Rocío was naked and Luke was not. For him, it felt the other way around. Why now, he thought, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He’d never had a problem undressing in front of a woman before.
‘I need a beginning, that’s all. A good place to start.’
‘Papi, please, let me,’ she said, rising from the crumpled bed and coming over.
She hadn’t bothered to make it, he thought, looking beyond her to where it lay abandoned. Perhaps he had woken her? Stumbling up the wooden steps, he’d felt an intruder on the morning. But she had opened the door before he’d even reached it.
Rocío came towards him and he avoided her stare, instead noticing the bead necklace that she’d worn on each of his visits, an amber glow about her throat. He was drawn to it, and from there, down to the roundness of her breasts. Full and heavy above a fleshy waist. She wasn’t young, but neither was he. At thirty nine he knew what to expect from such arrangements and this wasn’t his first visit to the modest looking house in the district of Las Cruces, or to Rocío. He flinched as she reached out to unbutton his shirt and peel back the material. How close she came. He registered the static bounce between his newly revealed body and hers.
‘Relax,’ she whispered.
Her scent was sickly sweet and painfully human, athletic even. It made him want to hold his breath. To not let her in, not yet. And there, in the blur of her nearness, she smiled. He looked down at her face, a broad oval and found the other, revealed faintly in the turn of Rocío’s lips. The upward curl, a mocking grin, the idea of secrets shared, that made him want to die right then.
Rocío smiled again. She was the hot-blood after a punch-up and the first lick of an ice cream. She reached down into his pocket to get at the part of him he couldn’t avoid. It was what he’d paid for, wasn’t it? What he’d asked of the old woman at the door, bringing it out then. The photograph. He was tired of wondering how alike they really were. He wanted to see for himself, one beside the other.
Rocío snatched the image away. He stepped forward and made to take it from her, but stopped. It was remarkable. No one had come close before, but there Rocío was, before him now, parading with this other smile.
‘I am like her, I think?’ she said, holding the faded image up to her face.
‘Are you?’ Luke asked, feeling his voice catch.
She handed it back to him.
‘I have her size.’ Rocío seemed delighted.
She stepped back so he might see and went up onto her toes to meet his gaze. The eyes were wrong but the smile, and if he squinted, the body, could pass.
‘I can’t,’ Luke said, un-wrinkling his view.
‘Come, Papi.’ Rocío took up his fingertips and led him forwards.
‘Stop,’ Luke mumbled.
She turned, the smile gone and, shrugging, went back over to the bed. Luke watched her bend, showing herself to him in ways the other never would have. He stood still, caught between remembering the face in the photograph and watching Rocío’s body now, moving with purpose. He thought how easy it was to create some new version of the woman he had fled from, even here, thousands of miles distant. Rocío climbed up and writhed like something jungle-born, all the time looking back at him with the smile, making sure he knew that she had it. That thing he’d come for. He watched her, resembling something known yet strange as though that other she were really here. His breath caught at the maddening idea that she was. That she had, in some supernatural way, pursued him across the Atlantic. Could it be so? A thick run of fluid flooded his veins, drowning out all sound, so that it was only his heartbeat and her name he heard. And somewhere in the shadow of his thoughts, he became aware of himself over by the bed and climbing. Covering, ready, rising. Luke closed his eyes and there she was.
Luke fell out onto the street as though reborn. It was still early, but the promise of a hot day was right there, edging in off the Andes, laying claim to the Bogotá streets. He swallowed and looked back up at the room he had just departed. A sliver of light from the open window gave nothing away. Rocío would be standing at the basin across the room, cleaning the last of him from her thighs. No matter, he thought, raising a hand to mask a flash of sunlight reflected by a passing car. He hurried onwards, unable to find regular pace in the aftermath of his expulsion.
At the corner of Tisquesusa Park he stopped a small boy selling coffee and found change for a shot. Black, hot and sobering. The boy was like the young, shoeless creatures that kept to the shadows in the boarding house, although he never looked too closely to see if any resembled Rocío. He returned the cup while the boy waited, squinting up at him, as though he might say or do something remarkable. Instead, Luke slipped him another centavo and walked on. It was a good hour on foot to the small apartment he kept in the district of La Merced. Despite the old pain in his leg, he enjoyed walking the city. One moment, the sun on your back seared with a tropical heat that left you sweating, then the next you were reminded of the altitude, all eight thousand, six hundred feet of it. Bogotá never let you forget it was planted high on a plateau so that the cool mountain air turned all that heat to ice, often leaving you feverish and shivering. He didn’t mind it. He liked going slow like the locals. They knew how to walk. He’d been perfecting his own slowness for eight months now. Señora Rojas, his housekeeper, would have left him a plate of something for later, portioned out as extra from her own table. What the Rojas household ate, he did too, and today was predictably a chicken soup day. There was no need for him to hurry now. He would let opportunity lead, as it had earlier, when it took him to the only brothel he knew trading on a Sunday. On the whole, whores were as devout as housewives. His hands went to his pockets and he found the edge of the photograph. He breathed deep, leaving it there. His, guarded, safe.
When Luke reached the city’s main square, Plaza de Bolívar, the alarmingly close ding-ding of an electric tram sharing his path snapped him back to the present. He jumped back up and onto the pavement. The trolley hurtled by. It was full, ferrying church-goers who’d turned out in their Sunday best, now crumpled and ungodly inside. The driver looked harassed by the passengers against his back and Luke caught up the stare of an old man pinned against a window. Why me, he seemed to ask, but the bus had rattled him away before Luke had a willing answer. It sparked on its runners as it turned the corner and was lost to him. The day had already found its feet and he had already lost his once, he thought, recalling Rocío’s hot kisses, before sealing the door as best he could on this morning’s encounter.
