My wife and I used to rent a house near the beach. We liked to get out of Santiago once in a while and watch the afternoon go by from the porch. My wife’s name is Antonieta and she writes for the culture pages of a couple of different papers. We’d got married two years earlier, after I’d divorced the mother of my only daughter, Camila. Antonieta was young and tall, and almost always good natured. I’d just turned twenty-nine, I’d been unemployed for a while and had no intention of doing anything about it. Camila had died, and my life felt like a shadow of what it had been before that awful day. She’d been born sick and her mother and I always knew she’d die young. The doctors had given her even less time. A surgeon told me it was a miracle she’d lived to the age of eight.
Antonieta didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t doing anything. She earned enough to pay the bills. I saw her go out in the morning and come home in the evening. I’d spend the whole day watching television, chatting to strangers on the internet, masturbating and smoking. I told my wife I was writing a novel that would take some time. I’m not sure when it occurred to me to tell that particular lie. And I don’t know whether she ever believed me. Either way, one fine day I told her I wanted to be a writer and assured her I had a novel in mind. A long novel, I said confidently. A multi-part novel with many plotlines and characters. And Antonieta stood by me. She knew a couple of writers through work and told me that when I’d finished the manuscript she’d put us in touch, so I could have an expert read it and tell me what they thought. But the lie didn’t stop at my wife. When we went to the beach, on this particular occasion, I’d managed to con all my friends and old colleagues: there wasn’t a single person who didn’t think my novel was well on the way. At parties or get-togethers I’d even detail specific passages, scenes that I’d make up as I went along. And every time I talked about it, the imaginary novel took on a different hue – new stories would emerge, feeding back into my conversations and anecdotes. I didn’t feel bad about lying. I wasn’t worried about being found out.
When we arrived at the beach my wife opened all the windows and cleaned the living room. It was a small house on a hill. We’d been renting it every summer for five years. A wooden, single-story building, with a terrace raised a couple of feet off the ground, facing the coast. That morning I watched Antonieta come and go from one room to the next, cleaning and moving the furniture around. She was wearing blue tracksuit bottoms and her brown hair was tied back in a bun. She looked young and happy and it struck me that I was a fortunate man.
I decided to go out for a walk by the sea, a kilometre or two from the house. It was still very early, just after dawn, and on Sundays we liked to have breakfast at nine. It’s still cold, Antonieta said, handing me a thick jumper.
The beach was empty and the sky leaden. I was wearing jeans and white trainers. I looked at my footprints in the sand as I walked. Lit a series of cigarettes as I left the house behind me. When I got tired, I sat down and looked at the sea. The sand was cold and coffee-coloured, the sun not fully risen. There were no boats of any kind, no lights in the houses along the shore. I saw the sea, calm and blue, and I thought, inevitably, of Camila, and how I’d never brought her to the beach. Her mother might have – she’d rebuilt her life with another man and they’d probably got out of the city every now and then. But I’d never brought her, and that possibility, the possibility of having come to the beach with my daughter, was no longer. It hurt, that realisation. I always knew she’d die, and that I had to be ready for that day. You might even say I spent eight years preparing for her death, pretty much since I started university. And still, there wasn’t a single day when it wasn’t painful to think about her.
As I was starting to feel like turning back to the house for breakfast, I saw Dr Hernández walking along the shore. Actually, the first thing I saw was a red blotch in the distance, wobbling along the waterline in my direction. Then the blotch started taking shape and grew and grew until it was all I could see. It was Hernández, the alcoholic surgeon who’d tried to kill himself by setting his house on fire. The whole beachside community knew the story: a successful professional, suddenly widowed, decided to kill himself and couldn’t find a better way to do it than by setting fire to his house. Except he was rescued in time. It wasn’t a big town, and the fire brigade were alerted by the smoke.
“Hello,” he said as he approached. “Haven’t seen you round here for a while.”
He was wearing red tracksuit bottoms, not dissimilar to the ones my wife had on, and a white t-shirt. He wore a thin gold chain and looked very tanned. He was fat and seemed older than last time I’d seen him. His large forehead had started encroaching upon his hairline, and his eyes had a weary look about them. He smelled, as always, of alcohol. That warm, fruity smell some people give off. In the town, everyone kept tabs on each other, and he knew exactly who I was. I greeted him with some apprehension, determined not to get caught up in conversation. Hernández and his in-your-face convictions had always made me uneasy.
“How’s your wife?”
“Fine,” I replied, “She’s fine.”
“I hear you’re a novelist these days,” he said, and placed a tiny but very heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Well, trying to be.”
