It was the last day of September in Year One of Covid. The next year will be Year Two of Covid or 0002Cd. Calendars will all start like that from now on. People will stop arguing about BC versus BCE when they attach a date to something. The last day of September will be written 30/09/01. That was the day after the day I spent in bed feeling miserable. 29/09/01 was when I thought I might have had depression. I didn’t, but I might have.
The reason I was feeling a little down was due to waiting for phone calls that didn’t come and ‘facetime’ chats that were ignored and nobody being allowed to visit. Melbourne was locked up tight; no one allowed in and no one allowed out. So it was a real surprise when there was a loud knock on my front door.
“What in Hell are you doing here? How did you get out of Melbourne? You know they won’t let you back in.”
I’d not seen or heard from Anton Hasting for ten years but we had been friends from back in boarding school days. There were gaps but we always just went on from where we’d left off. Anton Hasting never wrote letters, never phoned or emailed. He never sent a message through the subconscious ether of our jointly befuddled minds.
He walked past me and went to the refrigerator and inspected the two cans of beer.
“When did you start drinking this rubbish? Have you got any decent whisky or what?”
Over all the years some people have wondered whether we were enemies because of the way we talked to each other. I had a friend from the US who always wanted to stand between us. He thought he’d be a hero and stop a fight. I tried to explain to him later that Anton Hasting and I were without any shadow of a doubt the very best of friends. He never did work out that the ruder we were to each other meant we were having a good time. It was based on the fact that we didn’t need to prove anything to each other.
I pointed at the cabinet on the left. He found my bottle of twenty five year old Highland Park and poured two whiskies and then sat down.
He raised his glass and made that clicking noise he did with the inside of his cheek.
The formalities having been dispensed with he sat back and contemplated his glass. I wasn’t going to ask him any questions. I would wait. He wasn’t going to start either. He finished his drink, walked around the kitchen bench and started looking in the cupboards until he found the coffee.
“D’ya want one?” he asked. “Still milk and no sugar?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.”
It’s a bit like the start of the Sydney to Hobart yatch race. Everyone wants to be at the starting line when the gun goes off but won’t go over it because they’d need to circle back and could be hundreds of yards behind when the gun was fired. Over 600 nautical miles and they don’t want to start behind anyone even by as little as 600 yards. But I was ready to fire the gun myself.
Anton fired first.
“Week or two ago. I only heard a week ago. Don’t know exactly.”
“She and that bastard husband of hers were in Vanuatu and their plane went down just out of White Sands.”
“So. You a bit upset, are you?”
“Of course I’m not upset. Why would I be upset? She left me about eight years ago.”
“I thought you left her about eight years ago.”
“Maybe we both did.”
“What went wrong? You never said anything.”
“Are you going to get me another whisky or not? I’m the bloody guest here. If you are not going off to kill a fatted calf at least you could get me a whisky.”
“You’re closer. You get it or did she cut your legs off too?” I said.
Anton sat once more. Glass in hand. We stared at each other daring the other to speak first. It wasn’t a game. We both had lots to say and we each wanted the other to go first.
This time I broke the ice.
“Did you ever like her? Or was it just because you were both compatible in the bedroom?”
“That’s not nice. I loved her. I was infatuated by her.”
“I didn’t ask you that. Did you like her? That’s what I asked.”
“No! You smart bastard. Of course I never liked her. Did you like her?
“No. She was selfish, self-centred and out to get whatever she could. I didn’t like her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before I married her and had two kids with her?”
“Because you didn’t ask me. Because it wasn’t my place to tell you you were being a fool.”
“And you didn’t come to the wedding.”
“I was in bloody Argentina and I couldn’t and I didn’t know.”
“Well anyway, you’ve never told me about Argentina. Every time I ask you you avoid it. What was her name?”
“How do you know it involved a girl?”
“Because everything does,” he said. “You and a girl and catastrophe. It’s always the same.”
“I know. Why d’ya think I’m so cross with you. And get me another drink.
