Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 1
The man at the gate points them towards a low, sprawling building in the middle distance. 'If you hurry,' he says, 'you can check in before they close their doors for the day.' They hurry. Centro de Reubicación Novilla, says the sign. Reubicación: what does that mean? Not a word he has learned. The office is large and empty. Hot too - even hotter than outside. ?tioned by panes of frosted glass. Against the wall is an array of filing drawers in varnished wood. Suspended over one of the partitions is a sign: Recién Llegados, the words stencilled in black on a rectangle of cardboard. The clerk behind the counter, a young woman, greets him with a smile. 'Good day,' he says. 'We are new arrivals.' He articulates the words slowly, in the Spanish he has worked hard to master. 'I am looking for employment, also for a place to live.' He grips the boy under the armpits and lifts him so that she can see him properly. 'I have a child with me.' The girl reaches out to take the boy's hand. 'Hello, young man!' she says. 'He is your grandson?' 'Not my grandson, not my son, but I am responsible for him.' 'A place to live.' She glances at her papers. 'We have a room free here at the Centre that you can use while you look for something better. It won't be luxurious, but perhaps you won't mind that. As for employment, let us explore that in the morning - you look tired, I am sure you want to rest. Have you travelled far?' 'We have been on the road all week. We have come from Belstar, from the camp. Are you familiar with Belstar?' 'Yes, I know Belstar well. I came through Belstar myself. Is that where you learned your Spanish?' 'We had lessons every day for six weeks.' 'Six weeks? You are lucky. I was in Belstar for three months. I almost perished of boredom. The only thing that kept me going was the Spanish lessons. Did you by any chance have señora Piñera as a teacher?' 'No, our teacher was a man.' He hesitates. 'May I raise a different matter? My boy' - he glances at the child - 'is not well. Partly it is because he is upset, confused and upset, and hasn't been eating prop?erly. He found the food in the camp strange, didn't like it. Is there anywhere we can get a proper meal?' 'How old is he?' 'Five. That is the age he was given.' 'And you say he is not your grandson.' 'Not my grandson, not my son. We are not related. Here' - he takes the two passbooks from his pocket and proffers them. She inspects the passbooks. 'These were issued in Belstar?' 'Yes. That is where they gave us our names, our Spanish names.' She leans over the counter. 'David - that's a nice name,' she says. 'Do you like your name, young man?' The boy regards her levelly but does not reply. What does she see? A slim, pale-faced child wearing a woollen coat buttoned to the throat, grey shorts covering his knees, black lace-up boots over woollen socks, and a cloth cap at a slant. 'Don't you find those clothes very hot? Would you like to take off your coat?' The boy shakes his head. He intervenes. 'The clothes are from Belstar. He chose them himself, from what they had to offer. He has become quite attached to them.' 'I understand. I asked because he seemed a bit warmly dressed for a day like today. Let me mention: we have a depository here at the Centre where people donate clothing that their children have outgrown. It is open every morning on weekdays. You are welcome to help yourself. You will find more variety than at Belstar.' 'Thank you.' 'Also, once you have filled in all the necessary forms you can draw money on your passbook. You have a settlement allowance of four hundred reals. The boy too. Four hundred each.' 'Thank you.' 'Now let me show you to your room.' She leans across and whis?pers to the woman at the next counter, the counter labelled Trabajos. The woman pulls open a drawer, rummages in it, shakes her head. 'A slight hitch,' says the girl. 'We don't seem to have the key to your room. It must be with the building supervisor. The supervisor's name is señora Weiss. Go to Building C. I will draw you a map. When you find señora Weiss, ask her to give you the key to C-55. Tell her that Ana from the main office sent you.' 'Wouldn't it be easier to give us another room?' 'Unfortunately C-55 is the only room that is free.' 'And food?' 'Food?' 'Yes. Is there somewhere we can eat?' 'Again, speak to señora Weiss. She should be able to help you.' 'Thank you. One last question: Are there organizations here that specialize in bringing people together?' 'Bringing people together?' 'Yes. There must surely be many people searching for family members. Are there organizations that help to bring families together - families, friends, lovers?' 'No, I've never heard of such an organization.' Partly because he is tired and disoriented, partly because the map the girl has sketched for him is not clear, partly because there are no signposts, it takes him a long time to find Building C and the office of señora Weiss. The door is closed. He knocks. There is no reply. He stops a passer-by, a tiny woman with a pointy, mouse-like face wearing the chocolate-coloured uniform of the Centre. 'I am looking for señora Weiss,' he says. 'She's off,' says the young woman, and when he does not understand:: 'Off for the day. Come back in the morning.' 'Then perhaps you can help us. We are looking for the key to room C-55.' The young woman shakes her head. 'Sorry, I don't handle keys.' They make their way back to the Centro de Reubicación. The door is locked. He raps on the glass. There is no sign of life inside. He raps again. 'I'm thirsty,' whines the boy. 'Hang on just a little longer,' he says. 'I will look for a tap.' The girl, Ana, appears around the side of the building. 'Were you knocking?' she says. Again he is struck: by her youth, by the health and freshness that radiate from her. 'Señora Weiss seems to have gone home,' he says. 'Is there not something you can do? Do you not have a - what do you call it? - a llave universal to open our room?' 'Llave maestra. There is no such thing as a llave universal. If we had a llave universal all our troubles would be over. No, señora Weiss is the only one with a llave maestra for Building C. Do you perhaps have a friend who can put you up for the night? Then you can come back in the morning and speak to señora Weiss.' 'A friend who can put us up? We arrived on these shores six weeks ago, since when we have been living in a tent in a camp out in the desert. How can you expect us to have friends here who will put us up?' Ana frowns. 'Go to the main gate,' she orders. 'Wait for me outside the gate. I will see what I can do.' They pass through the gate, cross the street, and sit down in the shade of a tree. The boy nestles his head on his shoulder. 'I'm thirsty,' he complains. 'When are you going to find a tap?' 'Hush,' he says. 'Listen to the birds.' They listen to the strange birdsong, feel the strange wind on their skins. Ana emerges. He stands up and waves. The boy gets to his feet too, arms stiffly by his sides, thumbs clenched in his fists. 'I've brought some water for your son,' she says. 'Here, David, drink.' The child drinks, gives the cup back to her. She puts it in her bag. 'Was that good?' she asks. 'Yes.' 'Good. Now follow me. It's quite a walk, but you can look on it as exercise.' Swiftly she strides along the track across the parkland. An attrac­tive young woman, no denying that, though the clothes she wears hardly become her: a dark, shapeless skirt, a white blouse tight at the throat, flat shoes. By himself he might be able to keep up with her, but with the child in his arms he cannot. He calls out: 'Please - not so fast!' She ignores him. At an ever-increasing distance he follows her across the park, across a street, across a second street. Before a narrow, plain-looking house she pauses and waits. 'This is my place,' she says. She unlocks the front door. 'Follow me.' She leads them down a dim corridor, through a back door, down rickety wooden stairs, into a small yard overgrown with grass and weeds, enclosed on two sides by a wooden fence and on the third by chain-link wire. 'Have a seat,' she says, indicating a rusty cast-iron chair half covered in grass. 'I'll get you something to eat.' He has no wish to sit. He and the boy wait by the door. The girl re-emerges bearing a plate and a pitcher. The pitcher holds water. The plate holds four slices of bread spread with margarine. It is exactly what they had for breakfast at the charity station. 'As a new arrival you are legally required to reside in approved lodgings, or else at the Centre,' she says. 'But it will be all right if you spend your first night here. Since I am employed at the Centre, we can argue that my home counts as approved lodging.' 'That's very kind of you, very generous,' he says. 'There are some leftover building materials in that corner.' She points. 'You can make yourself a shelter, if you like. Shall I leave you to it?' He stares at her, nonplussed. 'I'm not sure I understand,' he says. 'Where exactly will we be spending the night?' 'Here.' She indicates the yard. 'I'll come back in a while and see how you are getting on.' The building materials in question are half a dozen sheets of galva­nized iron, rusted through in places - old roofing, no doubt - and some odds and ends of timber. Is this a test? Does she really mean that he and the child should sleep out in the open? He waits for her prom­ised return, but she does not come. He tries the back door: it is locked. He knocks; there is no response. What is going on? Is she behind the curtains, watching to see how he will react? They are not prisoners. It would be an easy matter to scale the wire fence and make off. Is that what they should do; or should he wait and see what will happen next? He waits. By the time she reappears the sun is setting. 'You haven't done much,' she remarks, frowning. 'Here.' She hands him a bottle of water, a hand towel, a roll of toilet paper; and, when he looks at her questioningly: 'No one will see you.' 'I have changed my mind,' he says. 'We will go back to the Centre. There must be a public room where we can spend the night.' 'You can't do that. The gates at the Centre are closed. They close at six.' Exasperated, he strides over to the stack of roofing, drags out two sheets, and leans them at an angle against the wooden fence. He does the same with third and fourth sheets, making a rude lean-to. 'Is that what you have in mind for us?' he says, turning to her. But she is gone. 'This is where we are going to sleep tonight,' he tells the boy. 'It will be an adventure.' 'I'm hungry,' says the boy. 'You haven't eaten your bread.' 'I don't like bread.' 'Well, you will have to get used to it, because that is all there is. Tomorrow we will find something better.' Mistrustfully the boy picks up a slice of bread and nibbles at it. His fingernails, he notices, are black with dirt. As the last daylight wanes, they settle down in their shelter, he on a bed of weeds, the boy in the crook of his arm. Soon the boy is asleep, his thumb in his mouth. In his own case sleep is slow in coming. He has no coat; in a while the cold begins to seep up into his body; he begins to shiver. It is not serious, it is only cold, it will not kill you, he says to himself. The night will pass, the sun will rise, the day will come. Only let there not be crawling insects. Crawling insects will be too much. He is asleep. In the early hours he wakes up, stiff, aching with cold. Anger wells up in him. Why this pointless misery? He crawls out of the shelter, gropes his way to the back door, and knocks, first discreetly, then more and more loudly. A window opens above; by moonlight he can faintly make out the girl's face. 'Yes?' she says. 'Is something wrong?' 'Everything is wrong,' he says. 'It is cold out here. Will you please let us into the house.' There is a long pause. Then: 'Wait,' she says. He waits. Then: 'Here,' says her voice. An object falls at his feet: a blanket, none too large, folded in four, made of some rough material, smelling of camphor. 'Why do you treat us like this?' he calls out. 'Like dirt?' The window thuds to. He crawls back into the shelter, wraps the blanket around himself and the sleeping child. He is woken by a clamour of birdsong. The boy, still sound asleep, lies turned away from him, his cap under his cheek. His own clothes are damp with dew. He dozes away again. When next he opens his eyes the girl is gazing down on him. 'Good morning,' she says. 'I have brought you some breakfast. I have to leave soon. When you are ready I will let you out.' 'Let us out?' 'Let you out through the house. Please be quick. Don't forget to bring the blanket and the towel.' He wakes the child. 'Come,' he says, 'time to get up. Time for breakfast.' They pee side by side in a corner of the yard. Breakfast turns out to be more bread and water. The child disdains it; he himself is not hungry. He leaves the tray untouched on the step. 'We are ready to go,' he calls out. The girl leads them through the house into the empty street. 'Goodbye,' she says. 'You can come back tonight if you need to.' 'What about the room you promised at the Centre?' 'If the key can't be found, or the room has been taken in the mean­time, you can sleep here again. Goodbye.' 'Just a minute. Can you help us with some money?' Thus far he has not had to beg, but he does not know where else to turn. 'I said I would help you, I didn't say I would provide you with money. For that you will have to go to the offices of the Asistencia Social. You can catch a bus in to the city. Be sure to take your pass­book along, and your proof of residence. Then you can draw your relocation allowance. Alternatively you can find a job and ask for an advance. I won't be at the Centre this morning, I have meetings, but if you go there and tell them you are looking for a job and want un vale, they will know what you mean. Un vale. Now I really must run.' The track he and the boy follow across the empty parklands turns out to be the wrong one; by the time they reach the Centre the sun is already high in the sky. Behind the Trabajos counter is a woman of middle age, stern-faced, her hair drawn back over her ears and tied tightly behind. 'Good morning,' he says. 'We checked in yesterday. We are new arrivals, and I am looking for work. I understand you can give me un vale.' 'Vale de trabajo,' says the woman. 'Show me your passbook.' He gives her his passbook. She inspects it, returns it. 'I will write you a vale, but as for the line of work you do, that is up to you to decide on.' 'Have you any suggestions for where I should begin? This is foreign territory to me.' 'Try the docks,' says the woman. 'They are usually on the lookout for workers. Catch the Number 29 bus. It leaves from outside the main gate every half-hour.' 'I don't have money for buses. I don't have money at all.' 'The bus is free. All buses are free.' 'And a place to stay? May I raise the question of a place to stay? The young lady who was on duty yesterday, Ana she is called, reserved a room for us, but we haven't been able to gain access.' 'There are no rooms free.' 'There was a room free yesterday, room C-55, but the key was mislaid. The key was in the care of señora Weiss.' 'I know nothing about that. Come back this afternoon.' 'Can't I speak to señora Weiss?' 'There is a meeting of senior staff this morning. Señora Weiss is at the meeting. She will be back in the afternoon.'

Excerpted from The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee
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