Translated by Daniel Hahn.
In its search for the birdseed in the cage, this is the bird’s flight. London is a city spread over tunnels that are always the same and trains that always go to the same places. A park with no friends, alcoholics alone in a cinema that offers cheap tickets on Wednesdays: after a few weeks, nothing can remain a novelty. On Tottenham Court Road you can read it on the walls: Glad you aren’t a sheep in the U.K.? Animals – says the advertisement – travel in appalling conditions before being slaughtered.
But there are other appalling stories in London too. One of these is about a guy called Justin, who does the rounds of Soho offices carrying a basket of sandwiches and sweets. He’s twenty years old and he never works alone, because his boss prefers his vendors to go around in pairs: one keeps an eye on the other, every movement, every bit of info collected in every conversation.
In January, the public services are chaos. The cold is an earache. Oxford Street, Wardour Street, D’Arblay Street; on each of the roads that follow on from one another, amid the leftovers from the New Year and accents that might sound like childhood, Justin memorises the prices and fillings of the sandwiches – bacon, lettuce, brie and jam, chicken and sweetcorn. In the plastic cup he puts away the banknotes and the coins. The pair divide out their cut at the end of the morning. Enough for each to pay his rent, for each to buy beer, cigarettes, a phone, a lottery ticket if anyone still believes in luck.
It’s enough for food, too. Chicken and chips, says Justin, that’s Ana’s favourite. She’s looking for work: she tries in shops and restaurants, but nobody wants anything to do with any more Brazilians. Nobody wants anything to do with anything coming from someplace else, Ana complains to Justin. She likes complaining, always has.
Sometimes it’s possible to have a bit of a rest while visiting the offices. Justin asks if he can sit down beneath an awning on Dean Street. Then, his mouth full of chocolate he’s stolen from the basket, he goes on telling stories about Ana. The two of them met some months earlier, when she was here as a tourist. She had to go back, she had a boyfriend in São Paulo, her boyfriend was planning to marry her. Except Ana never stopped writing to Justin, daily, very many times in a day, until she’d summoned up the courage to come. She told her boyfriend, and the rest is a tale of obsession. The boyfriend made threats, said he was ready to pursue her for the rest of her life, across the rest of the world.
Obsession is a total feeling, it’s fuel and sparks and impulse, but Justin doesn’t even think about it in the room he’s rented with Ana in Shepherd’s Bush. He doesn’t think about anything when he returns to the café, hands his boss the money, he needs to get home right away. Don’t you want to come round?, he asks.
I accept the invitation.
It’s not even that far, we don’t even have to change trains, I’m very familiar with the daily smell of the Central Line. In the carriage, there are children coming back from school, grown-ups coming back from work. The sheep jumps out onto the platform, there’s the escalator, a man with varicosed legs is playing the harmonica and… Shepherd’s Bush.
Once we’re out in the street, as I always do when I’m walking beside Justin, I draw him out: I ask him to talk about Ana, about her daily routine. He talks.
And what’s she like in bed?
Justin likes to talk.
I ask for details.
Why this again?
I give my usual laugh, and we’re just a few blocks from the apartment. Does Ana whistle in the morning, when she wakes up?
He is astonished: how did you guess?
A coincidence, I say. People who sing in the mornings have souls like little birds.
Justin’s expression suggests he hasn’t understood, as we climb the flights of stairs. It’s an old building, but we’re not out of breath at all. I’m also twenty, I can’t even feel the kilometres I’ve crossed to get me here. And they were many: the door is made of wood, London is a city that is now reaching an end. The birdseed in the cage, the flight of all those who sing in the morning.
What did you say?, he asks before turning the key.
Nothing, just thinking aloud, I reply.
We go in. Ana is waiting, and her smile disappears when she sees me.