MUÑOZ, Jokin:
Life Asleep

The Meccano Set

For Pablo Muñoz Zabalegui

The child's eyes are partially open. For days he has been unable to stop the flow of tears from his eyes, ever since he started coughing and coughing. So now he sees his father's large body wrapped in a mist where he sits on the edge of the bed.

"He brought a chair from the kitchen," he says to himself. "Because the bedroom chairs are so small! And Dad is so big!" He smiles to remember his father sitting on one of those little chairs, knees scrunched up to his chest. He remembers the day they went to the circus. It was about a month and a half ago, for the first time. The circus didn't seem that extraordinary to him, but he loved the clowns. Especially when the silly clown started riding an itsy-bitsy bicycle in circles around the serious clown. How he had laughed! How he had coughed! His father hadn't taken his arm from around the boy's shoulders the whole time. He liked that affectionate gesture of his father's. When they went out for a walk, he often felt his father's enormous hand on his shoulder. His warm hand. His big hand. Yes. The circus was fantastic. And that day wasn't even his birthday. Nor was the day about a week later when he brought him the Meccano set.

"Meccano, Dad!" the boy wanted to say, but he only smiled a tiny smile, with effort. He's lost his voice. For a long time now his throat has refused to obey him. His father has placed the night table between his knees and spreads out the pieces of the Meccano set on it as he has done at this hour for the last several days.

The child had had his eye on the Meccano set for a long time. He first saw it when they were out for their usual walk one Sunday morning, right in the middle of the shop window of a large store in their neighborhood. His father didn't particularly notice when he plastered his face against the window and pointed to the Meccano set. It was even put together. It was a crane about half a meter high, like the ones he had often seen in the port of Pasajes. The shopkeeper had strewn some small pieces around decoratively, to show that there were lots of pieces and, if you wanted, you could build a crane or anything else. "There! See! The Meccano set!" began the child, dazzled by the sight. But his father didn't pay as much attention to him then as he does now, nor did he put his arm around him as much either. Times were tough, his parents told him again, mentioning some war or another, and he wasn't their only child. There was also his little sister Maria, as well as the little one who would soon leave his mother's belly.

But the boy didn't give up. He still often stopped by the shop window on Sundays to look at the Meccano set, hoping his father would relent. But in vain. Then Christmas arrived, and he waited to see what Santa would bring.

"Today like at Pasajes," his father says. He's talking about the cranes in the port of Pasajes. When the child was well, the whole family used to take the ferry from one side of the port to the other as a Sunday afternoon excursion. The child's eyes went straight to the side of the port to see the cranes, silent and still. Since they always went on Sundays, he never saw them working. They looked abandoned. Weakened in their rust.

"Are you in pain, Andres?"

He knows his son won't answer, but he has already learned to read the boy's condition in his eyes. He's been in bed for more than a month, poor thing.

The father picks up the first piece. Slowly. He wants to give his son time to follow his movements. First pick it up, then position it. Since the child started taking the most recent medicines, he seems numb, and it's hard for him to remain as aware of his surroundings as he should. The same with speaking, and his father speaks to him more slowly now.

"First we make the foundation," he says. "It needs a strong base. You can't imagine what heavy loads this crane has to lift!" The child has heard this a million times, every night almost, but he has been waiting for these words ever since his father spread out all the pieces on the night table. "These are the biggest pieces. The small ones are for the very top," the father continues.

How he regretted not getting the Meccano set for his son that Christmas! Together with the usual socks and underwear from the boy's mother, they had put a baseball his son wasn't hoping for next to his little sister's gift. Little Maria had immediately clutched the giant cloth doll to herself; it was even bigger than she was. His son, on the other hand, had hunched over the ball and then started to toss it from one hand to the other without much interest. It was clear that he had hoped for the Meccano set, but he said nothing about it. Later he remained standing as best he could before his mother as she tried the socks and underwear on him. Although he let his mother do it, the boy was uncomfortable. And the father noticed. It wasn't just that he had wanted the Meccano set and Santa brought him a ball. The father saw something more in the demeanor of his son. A grown boy had taken the place of the little child.

"He knows about Santa Claus," he said to his wife after the children had gone to bed with their gifts. "You know perfectly well we couldn't afford a Meccano set," his wife answered, trying to lighten the remorse they both felt. She must also have seen the grown child as she was trying the boy's new underwear on him, even though the underwear, as always, were too big for him.

