In the early spring of 1982, I was twenty-one, and at Cambridge, and in love, and Roland would cycle over to the room that I rented near Grantchester Meadows, and we would lie on the bed, and listen to Elgar for hours.
It was in the days of LPs, and with the record player's needle getting stuck at the same point just before a particularly moving passage of the maestro's Violin Sonata in E minor, I would take advantage of my need to get up to move the music forward, and head for a moment to the lavatory.
Opening the door to the strains of some heart-rending adagio, I never ceased to be amazed by how quickly Roland had fallen asleep, and took my place gingerly by his side. His brow slightly furrowed, he looked perplexed even in repose. For fear of disturbing him, I resisted the urge to touch his taut thighs and, from my respectful distance, imagined the tantalizing riot of hair under the corduroy. If the previous nights were anything to go by, he would wake at around three in the morning and, anxious to talk, he would assure me that at twenty, a year younger than me, and fit and strong, it was not all the cycling that had worn him out.
With our clothes by now in disarray on the floor, he would tell me once again that he felt that I was forcing the pace and that, torn between my incessant demands and his family's hostility to our love affair, he needed time alone to reflect on the best course to take.
Planting a kiss on my forehead, more in affection than desire, he would aim to console me by declaring that, whatever the outcome, we would remain the best of friends but, in my youth, I felt an imperious need, that could not be appeased, to possess him. I hung on each expression of his face, every inflection of his voice, as if they held a deep symbolic meaning, telling myself that if only I could master this arcane lexicon, I would own the key to his heart. But, despite my desperate search for significance that when alone would so often keep me awake at night, was I not nothing more than a mere trespasser, raining down blows on an entrance never to be opened?
I was troubled by what the future with Roland would hold, or would withhold, but even in the last-ditch of my concern, I managed to ward off the worst kind of existential anxiety by walking, early every morning to Grantchester, and all the way back.
Breathing in the air as I surveyed the open expanse of shrubland, any sense of freedom that I may have had was tinged with a feeling of separation as, noticing that the bluebells and forget me nots had by now given way to delphiniums and dog roses, I realized that all too soon it would be the end of the Lent term, and that Roland would return to his family's pile in the Home Counties, leaving me to pine for him in my small rented room on the edge of the city.
I could imagine replaying, in his absence, the same wistful sonata, irritated by the sound of the scratch's implacable imperfection, as I rehearsed in my mind the weasel words with which Roland's family would try to turn him against me. Not that my own mother had been overjoyed to have found in my bedroom a copy of E. M. Forster's novel "Maurice", with its blurb declaring that it was a moving account of same-sex love, but even at eighteen I had known how to stifle suspicion by affirming that the volume was necessary in order to write an extended school essay on the theme of the misfit in the said author's oeuvre.
Come to think of it, Forster played a decisive role in my life because, had it not been for my immersion in his fiction, I would, like most other Scottish, middle-class, young men, have pursued my University studies at St Andrews or Edinburgh. But, in that small town, besotted from afar by the life that Forster described, and little to know that so much had by then become a relic, I applied on the off-chance and, accepted, went up to King's.
It was in King's College bar, and through a, mutual friend, that I first met Roland, and no sooner had I heard his life story than I remembered "Howard's End", another Forster novel. If the future of England had been left to my discretion, there is no doubt that I would have chosen as heir Roland Ellrett, for was he not the sum-total of every single quality that could possibly be desired?
As for me, I had no wish to wallow in earthly glory. It was all that I could wish for to spend time alone with him. And so much so, and to such a feverish pitch, that the three weeks of holidays that preceded the beginning of the Easter term, and the resumption of our studies, and during which time he would exist only in my imagination, induced in me a sense of being bereft. The new blooms that were springing up in the hedgerows and woodland near Lord Byron's Pool were a source of indifference to me, tormented as I was by thoughts, surely far from baseless, of the moral onslaught that Roland's family would unleash against me: the citing of some biblical text with chapter and verse; the enlisting of like-minded neighbors more than ready to help to steer Roland from what they considered to be the wrong path; the use of some financial inducement, his own pad in London, a one-year trip round the world, on the condition that he sever all ties with the corruptor, me.
Such thoughts gave me no peace. But when, in a bid to put my worst fears to flight, I headed not to Grantchester but to Cambridge, seeking refuge in one of the city's bars where I knocked back one pint of lager after another, I was besieged by the same demons that had assailed me on the heath. The better to banish my self-absorption, I picked up a newspaper and read that, that very day, Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands. The jukebox beside me belted out Tight Fit's song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" but, the beast roused, just three days later the British Task Force sailed from Portsmouth. It was early April, and Aries the God of war.
