When Jane arrived back home she found Lucio lounging in one of the arm chairs in the foyer. He unfolded himself as she let herself in and welcomed her with a kiss.
“The porter recognized me and let me wait for you in here,” he said. “I’d invite you to dinner or something but I have no money.”
“Come on up,” Jane said cheerfully.
The apartment was stuffy, despite the fact that she had left the windows open and she pulled up all the blinds in order to let the night air flow freely.
“You’re in luck,” she remarked. “I made a stew before I went out. I’ll reheat it and we can have that for supper, or have you eaten?”
“What’s the matter Lucio?”
“I went to see my father this afternoon.”
“I mucked the whole thing up.”
Jane stood looking at him in the dim light of the single lamp which she had lit. “How?” she asked at last, thinking of her own father.
“I went to the flat and told Soledad that I wanted to talk to him and to please let me in to wait for him, which she did, and then she telephoned my father to tell him that she had done so. She always plays safe. He came home so stuffed up six enemas wouldn’t have been enough to loosen him. We didn’t even sit down!”
“Good evening Lucio.”
“I came to, well… tell you how I was getting on in Buenos Aires.”
“I’m working for a producer. Ads for T.V. and the cinema. I work as his assistant and I’ve enrolled myself as a student in a school for actors.”
“I don’t know why you had to come to Santa Laura to tell me this personally.”
“Because I .. uh … wanted to ask you for an advance on my inheritance, since you refuse to support me any more.”
“You will get your inheritance when you are twenty-one and not a day before. Perhaps by then you will have had a bit of sense knocked into you.”
“What I’m asking for is a small allowance. I’m not asking for a huge sum. Just something I can rely on so that I can study with a greater ease of mind.”
“We’ve been over this. I thought I had made my position clear.”
“Papá. I don’t want to study economics, or accountancy, or business administration or law or anything. I want to act. How is it that you can’t understand that? Can’t you put yourself in my place? I’m a human being, a person. I’m not a creature, a servant, a slave or an employee of yours.”
“You know perfectly well my opinion of actors. Their very name shows them for what they are – actors. Empty people who fill themselves with the parts they ‘act’. People who are weak, who have little connection with reality, who seldom know where fantasy ends and reality begins and who, because they are weak, live promiscuous lives and use drugs to escape into their world of fantasies when the real world becomes too hard for them. That is not what I want for a son of mine.
If you study and become a professional then, when you are of age you can act as much as you like, but while you are under my tutelage you will do as I say, or suffer the consequences.”
“And you consider yourself a Christian!”
“That has nothing to do with the matter.”
“Why do you take it for granted that I will become weak and promiscuous if I start doing what I want to do now?”
“All I have to do is to use my eyes. Your ridiculous attire. Long hair. One ear ring. I don’t need any other evidence.”
“I dress like this on purpose, or do you expect me to wear a shirt and tie? How I dress has nothing to do with the seriousness with which I wish to study acting. What I want you to understand is that I’m as serious about acting as you are about religion.”
“Stop bringing religion into the conversation.”
“Why? Is it only for Sundays then?”
“If you are going to be insolent you may leave at once.”
“Papá. I want to reach you. To talk to you. I want to be real for you, not just ‘a son’, a role which I must comply with. That’s acting if ever anything is acting. We all fulfill roles in this house; wife, daughter, son, servant, husband. Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t you try to see my point of view? You’re so prejudiced it’s impossible to talk to you. It’s as if you were carved in stone or something, all your ideas and opinions petrified into immovable shapes … “
“That’s enough, Lucio. I will not stand here being insulted by my own son in my own house.”
“ … behind which you hide. You’ve barricaded yourself inside your role of father and you’ve lost your humanity. If anything indicates weakness, that does! Your son, in your house! It’s all clichès… nothing but clichès !”
“If you’ve quite finished you may leave – now.”
“It’s impossible, isn’t it? And if I were to say, O.K. I’ll study, you’d open your arms and welcome back the prodigal son. But that father, the one in the Bible, gave his son all his inheritance when he asked for it. And when he came back, he gave a party despite the fact that his son had blown the lot! All I’m asking for is an allowance out of what will be mine in a couple of years’ time. It’s not too much to ask, I believe. You’re trying to force me into a mold which is YOUR conception, YOUR idea, YOUR plan for me, but it has nothing to do with ME or MY nature.”
“I consider this conversation terminated, Lucio. I have nothing more to say and you are becoming emotional and uncontrolled. I have a number of things which I have to attend to now, so if you will be so good as to take your leave… “
“I could have hit him at that moment, Jane, standing there all cold and formal and self-righteous, it was all I could do to leave without spitting. Gaaah. What on earth Soledad sees in him, only God knows!”
