The inner door barely opened. The face of a grey-haired woman appeared in the crack. Smiling. Ana was unexpectedly reminded of a book illustration. Was it from Alice in Wonderland? A smiling cat that disappeared. Not all at once: little by little it rubbed itself out, first the tail, then the body, and finally the head, until only a giant rictus was left hanging in the air. This was similar, but the other way round. As if the smile had been there before the door opened. Waiting for her.
‘How can I help you, Señorita?’
The woman’s question did not, however, suggest that she had been expecting her visitor. Odd, considering all the publicity there had been, but never mind. Ana put on what she thought of as her bureaucrat’s voice.
‘It’s about the national census, Señora. I’m the census taker.’
‘Oh the census taker!’ the woman’s exclamation was surprising, part enthusiastic greeting, part lamentation. ‘I told my daughter that you were coming at midday, but she . . .’
Her sentence hung between them, unfinished. It occurred to Ana that this was a woman who often left things hanging.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘We come when we can.’
‘Of course you do, my dear,’ the woman opened the door. ‘Please come inside or the wind will carry you off, you’re so slight.’
The reference to her size made Ana realise that she was hungry. Or was it the smell? For as she stepped through the door, she was seduced by the aroma of some hearty cooking. The front hall was impeccable. Polished mosaic floor, little crocheted coverings, gleaming furniture; only a comic book lying open on the floor seemed out of place. The woman shook her head when she saw it. ‘Those children,’ she admonished gently, stooping to pick it up. Ana breathed deeply in the smell of cooking, which was stronger now.
‘I realise that this is rather an inconvenient time,’ she said, ‘but it will only take a few minutes.’
‘Not at all, my dear. Stay all afternoon if you like! I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself: I’m Señora de Ferrari. But everyone just calls me Amelia.’
‘And I am Ana. Shall I sit down here and we’ll get started?’
‘I won’t hear of it – come with me to the dining room, you’ll be more comfortable there,’ and she opened a door that led into the courtyard. ‘What worries me is that my daughter’s gone out and my husband told me only this morning that he’s not coming back for lunch, the rotter.’ She smiled fondly. ‘Poor man, I shouldn’t really call him a rotter when he’s using his day off to get ahead with work.’
‘Actually your husband doesn’t need to be present for this.’
The woman coyly raised her hand to her mouth.
‘I know you’ll laugh at me, and I say that because I have three daughters of my own so I know how young girls think in this day and age – this way, please – but I can’t help it, I’m old-fashioned. I’m used to thinking of my husband as the person who takes charge of things in the house, he got me in that habit, I suppose, he’s fifteen years older than me. At the time of our marriage I could have passed for his daughter so you see for him I’ll always be his – Careful!’
Just in time. A second later and Ana would have stepped on the skateboard that was lying across the doorway.
‘Oh those children,’ complained the woman again, as she had in the hall. ‘You sit down here, my love, and recover!’ The chair she indicated was at a table covered with a cloth on which there were lots of cups and the remains of breakfast. ‘The thing is he’s the baby of the family, you know, the only boy, my little blond munchkin,’ she couldn’t suppress a giggle. ‘We spoil him rotten, as you can imagine.’
Yes, Ana could imagine it. What she couldn’t imagine, on the other hand, was why the woman had insisted on bringing her to the dining room when the table was covered in crumbs and there was no clear space to put her forms down. The woman seemed to realise this because she brought a tray to the table and began to clear away the things.
‘What must you think of me,’ she said. Ana watched impassively as the woman picked up a half-eaten piece of toast and jam. ‘The trouble is, with such a large family . . .’
Ana started filling in the headings, trying not to pay attention. Wasn’t there something rather voracious about these wives who showed off their husbands and children as though they were minor works of art? When she had finished writing she followed the woman’s bustle for a few seconds.
‘Don’t worry about the table, please. Would you mind very much sitting down for a moment so that we can get this wrapped up? It’s only a few questions.’
‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’ Now the woman was gathering up the tablecloth, trying not to let any crumbs fall. ‘I hate seeing everything in a mess, believe me, the thing is that, what with today being a holiday, the children didn’t get up until twelve. And then of course they went dashing out. I’ll just take this to the kitchen then I’m all yours.’
‘Señora, please, I still have lots of houses to visit and I haven’t had lunch yet. Could we just get down to –’
‘Oh my dear, what a monster I am! Here you are starving hungry and I haven’t even offered you a bite to eat. Look, I tell you what, since they’ve all gone and left me landed with lunch, come into the kitchen – come on – you can ask your questions and I’ll give you lunch. You’ll be doing me a favour, hand on heart, I’m not used to eating on my own.’
‘The thing is Señora, that I’m here in a particular capacity,’ said Ana, and she felt vaguely stupid.
‘Come on, you can’t fool me – I’m old enough to be your mother! Come with me to the kitchen, you look famished. My husband and the children love eating in the kitchen.’
Hadn’t she been praying until a few minutes ago for someone to offer her something to eat, even a miserable biscuit? Greedily she inhaled the smell of food and stood up.
The woman walked to a door that must lead into another room; she opened it, then, as though she had seen something that displeased her, slammed it shut.
‘Good God, I was about to make you walk through the bedrooms,’ she said. ‘I forgot that I haven’t even made the beds today. Come this way’ – and she stepped out of the door that led into the courtyard.
Ana shrugged and followed her, what did it matter, at the end of the day. The distant shouts of a woman and a boy’s voice could be heard on the other side of the partition wall. The next-door neighbours, she thought. This house has it all.
‘They shout at each other all day, it’s exhausting,’ the woman complained; she looked briefly at Ana and softened her tone. ‘Well, they’re children just like mine, aren’t they? One always sees the speck in another person’s eye. Anyway, here’s the kitchen – come in.’
A great pot was steaming on the hob. The woman took off the lid and stirred the contents with a wooden spoon. A succulent aroma dispersed through the kitchen.
‘Come, look at this, tell me you won’t leave me stuck with all this food – there’s enough to feed a regiment!’ she laughed good-naturedly. ‘I always make too much, what can I say, I mean this lot are forever showing up with another guest to feed.’
She’s sort of like the ideal mother, Ana thought. She sat down and got the forms ready while the woman set the table for two and ladled the food into a kind of tureen. Finally she brought the tureen to the table and sat down.
‘Ask away, dear, then we can eat in peace.’
She sat down and started serving the food onto plates. Ana picked up her pen.
‘How many people live in the house?’ she asked, although by this stage the question was redundant.
‘Only us,’ said the woman with a certain pride. ‘I’m sorry, you’ll want to know who we are and so on. There’s my husband, my three daughters and the boy: the little one.’ She was silent for a moment. ‘Shall I tell you their ages?’
‘No, that’s not necessary. How many are working?’
‘Well yes, he supports all of us. I mean, my eldest daughter also works, she’s an interior decorator. But just as a hobby, you know. My husband didn’t want her to, but I’m with modern youth on this one.’
‘Yes, I see. Does anyone go to school?’
The woman laughed.
‘What a question – yes, of course. The boy is still in primary school. The youngest of the girls is in the fourth year of secondary and the next one up is finishing Medicine. She’s bright, that one, and I’m not saying it just because I’m her mother.’
Surreptitiously, Ana eyed the plate that had just been served. Paris was worth a Mass, it turned out.
‘How many bedrooms does the house have?’
‘What?’ The woman seemed first to brighten and then subside. ‘Ah, five. Five bedrooms.’
Ana glanced into the courtyard: it didn’t seem like a big place. Oh well. In the box she wrote ‘five.’ She looked at the woman.
‘Very well – ’ in the tone of a teacher at the end of a lesson.
‘Is that it?’