Although even more distant towards me on his return, my worst fears were not realized and, far from ending our affair, Roland continued to cycle over to the room that I rented near Grantchester Meadows where, lying side by side on the bed, we never ceased to listen to our romantic, if flawed, sonata. Roland joked that it was just as well that I had decided not to live on campus at King's as, despite his one and only fateful visit there, he had no time for a new-fangled upstart founded in 1441, with his school, Winchester, dating back to 1382, and his own College, Peterhouse, having been established in 1284, but that he got a thrill out of visiting me in my digs, as they were "on the dangerous edge of things". Roland enjoyed the adrenaline of being smuggled out while my landlady prepared her early breakfast in the kitchen, but thought better of inviting me to sleep over in his room in town, remembering all too well the morning when the woman who had come to make the bed had, with the door unlocked, stumbled upon our intimacy.
And then, having come up to Cambridge so young, with his final exams just two months away, he grew tense. Declaring that his family had always been right, he waxed accusatorial, claiming that I had railroaded him into sex but, just a moment later, he implored me, so long as I lived, never to leave him.
Towards the end of April, he sent me a letter, urging me to stay away, as he wanted to be with a woman, and not a man, and start his own family. Not one of my missives to him, each more desperate than the last, received any reply. Downcast, and looking for company, I walked all the way to King's and, making my way towards the bar, I passed the television room that reverberated with cheering.
It was May 2nd, 1982, and the British submarine, Conqueror, had sunk the Argentine cruise ship, El General Belgrano, with the loss of three hundred and twenty-three lives. I found any war to be a travesty of all that was humane, and it saddened me that my fellow-students exulted in the pain of others. Not that anyone's demise, whether far-flung or closer to home, could have prepared me for the news of Roland's end, slashed by a knife in his own hand, the following January. I could not bear to think of his body, that I had held as I stiffened with desire, in the rigor mortis of death.
Many years later, I had cause to recall E. M. Forster's novel "Maurice", in which Alec tells his lover Maurice that he has decided to emigrate alone to Argentina but, not even able to bring himself to make it to the harbor to set sail, he instead searches for his soul-mate and, finding him in a boathouse, announces that they "shan't be parted no more".
As for me, with no great love to keep me in Europe, after years living in London and Madrid, I gave in to the romantic notion that held me in thrall, and headed for that Latin American country that Alec had considered as a possible new home.
How could I begin to describe the headiness of those first days when, following suitable rest after the interminable flight, I walked the boulevards of Buenos Aires, hearing a Spanish far removed from any that I had heard in the capital of Spain, and that sounded more akin to Italian than to anything Iberian? I had just turned thirty-five, it was the spring although in October in this hemisphere, and the lavender-colored flowers of the jacaranda trees were in bloom, and only for fleeting moments, and far removed, did I remember the days when I was twenty-one, and at Cambridge, and in love. I found a small room in a modest pension near the Obelisk, that soulless edifice that held sway over the widest avenue in the world and, armed with a teaching certificate, thought about how best to obtain a few hours of teaching English, so that some amount would trickle in.
Within a month, I had amassed a dozen or so students and, now that I felt more financially secure, I decided to use the funds that I had brought with me in order to rent a flat in the neighborhood of Palermo, near the Botanical Gardens, where I would launch my own English Institute of sorts.
A steady volume of exotic characters flowed through my home morning, noon, and night, to attempt to rise to the challenge of English phonetics, and to be drilled into the realization that a false friend was not only a possible life experience, but a linguistic concept.
There was Luis, a professional puppeteer who hankered to live in the USA and whose favorite sketch was that of a chihuahua that uttered obscenities in English, interspersed with loud barking; Edit, who ran a love-hotel just four blocks away, and who wanted the tools to ask Anglophone clients how best she could serve them, the better to strengthen international affairs; and Marta who, adamant that she was a revenant of the Virgin Mary, although she had yet to produce her own version of the Immaculate Conception, craved the fluency to be able to hold her own in future media appearances on both sides of the Atlantic.
I did all I could to cater to every whim of my diverse rogues´ gallery, but hoped for the day when a prospective student who was not so steeped in singularity would reply to my ad in the paper, and so I was not only relieved but delighted when, one rainy Wednesday, David Elias, a young architect in his twenties, phoned me to enquire if my classes were group-centered or, as he wished, one-to-one.
He said that, his English rusty, he was looking for a course that was both intensive and tailor-made, as he had joined forces with a Californian magnate to build a gated community to the west of Buenos Aires, and that over the next few months he would, with my help, seek to master another tongue. Before ringing off, he added jocularly, "By the end of the summer, I'll be speaking English like any native pirate."
