It was raining when I left the flat in the morning. The postman had passed my door without as much as a glance and it only blackened my already black mood. No letters from home.
Walking to the bus stop I reflected upon the last few months. The Adventure I had promised myself back in Ireland turned out to be spelt with a small “a”. I had been tired of nippy mornings when the car refused to start, tired of junkie mothers in Killinarden Heights, of women whinging about being women, of men whinging about being out of work, but above all, tired of my own whinging about the job being a good training for growing old and bored prematurely.
The position of social worker in Chile, as advertised in the Guardian, had sounded like the answer to my prayers. The snippets of information that had been hammered into me at school still knocked around - palm trees, sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains. And Valparaiso – it was so exotic, a name from a fifties movie, pregnant with promise and I suppose it was that name that had finally nudged me into applying for the job.
As a resident “gringa” in the Department of Welfare I had been asked to dedicate mornings to visiting various shanty towns, or ‘mushroom villages’ as they were called in Santiago. The Spanish name described them perfectly – a forest of fungi-like structures, sprouting from the rocky ground, suspended from slanting hills, squatting at the edge of rivers, clinging greedily to places where even the least fussy plants refused to grow – all looking as if the slightest tremor would bring them down. And yet they stood, sabotaging the laws of nature and engineering, defying regular earthquakes and torrential winter rains.
The Macul Ravine shanty I was to visit that day had a particularly flimsy look. A deep gorge with a river snaking among stones, just one wooden bridge linking the two banks and the shacks gripping at them with the strength of an anaemic dying of tuberculosis.
It was the first week of May, the beginning of a three-month long rainy season, but a freaky streak in Mother Nature had prompted her to send a snow-storm on the valley only days before and now the Andes, like white-clad giants, breathed a chilly breeze on the city.
I checked my schedule. Maria Soler. I had met her before and the encounter left me without hope. Possessing nothing, she had even lost the will to complain. How I missed the familiar wails from Killinarden Heights, the bitter words that fags had gone up again and the dole was but a pittance.
Maria was a knitter. Her rough hands with just a hint of fingernails wove delicate pullovers, soft cardigans, cloudy sweaters and the needles clicked endlessly from morning to dusk. Her husband, as she liked to call the father of her child, had left her for another woman when Teresita was just a few days old. She had never seen or heard from him again.
Teresita was a wispy girl who had inherited her mother’s Indian face and black eyes that knew only two expressions: one of mild concern, the other of profound worry. Had it not been for the harelip and the cleft palate, the girl would have been homely but normal. But the disfigurement attracted sniggers and Maria, trying to protect her daughter, kept her at home most of the time.
Maria’s shack stood some two hundred yards from the ravine, something she was grateful for as it saved it from the spring swelling of the river that, fed by melting snow, often swept everything it found on its way. It was something to thank God for, she had said, and a sudden rush of grief at her timid acceptance of life with its tiny blessings had come upon me.
She opened the door holding a plastic bag from which fluffy strings of wool trailed out. She didn’t smile but her eyelashes fluttered, acknowledging my arrival. She indicated a chair for me to sit on, knitting all the time. Teresita, the tip of her tongue sticking out of the crooked mouth, was labouring over the Spanish equivalent of “The girl is playing with a cat.”
Maria shook her head. Nothing ever changed and she had stopped expecting it a long time ago. Her life, outlined by the coming and going of the seasons, was grey with dabs of black in between and didn’t function along the lines of wish-fulfilment.
“The Department has contacted Calvo Mackenna hospital. They’ll accept Teresita some time next year. Its too late for any significant change but they’ll mend the palate. A speech therapist will help her speak more clearly.” My mind, still working on the English wavelengths, translated carefully.
“There’s no money to pay?” she said.
“Hospital treatment is not a privilege, Maria. Its your right.”
She shrugged indifferently. She knew nothing about privileges and rights and the recent return to democracy meant nothing more than the new President wearing a suit instead of a uniform.
Suddenly, her eyes lit up. “I have a sweater, Claire. The perfect colour for your red hair. Dark green, the best angora you could get. You want to buy?”
I hesitated. I had been warned about the danger of falling into the ‘pity trap’ but still found myself buying the products my charges made. A wooden swing – “perfect for your nephews back in Ireland”; a set of clay cups and saucers – “wonderful present for your mother”; a pair of gourd maracas, a ghastly armadillo-cased charango, a cross-stitched picture of a grinning clown.
“No, thank you.”
The sparks burnt out and the initial enthusiasm ebbed into acceptance. “Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter.”
She turned to her daughter. “Teresita, run across the bridge to Gloria and ask her for my needles. Number four, remember, number four.”
Teresita rose obediently, nodded goodbye and left.
“She looks a bit frail. Do you collect your monthly allowance of milk and rice?” I asked.
On previous visits she had offered a cup of sweet weak tea but no offer was forthcoming today. I guessed she was out of tea or sugar. Or both. I got up and was half-way to the door when the rumbling came. The window frame began to judder and buzz and the light was suddenly gone – like a furtive visitor who had been kept waiting too long and decided to leave. At first I thought it was an earthquake, one of the frequent tremors that put maps of cracks on cement walls and toppled adobe houses.
Maria froze, her swarthy face pale and shaking. “Teresita!” she screamed and flew towards the door.
Outside, in the middle of the morning, night had crept in and switched off the lights. The scattered clouds had thickened to a black haze and the river had gone mad. Boulders and rocks rushed down the ravine and the water carried them along effortlessly. There was no river really but a foamy mass of mud, stones, trees tumbling down at a terrible speed. Where houses had once stood not a plank or a brick remained. And there was no bridge either.
Maria ran, slipping on the mud, falling, pulling herself up, all the time screaming, calling her daughter’s name, looking at the grime-covered banks for any sign of life.
I ran behind her, knee-high in the ooze that smacked its lips and bubbled. It was chocolate brown and icy cold from melted snow.
When I caught up with her she was staring at the water.
I searched for words in my mind but it was something the university curriculum had not included. I knew all there was to know about laws, milk allotments, free medical treatment. I knew the right platitudes and the computerised “everything-will-be-all-right-Mr.-Doyle” smile I had offered people in the Tallaght Welfare Office. But I had never learnt how to console a mother whose only child had been carried away by a mad river. Did those words exist at all or did they live in poets’ minds and died the moment they were uttered aloud?
I touched her shoulder hoping that the physical contact would convey my sympathy better than words could.
She turned to look at me, keeping her unblinking stare on my face. And it scared me. It scared me more than the frothy mess below us, more than the rumbling of water gnawing at stone. Her eyes were full of hate. And they said something I suspected had been there all along– behind the façade of cool respect. I understood that there was a wall between us, always had been. A wall I, with my cosy apartment, my monthly cheque and the return ticket home, would not be able to climb.
After she had left I stood by the river watching it calm down. Not completely, not for days yet, but at least the initial frenzy was over. The rain kept spitting at my face and I realised where I had gone wrong. I had seen it in Maria’s eyes. It penetrated the borders of my awareness that what I was willing to give, what I was able to give, was not wanted. The word ‘charity’ had a nasty taste. I did not belong here. There was a place I did belong. It was Killinarden Heights with its junkie mothers, with women whinging about being women and men complaining about the price of fags. Because I had been lucky. My place was somewhere where hospital treatment was not a privilege but a right.
It was time I used my return ticket home.