“Tell me about your novel,” he said, and twisted his mouth, just a little, as though he was going to sneeze: a strange tic he’d picked up recently. He sat down next to me and stretched his legs out. “Or are you one of those writers who never gives anything away?”
“I’m reworking the opening chapters,” I said.
“Ah, I see.”
I used to read a lot when I was a teenager, mainly Russian novels, and for many years I really did think about trying to write. Maybe that’s why lying turned out to be so easy – why I had no difficulty pretending to be a writer. He said:
“You know – I’m also in the literature business.”
“That’s great,” I said, and tried to sound enthusiastic.
Whenever I saw Hernández – always from a distance – in the supermarket or at the club, I always wondered how someone so lively could possibly have wanted to burn to death in their own home.
“Yes,” he went on, “I’m writing a novel. A real whopper. It’s about decadence in early Eastern civilization.”
His eyes – bright, nervous, ever alert – waited for me to say something, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“I even went to a workshop,” he said, and took a deep breath, inflating the enormous belly straining beneath his t-shirt. “Which writers do you like?”
“Mmm, depends… I mainly like North American writers. Like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Do you know them?”
I had never read Pynchon or DeLillo, but I knew they existed. I’d read something about them somewhere and I thought it couldn’t hurt to mention them because I was pretty sure they were supposed to be good.
“What about me?”
“What do you read?”
“Oh, everything,” he sighed. “I’ll read anything. I don’t discriminate. I believe everyone’s got something to say. I’ve always thought so. I’ll read a self-help book one day and a romance the next, or even a really dirty novel––” A smile that was supposed to be complicit crept across Dr Hernández’s face. “I like all kinds of novels. And I read modern essays, too, you know the kind they write these days. I reckon anything’s good fodder for writing.”
It was obvious that Hernández didn’t know a thing about literature. I watched him twist his mouth and take out a hipflask. “Don’t mind me,” he said, and took a sip. “You’ve still not told me what your novel’s about though.”
I wondered whether Hernández had ever met my daughter. Maybe he’d be able to tell me whether my ex-wife had ever come to this beach, or to the town. I knew she had family on the coast. I even thought about asking him outright whether he’d seen Camila on the beach, but then changed by mind.
“It’s about men,” I said after a while, improvising. “My novel. Men who walk alone by the sea.”
Hernández dusted the sand off his trousers.
“Want some?” He held out the flask.
“No,” I said. “I don’t drink these days.”
“There’s a place not far from here that sells seafood empanadas. It’s called The Seven Dwarves.”
I imagined Hernández dousing his house in petrol. Of all the ways a person could choose to kill themselves, this seemed to be the worst.
“They’re great,” Hernández said, nervous. “They make them with loads of cheese. They put everything in them. Even abalone. Have you been?”
“They’re really good,” he said, and took a big swig from his flask.
“I can imagine.”
“Yeah, I am, actually.”
“Let’s go, my treat.”
“My wife’s waiting for me at home,” I said.
Hernández looked at his white trainers with what seemed to me a terrible sadness. He twisted his mouth, and said:
“We could get some empanadas and then you could go back to your wife.”
“It’s just that she’s waiting for me, I can’t be late. We’ve got to go to the market.”
“The market,” Hernández repeated to himself.
I got up. Brushed the sand off my jeans.
A young couple jogged by right in front of us. They looked happy together, like they were a team. Hernández and I watched them go, two ghostly apparitions on that lonely beach. Hernández got up too.
“I hope we run into each other again,” he said enthusiastically. He’d regained his customary false cheer.
“I hope so too,” I said, for something to say.
“You know… I’m not actually a writer. I’ve never in my life written a single line,” he said, as though lying was a perfectly normal activity.
I looked at him carefully and for a second had a feeling he was about to cry. But instead he smiled again and drank from his flask.
“I should go, Dr Hernández.”
“Yes, yes, I won’t keep you.”
We shook hands and walked off in opposite directions.
When I got home, Antonieta had breakfast ready on the table. Eggs and carrot cake. I told her everything Hernández had said to me. I talked about his novel and said he’d been quite pleasant. I left out that he’d lied about his literary ambitions.
“Are we going to the market today?” she asked as she poured the milk.
“Yes, we’ve got to get fish and some vegetables.”
Antonieta stirred her coffee and took a bite of her bread and cream cheese.
“Camila would have liked the beach,” I said. “It never occurred to me to bring her. I always thought the journey would be too hard on her. But actually I think it would have been a good idea.”
“I think so too.”
“Can you imagine? Her running along there, up the hill… Or paddling on the beach.”
“Yes, we should have brought her.”
“It would have been a good idea,” I said, and thought of Hernández’s burning house, and regretted not going with him to buy empanadas. It would have been a good idea.
Translated by Ellen Jones