Although I had spent only months in Argentina, I had learned not to take such comments, which some might have considered jibes, to heart.
The historical conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom preceded the war over the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines termed Las Malvinas, and dated back to two unsuccessful British invasions of the River Plate in the early nineteenth century. It amused me that Argentines called these attacks “Las Invasiones Inglesas,” or the English Invasions, when they had occurred after the Act of Union in 1707 and were therefore British Invasions, but it worked to my advantage that most of the people whom I came into contact with did not consider, however erroneously, that Scotland had played any part in those aggressions. And when it came to the Falklands War, it was more often than not England that was perceived to have been the enemy, and at many a dinner party or social event, I thought better of setting out to disabuse those who labored under their delusion. How could I have begun to tell my fellow-guests that, true to my British passport, I loved not only Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom, considering it for the most part to be a paragon of tolerance and fair play, and that I had chosen to live in Argentina not out of any lingering resentment towards my own country, but rather in the spirit of renewal and discovery.
And yet, the patriotic hubbub I had heard all those years ago, as I walked past the television room on my way to King' College bar, continued to jar on my ears. For, notwithstanding the valor of the British troops, had not the Falklands war always been an unequal conflict, with highly sophisticated forces pitted against men who were not even professional combatants? Indeed, had not many of the young men, cannon fodder sent by General Galtieri to the Arctic south from the scorching heat of their northern homes, not even scraped through the gates of adulthood, unlike Roland who had died four months after turning twenty-one? And perhaps the most pitiful story of the whole Falklands conflict, the end of Mario Vilca Condori who, at the age of just sixteen, was torpedoed from the General Belgrano to the depths of the ocean. A few months after his death, Mario's mother also died, from grief.
Having started to write fiction relatively late in my life, I had to date published only three stories but, moved to the core by Señora Condori's boundless suffering, I longed, through a kind of imaginative communion, to record her soul's unraveling, and thereby attest to the horror of war.
Not that I raised such concerns with my new student, David Elias and, after some initial banter, he sidestepped adroitly any subject that could have proved contentious, resorting only to facetious asides such as, "If my English keep on getting better, I'll be just one more buccaneer, sailing the high seas, and wearing an eyepatch."
Perhaps, in the end, much as I had identified with Madrid, I had left because it was too categorical, too much sun or shade, too much yes or no, whereas I had already perceived that Argentina, diluted by immigration, was a tangled skein of moral relativity, if not a testament to downright confusion.
And yet nothing could have prepared me for the cross-currents of influence as embodied by David Elias-quarter Spanish, quarter Italian, quarter Polish, and quarter Lebanese-and that gave rise, in the best case scenario, to complexity, and in the worst, to a fissured sense of identity that explained the need for the thousands of psychoanalysts in town.
I have to confess that, in the course of the classes that I gave to David, I sat as closely to him as I could without appearing to be unprofessional. Ten years younger than me, and of slightly shorter stature, I was mesmerized by his lean body, jet-black hair, and aquiline nose, and not to mention his melancholic gaze and wry smile, and had to refrain myself from the constant compulsion to place my hand on his sinewy leg. Not that any such overture was likely to result in a favorable outcome as, when he was not talking about the sound progress of his joint business venture, David would boast about the countless women he seduced every week, and this despite the existence of his long-term girlfriend who would phone him every hour to ascertain his whereabouts.
Sometimes, after the classes, we would walk together to the Botanical Gardens, and his head would gyrate ceaselessly, as he eyed up every woman whom he passed. As we sat on a bench amid the luxuriant foliage, David quipped that he wished he could be the president of Argentina because then he could aim to sire every single child born in the country. Long before touching down on Argentine soil, I had through friends been privy to the strength and rampant nature of that country's machismo but, with David's apparent exploits beginning to strain credulity, was he not perhaps protesting too much, and was it not more likely than not the case that he spent every night with his girlfriend, Rebecca, sharing the household chores?
And say if I had possessed the temerity to have placed my hand on his leg, might not my feelings, the mask of pretense slipping, have been reciprocated? And if, at the worst, he had rejected me and ended the classes, would that not have been better than the endless repression that deadened my spirit? But there were to be no such heroics from me and though, transcending the classes, our friendship continued to develop, it was fraternal in nature, with walks in the park, lunches in restaurants, and cool drinks sipped on terraces.
One day, David explained that he would have to curtail the classes for a week as Fabrizia Fantoccia, the wine heiress and a family friend, had invited him to the Province of Salta, to spend a few days at her vineyard. Sensing my disappointment, David asked if I had ever been to the Argentine north and, when I replied in the negative, he said that he would ask Fabrizia if I could go along too.