“Tell me her name and I won’t ask you again.”
“Juanita. And don’t ask me about her again.”
I put sheets on the bed in the spare room. He had brought a case with pyjamas and clean clothes. He obviously had no intention of going back to Melbourne. We talked for the rest of the whisky and went to bed. Tomorrow it will start again. I imagine.
I didn’t feel too good the next morning after staying up talking and all that whisky. I tiptoed around making myself coffee. I didn’t want to wake Anton Hasting. I think he had drunk more than his share of whisky. I had a shower and a shave mixed up a double quantity of omelette for breakfast. The clock told me that I’d slept in for longer than I usually did and maybe I should wake him.
I opened his door as quietly as I could. His bed was empty and he’d made it up like when we were in the Army together. The cunning bugger had been up for hours. The front gate was open and at first I thought he might have tried to drive back to Melbourne and sneak in avoiding the Covid Lockdown Cops. I couldn’t see his car parked out the front but then again I didn’t know what car he drove anyway. Back inside I looked into the spare room and his bag and clothes were still there. He must have gone for a walk.
There was something out of place and then it was about fifteen minutes till I saw it. My camera was gone. I always put it on the second shelf of my bookcase. Always. It’s the only thing in the house that I am particular about. I knew he wouldn’t harm it. After all he taught me photography in the first place. I hadn’t thought about him and those days for quite some time. But here he was. I didn’t have a job back then. We shared a flat in Burnett Street in St Kilda. He had his own studio and did weddings and publicity for J.C. Williamsons.
I took my third coffee and went and drank it on my bed. I was waiting for the Panadiene to kick in. Anton materialised.
“You still in bed, you lazy bugger.”
“Where did you get to? I crept around the house for half an hour ‘cos I didn’t want to wake you. And you pinched my camera.”
“It’s actually quite a nice little camera. Bit complicated. Took me about two minutes to get the hang of it.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I went down to the lake. I always thought I like to take a sunrise over the lake but I’ve never been here this early. Got a couple of good shots. The water was like a mirror. Cleared my head.”
“Do you want an omelette for breakfast?”
“Yes, Mate. Thanks. As long as you don’t burn it.”
“I was just thinking back about the place we had in St Kilda.”
He started giggling. “Bloody hell,” he said. “We were mad back then. You oughta write a book about those times. What would you call it?”
“Dunno. What about something simple. ‘13 Burnett Street’.”
“You can’t call a book after an address,” he said.
“Yes you can. What about Helene Hanff’s ‘84 Charing Cross Road.’ That was a great book.”
“I’ve read it,” he said and started to tell me all about it.
“You don’t need to tell me. I gave you my copy. What did you do with it anyway now we’re on the topic?”
“I gave it to Suzie.”
“Who was Suzie? When was it? I haven’t heard of Suzie.”
“A beautiful French/Polynesian girl I was trying to impress.”
“So what happened? Did you impress her or was she just another one of you stupid mistakes?”
“Who’s talking about stupid mistakes? How many have you made?”
“I know. It’s not a competition. I know I’ve made enough of my own. Too many. Too many stupid silly mistakes chasing after the beautiful ones and not looking for the good ones. Ones you can fall in like with and not fall in love with. Tell me about Suzie. Before or after Bessie?”
“What happened? Did you love her for her beauty or did you like because she liked you?”
“Both. I’ll tell you tonight. Are you going to make me that omelette or am I going to have to do that myself?”
I got up and made him an omelette.
“Here’s breakfast. And we’re not drinking whisky tonight.”
After our heads had cleared I took Anton for a drive out to Devil’s Kitchen to see where I’d taken a lot of shots of a family of Peregrine Falcons. I’ve done the same trip a hundred times and by about trip ten I stopped seeing things and put my brain into automatic. I was looking but I wasn’t seeing. Anton was the exact opposite. His first time and he saw everything.
When we got back it was late afternoon and we had missed lunchtime.