“I think she’s very fond of him.”
“She wanted security, but what a price to pay!”
“So, now you have no money.”
“Can’t you live on what you get as an assistant?”
“It’s all so uncertain. I may have work for three months or even only three weeks and then none for ages. I’ll manage, but a small regular sum would make all the diference.”
“And couldn’t Soledad slip you something out of the housekeeping money?”
“My father checks all the bills, all that’s spent. Most of what she spends is with credit cards, anyway. It would be impossible for her. I mean, he’d find out for sure.”
“How much would you inherit?”
“I don’t know, but it’s a certain sum. Javier and I are entitled to a quarter each of what my mother left. He’s inherited his share already, but I haven’t spoken to him about it. Normally, money has never interested me much.”
Lucio ran his hands through his hair and Jane went to heat the stew. She brought it back served in two earthenware bowls. They ate in silence, both absorbed by their own thoughts. At last Jane said, “I saw my parents today.”
“That must have been quite a show!” Lucio exclaimed, remembering that she had not seen them for several years. “How come? Who made the first move?”
“My mother fell and broke her leg this morning. She’s going to be operated tomorrow. I suppose they’ll have to put a pin or something like that. She’s at the Clinica Posadas.”
“So you went to see her. What did she say when you turned up? I mean, how did she react?”
“She was very happy. She … yeah … she couldn’t believe it. She thought I was still in Buenos Aires.”
“And you? How did you feel?”
“I realized how much I had missed her, how really lonely I’ve been all this time.”
“But why did you leave?”
“Family rows. I wanted to do something and my father didn’t want me to, neither of them did. My father got very violent. He’s as inflexible and intolerant as your father, but more violent. I was frightened he’d hurt my mother if I asked her to back me up so… I left.”
“Did you see him today?”
“He hasn’t forgiven me. However, he said that under the circumstances he would consider me to be a friend of my mother as that would help her recovery.”
Jane sat silently, remembering the scene at the hospital when she had stepped into the room and he had been sitting at her mother’s side, holding her hand. At last she added, “But he doesn’t want to speak to me. When he left he didn’t say goodbye, he didn’t even nod. It was as if I hadn’t been standing there at all.”
“God Almighty. Why Jane? Why? One takes one little step out of the mold and that’s it. They’ve no right, no right at all. They just enjoy the power. Inside that crust my father is probably the weakest of men, like a tortoise, quite defenseless without all his petrified convictions. No heart at all.”
“I’ve got yoghurt. Want some?”
“Sure, anything. The stew was delicious. Javier stayed in the mold. Business Administration and now he’s going to study law. He’s so damned frightened of growing up he’s going to remain a student all his life!”
“I loved my parents and when we had that row I found out that they were not the people I had thought they were, that it was all an illusion, that I had loved an invented mother and father. My invention. It was awful, Lucio. So awful. You know, my brother died in a car accident when he was seventeen and they both loved him best. They said so that day, the day I left. I was fifteen when he died. I tried to fill his place, to make up for the loss, you know… and in the end…”
Jane covered her face with her hands and felt her hot tears trickle over her fingers.
“They’d made an illusion out of him, I suppose, and you were the real thing and not so nice,” Lucio said gently.
Jane nodded mutely. They sat in silence for a long time until finally Lucio stood up, picked up their earthen-ware bowls and took them to the kitchen. He washed them up, found two teaspoons and returned with the yoghurts. Jane was standing by the window staring out over the city, a jeweled city in the dark, bedecked with strings of diamonds, with emeralds, rubies and amethysts, the headlights and tail lights of the cars ever-moving along distant avenues.
“I like this view,” she said, turning and sitting down at the table once more. “It calms me. I shall be sorry when I have to leave. If one believes in Destiny, it certainly punched me today when I was ‘phoned’ and told that my mother had had that accident. But, you know, I sort of expected it. I knew I’d meet them sooner or later.”
“Yeah. It’s strange, isn’t it? My meeting Edgardo was pretty much the same, a punch from Destiny. Talking to him about acting just brought me to life. I felt as if something inside me said “That’s it!” and I had no more doubts. I knew at once that that was what I really wanted to be.”
“It doesn’t give one much choice, does it? I mean, along comes Destiny and knocks one down, or over, or up, and there you are.”
“Perhaps, though, one can opt. I could have said ‘ No, my father wants me to study, so I’ll wait.’ You could have said, ‘I won’t go to the hospital, I’ll send a bunch of flowers instead.’ I think that, in the face of any situation, one can opt.”
“You don’t think that the decision isn’t sort of part of one’s destiny too?”
“No. Hell, no! That makes one into one of Javier’s robots. I decide and I take responsibility for my decision. Otherwise life is just a boring jog-trot from birth to the grave, all foreseen and settled. Where would evolution fit into that scheme? It would be just one big machine!”