"Late, you bought him the Meccano set too late!" the father thinks to himself now. "Too late." His son seems like a little child now in the light of the small lamp. He has the covers pulled up to his eyes and, when he coughs, he clutches the sheet over his mouth. He doesn't want to worry his father, apparently. The boy sees him there behind the mist, moving the little pieces with his enormous hands. He picks up the pieces and positions them slowly, each in its own place. But his father is serious. Pensive. And he knows it's because of him. His father is tired. And sleepy. Like him. "Are you too hot?" the father asks, picking up the damp cloth from the side of the bed. He has also done it many times without asking, but now he wants to fill the silence one way or another. The child gives him a grateful look when he feels the cool cloth on his forehead and cheeks. He puts the cloth back then, slowly.

"It was too expensive," he thinks. "But if it was too expensive then, why wasn't it a couple months later?" His son gives a small cough under the covers. He's feverish. The father, however, doesn't pull the sheet from over his mouth. He picks up another piece. Once the first large pieces have been placed, it's so difficult for him to handle these small pieces! He feels the child's wide misty eyes glued to his hands.

Stingy. He's known for being stingy among his friends. And he knows they make fun of him behind his back for it. Who could be stingier? Almost his only vice is going to Atocha to see Madrid play. And to the bullfights in the summer... Also, if he had wanted, if he had agreed at the time, they wouldn't have to pay rent now. It hurts him to recall the quarrel he had with his wife. Stubborn lout! Pig-headed bastard! He sighs now before the crane, which is taking shape little by little. "I don't know...," he says to himself, "I don't know if I did the right thing."

"It's a matter of honor," he said to his wife, when they were first married: his father-in-law offered them a large apartment, but he turned it down. "I want to support my family myself," he kept telling her. It was true to some extent, but it was also true that he was thinking of the gibes and ridicule of his wife's brother and his friends when he made the decision. His wife's family had always seemed half-witted to him, from the very beginning. Untested by hard work. Flighty. Especially his brother-in-law. Always idle, always going on about big oaf, outsized clod and so on, protesting that he meant it affectionately. Owning a bunch of apartments in San Sebastián didn't give his brother-in-law the right to disrespect him like that. "Arrogant ex-pat. Anyone can get rich in Argentina," he had thought many times. But it pained him. He could see no advantage to such a life. No church. No work. And then during the war, when his brother-in-law got into trouble, he, the oaf, the pathetic fellow who didn't know how to have fun, he was forced to go before the authorities to defend him. Up with the Basque Country, down with the Basque Country. The Argentinian's mouth was full of such things. "That's what happens when you lead a trivial life!"

He hears his wife's silent laments unendingly. He left her crying in the kitchen. She has been in tears since he arrived, but hers were strangled sobs, the ones that gather in the throat without reaching the mouth. She doesn't want her son to hear, apparently, and that only increases her suffering. She has bathed little Maria and put her to bed, having completely forgotten about dinner. It's hardly surprising. It's been a tough day for her. A tough week. When he got home he found the doctor bent over Andres' bed, listening to his son's lungs. He confirmed what they already knew. There was a reason he had advised them a week ago to bring him home. At least this way, they have been able to see the child smiling from time to time. The mother, though, has been unable to lift her head since then.

When she called him a stubborn lout he didn't take it badly. He could hardly expect anything else once he had seen the apartment his father-in-law had offered them. Their bedroom seemed the size of a classroom in a private school, and the bathroom was as large as the living room they had now. There was a refrigerator in the kitchen and a bell in each room, to call the servants. How could she not complain after losing all that?

She was sweet as they left her parents' house. He can still see it before his eyes. He, at street level, and his wife a bit higher up, in the doorway. Even like that, she didn't come up to his collar, a plump little thing. Head up, red-faced, big green eyes piercing him as she waved her chubby little hands up and down. "Obstinate fool! Arrogant bastard!" she shouted at him again and again.

A spirited one, his wife. Her pain must be unbearable now; she can't bring out what's eating her up inside.

At least she didn't set herself against him in front of her father and brother. She would have shamed him if she had. She kept it all inside until they reached the street. It seemed she would be angry for days since her scorn and scowls were far beyond the ordinary. But their fight didn't go much further. When they got back home, she still looked angry for a while, and then it was time for dinner and she went to the kitchen. From then on, she didn't mention the subject again, not when her brother used that apartment and the others to pay his gambling debts from the ball court and the casino, not even in the worst of the tough times after the war.

Again he passes the damp cloth over his son's forehead, slowly. The coughing is getting quieter now. His son is so weak, but he doesn't take his eyes off the Meccano set. "Yes, Andres, the crane is coming together little by little," he says. The boy's eyes are swollen, round, have lost their shine. "Your eyes were always just like your mother's," he thinks, remembering again the time his wife was so angry.

© Muñoz, Jokin. Bizia lo (Life Asleep), Alberdania, 2003.

© Translation: Kristin Addis

© Photo: Alberdania