(First Published in Cadenza 7)
Paco was sitting on his favourite rock on Blow Hole Beach whispering secrets to the sand crabs when he heard the boat approaching. He lifted his head and listened.
No, it wasn’t the right day for Vachel. Vachel always came on Fridays, and Paco knew that today wasn’t Friday because of his journal. Each night he wrote a detailed account of the day’s events in his journal using the big electric Braille-Writer Marita had given him for his eighth birthday, and last night’s entry was still fresh in his mind. It had been headed Monday, which meant Vachel wasn’t due for one, two, three days. Besides, Vachel’s old catamaran had an ancient outboard that you could hear coming for miles, and these sounds were softer sounds: the sounds of a boat being rowed.
Paco stood up and faced the sea, the damp breeze lifting his hair and moaning low in the nearby blow-hole. High above the island a solitary gull screamed and Paco felt the crabs nestled between his feet stiffen. Moments later they scuttled away, two of them running over his bare toes. Their legs and claws rasped in the sand as they headed for the water.
He shifted his weight, wondering if he too should run.
If anyone ever comes, Paco, you must find me and fetch me. Do you hear? Find me and fetch me.
Marita had drummed that into him long, long ago, when he was just a child. Occasionally she’d say it again and make him repeat it, but he’d never needed to act on her warning because nobody had ever come to their island. Only Vachel. Recently, however, things had started to change. Paco was no longer a child: another half-inch and he’d be as tall as Marita. His body had become stronger, too. Years of clambering over the island’s rocks, swimming its beach-warmed shallows, leathering himself in its long days of shifting sun had done wonders for his damaged limbs and lungs. Changes, thought Paco. Sometimes he felt… something… he didn’t know what. He didn’t know the proper words.
Perhaps the island was changing, too. Perhaps other people would start to come.
He turned to face inland. Marita was in their house on the other side of The Rise. She’d be exactly where he’d left her a couple of hours ago, in her studio, painting. Paco knew Marita’s habits, knew her obsessions. If he shouted right now, yelled as loud as the sea in storm, Marita wouldn’t hear him. When she was painting he could stand right there in the studio, right beside her, asking her things - important things - and still she wouldn’t hear him.
Find me and fetch me. Do you hear?
Paco swallowed and faced the sea again. Ten minutes to walk home - five if he took a risk and ran. He hopped from one foot to the other, cursing the fact that he couldn’t see. He needed to know who was in the boat. If he knew who was in the boat, he’d know what to do. But he couldn’t bear the thought of running like a frightened child to bury his face in Marita’s salty hair - only to find Vachel waiting for them when they returned. That would be shameful. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.
Be that as it may, the fact of the boat remained. And there shouldn’t be a boat. It was Tuesday. He was certain of it.
The rowing sounds were very close now. He could hear every creak as the oars strained in their rowlocks, hear the splash of their blades cutting through water. Then came a man’s deep grunt, the wooden clatter of oars being shipped and a short scrape as the boat’s hull slid into wet sand and beached a few yards to his left.
Paco took a step backwards .
‘Who’s there?’ he yelled. ‘Vachel, is that you?’
His voice was thin and shrill. A child’s voice. It shamed him.
There was a pause that seemed long to Paco - longer than it ought to have been. The lone gull screamed again high overhead, and then Vachel’s familiar mumble rumbled across the sand.
‘Hush now, Paco. Of course it’s me, boy. Who else would it be?’
He heard Vachel clambering out of his boat and was suddenly aware that his fists were clenched, the nails digging deep moons into the flesh of his palms. As Vachel trudged towards him Paco relaxed his stiffened fingers, straightened them, rubbed his palms.
He’d known this man all his life. There was no harm in him. And yet he felt uneasy. Something in the island’s air, something on the edge of sensation. Something not right.
Vachel had problems with his gut and was always breaking wind. He did so now, and the sound and smell arrived before the man. Then Vachel was beside him, his huge hand closing on Paco’s shoulder. When next he spoke his voice came from a point a good two feet above Paco’s head.
