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For the second time in a short period, Inspector Hector Salgado turns his head suddenly, convinced someone is watching him, but he sees only anonymous and indifferent faces, people who, like him, are walking on a packed Gran Via and stop once in a while in front of one of the traditional stalls of toys and games occupying the pavement. It is January 5, the night before Reyes, though no one would think so judging by the pleasant temperature, ignored by some strollers conveniently dressed in overcoats, some even with gloves and scarf as befits the season, happy to participate in a sham of winter lacking the main ingredient: cold.
The parade has been finished for a while and the traffic fills the road under garlands of shining lights. People, cars, the smell of churros and hot oil, all seasoned with supposedly happy carols, their lyrics dipped in surrealism, which the loudspeakers launch against the passersby without the least decorum. It seems no one has bothered to compose new songs, so for yet another year there are the same fucking tidings of comfort of joy. That must be what’s fucked up about Christmas, thinks Hector: the fact that generally it always stays the same, while we change and grow older. It seems to him inconsiderate to the point of cruelty that this Christmassy atmosphere is the only thing that is repeated year after year without exception, making our decadence ever more evident. And for the umpteenth time in the last fifteen days he wishes he’d flown from all the revelry to some Buddhist or radically atheist country. Next year, he repeats, as if it were a mantra. And to hell with what his son might say.
He is so absorbed in these thoughts that he doesn’t notice that the queue of pedestrians, moving almost as slowly as that of the cars, has stopped. Hector finds himself at a halt in front of a stall selling little plastic soldiers in bags: cowboys and Indians, Allied soldiers dressed in camouflage ready to shoot from a trench. He hasn’t seen them in years and remembers buying them for Guillermo when he was a kid. In any case, the vendor, an old man with arthritic hands, has managed to re-create an exquisite military scene, down to the last detail, worthy of a 1950s film. That’s not all he sells: other soldiers, the traditional lead ones, bigger and in shiny red uniforms, march on one side, and a legion of Roman gladiators, historically out of place, on the other.
The old man gestures to him, inviting him to touch the goods, and Hector obeys, more out of manners than any real interest. The soldier is softer than he expected and the feel of it, almost like human flesh, repulses him. Suddenly he realizes that the music has ceased. The passers-by have halted. The car lights have been switched off and the Christmas lights, flickering weakly, are the street’s only lighting. Hector closes his eyes and opens them again. Around him the crowd begins to vanish; the bodies suddenly disappear, evaporate without leaving the least trace. Only the vendor remains at his stall. Wrinkled and smiling, he takes one of those snow globes out from under the counter.
“For your wife,” he says. And Hector is about to answer that no, Ruth detests those glass domes; they’ve upset her ever since she was a child, like clowns do. Then the flakes clouding the interior fall to the bottom and he sees himself, standing in front of a toy soldier stall, trapped within the glass walls.
“Papa, Papa . . .”
The television screen covered in gray snow. His son’s voice. The pain in his neck from having fallen asleep in the worst possible position. The dream had been so real on Reyes night.
“You were shouting.”
Shit. When your own son wakes you out of a nightmare the moment has come to resign as a father, thought Hector as he sat up on the sofa, sore and in bad humor.
“I fell asleep here. And what are you doing awake at this time of night?” he counterattacked.
Guillermo shrugged his shoulders without saying anything. As Ruth would have done. As Ruth had done so many times. In an automatic gesture, Hector searched for a cigarette and lit it. Cigarette butts were spilling out of the ashtray.
“Don’t worry, I won’t fall asleep here again. Go to bed. And don’t forget we’re going out early tomorrow.”
His son nodded. As he watched him walk barefoot toward his room, he thought how hard it was to act as a father without Ruth. Guillermo wasn’t yet fifteen, but at times, looking at his face, you would say he was much older. There was a premature seriousness in his features that pained Hector more than he cared to admit. He took a long drag on his cigarette and, without knowing why, pressed the button on the remote. He couldn’t even remember what he’d put on that night. With the first few images, that still black-and-white photo of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, he recognized it and remembered. Breathless. Ruth’s favorite film. He didn’t feel up to watching it again.
Approximately ten hours earlier, Hector had been contemplating the white walls of the psychologist’s practice, a space he knew well, a tad uncomfortable. As usual, the “kid” was taking his time before beginning the session and Hector still hadn’t worked out if those minutes of silence served to gauge his state of mind or if the guy was simply a slow starter. In any case, this morning, six months after his first visit, Inspector Salgado wasn’t in the mood to wait. He cleared his throat, crossed and uncrossed his legs, then finally leaned forward and said, “Would you mind if we started?”
“Of course.” And the psychologist raised his eyes from his papers, although he added nothing further.
He remained silent, interrogating the inspector with his gaze. He had an absentminded air that, combined with his youthful features, made you think of one of those child prodigies who solve complex equations at the age of six but at the same time are incapable of kicking a football without falling over. A false impression, Hector knew. The kid took few shots, certainly; however, when he fired, he was on target. In fact, the therapy sessions, which had begun as a work requirement, had become a routine, weekly at first then fortnightly, that Hector had followed of his own volition. So that morning he took a deep breath, as he’d learned, before answering.
“Really sorry. The day didn’t start off well.” He leaned back and fixed his eyes on a corner of the office. “And I don’t think it will end any better.”
“Difficulties at home?”
“You don’t have teenagers, do you?” It was an absurd question, given that his listener would have to have been a father at fifteen to have offspring of Guillermo’s age. He remained quiet for a moment to reflect, then, in a tired voice, he went on, “But it’s not that. Guillermo is a good boy. I think the problem is that he was never a problem.”
It was true. And although many fathers would be satisfied by this apparent obedience, Hector was worried by what he didn’t know; what was going on in his son’s head was a mystery. He never complained, his marks were normal, never excellent but never bad either, and his seriousness could be an example to madder, more irresponsible kids. However, Hector noticedor rather he sensedthat there was something sad behind this absolute normality. Guillermo had always been a happy child and now, in mid-adolescence, he’d become an introverted boy whose life, when he wasn’t at school, basically passed by within the four walls of his bedroom. He spoke very little. He didn’t have many friends. All in all, thought Hector, he’s not so different from me.
“And you, Inspector? How are you? Still not sleeping?”
Hector hesitated before admitting it. It was a subject on which they couldn’t agree. After months of insomnia, the psychologist had recommended some gentle sleeping pills, which Hector refused to take. Partly because he didn’t want to become accustomed to them; partly because it was in the early hours that his mind worked at full capacity and he didn’t want to dispense with his most productive hours; partly because sleeping plunged him onto uncertain and not always pleasant ground.
The kid deduced the reasons for his silence.
“You’re wearing yourself out uselessly, Hector. And, without wanting to, you’re wearing out the people around you.”
The inspector raised his head. He rarely addressed him so directly. The kid held his gaze without turning a hair.
“You know I’m right. When you started to come to the practice we were dealing with a very different subject. A subject that was put aside after what happened to your ex-wife.” He spoke in a firm voice, without hesitation. “I understand that the situation is difficult, but becoming obsessed won’t get you anywhere.”
“You think I’m obsessed?”
Hector gave a faint, bitter smile.
“And what do you suggest? That I forget Ruth? That I accept that we’ll never know the truth?”
“You don’t need to accept it. Just live with it without rebelling against the world every day. Listen to me while I ask you as the police officer you are: how many cases remain unsolved for a time? How many are cleared up years later?”
“You don’t understand,” Hector replied, and took a few seconds to continue speaking. “Sometimes . . . sometimes I manage to forget it all, for a few hours, while I work or when I go out running, then it comes back. Suddenly. Like a ghost. Expectant. It’s not an unpleasant sensation, not accusing or asking, but it’s there. And it doesn’t go away easily.”
“What is it that’s there?” The question had been formulated in the same neutral tone that marked all the young therapist’s interjections, although Hector noticed, or perhaps feared, that he was picking up a particular nuance.
“Relax.” He smiled. “It’s not that sometimes I see dead people. It’s just the feeling that . . .” He paused to find the words. “When you have lived with someone for a long time, there are times that you just know they’re at home. You wake up from a siesta and you sense that the other person is there, without needing to see them. You understand? That wasn’t happening to me anymore. I mean, it never happened during the time I was separated from Ruth. Only after her . . . disappearance.”
There was a pause. The psychologist scribbled something in that notebook to which Hector had no visual access. At times he thought that those notes formed part of the theatrical ritual of a session: symbols which served only to make the interlocutorthat is, himfeel listened to. He was going to put forward his theory out loud when the other man began to speak; he spoke slowly, amiably, almost carefully.
“You know something, Inspector?” he asked. “This is the first time you have admitted, even in a roundabout way, that Ruth might be dead.”
“We Argentines are well aware what ‘disappeared’ can mean,” replied Hector. “Don’t forget that.” He cleared his throat. “Even so, we have no objective proof that Ruth is dead. But”
“But you believe it’s so, right?”
Hector looked over his shoulder, as if he were afraid someone might hear. “That’s what fucks me over most.” He had lowered his voice, speaking more to himself. “You can’t even mourn her because you feel like a fucking traitor who threw in the towel too early.” He took a deep breath. “I beg your pardon. Christmas has never agreed with me. I thought I’d have come further with this, but . . . I had to give in. There’s nothing. I’ve found nothing. Damn it, it’s as if someone erased her from a drawing without a trace.”
“I thought the case was no longer in your hands.”
“It’s in my head.”
“Do me a favor.” That was always the prelude to the end. “From now until the next session try to concentrate, at least for a while every day, on what you have. Good or bad, but what your life is made up of; not what’s missing.”
It was almost two in the morning, and Hector knew he wouldn’t go back to sleep. He took his cigarette and cell phone and left the house to go up to the roof terrace. At least up there he wouldn’t wake Guillermo. The therapist was right in three things. One, he should start taking the damn sleeping pills, even if it annoyed him. Two, the case was no longer in his hands. And three, yes, deep down within him there was the conviction that Ruth was dead. Because of him.
It was a nice night. One of those nights that could reconcile you to the world if you let it. The coastline of the city extended before his eyes, and there was something in the bright twinkling lights of the buildings, in that dark but tranquil sea, that managed to chase off the demons Hector carried within him. Standing there, surrounded by planters with dry plants, Inspector Salgado asked himself, with complete honesty, what he had.
Guillermo. His work as an inspector in Catalonia’s police force, the Mossos, simultaneously intense and frustrating. A brain that seemed to function correctly and lungs that must be half black by now. Carmen, his neighbor, his landlady; his Barcelona mother, as she said. This roof terrace from which he could see the sea. An annoying therapist who made him think about bullshit at three in the morning. Few friends, but good ones. An immense collection of films. A body capable of running six kilometers three times a week (despite lungs worn out by the damned tobacco). What else did he have? Nightmares. Memories with Ruth. The void without Ruth. Not knowing what had happened to her was a betrayal of everything that mattered to him: his promises from another time, his son, even his work. This rented apartment where they had both lived, loved and fought; the apartment she had left to begin a new life in which he was only a supporting actor. Even so, she loved him. They continued loving each other, but in another way. He was learning to live with all this when Ruth disappeared, vanished, leaving him alone with the feelings of guilt against which he rebelled every minute.
Enough, he told himself. I’m like the protagonist of a French film: fortysomething, self-pitying. Mediocre. One of those that spends ten minutes looking at the sea from a cliff, plagued by existential questions, only then to fall in love like an idiot with an adolescent ankle. And just after this reflection he remembered the last chat, more accurately an argument, he’d had with his colleague, Sergeant Martina Andreu, just before Christmas. The reason for the dispute was incredibly petty, but neither of the two seemed capable of putting an end to it. Until she looked at him with that insulting frankness and, without a second thought, fired point-blank: “Hector, really, how long has it been since you had a fuck?”
Before his pathetic response could reverberate in his head, his cell phone rang.