“Evolution would be part of the scheme, wouldn’t it?”
“But if one can’t make mistakes, how can one learn?”
“Unless everything is all just one big illusion… I don’t know.”
“What skepticism! You didn’t sound skeptical last night, talking to Javier!”
“No. I think that I oscillate. When I’m faced with a disbeliever, I believe, fiercely. But sometimes I doubt. Sometimes I think that everything is just one huge fairy story, made up by some to control the rest. Actually, that’s my father’s theory and I believed it until a few years ago, and then I came across a little book on reincarnation which seemed to make so many things clear. One’s essence lives many times, here on earth, gathering experience as it were, progressing towards perfection. It explains so many enigmas, so many crazy situations. You need to act, for example, mine to work with the terminal ill.”
“What you’re trying to say is that one’s individuality is eternal and can grow, if it wants to, through all the experiences gained during many life-times?”
“One would be born at different points in history then…”
“I read that one reincarnates, normally, after about three hundred years. It seems to depend on one’s spiritual development.”
“Three hundred? That, for us, would be in 1688. What a laugh! Shakespeare’s days, and now we’re walking on the moon. Quite a change, huh?”
“Yeah. In theory it’s fascinating. One comes and goes and builds all sorts of fantasies. One tries to find clues in this life which might indicate some activity in a former life. I’ve met people in Buenos Aires who are always talking about their former lives or saying ‘Ah, in your former life you must have been… ‘x or y or z.’ But it’s just hot air really. They just invent things which they like to think and do, and then make it valid by talking about past incarnations.”
“So you’ve been into the reincarnation thing quite seriously?”
“Yes. I’ve read heaps of books, Shirley Maclaine, Edouard Schürè, Rudolf Steiner amongst others. Rudolf Steiner seems to me to be the most explicit, because he applies what he says continually to real life, and expects his readers to do the same and not to take his word as dogma. He keeps saying ‘try it out and see, but don’t expect results in a week or a month or even a year. Sooner or later, however you will get results.”
“In what way, do you mean?”
“Meditation. Thinking about these concepts. Trying to see life from a longer view, from the point of view of many lifetimes. As you said, maybe the last time we were around was in 1688. It does begin to make a difference. At least I find I can work with people who are dying and I can really help them because I really believe… usually… that death is nothing more than a long sleep. Sleep, that is, in THIS world, but active enough in the spiritual world.”
“And how would all this tie up with our dear papas?”
“We’re supposed to have chosen our parents, or they were chosen for us if we weren’t developed enough to do it for ourselves, in order to go through certain specific experiences, or to adjust certain situations between the members of the family.”
“What does Karma mean?”
“Destiny. But not a sort of general all-inclusive destiny. One’s own personal destiny created by oneself during previous lives.”
“So that nothing happens because God wills it, but because one did this or that in another life and that has an effect?”
“Exactly. Goodness knows what I did to decide on becoming the daughter of my parents.”
“Perhaps you were a wicked stepmother who sent away your two little defenseless stepchildren into the woods to die.”
“Hah! And you?”
“You say I’m supposed to have chosen my delicate mother and my constipated father? Well, perhaps I was one of those terribly poor millers that abound in fairy stories and I fed my children so much rotten corn… Oh, hell, Jane. What a lot of suffering. What a lot of senseless, needless, stupid suffering. Why does your father not want to talk to you? What does he think he is going to gain from such an attitude? Doesn’t he realize how much he hurts you? Why isn’t he able to let bygones be bygones?”
“Lucio. We have to understand that the people who act like that can’t help it. They don’t know any better. It’s we, who might, who have to lead the way. Who have to forgive and try to forget. Who have to let bygones be bygones. Who have to transform suffering into a lesson learned.”
“Yeah, I understand you, but it’s hard, Jane. It’s so hard.”
They remained silent, immersed in their world of thoughts. At last Jane said, “Want a coffee?”
Lucio looked at his watch and shook his head. “No thanks. Actually what I do want is a bed. I spent the night with a friend last night but I can’t go to his place tonight because he’s got a date.”
“You can sleep on the sofa if you like. It’s all there is.”
“That’d be fine. Sure you don’t mind?”
“No! What do you need? A towel, sheets and a blanket.
“Forget the sheets. A towel and a blanket will be just fine.”
Jane fetched them and handed them to him. “There you are then, make yourself comfortable. I’m afraid I’ll wake you early tomorrow.”
“Don’t let that worry you.”
“You can sleep in if you like. I don’t mind. When you leave shut the blinds and close the door firmly behind you, that’s all.”
“D’you think we’ve met before?”
