It was late by the time he got back to La Casona, where his tubby frumpy wife was long asleep in their king-size, hand carved bed. An unpleasant smell lingered. As he put the last of the day’s notes in order to newly-restored lamplight, he could hear her swallowing deep, guttural snores in the room next door. He imagined the damp patch of drool on her Egyptian cotton pillow. The dregs would by now be white and crusty at her bottom lip. He thought about the faint sour-milk odour that nestled at her armpits, fostered by the warmth of the still, tropical heat and pictured swathes of her damp pink nightgown folding into the rolls of her midriff. He blinked twice, quickly, to clear his mind and opened the door of the en suite. With his back to the bathroom mirror, he pulled down his ocean blue shell suit bottoms. He took out his penis, fondled it briefly and tossed off to vague thoughts of pert breasts before finishing, abruptly, into the peach-coloured bidet. He turned on the taps in the form of sphinxes to wash away the spunk before using the right sleeve of his tricolour jacket to wipe the excess dribble. He gave a satisfied snort, yanked up his tracksuit trousers to just below his hanging gut and wandered back into the office.
He’d been tempted to stay overnight across town, despite the leaks in the lifts and the cracks in the windows and the bad tempers of the maintenance staff who would show up at dawn. It was tempting, truly, to stay away from this lap of luxury that came with so many undesirable caveats, but he knew he’d suffer for it if he did. On his rosewood writing desk, piles of paper sat untouched from the night before, when he’d brought them home with the faint hope of reading through them early that morning. It was difficult, he thought, to conjure the time and inclination to deal with a country in perennial crisis. Christ knows, he was only human. He poured himself a double Chivas Regal and slid into the blood red leather chair with the coat of arms on its headrest. He lit the end of a cigarette, inhaled deeply and paused, before exhaling forcefully from behind closed teeth. The day had been long and troublesome: the electricity was back on, which was something, though memories of the widespread blackout lingered at the back of his mind. It wasn’t so much the chaos that ensued with no traffic lights or metro system or electric security fences that bothered him. It was the time wasted – seven hours – of no publicity that he knew would lead to trouble. His power depended entirely on the network: its collapse was akin to his own.
He let his eyes wander to the far side of the room. In the right corner sat the flat screen television that glared without respite. Now, images of events from the past twelve hours danced across the screen, accompanied by the dim sound of political commentary turned to its lowest setting. His own face stared back at him, microphones shunted up his dark moustache and off-stage voices demanding to know the cause of the cut. He didn’t like any of it, much; it bore little resemblance to the orthodox rule he was used to. He remembered those days with fondness, when everything was ballots and pickets. Still, it was the twenty-first century and this was the socialism of its time: everything was bright lights and big impact, power permitting. With a sigh, he reached over towards the pile of papers and dragged them towards him, knocking over the tumbler of guisqui as he went. It clattered loudly onto the floor. Shitshitshitshitshit, he muttered, not the Shah fucking Abbasi Persian rug. He got down on his knees and began rubbing at the carpet furiously – left sleeve this time – and pulled the writing desk towards him so that a large bronze claw partially covered the stain. He stood halfway up, banged the top of his head on the corner and let out a doggish yelp. In response, a shriek came from behind the damask curtains. Shit, he thought. Christ. He froze in the crouched position, arms wrapped around his head.
“Don’t think I can’t hear you, you retard,” the voice said in measured baritone cadences. “I know you’ve told that heifer of a wife of yours to cover me up, but that doesn’t mean I’ll keep quiet. Thiscomandante never sleeps. He sees everything, hears everything, knows even when you’ve been banging one out in the bathroom, you grubby little pup. Don’t you think I don’t know, my friend, because I do know. I do.”
The man rose slowly, dropping his arms to his sides. He recoiled from the window and glanced at the bedroom door.
“Ssshh, mi comandante, please. She’s asleep. She’ll be furious if we wake her up and I bet she…”
“Don’t you tell me to shush, Nicolás, por favor, what bullshit you come out with. And I can’t believe you spilt whisky on the Shah fucking Abbasi Persian rug. Do you know how many incompetents, how many ridiculouses have sat there on that chair and have managed not to spill whisky on the rug? Hm? Carlos Andrés, the numbchuck he was, even he managed not to spill a drop of anything when we invaded back in 1992. What sort of example are you setting? You can barely control your own flailing limbs, let alone an entire nation. Who’s going to take you seriously, hm? Tell me that. You tell me that. And for crying out loud come over here and take this godforsaken piece of cloth off me at once.”
Nicolás obeyed the order, tugging reluctantly at the lemon-coloured linen to reveal a small sparrow sat on a perch in the centre of a gold-plated cage. It was an oversized and lavish affair for an unremarkable bird, with turrets sprouting from its curves and a solid golden dome sat at its peak. The creature it contained, in contrast, was too small to be grand, yet not small enough to have the charm of minuteness. Its down was the colour of dried mud, its beak barely differentiated from its body. Aside from a pair of crimson feathers in its tail, the specimen was unforgivably dull. The bird gave a heartfelt shiver on the spot and picked up his monologue again.
“Pheewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. That’s better. Thank God for that. Let us all thank God for freedom! For light! For air and equal rights to breathe freely! Free rights to the word! Free rights to the fatherland! Free rights to dignity! Rights!” He paused for effect. “Right. Where was I? Ah yes. You. An idiot.”
Nicolás’s heart sank. Deep down, he’d known that he had this coming. He thought, perhaps, because it was late, or because the troubles today weren’t really his fault, that he might escape tonight’s diatribe. But that was wishful thinking, and he had no such luck.
