Hitch-hiking tales

The Reencounter

It was old Guillermo who rescued Jenaro Romara from the rocks as he was about to drown amidst the waves with a wound in his head and no strength left in his arms. Guillermo was squid fishing in the waters between Getaria and Zumaia, and kept his boat near the coast. He caught a glimmer of something from a corner of his eye and when he instinctively turned his head, he saw the short flight of something propelling towards the rocks, a car that had dragged the parapet with it on its way down and which now looked like an old, crumpled accordion. The old fisherman felt the violence of the dull, metallic thud in his stomach and sailed to the rescue.

          Jenaro Romara is an Italian writer of children's literature. We obviously haven't been able to read any of his work, but he must be very successful in Italy because he lives off his writing. Unlike us, who spend our days straightening and polishing iron and steel and have to live with the effects of this work which deforms our muscles and bones day after day.

          Jenaro Romara arrived in Getaria six months ago; on holiday, initially, but then he decided to stay on indefinitely. He must have been very wealthy or very lazy, because we knew no one had invited him to stay. People were curious to find out the reason for this, and we had come up with three hypotheses. One was positive: he was looking for new landscapes for his stories and decided to write about this beautiful land. The second was negative: there was something murky and despicable about his past and he had stayed to rebuild his life, believing that a change of scenery would erase all memories. The third one was put forward by a group of romantically-inclined housewives disappointed in their marriages: he had come to recover from a failed love affair.

          The car crash added fuel to all the different conjectures and was used by the different factions as definite proof of the rightness of their theory.

          For the positive faction it was nothing but an unfortunate event. The negative one was certain it was a suicide attempt - provoked by the tenacity of his memory, which refused to forget. The housewives were the only ones who worried about him and visited him in hospital.

          Jenaro Romara survived and the time it took us to fix his car, a Renault 21, was almost the same the doctors took putting him together again. It was as if a profound rapport had imbued both bodies - one made of iron and the other of flesh - with a parallel sensitivity in terms of vulnerability as well as ability to recover.

          Crushed against the rocks, the chassis had shrunk and got bent, one of the stub axles was broken, as well as a wheel trim, the wings were a wreck, the steering rack was all over the place and the windscreen was shattered. They dissembled everything under the hood: the engine, the shock absorbers, the stub axels and the brakes, and they brought us the car and the bodywork separately on the same day they moved Jenaro from the ICU to a normal room. The engine hardly suffered any damage; all the hard, slow work would no doubt go into the bodywork. We placed the vehicle on the car bench and after establishing the exact degree of the chassis' deviation we heated the iron up with a welding torch and proceeded to straighten it by about 20 centimetres.

          Although Jenaro Romara's body hadn't suffered any major breakages something had gone wrong with his brain. The mechanism in his head seemed to be made out of pieces that had lost all coordination between them and no longer fitted together or related to each other, and this impenetrable, shocked look of absolute forgetfulness took over his face.

          He felt strong and healthy but couldn't remember anything about himself. Suddenly, after old Guillermo's visit, the shadow of mistrust and insecurity he permanently lived under as a consequence of the amnesia was substituted by a sudden feeling of certainty. He came to believe that every single visitor who set foot in his room, including the Italian woman who claimed to be his latest - and abandoned - wife, was an actor in a play created for the sole dark purpose of driving him mad, locking him up in a mental institution and stealing his fortune. He couldn't remember whether he was rich or not, but he figured that if so many people were taking part in the farce, it must be because there was enough money to go around for everyone, and for that same reason he was sure that the actors wouldn't stop trying to make him lose his mind until the conspiracy was happily resolved and they were all paid for their efforts. Instead of helping, each visit turned the writer more nervous and irascible.

          Once the chassis was ready we returned the car to the garage for the engine to be reassembled. Just then his Italian editor arrived and surprised the doctors with a proposal that was both obvious and brilliant: make Jenaro read his own books. Jenaro was furious when this was put to him - why should he read nonsensical children's writing or any suchlike palaver. It was an insult to his intelligence; they all knew he preferred to read sophisticated magazines designed for people of his generation. But soon afterwards he took to the idea and the results made us all feel very happy, and for the first time, hopeful. Jenaro loved the books and asked to read more by the same author. He didn't think much of fact that the name in the covers coincided with the name they told him was his. He decided it was the doctors' twisted strategy to confuse him even more.

          The fact that he requested more children's books was interpreted by the doctors as an acceptation of his likely madness - both because he knew he couldn't win his battle without the help of his memory and because the promise of his immediate release had made him believe he had beat the pretenders dressed in white coats at their own game.

          He read twenty-six books, one after the other. Then they told him the author hadn't produced anymore to date, and that he was known to be very depressed and that letters of support and praise from his readers might make him feel better.