‘Por favour, mister.’ Dirt-stained fingers tugged at his jacket. Luke looked down to see its owner, a man dressed in a suit fashioned from rags, sitting in the dirt at his feet. At some moment in his life his leg had broken beneath the knee joint and it was fused now at an appalling angle. Luke emptied his pockets into the man’s palms and hurried on. The square lay before him like a foundation slab turned to the sun. It was going to be a bright October day without a cloud in the sky. He stepped down off the curb and picked his way over the tram tracks to where he’d spotted a squat cantina squeezed in between the grand buildings either side of it. He was hungry and it would do. The cantina had a little sign nailed to its door. It was called La Casa de la Risa, the house of laughter, but it looked a joyless little place. The ugliest of them always produced the best food, he’d found. Inside the cantina, it was dark and it took his eyes some moments to adjust. In a sort of daze he motioned to the serving girl, a small creature with eyes black like draft ink, who found him a seat near the back. Luke blinked and checked his watch. It was eleven thirty. He wished he’d been able to take a seat at the front but the cantina was full. He liked watching the street and the people on it. He’d been in the country almost a year but it still held that tourist’s fascination for him. Luke removed his jacket and dropped it onto the chair back. The girl came over and in his cleanest Spanish he ordered.
‘Arepa y huevos.’
‘Huevos pericos y tinto?’ she asked, betraying a local accent that came out as though she were singing.
‘Sí,’ he said, sending the girl back to what looked like her papa beside the grill. The older man took his order and looked up, nodding once in Luke’s direction as though to thank him for the patronage. Luke returned it, although really he’d just come for the eggs. He removed the photograph from his trouser pocket. He shouldn’t have taken it to the brothel, but the need had been too great. He placed it on the table, correcting the edges where Rocío had curled her dexterous fingers around it. We should stop this, he thought, looking at the face.
The girl arrived with coffee. Luke sipped at the sweet black liquid and resumed his study of the picture – a sepia photograph of a pretty girl with a smile full of cunning. She was spread across the sands, somewhere that, given the ancient rock face behind her, could have been a brilliant cove on a Greek island. The truth was revealed in pencil on the back: Catherine, Lulworth Cove, Dorset, 1932. They’d been twenty four but him, only just. That’s why they’d gone; a birthday by the sea and everything ahead. He’d been qualified for three years and already practicing as an architect. The last war had seen to that. He’d been just a boy, really, but bright enough to see that when many left and few returned, someone would benefit. Things had seemed golden then. In the photograph, Catherine wore a jumper and overalls beneath. He remembered that trip to the Dorset coast as uneventful, other than how hard it was to unpin the clasps on the overalls when they tripped back up the steps of her aunt’s cottage. She’d giggled at his clumsiness. She wasn’t nervous. She hadn’t been in love though, not like him. Not then. Whatever happened to those trousers afterwards? Had she cast them off the cliff and into the sea? He smiled and took another sip. It would have been like her to do that.
The girl was before him again with eggs and the bread made with maize he’d taken to. He picked up the fork and ate like one starved. Towards the front of the room a discussion had broken out between three men who were smoking. Luke pushed his plate away, ordered another tinto and watched. The largest of the group wore a poncho of brilliant red, rich by comparison to the drab interior of the cafe and the brown suits of his companions. He was arguing with the man beside him. From what he could tell, the argument was about the youngest of the group, who bore a striking resemblance to this man. He could have been his son or nephew.
‘Please. Not him...’ the man spoke.
‘It’s too late, you agreed, you both did,’ said the one in the poncho.
The boy looked insignificant in his silence, passed verbally between them. Something inside the boy’s relative seemed to break, and upsetting the table, he left. Luke watched to see what the boy would do. He looked as if he was about to follow, but the man in the poncho stopped him, handing him something from beneath his cloak. A folded piece of cloth, the same red as the poncho, Luke thought. When he looked up next the boy had gone and the large man too.
He called the waitress back and found coins for the meal. He was full, content even, and would save Señora Rojas’ generous soup for the evening. He turned to reach for his jacket just as a deafening roar, like twisting metal, came from the front of the building. At first he thought the cantina’s shutter had fallen but it was something beyond that, on the square, which had caused everyone to rush outside. He followed the waitress out onto the street where they stood looking across at an electric tram partially shaken from its tracks, its front gnarled and ugly, beneath which the boy from the cantina lay, almost cut clean in half by the wheels. The waitress turned and screamed, muffling her face against his shirt front. He felt numb, an observer. He couldn’t take his eyes from it. Not the stunned travellers dismounting its steps, nor the body that lay like wet clay beneath it, but the roll of fabric – a flag – now un-sheaved, wrapped tight like a vice around one hand, revealing a bloody hammer and sickle.
Luke detached himself from the girl and looked across at the owner of the cantina. The man stood close to the cafe entrance and beckoned her back over. She went and Luke was alone whilst those around him spoke fast in a local dialect he couldn’t understand. In another minute the crowd had thickened and he could no longer see anything of the dead boy. The waitress was sobbing against the old man’s chest and Luke thought about going over, to offer some words that might make sense of the destruction. Instead, he turned from them and slipped quietly away.