault 12, a bright red one. I’ve decided to call it Scarlet!”
“You don’t say! Where is it?” Whooped Aunt Georgina, getting to her feet. “Let’s go and see it.”
Later when the car had been duly shown off and admired, parked in the garage and lovingly taken leave of, they opened a bottle of white wine to celebrate. Robert could not take his eyes off Jane. He hadn’t believed it possible that she could be so exuberant; she was simply bubbling over with joy and excitement and her usually rather grave expression had been completely wiped away.
“It’s so fantastic,” she said, loudly, so that Aunt Georgina could hear her clearly. “And what’s even more fantastic is my new relationship with my parents. It’s so wonderful to be family again, and a loving one!”
She described her visit to her parents. “And I kept feeling they were suppressing some kind of terrific news, or, I don’t know… they were so sort of excited. And once we’d opened all our little presents my father looked at Mummy and said “NOW?” and she said “YES.” And he put his hand in his pocket and took out the keys. I nearly collapsed. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I just sort of gagged and said “For me?” or something like that. A car. Can you beat it? My very own car! I’ve got to go and get a driving license now. Where do I have to go, Robert?”
“I’ll take you,” Robert said, laughing in spite of himself, and he explained to her what documents she had to take and what she would be expected to know.
“You must think I’m nuts, that a car should make me so wildly happy,” Jane said. “But it’s not that. It’s, oh! everything! How they’d planned the way they’d give it to me. The warmth. The family warmth we all experienced. We’re all so happy now, so at ease with one another. I must call Dr. Michaelson and tell him. He won’t believe it. And Ana! When she comes to clean the flat and I tell her, she’ll dance a jig. Let’s sing, Aunt Georgina, let’s sing. I’m so happy I think I shall explode if I don’t sing.”
Caught up in her happy mood, Aunt Georgina and Robert agreed at once and they sang for an hour – carols, Beatle songs, nursery rhymes, and even a couple of rather risquè songs which the old lady taught them. Then she began to play a waltz and Robert bowed low and said. “May I have the pleasure?” and at once they were waltzing round the sitting room as Aunt Georgina pressed her foot on the Forte pedal and played one waltz after another until, gasping for breath and laughing like children, they fell onto the sofa, exhausted. Later Robert invited them out to supper at a new restaurant which had opened nearby. All in all, it was one of the happiest Christmasses that Jane had ever had.
Jane took her driving test a few days later. Robert accompanied her in her new car and sat in the waiting room while she went through the usual rigmarole of getting a driving license. They left after three hours, the prized little booklet, with her photograph, name and address, document number, date of reception and date of expiry, date of birth and last, but not least, the official’s signature and seal – triumphantly stowed away in her handbag.
“What time do you have to be at your patient’s house?” Robert asked.
“It’s nearly twelve. May I invite you to lunch? There’s a pleasant little restaurant not far from here.”
“Oh, Robert. You’ve already wasted your whole morning and now lunch as well! You’re spoiling me rotten!”
“It’s my pleasure. Come on. Which of us is going to drive?”
“You. I’ve got to get the hang of this city at my own speed. I’ve bought myself a road map in book format, and I shall go driving along from page to page more or less, stopping and checking, and for all my driving lessons in Buenos Aires, I’m not so experienced as to be able to cope with traffic and follow your instructions at the same time.”
The restaurant was indeed an odd little place. Except for a small sign over the door, there was nothing to indicate that down the long, narrow passage beyond it, they would come out into a small oasis surrounded by high walls. The house must have been built a good sixty or seventy years earlier, when nothing but fields and earth roads and a few trees had stood between it and the horizon. As the city had grown it had somehow survived, together with quite a sizeable garden, in the middle of a city block. Shops, with offices above them, had been built onto the street, entirely covering what had once been part of the garden, of which only the long passage remained.
Jane was enchanted. They stepped out of the passage into a flagstoned patio filled with little round tables where the patrons sat until a table, either in the restaurant itself or in the garden beyond, became free. The high walls surrounding the garden and forming one side of the patio were overgrown with ivy, and small flower beds overflowed with flowering, ferns and potus. A posy of fresh flowers in a small vase decorated each table.
As it was early, they did not have to wait, and chose a table inside the restaurant, where it was cool and where overhead fans moved the still air. The midday sun blazed down into the garden, making it too hot to be comfortable, despite the sunshades over each table.
“But it’s great in the evenings,” Robert said, nodding in the direction of the garden. “One can hardly believe that Avenida Eva Perón is only a block away, because one doesn’t hear the noise of the traffic at all.”
Jane glanced around. “It’s probably still got the original adobe walls,” she said. “Look how thick they are. I am glad I accepted your invitation. It’s a lovely place.”
They chose a cold chicken dish, and for desert Jane ordered a speciality of the house : two pancakes filled with dulce-de-leche with a helping of vanilla ice cream on top. Robert ordered a peppermint ice cream with chocolate chips mixed into it.
“Yours looks delicious,” he said. “But at my age … ”
“Your age,” Jane scoffed.
“Well, and how old am I?”
“Your, shall we say, physical form… or your manner?”
“All right. Let’s have them both.”
“Mmmmm. Twenty six and about sixty.”
“SIXTY?” Robert choked over his ice cream. “How can you say such a thing?”
Jane laughed. “You’re so even tempered, so equable. That’s a good definition! Equable. You’re too equable to be… thirty something.”
“Nearly thirty four.”
“So Violet’s several years older than he is,” Jane thought.
“And you’re twenty three.”