“Lots of times, I expect.”
“Friends, Romans, countrymen… lend me you ears. I come to bury Caeser … Perhaps I was an actor in those far off days and knew Shakespeare personally and even acted in his plays. And you were a beautiful countess or a duchess, or something like that, who came to watch and… “
“It’s fun speculating isn’t it? But it’s more likely that I was the wench who served the beers!”
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interéd with their bones… Good night, sweet wench, and bless you for your sofa and for listening to me moan about my father and for showing me how to accept my karma gracefully… if I can.”
“You’re welcome, good sir, and may ye sleep well.”
“We must keep in touch. I’m going back to B.A. tomorrow but I’ll leave you a ‘phone number where you can leave messages and an address if you write… or come and visit. Got some paper?”
Jane provided him with paper and a pencil, bade him good night and took herself to bed. She was suddenly very tired.
Dora’s operation was uneventful and within five days she returned home with her leg in a cast and having to use crutches. For Jane, the first morning she returned home, the experience was a very profound one. It astonished her to find that nothing had changed, even the little stain on the wall by the kitchen door was still there. She herself felt so different after all her experiences that she could not believe that the house, and her parents, too, for that matter, had remained static during all that time. She wandered around all the rooms remembering, and feeling herself, entirely against her will, sliding back into the Jane who had left five years ago. Her mother, installed in the sitting room, smiled brightly when she returned.
“Well, how do you find everything?”
“Just the same, Mum. It’s sort of uncanny!”
“But somewhere,” she thought, “There is a little child running about who is your grandchild, and that makes the whole world different!”
“Are you comfortable?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you. Goodness, look at the dust under the table. Marta is certainly nothing compared to Ana.”
“Well, don’t worry about a little dust.”
“Ana walked out on us. She went to work for the Michaelsons.”
“Oh – of course, yes.”
“Can I bring you a cup of coffee? I’m going to make some for myself.”
“You had better check and see what shopping is needed to be done.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“Oh, very well. But use the instant. I keep the real coffee for Daddy.”
“I know,” Jane sighed and went to turn on the electric kettle. She checked the fridge and the larder and made out a shopping list. Then she returned to the living room with two mugs of coffee.
“A mug is too much for me,” Dora protested pettishly. “You should have asked me.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” Jane replied equably. “I’ve made out the shopping list, can you think of anything I may have forgotten?”
She handed the list to her mother who read it, added a few more items and urged Jane to go at once.
“Bring me the telephone before you leave,” she said. “I promised Daddy I’d phone as soon as you got here.”
“Since when have you had this cordless one?” Jane asked, handing it to her.
“A couple of years I suppose; and my address book and my glasses, please. Thank you. You’d better be off now, don’t you think?”
Jane left, somewhat irritably. She was unused to being ordered around in such a way. When she returned her mother called from the living room, “Jane.”
“I’ve spoken to Daddy and we’ve come to the arrangement that you are to come at nine and leave at six, and he’ll look after me over the weekends, of course.”
“Fine. At least that’s nice and clear,” Jane said, trying not to sound sarcastic.
“Did you get all the shopping done?”
“Everything. I went to the new Slimko supermarket.”
“Oh, you didn’t go there, did you? I don’t like those people at all. I had a most unpleasant argument with the owner when they opened two years ago, and since then… ”
“Well, never mind. It’s done now. I’m going to go and put it all away.”
When she returned to the living room with one of the medicines her mother had to take, Dora returned at once to the subject of the super-market.
“I’d bought some very expensive floor polish… or was it for cleaning the oven? No, it was floor polish, I remember now because… ”
Jane stood and listened patiently. It was rather a long story.
“I wonder how often I shall have to listen to this story?” she thought, remembering the old dears in the Hospital and their little stories which they repeated every time they were given the chance. As soon as she decently could, she said, “Here, take your pill, Ma. I have to go and make lunch.”
“What pill is this? I don’t want to take any more pills … “
“It’s for your blood pressure.”
“My blood pressure is perfectly normal. Why has that doctor started to give me pills for my blood pressure?”
“It went up a lot after the operation. You don’t want to get unnecessary complications, do you?”
“No, but… ”
“Well, take the pill, then.”
“What do you mean, it went up a lot, how much?”
“A few points.”
Dora swallowed her pill under protest. “I feel perfectly well,” she insisted. Apart from the tablets for her migraine she had always been chary of taking many medicines.
Jane foresaw that the next few weeks were not going to be easy, and sighed. Nursing one’s mother called for very special tact, she wondered how long her patience would last.
At six she left with a great sense of relief and waited for her bus wearily. When it screeched to a stop beside her she climbed aboard, paid her fare and turned to look for an empty seat. With a shock she met Bettina’s eyes and the only empty seat in the bus was that which was beside Bettina. Jane sat down and said, “Hi Bet. How are you?”
