The baby awakens and suckles. The man comes to consciousness in the quiet and dark of the bedroom and hears the regular soft sounds of his wife and his child. Suck, suck, swallow. A pause. Suck, suck, swallow; then the sound of a breath, a breath in two phases – a shorter one high in pitch and a slower one, deeper: the sounds of an ardent drinker and a sleepy feeder. The sounds of the flesh of his flesh.
The man leans on his arm and watches and sees something new. The baby has stopped in mid-suck. He looks up to his mother’s sleeping face and his mouth falls open. He smiles at her, then his arm reaches up and touches her face, plays with her hair. Milk spills from his smile. At the baby’s touch, the mother stirs and sees the smile, reaches for the camera of memory. She wants to capture this moment and to preserve it.
They arrived here in Buenos Aires the day before yesterday. They flew across the world and arrived, excited and anxious and dog tired. The father returning to the city of his birth, the mother with her chick to a different nest. But the baby has not travelled at all. He is at home in this world which is his mother – his locality are her smells, the feel and the sound and the taste of her.
Father is up early, putting on his work suit, dressing and grooming himself fussily. He wants to present himself well for the culture of vanity here.
He is dressed and ready early, anxious to make a start, to make a favourable impression. But he is anxious too about leaving. He wants to protect his wife and child: DON’T WEAR JEWELLERY IF YOU GO OUT, DON’T WEAR YOUR EXPENSIVE CLOTHES, DON’T TAKE THAT PRAM – WEAR THE BABY IN THE SLING, DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS, DON’T GO ON THE SUBWAY, DON’T TAKE ANY CAB ON THE STREET – CALL UP AND ORDER ON THE HOTEL PHONE….
The lorry has a flat tray. On the tray thin young men in filthy singlets are bent forward, working at some task, bracing themselves for the bumps and the bends, oblivious to the traffic. The lorry screeches to a halt at the traffic lights and as Marnie approaches she smells meat – the raw meat smell of a butcher’s shop. She can see now what the men are doing, they are boning carcasses, placing the cuts of meat into large white plastic tubs, and throwing the fat and scraps and bones into smaller black tubs. Some of the rubbish bin people are gathering at the edges of the truck’s tray, peering, reaching for scraps.
The lights turn green and the truck moves off. A small man on the tray reaches into his black tub, and without looking up, with scarcely a break in his cutting and trimming, throws scraps backwards to the people on the path, and with a roar the truck is gone.
A low cry rises and falls, the scraps are scrabbled for, secured, stowed in pockets or bags, and the people disperse and return to the alleys and to the rubbish bins there.The park in Recoleta is as she recalls it from previous visits – beautiful, vast and secure. This privileged suburb is heavily and discreetly policed. In the open spaces of the park,the autumn sunshine is surprisingly strong, and Marnie walks across to the stand of grand old elms, where the light is dappled emerald and the air is balmy. Sebastian sleeps and when she catches sounds of a distant didgeridoo she wonders whether she’s dreaming too.
She turns and walks towards the sound – deep and low, rhythmic and profound – it is calling to her. But then it stops. She listens but it is lost. Was it really there at all? Perhaps it’s jet lag. Aware now of her deep tiredness, she walks back towards the road and the hotel.
Back on the street, she smiles at the young woman pushing her baby towards her. The woman is very young, a girl really, and very thin. As they close on each other, Marnie can see that the baby is thin too and pale. The woman stops and speaks: Es posible dar un panale?… Tienes panales?
What ? What is she asking of her? Marnie is lost. This is an appeal of sorts – but what does the girl want? She stands, uncertain. The girl speaks again: un panale? The phrase book is back at the hotel: Marnie is confused, embarrassed. The girl is blushing too. Marnie tries sign language – is it food?
A vigorous shaking of the head. Money?
Apparently not, for the girl is lifting her baby in the air and holding its bottom towards Marnie, pointing repeatedly at the baby’s bottom, and again says that word: Panales, panale!
Marnie cannot fathom it. She reaches into her pocket and pushes an American dollar into the girl’s hand, and says I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Gracias, Senora, gracias.
The girl is gone and Marnie walks the short distance back to the hotel thinking of the passive thin baby and that young mother begging. But what for? What were her husband’s parting words? You don’t understand.
Back in the hotel, she climbs the four floors to their suite. Jaime – that’s her husband’s name – has been seconded here, and this accommodation comes with the job. She is weary and of course Sebastian is wakening up. She sits down on the floor with him, to play. Above and behind him something moves across her field of sight. It is a man in the corresponding apartment in the next block. He walks across his room, towards a bed or a couch, which a woman is making up. He picks up a pen and a newspaper and lies down and writes. She thinks nothing of what she has seen.
