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Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
There’s a place, mother, in the world
that is called Paris
Each time he scratched his head he asked again whether there was anything to eat. “Idiot,” I thought, looking at him out the corner of my eye, and I went on with my accounts. Eating: baguette, 4.20 F; paté, 7.90 F; beer, 8 F; total: 20.10 francs. With 20 francs and 10 centimes we’d be able to eat. I needed to do the accounts while he just muttered between his teeth. He did it to annoy me, I know that, so I just gripped the pencil stub and went on counting.
“There isn’t another blanket around, is there? This cold’s seeping into my bones, and so hungry like I am, I can’t take it.”
He keeps talking rubbish like this. We ought to count ourselves lucky we still have even these old coats. A coat, 200 F; though you can find them for 100 F at a street market. Total: 120 francs and 10 centimes. The last blanket I managed to get my hands on cost me a bruise on my left eye. We were already living alone by then and I was the one who had to take care of these things. Before then, the girl used to deal with everything, and she never let me help with the accounts. Just as well I taught myself. That day there were four of us rummaging in the same garbage can, and I came across the blanket, but one of them wanted to snatch it from me and the whole row kicked off. The other two took advantage of it to join in the quarrel. When the guy hit me in the face, I fell, but with one hand I managed to reach a bit of broken toilet and I threw it at him. Blood started coming out and the others got scared. I took the blanket back and ran off. The bruise lasted weeks and now this guy starts with his whole There isn’t another blanket around, is there, because I’m cold, well I’m cold too, idiot, we’re all cold here. Winter is tough and with an empty stomach things are harder to bear. I should do a count: how many winters have we been here? I don’t know, a whole life. (Make a note of this as an outstanding account.)
“One day I’ll go up to the top floor of the tower and I’ll build myself an apartment there, the city must be a beautiful thing seen from up there, and not feeling cold, that’d be even better.”
The tower, 57 francs to get up to the top level. Total: 177 francs and 10 centimes. Who ever told him they’d let him live up there? He’s a moron who does nothing but dream, that’s what the girl said before she left, but nobody can live on dreams, that’s why we haven’t got anything. The tower’s for the tourists who come to take photos of the city and the people. We can go up, too, but it doesn’t interest me at all, but what I do like is when they take my photo. I smile and try to put a nice face on for them, unlike him who covers his face and starts insulting them as though these tourists were to blame for the life we lead. One time he got so angry that he snatched some poor girl’s camera off her. The boy was no longer living with us then and we had nothing from the girl but the postcards. He threw the camera on the floor and started jumping up and down on top of it. She tried to apologise in a language I don’t know and ended up taking out a banknote to give us. He yelled hysterically and turned his back on her. I looked down, gathered up the pieces of the camera, in pieces now, and looked at her. I remember the girl. She was pretty, and all she wanted was some souvenir of our city, which everyone likes so much. She watched me smiling as she walked away. With the banknote I bought 2 pains au chocolat, 3.90 F each, a litre of milk, 6.10 F and a cheap cologne, 15.10 F. Total: 29 francs. For a grand total: 206 francs and 10 centimes. The following day we breakfasted like kings and he didn’t dare ask where the money had come from. Of course, he’s only the dreamer, I’m the one who has to keep track of the accounts.
“When the cold lets up a bit, I want to go see the little boat, I’m homesick for the water.”
I throw him a dirty look and he shrinks under his blanket. Homesick for the water, who else could have come up with something like that? He has dozens of paintings of the little boat, when it started operating he used to like going to the river, which looks like a sea, where the little boat goes. It tours all round the city and the tourists show themselves on deck with their flashbulbs and their cool drinks. Bateaux Mouches, 40 francs. Total: 246 francs and 10 centimes. He fell in love with it the moment he saw it. The boy and I had to go with him. He would paint them from the wall while the boy got bored and threw pebbles in the water. One day he wanted to visit it and then we had a problem. Who’d ever imagine that people like us… You only had to look at our faces to know we didn’t have 40 francs. I grabbed his arm for us to leave, but he started insulting everyone, like he always does, and while that man was trying to explain it to him he ran out onto the boat. There was chaos. Everyone was running and he was like a fly always slipping through their fingers, running and jumping over the benches, laughing like a lunatic, and me standing there dying of shame, until they caught him. I thought we’d be sent to the dungeons, but they let us go free. I spent a week not talking to him then, I counted up all the benches that had been left standing and the ones that were knocked over. The boy helped me with the accounts after he had got back from selling the pictures of the little boat. It was a difficult calculation, the whole thing done from memory, a very hard job. Now whenever he wants to annoy me, he recalls that episode.
“Oof, I can’t even move my legs in this cold! I’d be glad to go to the Grand Avenue like we used to, but now it’s all so expensive, it’s all so expensive…”
He turns around curled up in his blanket and manages to shove me with his stocky old backside. It was different before, I was different and so was the city. We used to go up to the Grand Avenue, as he says, the most important one in the city, and we’d walk it top to bottom. But the Champs Elysées is only for tourists now, or kids asking for money, or whores in disguise, and everything so expensive. A coffee, 15 francs. Total: 261 francs and 10 centimes. Last time we were over there, he waited for me sitting on the little wall outside the cinema. We were already living alone by then and I’d wait for the tourists to ask for money. At one point a policeman came up to me and started insulting me, didn’t I think a woman like me was too old to be doing this, and wasn’t I ashamed? I said what I was ashamed of was not having a pair of gloves to protect me from the cold. Then the guy started laughing saying I was crazy, to go home, it wasn’t the time to be wandering around there on my own. Except I wasn’t alone and he got up from the little wall and gave the policeman a big shove from behind. The policeman fell over and I started laughing seeing the way he kicked him to defend me, a girl came over and spat on the one who was on the ground, then another really camp one came over and farted at him. Then some other policemen came. That was the last night we went out to the Grand Avenue. They held us for several hours before letting us go. I don’t want to go back there, I don’t want to.