“Go and lie down ‘Old Man’. If I can have the run of the kitchen I’ll rustle up something to eat.”
“I don’t know what you’ll find. See that little shed out there? There’s a white cupboard with some cans of beans and tomatoes. If you want ‘em.”
My eyes slammed shut as soon as my head was level with my feet. A vague memory of hearing kitchen noises turned into vivid memories and I think I was dreaming about every girl I ever knew who had spent time in my kitchen.
It was Chavvi taught me how to make curry. I had told her there was curry powder in the pantry and she smiled so sweetly and went and opened the jar and sniffed.
“I don’t know what this is but it isn’t curry. Curry is a wide-open word that means a dish with herbs and spices and it’s the way you make it. Tell me. Do you want pork or chicken or beef? You choose.”
We had decided on chicken and she dragged me down to Prahran market and bought some chicken and yoghurt and some herbs and spices. I don’t any longer have her recipe but I know it had cumin and coriander. Why do I remember that? Because she and the two spices start with the letter ‘c’. I still use cumin and any time I throw a teaspoon full of Cumin seeds into hot oil I listen for the smell and the way they pop and I can see her smiling at me. Chavvi came from Bihar in North East India within sight of Nepal. Her father was an engineer and they came here in 1976. I do remember Anton liked her but we often argued, he and I, whether I loved her because she was lovable or because she was ‘exotic’. That was his word. I suppose back then it was the excitement and I never thought long term. It didn’t matter much anyway. One night she came around and cooked something special.
“I have good news and bad news,” she said at the end of the evening. She kept looking at her watch.
“Okay. Good news first and then I’ll be able to cope with the bad news.”
“Good news is, I love you.” I put my arms out to hold her but she stopped me, arms stretched out and hands raised with her palms blocking me.
“Well that looks ominous. What’s the bad news?”
“In ten minutes my brother will come in the car to pick me up. We are going back to India. I am to be married to the son of my father’s oldest friend.”
“Tell them you won’t go. You want to stay here with me.”
“That’s not how it works Madno,” she said using her favourite word for me in Urdu. “My family has decided and I must go. I am sorry and you are always my Madno.”
The bell on the front door rang and she went. All over. As simple as that.
Anton wandered into my room.
“Wake up old man. Have we got any coriander?”
“What do you want coriander for?” I snapped. “And no! We don’t.”
“I found some chicken in the fridge and I’m making that curry that Chavvi used to make. You remember her don’t you? You bloody well should. I never worked out what you did to make her go away.”
“Of course I remember her. Make it without coriander.”
“It won’t be the same,” he said.
“I know it won’t,” I snapped.
“Sorry, mate. I didn’t mean to upset you. You going to tell me about it?”
“Maybe. There isn’t much to tell. When you tell me about Suzie.”
“Righto. After dinner.”
Anton’s curry wasn’t Chavvi’s. It wasn’t only the coriander that was missing – it was Chavvi. She was missing. I had pushed her memory to the back of my mind through a strenuous effort of will. What really upset me was that her father betrayed me. He and I had become really good friends. He wasn’t a father figure; he was more like a big brother who went away when I was young and came back and we learned to know each other. I never had a big brother who went away when I was young but if I had it would have been like that. And Chavvi’s mother. Chavvi’s mother spent most of her time in the shadows of that family. Then sometimes she would shine through like the sun when it bursts through the clouds on a cold spring day and the whole house would awaken.
Chavvi’s family were the first Indian people I ever knew and they were strongly instrumental in smashing to pieces any sense of racism that I may have had. The reason I loved Chavvi was because I was never infatuated by her. I didn’t love her because she was beautiful. She was beautiful but in the beginning she was a mystery and something exotic. We just seemed to accept each other as we were, without any lingering suspicion that there was anything missing.
Then Chavvi’s bastard of a father snatched her out of my hands and kidnapped her to India. She never wrote and I wonder where she is and how she is. Every time I fry cumin seeds in oil.
“I think you and I are fated to lose the good ones,” Anton said. “Do you want me to go down the street and get some whisky?”
I shook my head.
“I want you to tell me about Suzie.”
“Not yet. I’m not ready,” he said.
“Well tell me about Bessie. You bounced in here from Melbourne and said nothing except, ‘Bessie died’, and that’s all.”
“Alright,” Anton said. “Bessie died. I never really liked her and I’m not upset. We had two children and I love them and that’s that. What more do you want?”
“What more do I want? What sort of a stupid question is that? I want to know what got to you so bad that you had to drop everything and leave Melbourne during a solid lockdown and curfew and come up here after years of total bloody silence and drink all my whisky. And by the way, when you do go and buy me a replacement bottle don’t buy rubbish. I want 25 year old Highland Park or something just as good.”
Anton got up and went to the bathroom and came back and made us both coffee.
“You know what, Johnny Boy? I’ve never told anybody this because I never stopped to think about it before. But these last few days talking about our catastrophes I’ve started to get a glimpse of whatever it is that I’ve got a glimpse of. Or of which I have got a glimpse.”
“Well tell me and maybe I will get a glimpse as well.”
“Do you want to go for a walk around the lake? I want to go to the gardens.”
We walked and we talked. Hats on heads and hands in our jacket pockets. We interrupted each other. Who said what is not the point.
Some passages of illuminated brilliance are clear.
Anton started to claim that everything that was wrong with Bessie was his fault. He drove her to it, whatever it was.
“Maybe if I had been more understanding we could have made a go of it. The two children suffered more than I did. That’s for bloody certain.”
“You’re not being fair to yourself, Anton. Those two kids turned out well.”
“Yes. They did, but with no help from me. When it all blew up I just left them to themselves. I effectively abandoned them.”
“So you aren’t feeling sorry about Bessie dying. You’re feeling sorry for yourself and all the stupid things you’ve done. And you’re feeling guilty. And so you should.”
“Yes. Okay. Thanks for the great vote of confidence and the emotional support. When did you get to be so clever?”
“Probably about the same time that you did.”
We went in to the begonia house. Anton brought his camera and became immersed in the flowers. I was glad. We had talked about Bessie and children and mistakes for an hour and it seemed that we were both coming to a realisation about ourselves that was easy to do when you get to talk it through with someone else.
Anyway I was glad that he had forgotten to ask me about Juanita and Argentina.
When we got back home I was stonkered. My knee hurt. According to the X-rays, and the medico who had interpreted them, there was ‘a bit of bone on bone’ in the joint. So I swallowed a couple of tablets and I was set for bed.
But no such luck.
“You’re not off to bed are you?” he objected.
“Yes. I am. You dragged me around the lake and through the gardens and I’ve had enough.”
“Well go and have a hot shower and put y’ dressing gown on and I’ll make us both a cup of hot chocolate. And take your time.”
I took my time and when I came out of the bathroom he had been good to his word. Hot chocolate and some sponge cake he had secreted in the cupboard when I wasn’t looking were on the coffee table. I couldn’t just leave him and go to bed.
“Get yourself around that old man. It’s you turn to tell young Anton a bedtime story.”
“What d’ya want to know?” I asked.
“Tell me about the girl from Argentina.”
He hadn’t forgotten. I was really quite tired and I hoped I wouldn’t ramble on for too long. I have been told on three or four separate occasions that I do have a tendency to elaborate.
I had gone to Buenos Aires on the offer of a teaching position in one the secondary schools that taught both an Argentine curriculum and a British curriculum. There was a bit of confusion when I got there because I had understood that it was an English curriculum and that as an English teacher I would fit in. But they assumed that I was British and not Australian. It was a difficulty that could not be overcome.
“Why didn’t you just say you were British?” Anton asked.
