The Children Chapter 14
From Carolina Sanín, The Children.
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor.
(London: MacLehose Press, 2017.)
In Bogotá, new schools left their promotional leaflets next to the tills in the Olímpica, where customers whose children had been expelled from more prestigious institutions could pick them up. Their names suggested faraway, elegant places: Lycée Monaco, Institute of the Loire Valley Chateaux, My Peloponnese Academy, Complete Tuscan School.
According to its leaflet, the Complete Tuscan School offered an experimental team mindful of the students’ stylistic needs and dedicated to the dramatic structure of human life. It went on to explain that some lives were divided into three acts, in the classic mode, whereas others had only one, and still others changed acts the way they changed underwear. Any close observer of the infant constitution was able to determine which category each child fell into, and to administrate knowledge accordingly.
The Complete Tuscan School took in students throughout the year, and was based in three units of the old Los Héroes shopping centre, at the end of Avenida Caracas and the beginning of the Northern motorway. It was located among several stores selling all kinds of things, but in particular knitwear that was moderately cheap, made from lilac-, turquoise- and salmon-coloured acrylic wool. The school had been founded three years earlier and was expanding as its students moved up through the classes. At that moment it offered first, second and third years. It was run by a couple of supposedly Italian sisters, the Zannini, who took it in turn to teach all the subjects, Music included.
The location of the classes in the shopping mall was provvisoria – the leaflet left the word in Italian. At first, the school had been based in a rented house in La Soledad neighbourhood, until the owner died and his heirs decided to demolish their inheritance and construct a building of lofts. On the back page of the leaflet were photographs of these lofts, as well as two phone numbers for anyone interested in buying one.
The pedagogical principle behind the school was the dramatic structure of life, but its guiding spirit was admiration for the super-illustrious men of Tuscany, that divine region of Italy. Each year, its activities were placed beneath the sign of one of these heroes of the past. The year Fidel enrolled, this was Giotto, a shepherd who centuries before was drawing pictures of his sheep on a stone when a greater painter who happened to be passing by discovered his skill and encouraged him to become a painter like him, according to the leaflet.
Since he was seven, Fidel had to go into the first year. Before enrolling him, Laura took him to see the premises. When they came out, he said that the children most like him were the ones in the Third year, who were more numerous. In that year there were eight, in the Second year five, and in the first year, only one.
The Complete Tuscan School gave lessons in all the official curriculum, plus an extra subject taught to all three years in conjunction with Physical Education. If Fidel was telling Laura the truth, this special subject was taught in the shopping centre parking lot so that, with no desks in the way, the students could adopt positions, which must have been the physical exercises, while they were doing the extra ones, which showed their creativity.
“Today we did an exercise with you,” the new student told Laura, full of enthusiasm and talk a week after he had started at the school. “We learned about blessings and curses, and we had to bless a person – that’s like promising them something, which means seeing in the future that you are giving them a gift. To do that you imagine you’re giving that person a dress on which whatever she needs is painted, so that what she needs will become part of the painting and fall from the sky. Signora Zannini said: ‘Who shall we imagine the dress is for?’ I said you, and Luis, who is another boy, said that the dress had a garden painted on it so that in the real world a garden would appear for you, the sort where you grow vegetables, so that we wouldn’t have to go out every day to buy food, because I told him we spend the whole time at the Olímpica. Then a Second-year girl asked how a garden could drop from the sky. After that we did the curses, and you were in that too.”
Laura asked him to explain what curses were. He said they were what he had already told her. She said he had not told her anything. What did they want to happen with them? How had they done them?
“The signora said they are the same as blessings,” said Fidel.
“How can they be the same?”
Laura paid one of the Zannini sisters extra to teach Fidel to read and write while his classmates, who already knew how to read fluently and even silently, were on their break and were going round the shops and the petrol station at Los Héroes. From the third week of school, Laura also began to help him with the reading and writing. She practised with Fidel in the late afternoon, with sheets of paper from the cutlery drawer: the old shopping list, the intern’s report, her descriptions of the whale photographs and the leaflets the schools left by the supermarket tills.