“Honestly, I saw your live transmission TV once the electricity was back on. Pah.Theh.Tick. Pathetic. What were you thinking? What were you thinking? Sabotage?! You can’t blame an eight-hour blackout on sabotage! Who’s going to believe that with our track record? Huh? We’ve had six years of periodic power cuts. Two years ago we declared an emergency in the power sector, andnow it occurs to you to attribute the whole thing to foul play from the opposition. Christ alive. Honestly. And apart from anything else, Nicolás, apart from the sheer stupidity of the whole idea, have you thought about the implications of blaming a long-standing infrastructural failure on consistent interference from an elite group of rebels?” He took another deep breath. “How do you think that makes us look – all this time, six long years, people sitting around, their beers getting warm for want of cold fridges, and we here turning a blind eye to the squalid interference with our national electricity grid. How – if that were even remotely plausible – how would that make us look? HOW WOULD IT MAKE US LOOK, NICOLÁS?”
“Not… very good,” Nicolás stuttered.
“Not very good what??!?” the bird tweeted.
“Not very good… mi comandante.”
“No, Nicolás. Not very good. Not very good at all. Imagine! Us willfully allowing such sabotage to take place, knowingly exposing our nation to the hands of Satan dressed as the bourgeoisie. NO. No, no, no, no, no. For you to do well, for you to succeed in your job, you need to use your imagination. Think outside the box. Blaming all and sundry on the opposition is not creative use of your cognitive capacities, and it certainly won’t convince anybody least of all your comandante.”
“I just thought…”
“I don’t care what you think, Nicolás. I don’t care. I mean, think about it – all you could have said, all the reasons you could have given. All the excuses you could have fabricated to justify why we might have pulled the plug on purpose. Huh? Did you think about that? Did it even occur to you to twist the knife of logic in its own back? Yes. Alright. We turned the power off, just for a little while. Just to see. We turned it off ourselves because the evils of globalized television must be eliminated by popular powers. Because we need to re-establish oral histories through the elimination of technological distractions. Because of our ecological impulse to save the planet through forced reduction of energy usage. Because it’s imperative to re-populate our nation with small socialist soldiers that might only happen when the lights are turned off.”
Nicolás gave a small cough and blushed, a little.
“Take your pick, Nicolás. Anything. Anything with a gram of credibility. But not sabotage. Not that.”
Nicolás dropped his jaw, keen to defend himself but too tired – too exhausted – to work through the tangles of reasoning knotted in his brain. It worried him how things that seemed so rational to his mind didn’t often carry the same weight with others. He knew had to come out and say something, the people would expect him to say something; the people had had nothing to do all day except think about what he might say when the power eventually came back on. And Christ, it wasn’t like their supporters were bright; not like they were well informed about the issues that mattered. Sometimes he gave them needless credit, as though they could think for themselves, when all they really wanted was someone else to switch the lights on for them. So what better than to play the role of messiah, to save the hordes from their lousy fate and cast out evil from their ranks. He thought it was a good idea, and decided to say as much. Wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, he ventured:
“I just think – so long as we draw from a model we know that works, good versus evil, straight from the Bible and all that, we can’t go far wrong.”
“Can’t go far…. Can’t go far wrong?!” His ashen chest puffed up and the feathers of his wings became ruffled. Nicolás was used to this fiery routine, though it wasn’t any less effective for rehearsal. “Aha. I see. Can’t go wrong. So I must have imagined that speech you gave last week, the one that got tongues wagging. Do you know which? Do you?”
He shifted nervously on his feet. His palms were clammy. He knew where this was going.
“I’ll tell you which, my friend. I’ll tell you which. I am thinking, precisely, of the speech in which you promised to multiply socialism in the image of Christ, who in turn multiplied penises. Huh? How does that sound? Right? Or wrong?”
Nicolás sighed. This one had been following him around like a bad smell for the past seven days. “I meant panes. And peces. It was sort of a portmanteau.”
“A portman… a portmanteau?! You know what? And I’ll tell you this for nothing. You can take your portmanteau, and here’s what you can do with it. You can stick it up your wife’s gunt. Ha! Did you hear that? Gunt! As in her enormous, hanging gut, and her loose, gaping…”
Nicolás had heard enough. He picked up the square of material crumpled on the floor and threw it back over the cage, to sounds of shrieking protest intermitted by a desperate tapping on the bars. It would take him a while to calm down, and there’d likely be repercussions, but the man with the moustache was beyond despair. He increased the volume of the television and sat back down, head in hands. The bird was no longer making comprehensible sounds; just a shrill, three note variant of a familiarly angry tune that competed with the commentary on the small screen. It occurred to him, not for the first time, to put an end to it all: just one clean snap to the neck, and ciao pescao. But without him, what? It didn’t bear thinking about. Nicolás was a slave to his ornithological master, caught in the very same dialect he denounced. He didn’t doubt this, and the furious trills from behind the curtain did not let him forget. He opened the large, bottom drawer in his desk and took out a shoebox punctuated with holes made by a pencil. He removed the lid, reached in and took out a small, underfed canary. It chirped in protest, petrified; Nicolás felt its tiny heartbeat racing against the forefinger that clenched his chest. With his thumb, he pressed its head, slowly, until it panicked twittering stopped. Silence. He tossed the body back into the draw, along with all the others, now stiff and foul smelling. He closed the drawer with the same sense of vacant satisfaction he’d felt not ten minutes before. He ran his hands through his hair and unzipped his jacket, breathing a sigh of relief. The twittering had calmed, now barely audible above the sounds of the TV. He got up from the chair, walked through the door to his bedroom and crept towards the bed, keen not to wake Cilia. He held his breath as he went.