“Because they had already inspected my passport. I think mine was the first Australian one they had seen. When I turned up at the school I was interviewed initially by the head of the middle school. It was similar to an Australian year seven to year ten school. The master in charge was a Brit called Williamson, and he was absolutely delighted with my qualifications and my experience. I had a working visa for six months. However when we went to see the administrator and the Headmaster of the senior school they seemed to find something wrong. The wanted me to commit for the first six months and then for another year. I said I would get my visa extended if they would give me a letter that I could show to the immigration people. They hummed and hawed and the upshot was that they didn’t offer me the position. We have Government regulations that can’t be broken seemed to be the problem.
“Williamson was a good bloke. He was terribly sorry and said I could stay at his place for a while until I got myself sorted out. Then he organised a job in a private language school teaching English to small groups.”
“Okay Johnny boy. That’s enough of that. Skip to Juanita.”
“I’m getting to it Anton. It’s just that I don’t like to think about her, let alone talk about her.”
“Leave out everything between ‘Williamson was a good bloke’ and ‘I’ve just met the love of my life’. I don’t want to hear about how you magically found a job and how your visa was magically extended and how you magically started smiling again. I just want to hear about the rising to the top of the peaks of happiness and then plunging to the depths of despair.”
“You know Anton, if I didn’t love you as much as I do I would probably hate you as much as I do. But first a question, mate.”
I was playing for time. I really didn’t want to talk about Juanita. Maybe I’ll change the subject.
“Okay. What’s the question?”
“Why is it, Anton, that some people seem to find a girl, settled down, have kids and live quiet peaceful lives. But you and I seem to spend our lives finding amazing girls and then having it all come crashing down around our feet of bloody clay?”
“Because, you fool, those people who have quiet, peaceful lives are simple solid people. They are not complicated people. You on the other hand are a complicated person and are therefore fated to live a complicated, painful life.”
“What about you?”
“Me? My life was complicated and painful from the very beginning.”
“And how much has that cost you?”
“In money and security it has cost me a fortune. But it has also given me a goldmine of rare jewels and excitement. Same as you. One of the great things about you and about me,” Anton said, “is that we have shared so much of the great things. I don’t mean shared our women – although I do know Bessie would have been happy to swap now and then. And on that point I am proud that you, my best friend, never gave her any encouragement. You and I are fated to live emotionally expensive lives. We are like riverboat gamblers; always anticipating the big win that will allow us to stop. Now tell me about Juanita.”
“No. Not now Anton. Not now. I have had enough. Tomorrow.”
I didn’t wait for an argument but went straight into my room and closed the door.
On account of my age I regularly wander through the lounge to the bathroom around about three or three thirty in the middle of the night. The details are irrelevant. After that I will attempt to go straight back to sleep. Or I will lie and look at the black ceiling and run through singular and noteworthy events of my life. Usually this involves having the conversation with whoever is involved that I did not have back then. It’s a bit like ‘if I said it that way it might have changed things’. And then she would say such and such and the whole thing would be like…. . I don’t know what it would be like. However at about five I would still be awake and I would usually make a coffee and think perhaps I should get up and start the day early.
Often I would drink my coffee, check the news on my iPad and go straight back to sleep until nine or ten in the morning.
If Anton has done anything since he arrived is has been to upset my routine. At exactly 7.30 am he opened my bedroom door and a tray of hot honeyed English muffins and two cups of tea was gently placed on my bedside table.
Mr Anton Bloody Hasting stood patiently while I roused myself and sat up. He threw a pillow behind my back picked up his cup of tea and sat on the end of my bed.
“What on earth do you want,” I said. That sentence was liberally seasoned with words that I will not write. “And unless it is important, go away and let me wake up gradually as I am accustomed.”
“What I want, Johnny boy is the full, complete and unexpurgated story of Juanita, the beautiful Lady from Argentina. You have cleverly and deviously avoided telling me anything of note of the story. I intend to sit here until the story is told and then I will pack my bag and go away.”
“Do you promise? If I tell you the story, is that it? You will go away?”
“Yes. I will go and never come back again until I sense an impelling need.”
“Okay. But don’t interrupt. Not one word.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“The bloke I mentioned before, Will Williamson….”
“You didn’t say his name was Will. That makes him much more interesting.” Anton interrupted.
“I will throw this cup of tea at you if you say another word.”
Anton zipped his lips shut a feigned remorse.
“Will Williamson organised a job for me as I said. The gentleman who employed me as an English teacher, Senor Juan Orozco, was a stern, but gentle man. After the first week he complained that I was a little tardio, which was easy to translate. I explained that I had found a cheap hotel near the Art Museum in Retiro but because his office was in Vincente Lopez it took me about an hour to get there on the bus. He then explained to me that he had a house in Vilela just near the beautiful Saavedra Park. He also had a spare room because his son was in the Army and was away very often and I could share with him. The arrangement was that he would take a certain amount out of my earnings for rent and board. It seemed like a good idea to me and I bet he saved up a lot on Tax.
So I moved in.
There were some other rooms that seemed unoccupado.”
Anton was restless. “If I don’t hear the sound of the word ‘Juanita’ in the next fifty seven and a half seconds I will cause you major physical harm.”
“Okay. Keep calm. One of the spare rooms was the room of su hermosa hija Juanita. And I’m not going to translate. Look it up if you think it will make a difference. She was at university in Spain. She came home at the end of the academic year. She was beautiful, hermosa. We fell in love. That’s it. You don’t deserve anything more. Now pack your bags and go home.”
Anton stood up and bowed graciously and walked out the door. There was a sound of furniture being moved and a moment later he walked, backwards through the door dragging a lounge chair. He closed the door and placed the chair against it and sat down.
“Please continue.” he said. “I am very comfortable here. Get on with the story.”
“All right,” I said. “I will but you’ll have to open the door. I need to go to the bathroom. While I’m away make some coffee. That tea you made before was as weak as dishwater. And more muffins. If you want the whole story I will need nourishment.
I returned to bed. Anton was still buttering muffins. He came back in and theatrically replaced the lounge chair against the door.
“Anton,” I said. “You are my best mate. We have been friends for over half a century. So shut up and listen. The reason I have been so reluctant to tell this story is because it sometimes brings me to tears and you don’t deserve to see me cry. I will sum up and then go back and fill in the details. I do not like the details and you might not like me when I have finished. But, seriously, I want you to shut up and say nothing. Do you understand?”
“I am truly sorry John. I’ve known a bit of the story in gribs and grabs over the years. I think the reason I wanted you to tell me the whole story is because you actually need to.”
“Right. From the very beginning Juanita and I knew each other. We knew each other as deeply as two persons can. She knew nothing about Australia and I knew nothing about Argentina. But both of us wanted to absorb as much of the other as possible. She knew more English that I knew of Spanish. But I did learn, off by heart and I still know all these year later how to say ‘Te amo mas que al mundo mi Juanita’.”
I looked at Anton. “Translate that yourself. If you need to. But never make a joke out of it.”
Everything about Juanita hurts and I didn’t think I could continue.
“I don’t want to tell you anything about Juanita. Go home, Anton. Go away and leave me alone.”
“No. Mate. Tell me. You need to tell me. You must tell something or you will never be able to go on.”
I knew he wouldn’t leave it alone.
“Okay. Juanita and I fell in love. She got a job in the Art Museum in Retiro near where I got my first flat. After a few months I moved out of her father’s house. We moved in together. Her parents and her brothers knew nothing. We were happy for two years. Maybe three years. Always we said we would be married. But always there was the mother and the father. I can’t upset my father, she would say. It will destroy him. Her father had nothing personal against me, but the family believed that Juanita should marry an Argentine. You can’t mix two cultures together. Her mother and father did not know we were living together. This caused a bit of a problem because I actually worked for him.
“Now I am going to condense things. You can fill in the details yourself. Juanita got pregnant. She was happy but made it clear that it would destroy her family. Family was, to her, a hugely, unbelievably huge problem. So she went and had an abortion and you don’t need to tell me it was wrong. We were young. She had a strong and caring family. To her they were totally important. How far ahead do you look when you are young. I know it is wrong. I understand. But sometimes we weigh up two bad things, two wrong things and there is no right thing.”