“Cinderella was seventeen when I met her, and now she has a driving license and a car of her own and has turned into a lovely princess.”
“You make it sound… not quite correct.”
“I’m only teasing. I know there was a whole trunkful of ‘sads’ and sorrows which made you such a grave little person. Happily the trunk has been opened and they have flown away.”
“Shall I call you Pandora instead?”
“No, please! I prefer Cinderella.”
“Tell me about your patient.”
“My patient? Well, he’s called John Bantam and he’s over eighty; sometimes he’s quite lucid but usually he’s rather incoherent and has everything upside down and back to front.”
“But he’s not terminally ill then?”
“No, but he has a heart problem, and pots of money, which is why he has trained nurses to look after him.”
Lucio was in the sitting room when Jane arrived at Soledad’s on New Year’s eve. He was looking very tanned. His long wavy hair shone, and he still wore only one earing. He was wearing shorts and a crisp white shirt. He caught her into a bearlike hug and kissed both her cheeks fondly.
“I’m early,” Jane apologized. “I got here quicker than I expected.”
“How did you come, by taxi?”
“No, indeed. My father gave me a car for Christmas.”
“Jane! You’re joking. Your father gave you a car?”
“So, both the old men seem to have been having second thoughts and turned over a new leaf. How wonderful! I am glad for you. I must say you look like a monkey who’s just inherited several banana trees. What car did he give you?”
“A Renault 12. A red one. Brand new.”
“No! What happened?”
“It’s too long to tell you now. But a situation occured in which he realized it was ridiculous to go on behaving as he had been. So our relationship is better than it’s ever been, because now it’s based on reality.”
“And my old man has changed too. Quite incredible. You remember how stiff and rigid he used to be? Even the way he dressed? You know, gentlemen dress thus, this is black, this is white, this is right this is wrong, all actors are farts and so on. Well, now, he’s quiet, and he listens and he asks questions and he seems really interested. I don’t quite trust him yet. It’s all so new, so different from the father I always had. One has to do an awful lot of adjusting when someone really changes like that.”
“I know, and one finds one was full of prejudices and set reactions or counter reactions and they’re no use any more. But it’s fun. It’s a challenge too.”
Soledad appeared and hastened over to Jane to give her a hug. “I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized you’d arrived already,” she apologized.
“I arrived early.”
“In your car? How are you getting on?”
“Wildly. I’m getting to know Santa Laura as I never did when travelling by bus.”
Sarita came prancing up, wearing a pretty white dress which had a fairly long skirt with lace insets.
“Hello, Jane,” she cried, tossing her tumble of black curls. “D’you like my new dress?”
“It’s beautiful,” Jane said admiringly. “You look like Snow White.”
“But Snow White wouldn’t have worn sneakers with a dress like that!” Soledad laughed. “Go and change your shoes, Sarita – please.”
It was an enjoyable evening. Lucio kept them all vastly entertained with stories about films for advertisements seen from the production point of view. Javier fed him his queues, reminding him of different incidents which he had forgotten, obviously enormously proud of his younger brother’s achievements. At ten to twelve the champagne glasses were prepared and the bottles, nestling in buckets of ice, were brought in by the maid.
Daniel raised one of the bottles and said, “I’ll start working the cork out now, I think. We must welcome 1989 with our glasses full.”
At the stroke of midnight Santa Laura suddenly broke into bedlam. Car horns tooted, sirens wailed, fireworks streaked across the sky and church bells began to peal all over the city. Through the open, lighted windows of different apartment buildings people could be seen raising their glasses and embracing. For a moment political, economic and personal problems were set aside, and good will presided.
Jane wondered where Robert was, and if Bobby had been allowed to stay up, like Sarita, or if he had been sent to bed at the usual time so that Violet and Diego could celebrate with their friends, unhampered.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” Lucio announced. “Get the bottle ready, papá… I have great pleasure in informing you all that as from the third of January yours truly’s handsome, smiling face and gleaming, white, even teeth will bedeck the city of Santa Laura, apart from Buenos Aires and most of the provincial capitals, proclaiming the INDISPUTABLE benefits of using “Effective” tooth paste, AND, as if that were all, ladies and gentlemen, I also have the pleasure in advising you that Lucio Torres, has been offered a part, albeit a small one, in “Cuido Niños”, a farce to be directed by Ezequiel Lobos in the very near furture. First step to stardom. Those who wish may shake my hand.”
Laughing and teasing they hugged and congratualted him, finished off the second bottle of champagne, and opened a third. Fleetingly, Jane wondered where she would end up that night. Sarita fell asleep on the sofa. Daniel carried her to her bed and when he returned he said to Jane, “I always read something from the Bible on these occaisions, to welcome in the New Year in the proper spirit, as it were.” He smiled. “This year I’m going to read from the gospel of St.Luke.”
They settled themselves on the sofa and in the arm chairs. Lucio sat on the floor and leaned against Jane’s armchair, his shoulder touching her left leg. Daniel adjusted his glasses, opened his Bible and began to read quietly, his voice warm and clear. For Jane the words fell like pools of light into the quietness of the room, illuminating the images which flowed through her heart.
“Then turning to his disciples he began to speak:
‘How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.
‘How blest are you who now are hungry; your hunger shall be satisfied.
‘How blest are you that weep now; you shall laugh.
Daniel’s voice was clear and he read slowly and evenly …
‘But to you who hear me I say :
‘Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you;
‘Pass no judgement, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; acquit, and you will be acquitted; give, and gifts will be given you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; for whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you in return.”