‘Where is Marita, boy?’
Paco could not remember when Vachel first began his weekly deliveries to their island. As far as he knew, they had always happened. Every Friday Paco helped unload the goods Vachel brought with him: parcels of food, books, bandages, painting materials, special Braille paper for the typing machine… every Friday for nearly fourteen years. But never had Vachel come on any other day. Why was he here now?
‘Where is she, boy?’
And why had he rowed to shore? Rowing was hard work, and Marita always said that Vachel was a fat, stinking, lazy pig who didn’t know how to spell work, let alone do it. There could be only one reason. He didn’t want Marita to know he was coming.
Vachel shook him, not roughly, but firmly. Vachel was a powerful man.
‘She’s in the house, painting,’ said Paco. ‘Do you want me to fetch her?’
He heard a deep sigh. It reminded him of the sounds the wind made in the blow-hole.
‘No, boy,’ he said. ‘It’s you I’ve been sent to see. I have something for you in my boat. Come, sit with me a while.’
Vachel’s other hand closed on Paco’s other shoulder and he felt himself turned around and propelled over the wet sand. There was no point trying to resist. He had no choice in the matter.
When they reached the boat Vachel lifted him as easily as Paco might have lifted one of the sand crabs. He set him down on the damp wooden seat, climbed in himself and sat beside him, breaking wind again as he did so.
Paco felt the water on the seat soaking into the material of his tattered shorts. Some of it trickled down his bare legs. It didn’t matter.
‘Tell me why are you here, Vachel,’ he said. ‘Why have you come when it isn’t yet Friday?’
‘Don’t you listen, boy? I’ve been sent. I have something for you.’
‘Sent? Who sent you? And why did you not use the engine? Why did you row?’
‘All in good time, boy. I have questions for you to answer first. Wait a moment.’
Paco heard the sound of a zipper opening, paper being removed from a pocket, unfolded. There was a metallic click. When Vachel next spoke, it was obvious that he was reading from the paper.
‘Paco, what do you remember of your life before you came here?’
Vachel was a poor reader. He hesitated over the word ‘remember’ and only managed to push the whole thing out of his mouth on the third attempt.
‘Before I came to the island?’
Paco tried to think. What did he remember?
‘I remember buildings,’ he said. ‘Many tall buildings. Cars in the streets, and too many people, and too much noise.’ He thought of the nightmares, and paused.
Paco was reluctant to tell Vachel the other things he remembered. If he gave voice to them, he might make them real again. The nightmares might come back to torture and tear him in his sleep. He didn’t want that.
‘Speak, boy. Tell me.’
‘There was… there was a man,’ said Paco, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘I remember a man with a black hat and a knife. He hurt me. He hung me from a hook and beat me and threw something in my face. Marita said it was acid. It burnt me, and damaged my lungs, and took away my eyes.’
Vachel said nothing for a while. Then the paper rustled and he said: ‘Tell me about Marita. Has she treated you well, Paco? Has she fed you? Looked after you?’
‘Yes,’ said Paco quickly.
He didn’t want to talk about Marita. Things had begun happening with Marita that he tried hard not to think about, things he never even wrote in his journal. Shameful things. For six months now Marita had been coming to him in the night, waking him from sleep as she slipped into bed beside him. She touched his body, made him touch hers. There were nights when she would take his head in her hands and push him down her belly - make him kiss the place between her legs. It excited him, but also shamed him. It was something they never spoke of.
‘Marita has always been good to me,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I help her mix colours for her paintings. I remember colours. I remember a red sky, and a blue bird hanging in a cage. I told Marita once and she painted them. Sometimes at night I hear her crying. I don’t know why she cries.’
Vachel asked Paco other things, questions about his life on the island, about what he did with his days, about his journal. He told Vachel some of the things. Other things he held back. He told Vachel about the sand crabs, described the tricks they played that made him laugh. Vachel grunted.