Bettina’s discomfort was very obvious. She had slid her left hand under her handbag. Jane took a deep breath and said, “I was at the Ristorante Marcelino the other day when you went to have dinner there with the Plaths and Kevin. Are you engaged to him?”
Bettina stared at her and then looked quickly away. “Yes,” she said. “We’re going to get married next month.”
“I hope you’ll be very happy,” Jane said quietly.
An embarrassed silence fell between them until Bettina said, as if for something to say, “You studied nursing, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I’m a registered nurse now.”
Once again there seemed to be no words to fill the silence between them, until Jane burst out, “This is crazy, Bettina. We haven’t seen each other for years and we were best friends, yet we can’t find a thing to say to each-other. Tell me about yourself. How’s your mother? How long have you been engaged? Where are you going to live when you get married? Let’s forget about… well… Kevin and me. Let’s just be friends. Show me your ring, do.”
Bettina turned her large hazel eyes towards Jane and regarded her with a mixture of astonishment and fear. Then she held up her hand for Jane to see the ring.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Jane exclaimed.
“I chose it,” Bettina said, looking at the ring with so much pride that Jane wondered fleetingly which was more important for her, the ring or Kevin. “We’ve bought a house about twenty blocks from where the Plaths live. Actually they bought it. It’s quite small, two bedrooms, living-room, etc., but it’s very cute. It’s got a sunken sitting room, a fire place and lots of wood panelling,” She had become her old self once more, her eyes shining, her voice vibrant. “D’you remember how I always adored sunken sitting rooms? I just couldn’t believe it when I saw it. When Kevin finishes his studies here we’re going to go to the States for a couple of years so that he can do a post-graduate course. He’s finding out all about it now, which Universities will accept him and all that.”
“And you’re getting married next month?”
“In a church with a long white dress and everything?”
“The lot. Plus five hundred guests. The Plaths are paying for it.”
“Bettina, how terrific! Where will the reception be held?”
“At the Plaths. They’re going to have a marquee put up in the garden.”
“And how is your mother?”
“She’s fine, but you know Mum. She feels weddings should be small and intimate, but we couldn’t really afford either, so, well, Kevin thinks big weddings are nicer, more important, and so that’s what we’re having.”
“I get off soon,” Jane said, peering through the bus window and taking her bearings. “Why don’t you come to my apartment now and we can catch up on everything. Have you anything special to do?”
“No. I’ve just come from trying on my dress. I was going to look for some curtain material, but I can do that tomorrow.”
“Wild. Come home then.”
The last shreds of reserve melted and the two girls jumped off the bus two stopslater and made their way to Jane’s flat.
“I have it for a couple of weeks more and then I shall have to find a room somewhere,” Jane said.
“Can’t you live with your parents?” Bettina asked.
Jane shook her head. “My father chucked me out.”
“You told him?”
“But weren’t you coming from your home this evening?”
“My mother fell and broke her leg. She returned home this morning in fact. She had to have an operation and they put pins and things in. Anyway she only wants me to nurse her so I go from nine to six and my father from six-ten to eight-fifty. He won’t even speak to me. He tries to pretend I don’t exist.”
“And then, after all that, you lost it!”
“It was… too late by then. I’ll get us something cold to drink.”
Jane went to the kitchen and Bettina walked over to the window and stared out over Santa Laura, bathed in pink and gold by the evening light. She thought of her approaching marriage to Kevin and how it so easily might have been otherwise. She touched her ring furtively and wondered what Kevin’s reaction would be, should he meet Jane during the next few weeks. Had he really got over her? Would he change his mind if he saw her? And Jane? Had she got over him? Or had she suddenly decided to invite her to the flat here in order to have an excuse to meet Kevin again, now, before the wedding. Her heart turned cold with fear. Jane had changed so much. She had so much presence, she was so mature… being a nurse, of course…
“Have you got a boyfriend?” she asked Jane when she returned with their drinks.
“Not at the moment,” Jane replied. “Lots of friends but no steady.”
She sank down onto the sofa and kicked off her moccasins. “Oof, am I tired? I met Soledad Torres Hidalgo the other day. You remember, I went to look after their baby, before… before I went to Brazil, and I’ve become very friendly with her step-son, Javier. I was with him at the restaurant the other day. He’s got a girl- friend, so I’m hoping that through them I shall meet a whole new bunch of people. I sort of don’t feel like going back to the club and all that for the moment.”
Bettina relaxed a little and sat down beside Jane on the sofa.
“How is Kevin?” Jane asked.
Bettina stared at her, her fears revived.
