Martín Kohan teaches literary theory at the universities of Buenos Aires and Patagonia. His latest novel, Seconds Out, is forthcoming from Serpent's Tail.

The clear, soft voice of the lost


"What happened, kid? Did they kick you out?"

The cop was watching over the wing. He was obviously bored because, basically, he didn't have much to do that morning. He sat on a wooden stool, looking down the straight corridor all the doors gave onto. He had to make sure nothing happened, and nothing was happening.

"No, they didn't kick me out. They asked me to wait here."

The guy nodded. He scratched his ear a bit, or just behind his ear. He asked me if I had much of my colimba, my military service, left to go. I said I had a little over half left. He asked if they were treating me well. I said they were. He asked if I knew that the word colimba stemmed from the orders run, clean up and sweep out: corre, limpia, barre. Though I don't usually lie, I said no, I didn't know that. "Well," he said, "now you know." I didn't say anything and he said: "You learn something new every day."


At the end of the corridor there was a tall, narrow window. It had two bars across it. The glass in the window had been smashed. A sharp wind blew in through the hole, even worse, and more hostile, than the freezing air that hung in the yard outside.


The cop was annoyed by the remains of something in his mouth, stuck between his teeth. He busied himself trying to remove it but his fingers were too big, too rough. "What the fuck," he muttered. Someone called him from downstairs. They didn't say his name, they used a nickname, and he raised his head immediately. He replied loudly, "What's up?" The place had strange acoustics, which meant there was no need to shout, but he shouted. "Come down here a minute," they answered.

The cop stood up. "Keep an eye on these pieces of shit," he said to me. Then he laughed, so I'd understand he was taking the piss. "Stay right here." The ceiling was low, the walls close together, making him look even more burly. He walked away slowly, taking the little wooden stool with him.


I hadn't noticed the floor was made of cement: it was rough and jagged and so cold it would have been like sitting on a block of ice.


Bored, I walked down to the end of the corridor. I peered out through the broken window. I wanted to know what you could see from there. I looked: you couldn't see anything. A crumbling wall covered in moss. Along the bottom, two coats of white paint managed to cover up some old slogan written in blue.


I hadn't noticed there was a space between the concrete floor and the bottom of each door. It hadn't caught my attention before.


Having been up all night I felt a sort of lethargy: my eyes were stinging and a general tiredness seemed to concentrate in my knees. I needed to sit down and rest for a while because my legs were aching. And when I sat down I needed to lean against something, because my back started to ache as well. I sat down without looking where I was sitting, and I leant back without looking where I was leaning.


It retains the cold in winter and the heat in summer: one of cement's less appreciated qualities. Places with walls and floors of fully exposed cement can't avoid giving the impression of being harsh and inhospitable.


You never feel alone in a cemetery, even though you are. And here it was the opposite: surrounded by silence and the early light of the new morning, I felt alone. I was not alone, but I felt alone, thought I was alone and succumbed a little to being alone. That's why I was so startled when those fingers stretched out from below to touch me.


Dr Mesiano was on another floor, somewhere downstairs, talking to Dr Padilla about medical matters. From time to time specialists become animated by issues to do with their profession, but even so he told me he shouldn't be much longer.


She spoke very softly. She couldn't speak any louder, or didn't want to, so as not to attract attention. But I heard her perfectly, like when someone speaks into your ear and you can hear with perfect clarity, even though they barely whisper each word.

It was the voice of a woman. She said to me: "You're not one of them. You have to help me."

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Jethro Soutar and Anne McLean.



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