Saturday, 17 July 2010

Tick tock

The debate between Raol and the neighbours, sparked by the burglary showed no sign of cooling down and I could see that Ernesto was beginning to wonder when the shooting might start. He decided to call in the village priest to mediate who gathered these angry, quarrelsome men (all of whom had better things to do) around a blistered old table in the yard. Father Jake a white haired, red faced and pipe cleaner thin man laid a heavy gold and black bible on the table top and then placed an American quart bottle of Scotch whisky on top of it. He took a moment to make eye contact with the five ranchers seated around and then began to speak. “Gentlemen, on the table I have placed two wonderful things, the good book of life and the eternal water of life. Onto these two I place my own hands.” He clutched the bible in his right hand and the whisky with his left , straightened his arms and held the two items aloft as if they were some form of offering or sacrifice.

“Your differences are to you significant, the line of a ditch, the track of a hedge, the width of a field and the depth of a well, the track along which you drive your cattle, the pasture your horses enjoy and the spaces onto which you have moved your homes and the heart of your honourable businesses. Then there are the things you share, the common good and the blessings, the good weather and the predictable seasons, the quality of our home soil, your health and strength, the love and goodness of your families, the freedoms your children have come to see as normal and the green dollars you secrete in your wallets, mattress covers and old iron safes. You have a lot to be thankful for.”

He looked at each one again, then at the bible and whisky bottle and placed them both back onto the table. “God has been good to this land and to you, you are wealthy, mature and stable men. I say (and in doing so give you God’s good counsel) that these disputes, allegations and the agitation between you must cease.” Nobody spoke. “ Raol, I have something for you.” He clicked a finger and policeman emerged from the kitchen carrying a rifle case. He laid it upon the table, clicked the catches and opened the lid. It was empty, Raol growled and the other ranchers sucked in the summer air like the hiss from a bag of snakes in the marketplace.

“Raol, your shotguns are gone, the police found your empty case in the city last night, they have no doubt been sold and moved onto some rich unappreciative fool, a gangster or drug baron who will not care for them but will own them until he himself is robbed or cut down. They have passed out of your life so be at peace, your neighbours, your friends are not party to this but in their own way they share your sense of loss and injustice and I offer you my sympathy. This is what it means to be alive, to live and learn and to let go. Let go of the guns and let go of (all) your differences.” He clicked a finger again. “Glasses?” He cracked the whisky open and poured shots for each man, including the police officer into the rough farmyard tumblers. “One in the eye for the Devil” he cried and emptied his glass into his throat.

I had observed this short, brittle but effective religious moment from the pool of shade below a tree by the fence and now better understood why, despite all the hypocrisy and complications, ninety percent of Argentineans owed some allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. By now the men were hunched forward, telling tales and laughing loudly around the table. Father Jake sat at the head as the master of ceremonies, listening, correcting and blowing smoke rings.

More drink was brought over the conference table and Juanita prepared a dish of roast chicken. It was like some edited Bacardi advert for old people and priests and if had all been part of Father Jake’s plan then I had to admire his strategy, his execution and recognising the eventual tipping point - the point at which he should rise, step back from the table, still looking like a perfect statesman and by summoning up all the mental and spiritual strength he possessed overcome the power of strong drink and rapid conversation and leave with supreme dignity whilst displaying the curious ability of being able to walk smoothly and serenely with his feet two inches above the dirt road. That was what he thought anyway.

If you are going mad how can you actually tell that it’s happening to you? What signs are there? Are they there in the faces of other people, in their eyes, in their words? Far away and senseless words, they don’t quite hang together, they are like sentences on some bus tour for sentences and phrases crashing over a cliff edge to be broken on the rocks and sharp spikes at the bottom of that deep ravine. Then their sounds, coming up from those depths are fractured and unrecognisable to most people but they make some kind of mad sense to you and you follow the ghostly floating sounds. They call and take you to that same cliff edge as they rise like Texan helium from the wreckage and when you ask yourself why you are there you realise that you are there because you are scared about what would happen if you were not there.

“I never did sleep with Claudia and she never did sleep with me, so help me Jesus.” Father Jake was lying under a tree half way down the approach road, drunk as Frenchman, wild eyed and mumbling.

The next day everybody was suddenly busy out on the ranch using up spare horses and tractors so I walked alone into every room of the house listening to the ticks, tocks and burrs of all the difference clocks. I gave them names and numbers and noted their exact locations as I found them all across the house. I wrote my findings down with a blue crayon into the lined pages of a hard bound school jotter., there was even a remarks column but it remained unused. Now I had a complete inventory of clocks but without remarks. After these excretions, some of which had lasted all of fifteen minutes I retired to my single bed and listened to the others sounds of the house whilst trying to blot out any clock related or generated noise that encroached on my concentrated efforts. It was, now that I had become familiar with them very hard for me to filter out the ticks.

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