“God! I can’t get to sleep and you’re making me all nervous now buried with your accounts in that notebook of yours. We’re out of cigarettes, right? If only we had one left, just one to calm my nerves!”
Cretin. The girl didn’t like it when I counted things either, but now if I don’t do it, who’s going to, huh? Who’s going to do it? Cigarettes: 19.60 francs. Total: 280 francs and 70 centimes. Cigarettes were how the boy started, I know that, but it was other people’s cigarettes and then he went on and on and we never noticed. One time his friends brought him back, they said they’d found him under the bridge, his body practically half in the river. His eyes were red and his face all stupefied. I lay him down and he just repeated over and over “I want to go to the Louvre, I want to go to the Louvre”. But the Louvre… 45 francs. Total: 325 francs and 70 centimes. We can’t do it, kiddo. I tried to understand him, but he was a very strange kid and then the other one with all his crazy dreams, grunting and cursing he said culture was universal and that he would take the boy to see the museum. They went the next morning. In the afternoon he came back alone and sat down on the ground without speaking to me. The boy was back at midnight, totally drunk, and that was when he started cursing at us. He said we were just crazies who spent our lives filling his head with things that were beyond his grasp. He wanted to be like his sister and since he wasn’t a kid any more he had decided to leave us. And he left us. Just like the girl so long before. He left us.
“What time is it? Can you tell you how many fucking hours there are still left till morning?”
How many hours? I don’t know, my watch is six hours fast, that’s what the girl says. How many hours left till morning? (Make a note of this as an outstanding account.) How many hours have passed since the boy left home? I don’t know, sometimes the accounts do go a bit wrong. The girl’s years of absence can be counted in postcards, one a month, one year equals twelve months, so that adds up to 72 postcards (this goes in a separate account.) With the boy the account remains outstanding. I remember that when they called me I had to get the bus, 8 francs, total: 333 francs and 70 centimes. No, we paid for two tickets, so 16 francs, total: 341 francs and 70 centimes. I’m sure this one doesn’t remember a thing, now he’s lying with his back against the wall and he’s humming La Marseillaise, real quiet, as usual, to annoy me. But I do remember. The boy was found on a bank of the river. They say he was very drugged up and drunk. When I saw him he was so skinny I wanted to take him to eat things he liked: a nice fish 82 francs, a glass of wine 12 francs and one of those little sweets at 8.40 francs, total: 102 francs and 40 centimes. For a grand total: 444 francs and 10 centimes.
“You think it’s really so cold up the top of the tower? ‘cos if that’s what it’s like I don’t want to live up there.”
Idiot, cretin, this man can only say the stupidest things. It’s him and his dreams that have brought us to ruin. Another 57 francs to go up the tower, total: 501 francs and 10 centimes. Going up and persuading him you can’t live there, you can’t get there, it’s too high up, it’s too far away, but he has no sense of boundaries. The last thing the boy said was “I want to see Paris from the Eiffel Tower,” and he replied quite madly yes, we’ll go up together, and we’d get a photo of the four of us. Then the boy smiled and I knew we were never going to get anywhere. The doctor said it was a suicide, but I didn’t believe him. He simply went, he took the metro 8 francs, total: 509 francs and 10 centimes, and he went someplace else. I just stayed doing the accounts, while this one went on rambling the whole time, talking about his unattainable dreams. When the girl came back, she caught us by surprise. She announced that she’d only come for a short holiday, but she didn’t want to tell us anything about her trip, nor about the places she’d been. She said life was difficult in any city. She cried when she learned her brother had taken the metro, because the metro in Paris is so big that anybody might get lost. The girl did a lot of crying in the first few days and I counted the tears (separate account). Now she’s about to leave again and it makes me happy because the postcards will start arriving again and then I’ll have accounts, many accounts to do and I’ll keep myself busy the whole time.
“Oh! It’s starting to get light already, a nice cup of coffee and the cold will start to let up.”
A coffee 6 francs if you have it standing up, it’s cheaper like that, two coffees 12 francs, total: 521 francs and 10 centimes. He’s got 10 centimes in his pocket, I know he keeps them like an amulet, so now we’re just 521 francs short and then we’re all set. If it weren’t for me doing the accounts I don’t know what would become of us because this one’s scratching his head again and asking if we don’t have anything to eat? Oh!—and then the door opens and there’s the girl holding the coffee.
“What on earth is all this?” The woman stops and looks at her parents huddled on the floor, surrounded by postcards. You didn’t sleep again today? Mamá, please, papá, it’s 35 degrees out there and here you two are bundled up in those rags like you were freezing to death, that’s enough, please, I’m sick of you, in a week’s time I’m going back to Paris and I don’t intend to send you any more postcards, or come back on holiday, I’ve never been able to bear this city or the two of you, so forget about me and open that window as it’s morning already and it’s hot as hell.”
The sun comes into the room and they cover their eyes with their hands. Just beyond her, the outline of the tower of Revolution Square in Havana.