‘Last question, Paco,’ he said. ‘Think especially hard before you answer.’
Paco nodded. ‘I will,’ he said.
Vachel had broken wind yet again - a particularly rank explosion - and Paco wanted to get out of the boat.
‘Imagine you could leave the island, Paco, leave Marita, go back to live in the city. Imagine you could do that. Tell me, would you go?’
Paco thought. He took his time. He tried to see again the tall buildings and the cars, tried to hear again the noise of all those people. He thought about the hook and the knife and the beating and the burning of the acid. He swallowed. He thought about his friends the sand crabs and the fire in his belly when he kissed the moist cleft between Marita’s legs.
The gull screamed overhead.
‘No,’ said Paco. ‘I would not go.’
Vachel sighed, and Paco heard the metallic click again. It reminded him of his typewriter. There was another sound, a faint whirring sound. Then another click.
‘I have a present for you, Paco,’ said Vachel. He took hold of Paco’s right hand and pressed something into it. Something hard, about the size and shape of a large box of matches.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s called a tape recorder,’ said Vachel, guiding Paco’s other hand towards a row of small buttons along the top edge of the box. ‘Press that one,’ he said, tapping Paco’s middle finger.
Paco pressed the button, and heard his own voice rising from the box.
I remember buildings, many tall buildings. Cars in the streets, and too many people...
‘Now press that one,’ said Vachel.
Paco did as he was told and his voice stopped in mid-sentence. He turned the tape recorder over and explored it’s shapes and textures. Vachel showed him how to open it and remove the tape cassette. He explained the rewind and the fast forward and the record.
Paco was excited. With a machine like this he could speak his diary every night rather than having to tap it out laboriously on sheet after sheet of special paper.
‘Thank you, Vachel,’ he said. ‘It’s a fine present - but tell me, why do you bring me a present when it isn’t my birthday?’
‘I was told to deliver it today, boy. That is what I’ve done. What else should a delivery man do?’
‘Who told you to deliver it?’
‘Who do you think?’
Paco shrugged his shoulders.
‘Your father, of course.’
Paco opened his mouth. No words came out.
‘I am to take this tape back with me - your father wants to hear your answers - but he sent another for you to listen to. He recorded it himself, Paco. There are things he needs to say, and things you need to hear.’
Vachel took the machine and Paco heard him insert another cassette.
‘Here,’ he said, handing it back. ‘Wait until I’m gone, then press the button like I showed you.’
In a daze Paco allowed himself to be lifted out of the boat and deposited on the beach. Vachel guided him back to his favourite rock and sat him upon it.
‘Are you all right, boy?’ he said.
Vachel squeezed his shoulder.
‘Listen carefully to what your father has to say. Hear his words, Paco. Think about them. I shall come again on Friday and we’ll talk some more.’
Vachel was back in his boat and rowing before Paco realized he’d gone. He jumped to his feet.
‘Vachel!’ he called.
‘What should I tell Marita?’
There was a pause before Vachel called back: ‘That’s up to you now, boy. You’re hardly a boy any longer. It’s time to begin making your own decisions.’
Paco nodded again.
‘Listen to your father, Paco,’ yelled Vachel. Then he was gone.
Paco sat on his rock in the sun holding the tape recorder that held his father’s words. He stroked it with the tips of his fingers. Then he sank slowly down onto the sand and rested his back against the rock.
His fingers trembled over the play button.
He pushed it.
‘Paco,’ said a voice from the machine. A deep voice. Not soft like Marita’s, not particularly gentle, but it seemed a good voice to Paco. ‘You will not remember me, my son, but know that I am your father, and that there are things I have to tell you. Things that you should know…’
Paco lay down on the sand and curled himself up into a ball. He held the tape recorder to his ear and listened to the things his father had to tell him. When the tape finished he pressed rewind and listened to it all again. He listened over and over as the waves lapped the island’s shore and the solitary gull screamed overhead.