The boy paid attention and understood what he was reading, but an hour afterwards he could not remember what was in the text. “The thing is, I have a bad memory,” he would say, changing the subject to talk about his teacher. He showed how she shaped her mouth when she was saying the letter “e”, and asked Laura to buy some bottled water to show her how the Italian women drank. One night, after they had finished eating and Laura had begun to watch a TV programme, he stood between her and the screen.
“Laura, there’s something I have to ask you, and you have to tell me.”
He wanted to know how many boyfriends she had had, or if she had never had any, and whether she had married them, and why she had not had any children with them, and if they had themselves had children, and what the school where the children studied was like.
Laura did not know how to talk about the island she had in another world, the dark mountain she had created and peopled with distant people from the past. It was a place without hope, but it was at the far end of despair. It could be said it was a sweet land, although in reality there was nothing to say about it. No-one who had gone there had ever come back. It was an empty island, even though it was full of people. There were only people, nothing else. It was in the past, but at the same time in the future. It was the centre of the sea. She could talk to Fidel about love and dissolution, about how everything came to an end and nothing was lost, or she could go through a list of names. Anyway, all he was interested in was the chance to hear himself say he was in love with his teacher.
“When I get married,” he said, “I think I prefer the signora to you.”
With that he set off on his patrol of the apartment to make sure all the doors were properly shut. When he had finished and returned, Laura told him she had never thought he wanted to marry her.
“I know,” he said. “Not everybody can get married to everybody. That’s why I said it.”
Then he asked if they could be brother and sister, like the two Zanninis.
His obsession with the teacher lessened as Christmas drew nearer. In the Complete Tuscan School this was brought forward to the end of October. As preparation for Advent, the students had to spend half an hour contemplating a print of Giotto’s Nativity.
Laura commented that what the print showed was the same as the crib they had made in the living-room at home, but Fidel insisted that what the painting showed was not the same as what was in their hearth. The birth in the crib took place in another country, but the one in the painting had happened a long time ago. He said there were angels in the painting. The people had gold round their heads. The mushrooms didn’t reach the shepherds’ knees as they did in their crib, in fact there were no mushrooms, and the sheep weren’t as small as the people’s eyes. In the painting, the mother was lying down and looked tired after having the baby, but in the crib she was sitting up. Laura reminded him that the bits of toilet paper they had scattered over the fields of Bethlehem were not sheep but snowflakes, the eternal snows of the highest peaks. Fidel said that in the painting no snow was falling, and that was all there was to it, but he did concede that:
“What is the same is that the two children have a good memory and remember everything. They remember even when they were born. That’s why they appear as babies, in that shape.”
The topic of Christmas naturally led on to that of birthdays, now that Fidel was turning eight. He said he had never heard of turning years. What did she mean by turning? Laura reminded him how sure he was of being six and a half on the night of their first meeting, but he did not remember having had any years before seven, and insisted she explain the custom people had of celebrating the date of their birth.
Laura thought it might be good for the year to have a day to celebrate the birth of her child. She suggested they have a party. Even though she had already decided that Fidel had come into the world while she was buying bread on a bus at the start of May, she chose a date in November, the month they were in.
The moment they finished writing the invitation for Luis Palomeque, Fidel’s only classmate, and the only person invited, the floodgates of unhappiness opened. Fidel burst into tears and could not explain why. He cried bitterly almost every day until his birthday. He cried streams of tears that ran down inside his T-shirt and must have made puddles in his navel. Laura could not make out what he was muttering in the midst of his sighs whenever she asked what was wrong. “Why did you say you’re as sad as a toad?” She asked him if perhaps he was sad because he didn’t want a party. He said no, they should have the party, but his torment continued. Brus’s ears smelled of salt, of sweating child, and Laura realised that Fidel was using them to dry his eyes, consoling himself with the dog or plunging himself even deeper into despair in his company.
Carolina Sanin’s The Children is published in English by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus. English translation (c) Nick Caistor.