Fabrizia said that I was more than welcome, and on Sunday, David and I headed to Retiro station to take the bus from Buenos Aires to Salta. The nineteen-hour journey had loomed before me as eternal, but no sooner was I ensconced in my seat; with David's body next to mine, and with our legs grazing, than I wished that our final destination would elude us forever. Was it my imagination or, every time that he returned from a toilet break, did David's leg not press against mine more insistently?
Nodding off, I awoke to daybreak and a deserted landscape stretching into infinity beyond the window. Discomfited by the heat, with the air conditioning barely effective, I reached out my hand towards the storage space in front of me, fumbling for the bottle of water, by now unpleasantly tepid, and solicitous all the while not to disturb David who, his body slumped in sleep, was by now snoring softly. We reached a small town that I would never see again, just one square and colonial buildings fanning out on all sides, and a passenger, having come home, got off the bus to stretch his stiffened skeleton in the clear, still air. The sun climbing steadily higher, it was only a matter of time before my window would start to singe my skin, but meanwhile I would place my head against it, and did so, but only to be shaken gently by David who told me that we had reached the city of Salta, and that I had slept like a child. And then there was another bus journey, but this time only four hours, wending its way upwards through an arid landscape, to descend at last into a lush valley where a car was waiting to take us to Fabrizia's villa that abutted the vineyard.
Informing us that the mistress of the house would join us in a couple of hours for canapes and drinks, the domestic worker, suggesting we might want to rest, showed us to our room, austere and starkly white, and with two single beds placed together. Going to the bathroom to freshen up, I saw on my return that David had, in my absence, pulled the beds apart, and my heart sank.
The spartan impression borne in upon me by the room, with its black wooden cross attached to the wall; and directly above the headrests, was belied by the appearance of Fabrizia herself, attired as she was in a profusion of vivid multi-colored drapes; and hung heavy with a vast array of jewelry.
David had told me that Fabrizia's family, hailing from Genoa, had first arrived in Argentina in the 1880's, and that her grandfather, an Italian merchant, had bought the vineyard where he worked round the clock to produce one of the most coveted Torrontes wines, that fruity grape that evoked apricots and peaches. Introducing herself, Fabrizia said that David had already provided her with a fair amount of information about me, and that while it was often said that God was Argentine, she could not begin to understand how I could have traded in London, that vibrant metropolis, for the relative provincialism of Buenos Aires.
After our glasses had been replenished, she went on, "You don't get to eighty without being prone to reminiscing. Every winter, papa would take us to Europe and we would spend half of the year there, the first three months in London, in a Georgian terraced house, and the rest of the time in Paris, in an opulent apartment in Saint-Germain- des- Prés, near the abbey that, as I touched its ancient stone, filled my girlish imagination with a multitude of ghosts.
For so many years, from the ages of seven to twenty-four, I came to master the mores of a different life, those of the old world and, though I am now somewhat advanced in age, I still remember, and clearly, that evening in August when Jean Philippe first entered my life. He was twenty-three, and based in Montmartre, and struggling, and papa, eager to help him out, suggested that he paint a commissioned portrait of me before I said a final goodbye to my teenage years. Spending hours alone in a room together, as he aimed to capture my likeness, I could tell from his eyes that Jean Philippe was already in love with me, and I was starting to be with him, but not only did we come from different social stations and papa would have been certain to have disapproved ol any liaison, but at nineteen I was leery of commitment and, glorying in my power to seduce, I set out to arouse desire only to frustrate it.
And then I met and married Ernesto but, not feeling any passion towards him, and for many a long year dwelling on all that I had lost in spurning Jean Philippe's advances, I could not get out of my mind Rimbaud's lines about the need for the heart to give in to love.
"Ah! que le temps vienne - Où les coeurs s'éprennent."”
I took my cue from Fabrizia. Glass after glass of wine had made inroads into my studied composure and instead of relaying the censored version as to why I had come to live in Argentina-the short story I had read by Borges, the viewing of the film about the mothers who would congregate in Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearance of their children, my Argentine friends in Madrid who had assured me that I would be happy in their mother country-I professed, "Maybe that has been my problem. I gave in too much to love and, after it all went awry, I came this far so as to try to forget."
"I am so sorry to hear of it," Fabrizia said, aiming to console, and went on, "If I may ask, what was your beloved's name?"
I remembered that; a week after arriving in Buenos Aires for the first time, I had been invited to a dinner-party, and having been asked, "Do you have a girlfriend?", I had replied, "You mean a boyfriend", and the conversation had come to an abrupt halt. Determined not to make the same mistake, I spluttered out, "Rolanda".
