May 2011

I’ve known the man for a while, although I couldn’t say with any certainty where I first met him, or even tell you his name. I have to admit that most of the time, certainly up until recently, I tried to avoid him. In my defense I should say that he’s almost stone deaf, consequently shouts a lot, and has moments that can only be described as lunatic. For instance, there was the time he collared me in a café and started on about Rafael Correa, the president, his favourite subject, the man he loves to hate.

“He’s sold the entire Amazon to the Church,” he tells me, shouting in my ear. “I want to denounce it, it’s a disgrace, someone’s got to do something about it.” “I hadn’t heard about it,” I tell him. “Where did you read that?” “It’s in the papers,” he says. “We have to do something about it. I want you to help me.” I look at him with a mixture of amusement and terror, trying hard to keep both under control. “I’d like to check it out before I do anything,” I say. “Tell me where you got the information, and I’ll do a little research to make sure I’ve got my facts right.” He snorts, dismisses me with an imperious wave of the hand, and marches off.

I should add that the conversation was not totally happenstance. The man knows that I was once part of a now disappeared local newspaper that achieved a certain level of standing amongst a sector of the left wing, unemployed, coffee drinking and café haunting population, and that has now assumed an almost mythical status, at least amongst those of us who once worked there. So his asking for help wasn’t totally out of line. Of course, the newspaper no longer exists, and after the debacle of the international media centre in the Ministry of Political Coordination, which I won’t go into, no-one takes much notice of me anymore.

The point is that the man seems to find me whenever I‘m in the vicinity. He seems to have a radar screen with my name written on it, in very large letters, and over the last year or two exchanges have consequently become relatively frequent. Most recently he’s been after me about one of my partners in the newspaper, the editor, who is now a high up in the Foreign Office and is relatively well known amongst the previously mentioned set. Somehow the man had got wind of his new post and wants to talk to him. As usual he’s desperate, and shouting in my ear. “I know them all” he says, citing a few names. “I know them all, we go back a long way. So what about this friend of yours? Do you see him often?” “Only from time to time”, I answer, “but less so these days”. “Well”, he barks, “do you know where he lives?” “Not really, somewhere in the valley”, I respond vaguely, although it’s true that I now don’t know where he lives, and that saves me from lying. “Maybe you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No, I haven’t been there, he moved just recently.” “Then what about the telephone?” “No, I don’t have his number”. This time I’m forced to lie. “It must be in the book” says the man. “I suppose so.” “Then what we need is his address. Do you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No”. Now he seems to lose interest, and wanders off to sit by himself.

The next time I bump into him, the routine is the same: “See him often?” “No”. “Address?” “No”. “Know the house?” “No”, and so on and so forth. But this time it occurs to me to ask him why he wants to talk to my ex colleague. “I know them all” he says, “I know them all, and I’ve been thinking that I could do with a job. It’s not that I want to be an ambassador, that’s probably out of reach, but something in an embassy, that would be fine. I want to talk to your friend, I know him well”. “Then why don’t you go to the Foreign Office”, I tell him, “after all it’s just up the street. This time he really surprises me. “I’ve already been”, he says, “but they wouldn’t let me in”. “Perhaps you need an appointment”. “They wouldn’t give me one”, he says, “they told me he was very busy”.

A day later I see him on the street, he looks like he’s in a hurry. I wonder whether I should say hello. Finally I decide that, why not, he’s amusing, even if he is a bit crazy. “Do you know how to use a computer?” he asks. “No problem” I tell him. “Then help me to find this address in Chile”. “Fine” I say, “let’s go to the nearest internet place, and see what we can do”. It’s more complicated than I imagine. We find the directories for Chile, but for some reason the Santiago section doesn’t work, and he gets angry, at the machine, at me, and as he leaves, at the owner who wants to charge him for the time we’ve been using the computer. He refuses to pay and storms off.

I last saw him a week or so ago, sitting in the café drinking his coffee. He signals me to come over and sit down. “Read this,” he says “I’m claiming compensation, but they’ve told me that I have to write it all over again, that I didn’t do it properly”. I begin to read. It’s the story of how as an Ecuadorian student in Chile he got caught up in the aftermath of the Pinochet/CIA coup in 1973. He and some others were able to take refuge in a church, but for some unfathomable reason left and were immediately arrested. My friend was driven to a basement somewhere, where they questioned and beat him for a number of days. One of the others was shot. The rest were then taken by boat to an island, where he was thrown onto the beach with his hands tied behind his back. He was beaten again for a number of days, but somehow, with the help of the United Nations, was eventually released.

“I lost seventy percent of my hearing when I hit my head on the hard sand”, he says, “but at least I didn’t die”.