Ana put down her pencil and shuffled the forms together.
‘That’s it,’ she said.
She considered the woman’s fascinated expression for a moment before deciding to reach for the plate herself. Unexpectedly the woman sang softly to herself. She seemed younger now: she was glowing.
‘So that was it,’ she murmured thoughtfully.
Ana ate. The food was really delicious. And the woman could talk all she liked now. About her model husband and her three talented daughters and her cheeky blond boy, the family’s pride and joy. Why not? Everyone has a little treasure. Eating made her magnanimous.
‘It wasn’t that bad, was it?’ she asked playfully.
The woman shook her head. She seemed not entirely to have taken in all the extraordinary things that had just happened. Timidly, she pointed to the forms.
‘And this, where does it go?’ she asked.
‘This?’ Ana glanced charily at the papers. ‘I don’t know, I suppose they’ll use them for statistics, that sort of thing.’
‘Statistics,’ the woman repeated, dreamily.
On second thought, it might be better to finish eating quickly and get going, before the woman started talking again. ‘Get down from there immediately!’ she heard someone shout. ‘I’m not going to!’ The next-door neighbours: a rowdy bunch, as the woman had said. ‘Get down!’
‘I said I’m not coming down!’ louder now, or closer. ‘I want my skateboard!’
Ana looked towards where the voice was coming from. She saw a boy’s blond head appear over the partition wall. ‘I said get down. You’ll fall.’
‘Eat up quickly, or it will get cold.’
‘I want my skateboard,’ the boy repeated. ‘Amelia!’
‘Señorita Amelia,’ the neighbour corrected.
‘Señorita Amelia!’ the boy shouted. ‘Are you there?’
Ana looked at the woman; she was eating with her eyes fixed on the plate.
‘Señorita Amelia!’ The boy spotted Ana in the kitchen. ‘Hey, you!’ he shouted, ‘is Señorita Amelia there?’
Ana looked at the woman, who was still focusing on her plate.
‘Listen,’ she said with exasperation. ‘They’re asking for Señorita Amelia – can’t you hear them?’
‘And what’s that to do with me?’ said the woman. ‘Am I expected to know everyone in the neighbourhood?’
‘Can you do me a favour?’ the boy asked Ana. ‘I lent it to her because she said it was for a nephew but now my mother says that she doesn’t have nephews or anything. You’re not her nephew, by any chance?’ he laughed, delighted by his joke, and the neighbour murmured something inaudible. ‘I have to get down now or she’ll kill me, but if you see Señorita Amelia, please tell her.’
And like an actor concluding his part, the boy and his blond mop disappeared back behind the wall.
‘Have you finished?’
Ana looked up, startled. The woman was standing right beside her. That overflowing quality that had earlier surrounded her like an aura seemed entirely to have disappeared.
She took away the plates and the tureen. Meticulously, determinedly, she threw all the food that was left into the rubbish bin.
All that work wasted, Ana thought. She remembered the six dirty cups, the half-eaten toast, and wanted to get away from the flat as quickly as possible.
The face turned to her without expression. As if the woman felt herself mercilessly compelled to play out her role until the last.
‘No thank you, I have to go.’
She stood up and collected her things together. The woman very slightly raised her arm.
‘So this doesn’t . . . ?’
She stopped short. Ana’s gaze fell on her hand, fearfully pointing at the forms.
‘This stays as it is,’ Ana said, very quietly.
For an instant the woman recovered the quality that had previously made her glow.
‘Thank you,’ she said, barely audible.
Then, in silence, she led Ana to the door. When Ana said goodbye she didn’t answer or even look at her. She waited for her to leave, then firmly shut the door, turning the key twice.
‘Every Person’s Little Treasure’ is included in Please Talk to Me, a selection of Liliana Heker’s stories translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France, published by Yale University Press.
Artwork © Alessandra de Cristofaro, Fame 2 / Rimorsi