          The doctors posted the letter registered delivery and it came back to the hospital, of course. They had hoped that receiving a letter sent to Jenaro Romara to his hospital room number and address would make him react.

          But nothing happened. The writer threw the letter in the bin without realising the symbolic message the doctors had cleverly put in his hands. His mind refused to show him the path that would take him back to the person he was before the accident.

          The doctors decided to tell him the truth and insist on it, even though they knew it might be counterproductive. They were more concerned with alleviating his feelings of frustration in the face of his failure than with the ways in which such a step might affect him. But Jenaro Romara, feeling paranoid and neurotic and certain that it was all a complot, reminded them they had promised to release him so the doctors gave up and signed his release papers. He was to leave the following day, and after that they would try to forget their failure to cure Jenaro Romara's complete and unconscious amnesia with their own brand of partial, deliberate amnesia.

          After they reassembled the engine they brought us the car back to reattach the body to it, give it the last touches and leave it ready to go on the road again. It was about time. We had been working on it for twenty-six days, and what with the pieces and the hourly rates the bill had reached €6000.

          Today, exactly a month after the accident, Jenaro Romana has turned up and asked for the keys to his car. At any given time there are 15 cars or so around the garage, and I have an idea. I put the keys in his hand and rush away mumbling that I am incredibly busy. I leave him in the middle of the garage with only his nebulous mind for company.

          He stares at the keys in deep puzzlement. He is about to say something, but presses his lips and slips the set into his other hand instead. His profoundly furrowed brow desperately tries to massage a glimpse of something out of the blanket of his forgetfulness. He contemplates the vehicles, and the vehicles appear to be awaiting his decision.

          He doesn't lose much time. The metallic grey Renault 21 immediately captures his attention; he recognises it with sudden surprise, happiness, reluctance, pain and many other feelings that show in his face fleetingly. It looks like he is succumbing to the sentimental displacement that unexpected and absolute evidence often causes - especially, as is the case here, if it isn't clear whether it is the world Jenaro is entering now or the world he has just left behind that is new. He seems not to know what to
do - be happy, be sad, take the car, run away from the garage, start walking or stay where he is. In the end he makes a decision. He sits in the car, starts it and waves at me as he leaves. I don't know which one of the hypotheses brought forward regarding the mystery of Jenaro is the true one, I don't know if he had an accident or if he tried to commit suicide, but something tells me where he is heading at this precise instant. I think that like sometimes happens to characters in Chinese tales, for an entire month Jenaro has lived outside his body, he has been banished from himself. The most important, most decisive side of him remained amidst the rocks while his body went from one hospital room to the next.

          All that remains to be seen - and this will either confirm or refute my intuition - is whether when he reaches the cliffs he will rescue the most important side of him from the rocks or if, on the other hand, his body will slide down the cliff to drown amidst the waves.

German Oliden, car mechanic.

From Auto-stopeko ipuinak, (Hitch-hiking tales, Erein, 1994)


The last Sunday of every month, Nemesio, the old sacristan, oiled the church organ's engine. He wasn't so old because he could still climb up the staircase to the choir without holding on to the banister after he had asked alms from the parishioners. Almost invariably I was busy with the consecration chords just then, but he would come near me and murmur softly:

          "You go on boy, you'll never find a better friend than that church organ in this world."

          He must have meant something by that, but I never knew what it was.

          Sometimes he would just wink at me with his healthy eye and then disappear into the church organ to oil it.

          Once it occurred to me that I should learn the ins and outs of such an important aspect of the church organ's life, find out if oiling it once a month was really enough, what type of oil was used, where could it be bought and how much it cost. I asked Nemesio bluntly, telling him I was worried that this was something I ought to know "since he wouldn't be around forever."

          My question surprised Nemesio as much as I was surprised by his reaction. He looked very sad and hurt and disappeared in absolute silence. I couldn't figure out what it was that I had done so wrong, as Nemesio stopped talking to me and winking as he walked past every last Sunday of the month. We heard from his relatives that he had lately become strange, distempered, like someone who, having previously been quite contented, had suddenly realised something terrible.

          One Sunday he stopped and stared at me.

          "You're right, you know. No one stays in this world forever."

          And he disappeared into the church organ.

          The mass continued and my attention was focused in all the songs, psalms, replies and tone shifts. It was only at the end of the mass that someone in the choir realised Nemesio hadn't emerged from the organ yet. We rushed inside to search for him.

          There he was, dead, sitting on the chair that had been placed inside the church organ to facilitate the oiling process. There was no sign that he had suffered. It was as if his last heartbeats had flown through the organ's pipes, mixed with the musical notes, in a silent, death-accepting chord none of us had heard.

Pakito, church organist

From Auto-stopeko ipuinak, (Hitch-hiking tales, Erein, 1994)

Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo