In the winter of 1953, Penelope Fitzgerald sailed from England on the Queen Mary with her five-year-old son, Valpy, on a long and quixotic voyage to Mexico. She had two purposes in mind: one was the nebulous prospect of a legacy from distant relations which never in fact came to anything; the other was to research one of the long essays on painting and sculpture that she was then writing for World Review, the cultural monthly she had been editing with her husband since 1950. The first result of her trip, ‘From the Golden Land’, was published in the magazine’s April/May 1953 issue, which turned out to be its last. This story was probably written twelve years later, for submission to a short-story competition in Blackwood’s magazine, now also long defunct, and is her first known, and only unpublished, fiction. Her novels later won the Booker and the American National Book Critics Circle Award. Penelope Fitzgerald died last year.
None of the native inhabitants of San Tomas de las Ollas saved any money and this was a moral imperative, although it worked differently from ours. We would think it a sign of respectability to ‘put by’ now so as not to be an encumbrance to our relatives later. We wouldn’t wish to be a burden to our folks. Mrs Clancy put it this way at the get-together, the chicken-fry, which she, as the wife of the representative of the local manager of Providence Williams Marketing (Central American Division) gave from time to time to the American and European community; and in this she showed herself a sympathetic hostess because all the community were much occupied with assurance and its twin sister death, but the native inhabitants, although they too thought about death, had little interest in either saving or assurance. If they accumulated a little money by chance they used it to employ a less fortunate member of their family to do something they found disagreeable and did not wish to do themselves. The benefit to their relatives came earlier but was not less welcome for that.
All this serves as an explanation of a visit Mrs Sheridan paid one morning in October to her chauffeur Pantaleon—or rather to his wife—for it was a visit of congratulation on the birth of a new baby. Mrs Sheridan was the widow of a banker who had invested in silver mines (but the mines were nationalized now); her house, with faded shutters and faded pepper trees, was pointed out to strangers on the corner of the main square.
Pantaleon did not ‘live in’ and was not required to work on saints’ days, so that, as Mrs Sheridan did not drive a car, it had taken some organization for her to make the call at all since in Santo Tomas it was not possible to travel in a car some days and walk on others; you were either a walker or a driver and it would not have done to come to the vivienda in Calle Lopez Mateos on foot. She had had to ask Señor Azuela, an engineering executive with Mr Clancy’s firm, to call for her.
‘Thank you, Don Salvador,’ she said as they arrived opposite the crumbling, well-like entrance.
‘I’ll stop by for you in ten minutes,’ said Mr Azuela, always available, clever but difficult to like with his gold teeth and blue suit, opening wide the car door.
Mrs Sheridan walked steadily, not picking her way, out of the entrance shadow across the brilliant sun of the courtyard. Pantaleon’s wife was not at the communal stone wash-tub and Pantaleon himself was not to be seen. Directed by enthusiastic neighbours, Mrs Sheridan found him in the tiny inner patio, sunk in a basket chair, his face covered with soap; an elderly man was shaving him with a cut-throat razor.
‘Don’t get up, Pantaleon,’ she said, but he had done so already, knocking over the chair. His gentle Indian face under the mask of white suds creased with distress. Mrs Sheridan shook hands with the elderly man, who wiped his hands on the seat of his trousers for the purpose—’my uncle’; and with two other quarter cousins, not at all young, who had been cleaning respectively his right and left shoe.
‘I am temporarily employing these people so that they can share in a little good fortune I have had,’ Pantaleon explained in his grave majestic voice. ‘It is not a matter of charity, of course. They are people of substance in their way; my uncle has a stall in the market.’
Mrs Sheridan knew that Pantaleon’s wages were adequate and suppressed the thought that perhaps they were too generous.
‘It was Rosario I really wanted to see, and your new son,’ she said.
‘My wife is out shopping,’ Pantaleon replied.
‘At the mercado, carrying a heavy basket! It’s only ten days since the baby was born,’ protested Mrs Sheridan.
‘She is not at the mercado—she is at the supermercado and my brother-in-law’s niece is accompanying her to push the wire basket.’
‘The baby is indoors with my little cousin—the great-niece of the señor uncle who is shaving me.’
Mrs Sheridan was used to the impact of the living room which, with its gleaming chromium bed, Virgin of Guadalupe framed in plastic lace, tall earthenware pitcher of water, sewing machine and worn stone grinder showed the Indian genius for accepting from an overriding culture only what suited it best. In the rocker with its cushion of embroidered electric-blue silk sat a girl of perhaps eight years old holding in her arms a baby wrapped in a shawl.
The Victorian novelists were right to make such children die; symbolically they were right since beauty of that kind is impossible in human beings beyond nine or ten. The girl’s face had a golden waxy pallor and the modelling was so slight that there were hardly any shadows on it—even the lower eyelids made almost none. The round head was set with doll-like precision on the tiny neck that seemed ready to snap and as it turned towards Mrs Sheridan the pale and golden lights changed on the perfectly circular cheek. The child’s golden stud earrings flashed and the very long eyelashes, which had a dusty or mealy look, opened slowly to contemplate the visitor.