“Has he changed? Is he just the same? Oh, don’t bother to answer me. How can you tell me? Anyway he’s probably quite different now. I suddenly got the urge to ask you. Do you really love him, Bettina? I mean, do you really love him?”
“I’m crazy about him, Jane. I always was.” Bettina replied simply.
Jane nodded and swirled the coke left in her glass. “Don’t worry Bet,” she said. “I don’t want him back. We weren’t meant for each other. That’s why everything happened as it did. Did you tell Kevin?”
“You asked me not to. Don’t you remember?”
“Did I? Oh, yes, so I did.”
“Would you like to come to the wedding?”
“Yes. I’d love to.”
“I’ll give you an invitation then.”
“But I won’t go to the reception, Bet. Too many memories. Anyway I’d rather not, you do understand, don’t you?”
Inwardly relieved, Bettina nodded cheerfully.
“D’you still live with your mother?” Jane asked in order to change the subject. She was remembering her reaction when she had seen Kevin at the restaurant and she wondered how she would feel at his wedding to Bettina. “Everybody changes,” she thought. “He’s probably quite different now. Anyway I don’t have to go, and I certainly don’t have to go up and congratulate them if I do.”
“I couldn’t afford to live on my own,” Bettina replied. “I’m only a kindergarten teacher.”
“Really? Where do you teach? I thought you were going to be an executive secretary.”
“I changed my mind. I teach at a kindergarten called Candy.”
Jane laughed. “It’s a small world, isn’t it? Sarita Torres Hidalgo goes there, she’s five now.”
“There are heaps of children. I’m with the very tiny ones. I don’t know all the older kids’ names.”
“Where are you going for your honeymoon?”
“To Peru. Machu Pichu, Lima, I don’t know where else. All over.”
“Great – Oh, Bet. I wish you every happiness. I really do.”
“Thanks, Jane. It’s queer, isn’t it? I mean, me being the one to be marrying Kevin.”
But you’re not going to marry him.
The words flashed through Jane’s mind and paralyzed her for a moment. In the ensuing silence she tried to order her thoughts. Where had those words come from? What did they mean? With an effort she made her voice light as she answered, “Not really. Why not?”
Jane bought Bettina and Kevin a bread board as a wedding gift and took it round to Bettina’s flat a few days later. Bettina let her in, looking starry eyed and definitely a bride-to-be.
“My dress is ready and the invitations sent and we’re already getting gifts. Some are gorgeous!” she cried excitedly. “And I’ve got most of my bottom drawer ready. I’m still missing some clothes but really I can buy them after I’m married. Come and look.”
She led the way into her bedroom and pulled out a large suitcase from under her bed. The two girls spent nearly an hour going through all the different things that Bettina had been collecting, discussing the relative importance of the things which she did not have and what she could suggest as items she really wanted for her shower tea.
“Will you come?” Bettina asked earnestly. “It’ll be wild. You’ll know practically
everyone I’m sure.”
“Of course I will,” Jane assured her and added. “Here’s my wedding gift, to be used every day if you please, so that you never forget me!”
Bettina laughed gaily as she tore off the wrapping paper and hugged Jane. “Super,” she said. “I promise to do just that. Thanks tons, Jane. You know, I’m getting so nervous I can hardly sleep at night. It’s crazy! Hey, I’m parched, let’s go and have a coffee or something.”
Jane followed her to the kitchen, reflecting on the strange words which had flashed into her mind about Bettina. They haunted her, despite the fact that she resolutely pushed the subject away from her every time it cropped up. Now, once again, she refused to think about it and concentrated hard on all that Bettina was saying, bubbling over as she was with excitement. There were moments when she decided she would not be able to go to the wedding, and others when Kevin, and the months they had spent together, seemed so far away and old history that she wondered at her hesitancy. What she did ask herself, often enough, was how Bettina could trust someone whom she knew had treated her best friend so badly.
“But of course,” she thought. “One always has the illusion that that will never happen to oneself. What a web of illusions we all live in. Perhaps it’s the only way we can survive, life without fantasy and illusion might be pretty ugly!”
“Is your home all ready?” she asked.
“Nearly. I’m meeting Kevin tonight and we’re going there to fix up some things. A friend of his is going to live there while we’re on our honeymoon and we want to get the place tidy for him.”
Just then Nelly, Bettina’s mother, arrived back from work. She was a tall, thin woman with a plain face and an anxious expression. Her continuous, dry little cough betrayed the fact that she was a chain smoker. She greeted Jane warmly and joined them in the kitchen, lighting up a cigarette while she drank her coffee and admired the bread board.
“You’re going to miss Bettina,” Jane said, and Nelly put out her hand and covered her daughter’s fondly.
“I am,” she agreed. “But Bettina has promised me lots of grandchildren in order to keep me really busy.”