After a while the sand crabs returned, half-a-dozen in all, and tenderly pressed themselves against the soles of Paco’s feet.
* * *
Marita was mixing paint when Paco burst into the studio. She jerked her head towards the door and almost lost the pool of watery crimson she’d been swirling around the shallow dimple of her palette.
‘Paco?’ she said. ‘What’s wrong? What is it?’
He turned his eyeless face towards her and the blood in Marita’s veins thickened like paint on canvas.
She stared. Long ago she’d stopped seeing Paco as disfigured. Paco was just Paco. His poor, ruined features no longer shocked her, but the intensity of his current distress did. Even so, her artist’s eye noted the tears pouring from those puckered, empty sockets; saw how they mixed with the mucus running from the misshapen nostrils; stored up the exact shape of that mouth twisted in anguish. She was already aware that one day she would paint this gift. Paco in Distress.
She closed her eyes and remembered the last time she’d seen him cry. Seven, perhaps eight years ago? He’d wanted to know about his father. He’d been full of questions - endless, impossible questions - and she’d had to lie, say she knew nothing. The tears that had flowed then sprang from his unbearable frustration, from a never-sated hunger for knowledge of who and what he was. This crying was different.
Marita opened her eyes.
‘Paco? Has someone hurt you?’
He opened his mouth and tried to speak but no words came. He stamped his foot, something else she hadn’t seen him do for years. She saw him lift his hand, frowned at the object he was holding. When she realized it was a tape recorder her guts turned to water.
‘Paco, where did you get…’
But she already knew. Vachel. It had to be. Even before Paco’s finger pushed the button she realized what she was about to hear - but there was still a crackle of shock as her uncle’s voice filled the room. The crimson paint in her veins turned to ice.
‘There are things I have to tell you. Things that you should know…’
She staggered backwards and her legs found a chair. She sank into it.
‘Paco..’ she said.
‘No,’ he whispered, finding his voice at last. He stood in the middle of her studio, holding the tape recorder at arm’s length like it was a crucifix; like she was some kind of vampire. She saw herself moving through the cooling house, entering his bedroom, slipping into his bed. Perhaps that’s what I am, she thought.
‘Listen,’ said Paco, sinking to the floor. ‘Listen to the words of my father, Marita.’
Marita sat in silence as her uncle’s voice poured out of the machine. She remembered it, although he spoke more softly than he had in the old days. However, there was nothing soft about his words.
He spoke of the feud between himself and his brother, Marita’s father; of the terrible revenge her father had taken for an imagined insult; of omertà, and of the decision of Don Pontiero.
Marita remembered the day Vachel delivered her and Paco to the island. She had been fifteen years old, her father’s pride, the only thing in the world he truly loved. Her isolation was to be his torture: she was to pay the penance for his sins.
The tape told of Don Pontiero’s death, of Paco’s father’s elevation, of Paco’s fast-approaching inheritance.
‘Times have changed, my son, and so has your father. I have a disease. Soon I shall be reunited with your mother. And you, Paco - you have been shut away from the world for too long. Your place is with me now…’
When his father’s tape finished playing, Paco switched off the machine. He was curled on the studio floor like she sometimes saw him curled on the beach, talking to the sand crabs.
Marita sat with her head bowed and waited. She waited for Paco to speak. His words mattered now as they had never mattered before, but it was some time before he broke the silence.
‘Marita,’ he said.
‘I have a question.’
He sighed. Then he said: ‘Do you love me?’
Marita stared into the angry sockets where Paco’s eyes used to be. As a baby he’d had wonderful eyes. Huge, black and beautiful. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her heart was a lump of lead in her breast.
‘Yes, Paco,’ she said. ‘I love you. I have always loved you.’
He nodded and rose to his feet. He made his way towards her and stood behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. He bent and kissed the top of her head.
‘Then everything will be well, Marita’ he said. ‘Believe me. Everything will be well.’