‘What is your name?’ asked Mrs Sheridan.
‘And you’re Pantaleon’s cousin? You’re a relation of his?’
The child stood absolutely transfixed, turning on her a dark bright stare from the huge eyes of the undernourished. It was not an Indian stare—not blank, not withdrawn. Mrs Sheridan, who had lived thirty-six years in Santo Tomas and was not a fool, recognized that she was treading on delicate ground, that of legitimacy.
‘And where do you live?’
‘In the mercado.’
‘But where do you sleep?’
‘Under the stall: my great-uncle is from Chiapas—from the mountains: he doesn’t like houses.’
Esperanza traced something on the floor with her slender dirty foot—whitish, not blackish, with the eternal white dust of the mesa.
‘But we are going to live here now, with cousin Pantaleon. He is paying to have mattresses made for us; they are being sewn now by his sister-in-law’s great-aunt.’
Mrs Sheridan again felt surprised, and ashamed of her surprise.
‘Will you like living here?’ she asked.
‘Yes, I shall like living with the baby. His life is my life.’
She lifted a corner of the shawl and Mrs Sheridan looked at the red-brown miniature face, still as an idol’s. Now she was closer to the exquisite little girl she noticed too an odour of fish and guessed what stall it was the great-uncle kept. The baby winked suddenly and blew a solitary shining bubble which broke without a sound.
‘I do hope he’s strong and healthy,’ said Mrs Sheridan.
The little girl carefully replaced the shawl.
‘Venimos prestados,’ she said. ‘Our lives are only
lent to us.’
Colonel Terence Kvoa lived at the Quinta Maria de los Desamparados, way above the town in its thick shelter of vines, choyotes, climbing pink geranium and organ-pipe cactus. The road out to it was a stony and featureless thirty kilometres and many of Mrs Clancy’s friends had said to her that it reminded them of the Holy Land, but once you were out there the Quinta, with its sounds of deeply moving foliage and falling water, was beautiful. It had seemed sad that all this might be largely wasted when the Colonel departed stateside for an operation for cancer of the throat, but now he was home again and, although he had not yet recovered his voice, he lay stretched out on the white wicker chaise longue well assured and insured, gentle, hospitable and long-suffering.
‘There isn’t any skill a man can’t master, once he’s learned to discipline,’ said the new, youngish doctor. ‘That’s where your Army experience can’t help but come in handy, Colonel. Now, this question of speaking without actually allowing the passage of air through the mouth—well, a lot of people might think that’d rule a lot of the vowels and consonants out altogether; but that’s because they’ve never orientated themselves to the idea of using the resonance inside the mouth and chest. You take that talking bird, Colonel.’
The Colonel, caged in the white painted chair, looked up to where his tame starling hung among the high flowers and leaves of the first-floor balcony. The guests, Mr and Mrs Clancy, Mr Azuela, several of the business community, gazed up as he did to the lightly swinging cage.
‘Salud, Salud, Salud,’ raved the high-hung starling; the whole cage shook at the stream of pure liquid bubbling sound, ‘Pretty Georgie Porgie, pretty pajarito, pretty boy. My God I can’t bear it. My God I must get out. My God I must go home. Pretty boy, Salud, Salud, Salud. Estraight home, Salud.’
‘Plenty of people will tell you that a bird can’t pronounce those “s” sounds,’ continued the doctor, ‘but there’s proof positive that it can be done and you don’t see that bird’s beak open a crack. The “st” sound it can’t quite manage—not one Spanish native speaker in a hundred can say that sound and not make it “est”, and you can’t expect a bird raised here to do any better.’
They all watched and they did not see the bird’s beak open a crack. The doctor explained further and told them—it was a semi-formal gathering—that the Colonel needed constant practice if his voice was to return at all.
‘Georgie Porgie. Get out you bitch,’ trilled the starling.
‘I think I represent the feelings of the Colonel’s circle of friends pretty closely,’ said Mr Clancy at last, ‘when I say we are determined to see him through this thing and that we confidently expect that by Christmas he’ll be a hundred per cent talking member of the community. We confidently expect that.’
They faced the doctor with their good, unanimous eyes fastened on him and flashing through spectacles and contact lenses while above them the ragged mutterings of the starling died out in a long whirring trill, a clicking and whispering to itself and then silence. There was never quite silence though in the Quinta Terence where there were so many movements in the spiked and creeping plants, servants shuffling across to throw water and sweep the patio five times a day, not bothering to pretend not to listen to what was said.
It was difficult to avoid the sensation of lecturing over the Colonel as if he were a lay figure. ‘It’s a great relief to feel you’re taking a hand in the treatment,’ the doctor said. ‘I want you always to let him take the initiative in a conversation: don’t start the talking—let him search for the words.’ The servants brought tequila, lime, salt and Montezuma beer, and the lay figure got up at last and poured and chinked the ice.