Inevitably Bettina and Jane’s glances crossed. Half an hour later Jane rose and said, “Gosh, it’s late. I must be going. If there is anything I can do to help in any way, Bet, you know you can rely on me. Let me know when your shower tea is going to be and where, that’s most important. You’ve got my ‘phone number haven’t you? Anyway I’m at home all day, I mean at my parent’s house, so you can always get me there.”
“How is your mother?” Bettina asked, belatedly.
“She’s fine, but she’s full of little complaints and keeps me running all day. Of course, she’s in plaster and it’s not very comfortable for her, poor thing, but she’s fine really.”
Jane gave Bettina a hug and whispered “ ‘Bye now. See you.”
As she walked out of the building she shivered, despite the fact that the evening was warm for she was filled with a strange disquiet. She had not been in her own apartment for more than five minutes when Javier telephoned her.
“Are you free tonight?” he asked.
“Why?” Jane returned cautiously.
“María Paulina is back and we’re going to a party tonight at the house of a friend of hers. Would you like to come with us? It’s a good way to meet new people, that is, if you want to.”
It would also be a good way to dispel the agitation which was threatening to break down all her carefully set up barricades.
“Sure. Lovely. Thanks.”
“We’ll come by in about an hour and a half. O.K.?”
“Great. I’ll be ready.”
María Paulina turned out to be a plump, jolly girl who reminded Jane of Soledad. She twisted round in the front seat of the car in order to be able to speak more easily to Jane as Javier drove rapidly through the traffic-filled streets.
“My friend Rocío always gives the maddest of parties,” she declared. “Tonight it’s a hot dog ‘do’ and we all have to take sausages. And then I expect it will be ice-cream for pudding. I’m surprised she didn’t want us all to go dressed as sausage dogs or something crazy like that. She lives with an enormous man who’s been married three times already, he’s got children of about twenty and others of about thirteen and one, I think, of seven, and they all go there for weekends. I don’t know how Rocío stands it, but she seems happy enough. He’s away just now, on business. That’s why she`s giving this party, because she says she’s lonely.”
María Paulina chattered happily on and Jane was glad not to have to make conversation. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a building she recognized, and realized that they were driving through the suburb where the Plaths lived. The memory of her last fight with Kevin rose up within her, together with the pain and shock she had felt. Would she never get over him? So many years and she still seemed to shrivel inside when some unexpected circumstance brought up the past a little too clearly. With a great effort of will she pushed the unhappy memories out of her mind and a few minutes later they arrived at Rocío’s house. It was long and low, surrounded by a garden and many trees. The area was still residential but the houses and gardens were smaller and did not boast watchmen. A number of cars were already drawn up in the street and the noise of music and laughter wafted out into the night air.
Jane could hardly believe her eyes when she saw Rocío. She had a small, sweet face surrounded by a mass of soft curly hair, but she was the fattest twenty-odd-year-old Jane had ever seen. She wore a loose sort of tunic, puce, which floated about her and, if anything, made her look even fatter. When she caught sight of María Paulina she waved vigorously and bore down on them, skirts and sleeves fluttering, bracelets jangling, long dangling ear-rings flashing.
“We’ve all been waiting for you,” she cried. “Come on in, we’re just about to serve the hot dogs.”
Javier introduced Jane and Rocío kissed her with genuine pleasure, exclaiming, “Any friend of María Paulina and Javier’s is a friend of mine. Lovely to meet you Jane. Leave your coats and bags in my bedroom, you know the way, Pauli. Ah, the sausages! Thank you, Javier. Beto phoned me today, wasn’t that divine? He says his ingrowing toenail is giving him hell, poor darling. Oh, look, Felipe and Sonia have just arrived. Javier, would you take the sausages to the kitchen?”
She handed his packet of sausages back to him and hurried off to welcome her new guests.
“Isn’t she divine?” María Paulina laughed. “And I can’t tell you what it’s like when Beto’s here, and the children, because they’re all big too!”
The hot dogs with plenty of mustard were filling and extremely satisfying. The generous helpings of ice-cream which followed quite delicious. Javier and María Paulina made a point of introducing Jane to all their acquaintances and she found that she was enjoying herself far more than she had expected. Chairs and benches had been placed haphazardly on the lawn around the flag-stoned patio. Beyond them the garden was swallowed up by the darkness. Jane could make out the crowns of trees against the star-filled night sky. It was a delicious evening, the air was cool soft and balmy, Rocìo’s choice of music was of the background type which didn’t intrude or make conversation difficult, and Rocío herself seemed to be everywhere, mixing, introducing, joining; no one was left out or ignored, everyone was made to feel welcome and interesting.