David retorted, "That's the first time you've mentioned Rolanda" as, noting my unease, Fabrizia wound up, "I guess it is too painful to talk about. Perhaps we should leave the matter there."
Lubricated by further bottles of wine from the cellar, the conversation took a turn, with Fabrizia beseeching me to sing the Scottish national anthem. I imagined that she must have meant "Flower of Scotland", and started out with my rendition but, after the first two lines, I realized that I did not know the rest of the lyrics, and gave up.
"Well, try the other anthem, 'Scotland the Brave'," Fabrizia ventured.
Racking my brain, I could not even remember how the song began.
Turning to David, Fabrizia asked, "Is your friend some Argentine fraud pretending to be Scottish?"
I hazarded, "I can sing the national anthem for the whole of the United Kingdom, 'God Save the Queen'."
"And what makes you think we want to hear that?" Fabrizia queried, "Do you not know that Argentina is a republic?"
So inebriated was I by the end of the evening that, waking up in bed a few hours later, I could not even remember if we had had chicken or fish for dinner and feeling thirsty, and with reservations about drinking tap water in the bathroom, I decided to make my way to the fridge in the kitchen.
Switching on the light, I noticed that David was not in his bed and, imagining that he had gone to the lavatory, told myself that I would not need to close the bedroom door quietly, for fear of waking him.
Walking down the seemingly endless corridor, I heard a sound, like the cry of a wounded animal and, aware that it emerged from an adjacent room, alit and with its door ajar, I proceeded to enter.
On the bed, David lay on top of the shriveled plum of Fabrizia's sagging flesh, his right arm hoisted in the air, as if about to strike her. Hearing my footsteps, they turned round to view the intruder, and knowing full well that I was a trespasser, I struggled to string together a few words of apology, but was struck dumb.
Feeling nauseous, I left as quickly as I could and, reaching the villa's main door, walked out into the balmy night.
Willing myself not to be sick, I took off my shoes, and lay down on the moist earth. Focusing on one star, larger than all the rest, I told myself that if it did not move over the next half hour, I would get a grip on sobriety, and make it back to the bedroom that I shared with David.
Putting on my shoes, only to have to take off one of them as some small twigs had conspired to find their way in, making each step uncomfortable, I reached our bedroom and, switching on the light, saw that David was in his single bed, fast asleep.
The following morning, David's bed now unoccupied, I put on my slippers, and made my way to the breakfast room, where Fabrizia and David were already engaged in idle chit-chat. In all that lavish offering of coffee and eggs and fruit, I half expected to see yet another bottle of wine, one of the many that the previous evening had seen me spiral downwards into nightmare.
As the morning was fine, Fabrizia suggested that the three of us walk together along the pathway that led to higher ground and, excusing myself, I returned to my room to gather a few of my possessions. Changing my clothes, I stood up, only to notice that a small object was lodged in one of my shoes.
Back in Buenos Aires, life continued as before, with David often staying behind after his classes, to enjoy the bowls of pasta that I had prepared for him and to share a bottle or two of Malbec wine. I still believed that the day would finally come when I would place my hand on David's leg and he would not push it away, but stay instead, never to leave again.
In the end, my visit to Salta had provided me with little to go on when it came to the writing of my story about Mario Vilca Condori, more a boy than a man when the General Belgrano was sunk. And, in describing Señora Condori's demise so soon after her son's death, I knew that my pen, not even held by a woman, was bound to fall short in conveying a mother's grief. But Roland's untimely end, and the extent to which it had ravaged my life, meant that I was no mere novice in the territory of loss. In any case, my story about the Condori family, featured in a North American literary review, had been published to mostly favorable feedback. Not yet translated into Spanish, a local news agency had heard that I, a British man living in Argentina, had chosen to write about the hostilities between the two countries and, learning that I was fluent in Spanish, asked if I would consider a short, live television appearance.
Replying in the affirmative, one Saturday I went to the restaurant that had been chosen as the venue. Not only David but all my other students and friends would by now surely be glued to their screens. I had pondered every question that could possibly be fielded, and with every reply well-rehearsed I did not feel remotely nervous.
I was asked, "How do you see the Malvinas or, as you British call it, the Falklands war?"
My throat dry, before offering my reflection, I felt the need to have a sip of water and, looking down, picked up the glass. The tablecloth beneath, featuring an image of a bottle of wine and the word "Fantoccia", caught my eye. Hard as I tried to keep it down, I could not stop the flow of vomit that erupted from my mouth.
"The Power of Prose"