A Kiss in the Dark

In the heat of the night you turn towards me under the sheets, my love. You ask me to tell you a story, for you can't fall asleep. Between kisses I look closely into your near-sighted eyes, and clear my throat. You've told me before that I have a baby face, that that's why so many women give me loving looks. That it makes you jealous. If only you knew... the most loving look anyone has ever given me – apart from yours of course, my darling – came from an old woman. This is something that happened a long time ago, something I never told anyone, perhaps because I don't feel comfortable talking about it.

I was fourteen, had just started secondary school, and I had gone into a police station to fill in the forms to request an ID card. They took our picture in a photo shop in Uribarri, and neither of us was overwhelmingly happy as we left the studio, four black-and-white faces on a square bit of paper in our hands. I looked like a child in the pictures, even if the hair I'd grown long gave me an edgier look. As you can see, even back then I had a baby face.

We had to go all the way down one hell of a steep road and cross the entire city to hand over the official photographic documentation for our ID papers. We had to go to Indautxu, on the other side of Bilbao, and even if the mere mention of the word 'police station' made us feel uneasy we had no option but to go. At least it was a good excuse for two young boys to go for an adventurous wander around the city... We seldom went to the centre, just to the Olimpia cinema or to the arcade in Euskalduna Street, so the city seemed quite labyrinthine to kids from our neighbourhood.

As we were crossing the Town Hall Bridge, my friend realised he'd left his money at home. You know, the money you need to pay for the forms and so on. I told him he could borrow some of mine, but when we counted what we had we realised there wasn't enough for the both of us, so he decided to go back home to get some. Then we said goodbye and agreed to meet at the police station.

As I said, I seldom went into the city by myself, and even less often around the Indautxu area. So this was the perfect occasion to indulge in a thorough exploration of the place: the cinemas, the arcades, the shops where you could exchange comics, all the plush bars; I even spotted a dubious-looking club with a red front door as I strolled, going deeper and deeper into the city. The thing was, by the time I'd investigated the whole neighbourhood, the doors of the police station were closed. They had very restricted working hours and I would to have to return the next day.

So I thought it was pointless to wait for my friend, and decided to head back home taking an alternative route. Walking this way and that I found myself in an unfamiliar street near the Alhondiga. I looked around me and saw menacing faces staring from street corners. I also saw old warehouses, dusty, broken blinds, dark bars and noisy garages. The heady smell emanating from the garages was making me dizzy, until I panicked and started to run.

I stopped by the traffic lights at the end of the street to get my breath. Suddenly, a wrinkled hand touched my arm. It was a woman, a very old one. She was asking for help in the middle of a busy street in the city centre. Why? Because she needed to change a light bulb in her living room, in the ceiling. She was carrying the little globe of glass in her hand, in an attempt to lend veracity to her story. I was sure she had noticed my baby face, and that that was why she was asking me for help. I was totally astonished, my love, but I wasn't able to say no.

Escaping from the boisterous street she guided me towards an old apartment house. The entry was dark as hell, and the wooden staircase looked like it was about to crumble. Inside her flat it wasn't much better, even if a welcoming Ongi-etorri sign by the door lent the atmosphere a bit more cheer. The structure of the house was crooked, as shown by several loose planks of wood along the hallway. Someone had taken down the paintings on the walls and in their stead square yellowing stains decorated the corridor. A leaning tower of dirty dishes was piled up in the sink, as if the woman's natural daily rhythm had somehow slowed down in her old age. The sound of a radio filtered into the flat from the patio window, together with the pervasive smell of cabbage.

At last we entered the room in darkness. I was too afraid to climb the decrepit step ladder, so I used a chair instead. When the light flickered and filled the room, I saw collapsed piles of newspapers by the walls. The woman thanked me, and promised to pray to all the saints in heaven for the well-being of my soul. Then she offered me coffee. I was too nervous not to accept, even if the paltry job I'd done hardly deserved payment. In any case, I didn't dissuade her and nodded to express my acceptance. Now I know why. It was that I'd somehow come to understand that her life was being extinguished just as the light in her room, that this was her last bit of light.

She had mentioned coffee, but she had laid out the table elegantly, as if in preparation for a festive meal. She took out two plates and placed the silverware carefully around the table while I looked on in amazement. She seemed at ease as she brought porcelain crockery to the table; I said to myself that she'd done something like this before. Without further ado, she told me to sit down and proceeded to serve the meal so gracefully that she looked twenty years younger.

The woman confessed it was her son's birthday, and that she wanted to celebrate it with me. At that moment she gave me a look of pure love, and if ever I have felt anything like that, it was then. The sort of look, you know, that told me that no matter what I did I'd always be forgiven. Only children are looked at in that way, without a hint of criticism, before the ups and downs of life change all that. By the way, it goes without saying that I don't expect you to ever look at me like that...

We both enjoyed the meal, she with the ladle in her hand, and I with the spoon in my mouth – every dish was a greater delight to the palate. Every now and then she would half-close her eyes and ask after my studies. I told her all sorts of things: how I'd just started in the new school and how I'd failed the math exam. How I spent most of the time drawing, and reading novels, especially during the philosophy lectures. She also told me a few things. How her son lived abroad and she was all by herself. How she never left the house and how even her shopping was brought home to her by a boy from a neighbouring grocery shop.

After the meal she turned on the radio and brought me some rice pudding and coffee. I started to worry that the people at home would begin to wonder where I was. Even so, I felt so comfortable sitting on the violet armchair, looking into that woman's pale eyes; I was in great company. That's how I found myself going through her photo album; she'd brought it along with a bunch of letters.

They were old family pictures, in black and white, and the woman was in all of them, younger then, and with a child standing next to her. The pictures had been taken in many places, at times when they'd taken the child out for the day; they were the broken pieces of a past. At the beach in Neguri, under the arches of the Artxanda tramway, in the Plaza Barria, next to the fishing boats by the Areatza quay. Noticing that the woman's pupils dilated quite a bit when she looked at her son, I asked her to tell me some stories about him.

Of course he wasn't a boy anymore, but for her he would always remain so. As a matter of fact, he now worked abroad; he'd started as a ship doctor and eventually found a job in a prestigious clinic in New York. The mother was very proud of her son, and she always kept a place ready for him in that old house of hers, with a bed ready-made, waiting for the boy to arrive. Unfortunately he hadn't come back to Bilbao for a very long time. That was why he sent her post cards and photographs.

Then she took out her favourite picture of her son: it showed a mustached young man wearing a linen suit, with a big nose and sad eyes and a weak smile on his lips. He looked like Rock Hudson. The young man was smoking. He needed the cigarette in order to look sophisticated, and I committed that observation to memory. I told her that he looked like a really nice guy; that he looked like her, especially around the eyes and nose. I don't know why, but I felt embarrassed, and guilty, as if I might stain her son's picture.

Š Olaziregi, M.J. (comp.) An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, 2004.

Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo.