Amigas, by Elena Bossi and Penelope Todd

Amigas, by Elena Bossi and Penelope Todd (Fiction & Literature)

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A collaborative novel in English and in Spanish, written in New Zealand and Argentina. 2009: in Argentina, a woman prepares to travel to Italy for a funeral. In New Zealand, two friends discuss art, loss, and how to accept life as it plays out. 1969: a girl from New Zealand and another from Argentina are stranded in the airport in Rome. A friendship is forged and they exchange letters for a decade, until events take a sinister turn during Argentina's 'dirty war'. 2009: again in the airport in Rome, cancelled flights throw together two women whose lives have intersected in unexpected ways. The hidden threads of these friendships are drawn deftly together in one story. Amigas is a story of female friendships, how they are forged, how they endure across time and geography, how they stimulate and sustain.

From: Amigas, by Elena Bossi and Penelope Todd

Amigas can be read in various ways, by starting with Jude and Claudia meeting in Rome in 1969, or beginning in current time, as we have done, with 'Albatross' in the English version, or 'Out there talking to no one' in the Spanish. Below is an excerpt from the start of each chapter.

Albatross

‘Mum, what are these?’

She startled me; I’d forgotten Kimber had stayed the night, and for a moment my pen halted over the list as my mind raced – but she was twenty-four now. She’d not be clutching tampons, or framing a diaphragm box between small hands as if it might contain chocolates. I pushed my chair away from the desk.

‘Letters,’ she said. ‘Are they love letters?’ Kimber, still in her pyjamas, held out an open green shoebox containing three bundles, each tied with the regulation navy ribbon of my high school.

‘I suppose they are, in a way. In fact, I think these …’ I lifted out the slimmest package, ‘Ha, yes, look, I even labelled them: Letters from Boys. I don’t know if they’re fit for your eyes. And these are from various friends.’

I took the third package and held it to my heart, which thudded beneath it. I told Kimber she could look at the Letters from Boys. I needed her to be absorbed while I took Claudia’s letters out to the sunny front porch and dropped with them onto the step. For a while I simply sat there, cradling the bundle, acknowledging the amalgam of sweet and bitter, of humour, courage and pain, that was written into them, and that they evoked in me. I worked the ribbon loose.

After a decent interval (whatever she had found in Letters from Boys, I knew they bore only a fragment of the emotional stuff contained within the scoop of my skirt) Kimber brought coffee out and sat with her long thigh pressed to my shorter one. Seeing my state, she went back inside.

‘Tissues.’ She put the box at my feet. ‘It’s strange. I won’t have letters to look back on. Unless I save emails, or print them off. Who are these ones from?’

She slid a postcard from the pile, with a photo of a colossal waterfall. ‘Your birthday … ‘A hug, Clamdie?’’

‘Claudia.’ I looked at Kimber’s clear forehead, the immaculate line of eyebrow over lucent eye. ‘Did I never tell you about her?’

Hey Jude

Crossing Rome, our uncle drove us from sunlight into a fog that thickened as we approached the airport.

‘It’ll be gone by lunchtime – always is,’ he told us. He was a man of few words.

He let Tim and me out at the drop-off zone in front. We’d said our goodbyes and thanks in the car; he’d pressed on us each a hundred-American-dollar note: ‘For your savings account,’ and now he said through the open window, ‘See you down under next Christmas. Look after each other.’

Tim had dragged the packs from the boot onto the footpath. He hoisted his and without preamble told me to go ahead without him. ‘Go straight to Air Italia and check in.’

‘What? Where are you going?’

‘Why? Did you forget something?’

‘Jude, please?’ He was staring at me the way he did when he wanted me to know something without him saying it. (How much of childhood and youth is spent pleading? Please please please let me have it my way.) ‘Tell Mum I’ll ring as soon as you’re home.’ He wore the taut and grim face of someone making a principle ride over common sense.

‘Is it that girl?’

‘Look, I just can’t fly this week.’

Uncle Philip’s car was pulling away into the departing traffic and the fog. I grabbed Tim’s arm because he was moving away, too. ‘I can’t go without you.’

‘You can, Jude. You’re okay, it’s just me.’

‘What, Jupiter up Uranus? You can’t be serious.’

He grimaced as if in pain. ‘After check-in, find the gate you need and start queuing. If you get stuck, ask.’ He yanked his sleeve from my grip. ‘Tell Mum I’ll phone.’

When Lennon arrived back at Woodhead’s flat there were still soldiers everywhere, asleep now. He walked through the house, through room after room of sleeping soldiers until he found the room where it had happened. It was still empty. He closed the door behind him. The first of the dawn broke through the Venetian blinds as he lay on the bed. He balanced on the edge of sleep and felt the weight of everything above him – gravity pushing it down on him. That faggot was bound to come back and when he did Lennon would kill him. Something wrong until now slipped and was almost right. Everything rose in him as he remembered. In his mind he heard Deering breathe – in and out. He breathed in what was left of it. He thought about the fish and the note and how much he’d meant it when he wrote it. From the bottom of his heart he’d meant it and for what he imagined was forever.

‘Wait, wait,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a logic check. If I’m okay to fly, then you’ll be okay in my plane, won’t you?’

For a moment he looked as if he might relent. He stepped into the zone of the automatic doors and I leaped after him, dragging my pack, then he nipped back out, leaving me inside. The doors hissed shut between us. I can still see his palm held up, tense and pale, saying no as he strode away.

Unbelievable. I smacked the door, which was slow to reopen. I shouted, ‘I’m only fourteen, you moron!’ but he was gone, claimed already by the fog. There was a kind of white rushing noise in my head. I thought I might faint. Then I thought of my mother waiting for me in Singapore. Like a swimmer making for the far end of the pool, I must simply push out and work my way towards her. I would cut Tim off and leave him in my wake.

There had been similar incidents in the past: slighter, but bracing enough in their way. I was entering the airport in Rome, to catch a flight. Full stop.

Dear Claudia

Postcard from Auckland, New Zealand

Mon amiga Claudia, I can’t wait till I’m home to write and say I miss you already and how unfair that we can’t set off round the world together NOW. Very soon Mum and I catch our last flight home to Christchurch. Things went like clockwork after Rome. Mum met me in Singapore and we visited the zoo (two sweet monkeys up a tree, clinging together – Claudia and Jude stuck in an airport) and ate strange food (chicken livers floating in red sauce, red beans floating in pink sauce, pink sugar clinging to a red apple). Oh, and Tim sent a telegram so Mum was okay. Running out of space, love you, girl, write soon, xxx Jude. P.S. Will you teach me to tango?

 

Catamarca, April 3 1969

Dear Jude,

When I arrived in Ezeiza (airport in Buenos Aires), Mom, Dad, my grandmother and Guillermo were waiting for me: they made me feel – at least for an instant – like a movie star or famous singer with her fans screaming and clutching for the air, trying to catch her attention. My family is scandalous.

Guillermo hugged me very tightly to give no doubt that he missed me. He looked at me with sheep eyes, full of love, hoping for a sign that I still love him.

My parents had been worried to hear about the fog in Rome. They didn’t know whether the airline would keep us in a hotel or if we would stay at the airport overnight, as we actually ended up doing. My old man, because he’s a lawyer and he can’t stay quiet, wants to sue them. He doesn’t care that I had a good time and that you and I became friends thanks to those 24 hours.

That first night back we stayed at my aunt and uncle’s in Ramos Mejía and left for the north next day. My aunt had cooked all my favourite things (nothing floating in pink sauce) and for dessert, dulce de leche crepes (you must try them sometime). It was like being eight years old again.

 

What happened in Rome was brilliant! I haven’t stopped talking about it. It’s as if those hours we spent together were more valuable than the whole two months – but I didn’t tell them about that creep in the phone booth; I was embarrassed, and besides, it just gives my father another thing to sue about. I can’t believe that we have struck a friendship, and we’ll be united from now on even living so far apart. I can’t wait until we’ll both be famous writers and meet at international fairs! When you are talking at some conference I’ll wink and remind you of being locked in the restroom. You’ll have a laughing attack so you can’t go on.

I told all my friends at school about you so of course they want to meet you. We should talk to our parents soon so that you can visit with us. We can meet you in Buenos Aires and then come to the north together. That way you can see some of our capital city before we come home. Guys will go crazy about you here; they will all fall in love the minute they see you.

I still can’t believe what your brother did. I talked to a friend of my mom’s who does astrology and birth charts. I gave her the dates and hour of birth that you told me. She says that Tim was wrong and it wasn’t dangerous for him to take an airplane that week. Jupiter and Uranus were not in a bad position for him.

I had forgotten the colours of Catamarca. From midday the light is blinding and all the siesta hour so strong that the sun seizes everything, even though it’s autumn, and the air smells dusty and close until the evening. For the first few days my clothes and suitcase seemed to have that Italy smell. My dog sniffed everything in my room. But now I think I smell like from here again, more like summer and grassland.

It’s so good to have maté again and drink café con leche at home! I also missed our asado. You hardly notice what you miss about home until you come back. Spaces seem bigger or smaller than you remember. It’s like waking from a deep dream when you have to slowly adjust to the shapes of reality.

I just saw a new TV series called The Man Who Came Back from Death. Very scary. I’ll tell you about it the next time.
Ok, Jude, it’s late already, and I must get up early for school (blech) tomorrow. I’ll send this letter on my way. Answer me soon, please.

A strong hug,

Claudia

PS: No, I could not teach you how to dance tango. I have no idea; tango is for old people.
PPS: Is my English ok? My father bought me a new English-Spanish dictionary and grammar when he heard I will be writing to you so much.

Out there talking to no one

With a tightening throat, I circle my room, checking the closet, opening drawers, folding and unfolding clothes, unable to focus on the suitcase I’m trying to pack. I’m simply travelling, I tell myself again, to a funeral, and the word ‘funeral’ dries my mouth. It numbs my hands and makes me clumsy. ‘Pull yourself together, Adriana,’ I tell myself.’ I’ll be home again soon enough.

My father’s younger brother has died in Italy and my father would have wanted me to attend. I discussed it with my husband and he understood, but he can’t come with me. Neither can my daughters who are studying for their exams. I must travel alone. It’s the first time, and I’m scared, but I’ll do it. It’ll also be a way of saying goodbye to my father. Once I’m there, in Italy, my cousins and aunt will pick me up at the Milan airport so I’ll be well looked after.

I’m anxious about changing planes in Rome on the way there and back. Raúl or the girls always take care of the tickets when we’re in transit. My husband was uneasy about my going away, but he didn’t argue and he made my booking. These are exceptional circumstances. My dad always loved Raúl very much. My mom, I’m not sure. She never says much about him.

Raúl will come with me to Buenos Aires tomorrow, and will take me to Ezeiza Airport the following day.

I remember that when Mom called me from Córdoba to tell me that Dad had to be operated on – ‘a hernia’ – we were already living here, in Catamarca. I never found out if she invented the lie so that Dad wouldn’t realise how serious his condition was, so that I wouldn’t get scared, or because she herself couldn’t believe what was happening. Ernesto, Dad’s physician, who is a friend of Raúl’s, told my husband the truth, and Raúl told me. My dad had to have an operation but, regardless, he had only two years left. I knew that was another lie: when doctors tell you two years, you must read months, possibly less. I was at the hospital during the whole post-surgery, and I went home from Córdoba to Catamarca the day before he was released. He died the night I left, and my family buried him the following day.

We’re never present when somebody we love dies. I don’t know why. I have heard a hundred similar stories. Our parents die alone … we die alone. Our lives should inure us to loneliness, but we still have the fantasy that we’re not alone, and we want to be there when someone else dies, at least at the moment of death.

The day before he died, when I was saying goodbye to my father, believing he would soon be released, he beckoned me over to the bedside. He didn’t want anyone else to hear what he whispered in my ear. Those words are imprinted on me like a tattoo – the last words he spoke to me.

Adriana cannot imagine what she should do now. In the seethe of stranded passengers she finds a lone plastic chair adrift. She falls upon it, drawing her suitcase near, one hand in the handle, with the other arm hugging her leather handbag on her lap. She looks down at the bag’s gold clasp. She conjures the solid shape of Raúl lying beside her in the dark, and the story she recently told him.

Refuge

Adriana cannot imagine what she should do now. In the seethe of stranded passengers she finds a lone plastic chair adrift. She falls upon it, drawing her suitcase near, one hand in the handle, with the other arm hugging her leather handbag on her lap. She looks down at the bag’s gold clasp. She conjures the solid shape of Raúl lying beside her in the dark, and the story she recently told him.

A woman drives along the road, alone, at night. Possibly she is listening to music while thoughts pass at random through her mind with the same speed as the passing countryside. A knock on the windscreen startles her: a drop of rain; another and another: slow, enormous drops announcing what is to come. For a few moments there are none and the woman holds her breath, begging that the respite last a little longer; but she can sense that the enveloping darkness is dense with water. Then there is nothing but the torrent released onto her car. Only a pair of tail lights is visible up ahead. She considers quickly what to do. She daren’t brake or pull over. In her blindness, direction and space are lost; the only thing to do is to keep following the red lights until the rain stops and she can see the road again, or some other point of reference. Her teeth are clenched, and her hands on the wheel.

Another woman climbs from the cab outside the airport and rolls her small suitcase along the path to the glass doors where her brother abandoned her alone forty years earlier. The suitcase is lighter than when she arrived in the country, but only by a little.

Judith enters the airport lobby and can’t help casting about in order to reconstruct the old scene. She wonders wryly how Jupiter and Uranus are aligned for this last part of her journey. She looks around for the Qantas check-in, but there is something in the air of obstruction. On the departure screen directly ahead, names are blinking and altering in their yellow column:
CANCELLATO
CANCELLATO
CANCELLATO
The déjà vu shakes her.
CANCELLATO
CANCELLATO
CANCELLATO

Passengers gather to stare at the replicated word, bumping into one another like balls released across the sordid billiard table of the lobby, stupid under the pitiless airport lighting. Judith seeks out an approachable face. She’s been away from home for two months, on her own since the conference with Luke, trying at intervals to recapture the memory and pertinence of Claudia. She hasn’t had much success but now, on the day of her departure, things are conspiring to create this air of verisimilitude and melodrama.

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