The baby is fretful. She gives him the breast and her mind works on a thin baby who behaves too well, a thin mother and a painful request that she cannot interpret.
And she hears or feels the pulsating echoes of a didgeridoo in her mind’s ear.
Next day, she’s awake too early, bathes and dresses the baby in clothes that are drab enough to be safe, then drabs herself up by dressing down. Meanwhile Jaime dresses to kill and to dazzle all the senior peacocks at the Buenos Aires branch of the multinational.
Jaime goes to work and Marnie, restless in the confined apartment, decides to walk with Sebastian to Tortoni.
Tortoni is a coffee shop where Argentines invent their culture. It is both a monument and a movement. Here she will drink coffee, admire the paintings and the poems on the walls – and look drab.
Not all the relics at Tortoni are inanimate. The waiters, too, are national treasures. Ancient, dignified, as serious as a Pope, they move with slow grace in their waistcoats and their mustachios, to and from their customers.
The customer orders what she wants and the waiters decide what she needs. In Marnie’s case, she requests espresso, and the waiter slides away before she has finished speaking, apparently uninterested, returning a good while later with a tray. Gravely, he sets down a small fresh orange juice, then a miniature croissant, then the espresso and a minute wafer. Finally, a small glass of warm frothy milk is produced with a bow and an explanation: leche para el pequeno – milk for the little one.
The entire ceremony is performed with the greatest kindness and without a trace of a smile. Only lightweights and the Mona Lisa smile, smiles are not the specialty of this house. Marnie has been here before. Sooner or later most visitors to Buenos Aires come here to pay homage. It is an Argentine Sistine Chapel. Something, though, is different. Marnie cannot at first identify what has changed. Then it comes to her – the waiters are thinner. They do not fill their cummerbunds.
The paintings are here still, that lovely stained glass ceiling, a miracle of green and light; the paintings that crowd the walls and the poems that fill the gaps; those atmospheric billiard rooms, the concert room where new tangos made their premiere – all is present and
proud and very fine. And inexpressibly sad. Marnie starts to cry.
Marnie needs some fresh air, didn’t they name it buenos aires for the good air here? She’ll take the baby to the park in Recoleta. She binds Sebastian securely into the harness, pays her bill and walks towards the door. Looking out towards the Avenida she sees the battalions of the hungry gathered to glean from the rich.
The gleanings outside Tortoni are edible and saleable – fine foods from the plates of the privileged, which the kitchen staff wrap carefully to keep it edible; and bottles, lots of bottles, wine bottles, plastic juice bottles, empty food jars, Evian bottles.
The bottle battalion is here – three generations of a family, working the bins feverishly, grandfather and grandmother pushing ancient prams, younger adults sorting and stacking, thin kids darting, grabbing, racing booty back to the adults.
The prams are rickety old veterans, rigged up with raffia mesh on each side to accommodate extra bottles. Mother and father wear funny-looking multi-coloured belts. These are not there for fashion or to hold their trousers up: the belts are actually plastic bags of various colours and sizes tied end to end around their waists. One by one they peel these from their waists and fill them with bottles once the prams are packed full.
The family scampers at its foraging, a cohesive society of ants. One hundred bottles bring a family a couple of dollars, a narrow bridge between despair and mere want.
Marnie emerges from Tortoni. A customer here might be a tourist, someone with dollars, so the battallions pause and look her over. Marnie looks scruffy enough, and they turn away. But one among them recognises her. It is yesterday’s pale young lady with her quiet baby.
Marnie smiles at them, mother and child. The child does not respond, but the mother produces a brief smile. The smile is extinguished and followed by a look of urgency. The girl produces a disposable nappy and waves it: eso es un panale – she points to the nappy and says the
word slowly and emphatically: Panale! Then she renews her petition of yesterday: Tienes panale para mi nino?
Now Marnie gets it. Yes she does have a nappy for the baby, here – take a couple! She plunges gratefully into her nappy bag and grabs a handful of panales para el nino.
Back in the park, Marnie enquires about the craft market. She understands that it is near the tomb of Eva Peron, but that the tomb itself is empty. Like the Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the incumbent is elsewhere.
She is directed to the far end of the gardens, and the day is so mild and the sunshine so benign that she relishes the long stroll with Sebastian. That boy is an animated presence against her heart. He is speaking to her in tongues of his own invention; he searches for her gaze, he smiles widely when their eyebeams lock. Marnie feels regret for her jetlag and for her moral lethargy in this disorienting place. She is smiling at Sebastian and speaking to him in her primitive Spanish, the only person with whom she is game to try it.
Tengo panales, Sebby, quieres panale?
Before she can pursue this important enquiry, she hears again the sound of a didgeridoo.