“It’s an art,” Jane thought as she accepted a cup of coffee from a somewhat frayed-looking little maid and moved over to join Javier and María Paulina. At that moment faint cries of “Fire! Fire!” and the smell of smoke caught their attention. Distant yells and shouts confirmed their fears as a pall of smoke floated over the trees and filled everybody with alarm.
“There’s a house on fire,” someone yelled, and most of the guests ran to the end of the garden, for the fire appeared to be raging in a neighbour’s house next door. Jane, staring through the smoke at figures running to and fro with buckets, started forward with a low cry, for there, quite clearly, was Kevin.
“Is this Kevin’s house? Where’s Bettina?” she thought wildly as several of the young men around her began to climb the fence in order to go and help. Others had already left to run round the block. In the distance the wail of several fire engines grew louder.
“Javier, I know that person, we must help him!” Jane cried, gripping the fence.“Help me over, quickly.”
“Go round,” he shouted, catching her by the shoulder.
“There’s no time. Help me, Javier. Help me over.”
Javier made a cradle with his hands and Jane placed her foot in it and with this help was able to scramble over the high fence. The smoke was even thicker and the flames inside the house were clearly visible. As he followed Jane, Javier looked closely at the figure of a young man battering at the front door of the house with a spade and recognized him as the same person who had been in the restaurant he had gone to with Jane.
“Stay there,” he yelled to María Paulina. “There are too many people already!” and he ran after Jane through the thick bitter smoke.
“Kevin,” Jane wanted when she reached him. “Where’s Bettina?”
Kevin turned a ravaged, severely burned face towards her. “She’s inside, but I can’t get in, I CAN’T GET IN,” he cried and returned to bashing the front door desperately with the spade he held in his hands. All the windows were safe-guarded with wrought iron bars. Jane ran to the back door but it was locked. The roar of the fire inside the house was terrifying. Javier found a log and started to hit the door. The smoke was overpowering and many of those who had come to help had to desist, coughing and helpless. Jane dragged off her blouse and, wetting it in a bucket of water that a man was about to fling at the front door, she tied it round her face as Javier staggered away overcome by the heat. She grabbed the log from him and hammered against the door as Kevin dragged his shirt off and did the same as Jane had done. Throwing away the log, Jane caught the spade and tried to work it between the door and the door jamb but although she and Kevin pushed with all their might the spade was the wrong shape.
“Save her, save her,” Jane prayed as she fought with the spade. “Lord, you can save her, you can protect her from the flames, somehow. Don’t let her die, Lord, don’t let her die. She’s only twenty three, she’s too young to die, too young, too young!”
The wail of the fire engines drowned out all other noises as they roared up, their lights whirling and flashing. The firemen leapt to the ground, racing to unfurl the hoses and to break open the door with iron bars, shouting at the onlookers to get back and out of the way. Kevin collapsed, coughing and sobbing. Someone dragged him away.
“Look out, señorita,” a fireman yelled as the door broke open.
“I’m a nurse,” Jane shouted. “There is a woman inside. Quick, save her.”
A fireman in an asbestos suit raced into the burning inferno inside the house while others broke open the back door, and minutes later he ran through it carrying Bettina, her clothes on fire. They wrapped her in a blanket as the onlookers sent up a cheer, and Jane ran after them as they carried Bettina away from the smoke and the people. Filled with horror she knelt beside her on the grass, and was overjoyed to feel the flickering beat of her pulse beneath her fingers. Kevin appeared, leaning on Javier’s shoulder.
“She’s alive, Kevin, but she’s terribly burned,” Jane said, standing up and ordering the press of curious onlookers to get back.
“She’s alive!” she shouted. “Don’t crowd round. Keep away, keep away.”
A general moan escaped from the throats of those present, and someone shouted, “There comes an ambulance!” Minutes later a small mobile emergency unit arrived and a doctor and a male assistant hurried over to where Jane squatted beside Bettina. After a quick consultation, Bettina was lifted onto a stretcher and taken to the ambulance and Kevin, who was also suffering from burns, was assisted towards it, his legs tottering.
“I’m going with them, Javier,” Jane said. “I left my things with María Paulina’s, can you bring them? We’re going to the Hospital Benegas, it’s the nearest.”
As she spoke she was dragging on her damp, stained blouse, shivering violently. Javier pulled off his pullover and thrust it into her hands as she turned to run towards the ambulance.
“Put it on,” he shouted after her.
In the unit the doctor was giving Bettina oxygen, Kevin sat slumped on a flap-down seat, Jane climbed in and the assistant closed the doors behind her. As the vehicle got under way, she put on Javier’s pullover before taking Kevin’s pulse. He opened his eyes and looked at her with a glazed expression, closing them again as tears began to course down his face.