Anton got up. “I’m going to make a coffee. Want one?”
“Listen Anton. I promise I will tell you the rest, but I am washed out. I need to get up and have a shower and get dressed. Maybe later. Is that OK? I’ve never had to do this before and it is so hard. So terribly hard. Later I will tell it without interruption. You are an absolute bastard. Why did you have to bring all this back to me? I’ll tell you the rest later.”
I got up and had a shower. Telling Anton about Juanita had been draining. I was wrung dry. We made a bacon and chives omelette. Anton made it. He doesn’t think I know how to cook. But over the years he has often asked me to cook some of Chavvi’s recipes and will always comment on something interesting that I might have cooked by saying ‘I suppose Juanita taught you how to cook this!’
After breakfast it was time to give Anton a push out the door but he would need me to complete the Juanita saga. We sat outside in the morning sun with a coffee and I told him.
“The weight on our emotions was quite severe. Neither of us were pleased with what we had done. One positive effect was that we both separately and together matured rapidly. We became more serious and Juanita, who had always been close to her family, became even more attached. She treated her brother and a sister I haven’t told you about with a maturity that gave her a sense of pride in herself. Had we both been as serious and mature previously we would probably have never gone through that dark door.
“Her family never knew. But Juanita was getting to the stage where she felt we could talk to her parents. Juanita’s father and I got on well together but her mother was a little distant. But she thought they had begun to accept me.
“Then I got the bad news that my mother had become very ill and was certain to die quite soon. So I came back to Australia as soon as I heard and she died three weeks later. Back then, of course, we didn’t have emails and mobile phones. International calls to Argentina were hit and miss. More often miss. I needed to stay home for a month or so to help Dad tidy up the house so he could sell it and move in to a retirement home. The month was extended.
“There was trouble in Argentina with the Peronistas and I couldn’t get back. I wrote letter after letter and got no reply. Two months after I had left I got a sad letter from her. It was pages long and I still have it.”
“Where is it now?” Anton asked.
“On my bookshelves in a boxed copy of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It’s tucked in between pages 60 and 61 and Polly Garter is singing a song about the man she loves the best ‘and he’s Little Willy Weasel and he’s six feet deep.”
“Can I get it?’
“Not bloody likely mate. You touch that book and I’ll break your hand. However the gist of the letter is very clear. It was not safe for me to go back to Argentina. We got enough news about Argentina for me to know she wasn’t making up excuses. I was to forget her and she would forget me. We had to promise. She ended the letter with ‘Nunca te olvidaré’. The whole of her letter was in English. That last bit was the only bit in Spanish and I had to ask a friend to translate it for me.”
Anton wanted me to translate.
“Her words were, ‘I will never forget you’.”
“There’s a bit of a contradiction,” Anton said, “between what she said in English and that Spanish phrase.”
Then I repeated the words to Anton. ‘Nunca te olvidaré’.
“So what happened?”
“I wrote back and the letter was returned. It took about six months. Then about two years ago I received a letter from her brother. He and Juanita had been at their father’s funeral and he asked her what had become of me. She told him about her letter to me. She also said that I had not answered her. I told him about my letter to her being returned. Anyway she got married and is now a grandmother and very happy. That’s what he said and I believe him. She was strong and would have committed herself to her husband completely. Her brother told me that her last words to him were “Tell him I forgot him every day of my life.”
“How did he find out how to contact you?” Anton asked.
“She gave him my old address and he and his family visited Australia two years ago. He went to where we had lived in the Dandenongs and the lady who had bought our house was a friend of my sister and my sister gave him my address. Now Anton, will you do me one great favour?”
“Anything mate. Anything.”
“Pack up you bag. Strip the sheets off your bed and I don’t what another visit ever. Unless you’re coming up here for a drive some time.”