First love

Mario Vargas Llosa is currently writing a novel about Irish patriot Roger Casement and the Congo. This excerpt is from the play Al Pie del Támesis (On the Banks of the Thames), which has been performed in Italy, Venezuela and Peru.

The frog who punched the princess awake

Chispas Why don't we be a little less formal? Please, just call me Chispas. I mean we must be about the same age. Sorry, of course I know that one mustn't speak of age with ladies. And why wouldn't Pirulo want me to know he had a sister? That's strange.

Raquel My brother had all sorts of quirks. You know that better than anyone... Pirulo always says that he never again had a friend like you.

Chispas (As if speaking to himself) Neither have I... Does he really say that? And if that's the case why did he disappear like that, without as much as a goodbye? Couldn't he have at least sent me a couple of lines letting me know he was going? I couldn't believe that my best friend, who I saw all the time, who I'd talk to about everything, would just suddenly vanish. I went to your house, and Don Antonio and Doña Alicia would give me silly pretexts: "He had to travel for his studies", "He won a scholarship", "He'll write to you any day now". All lies, of course. Why couldn't they tell me the truth? Had something happened to him? Why all the mystery? What were they hiding from me?

Raquel My poor parents were as confused as you, Chispas. They invented those stories because they had no idea what had happened. Pirulo's departure left them cold too, as distraught as you. And I doubt they ever recovered.

Chispas And where did he go? And why like that? You won't believe it, but Pirulo's disappearance felt like a tragedy to me. It left me empty. Orphaned. That's how it felt. It meant the end of adolescence. At that moment I began to be an adult... I thought I'd never hear from him again. When you called me this morning and said: "Raquel Saavedra here, sister of your boyhood friend Pirulo," you left me speechless. My reaction must have seemed strange, I guess. I didn't say anything because words wouldn't come out.

Raquel There was silence for so long I thought you'd hung up. When you finally muttered, Pirulo? Pirulo Saavedra? You were obviously moved.

Chispas How couldn't I be! After thirty-five years. What did you expect? Pirulo Saavedra! A ghost, suddenly here. To be honest, I thought he was probably dead. What did I know?

Raquel Being separated from his great boyhood buddy was tough on him too. "I never again had a friend like Chispas Bellatin." I've heard him say it a thousand times.

Chispas Well whose fault was it, if not his? It wasn't me who disappeared overnight. It was him. Why did he do it?

Raquel (Scrutinizing him, she lowers her voice) He was very upset with you, Chispas.

Chispas Upset with me? Why on earth would he be upset with me? Are you trying to say I did something to him? We were like a duo. Inseparable.

Raquel Come on, Chispas. You can't have forgotten. He was upset about the punch you landed him. You split open his lip. You filled his mouth with blood. You can't have forgotten?

Chispas (He can't hide his extreme discomfort) A punch? I never once hit Pirulo. He told you that? He made that up? Absolutely false, I assure you.

Raquel In the gym at the Terrazas club. After spending the morning exercising. Lifting weights. Come on, you can't have forgotten, Chispas.

Chispas (Even more uncomfortable) He lied. That's slander. Pirulo and I never fought. I have no idea why he'd invent this ridiculous story of a fistfight.

Raquel (Very calm and sure of herself) You hit him, Chispas. On the mouth. A boxer's punch. You were strong. You split his lip open. He saw stars, he was about to faint. And you filled his mouth with blood. He never forgot it. That memory has stayed with him his whole life, like a shadow.

Chispas Can you tell me how you know all these details?

Raquel My brother told me. He tells me everything. He's always been tormented by that blow. Even now that he's old. Not because you split his lip open, but because he never imagined that the person he most loved would react so brutally to such a silly thing.

Chispas (Furious, standing up, concentrating on the memory) It wasn't a silly thing! Evidently your brother didn't tell you everything. He didn't tell you what he tried to do, out of the blue, while we were showering. Kiss me on the mouth, that's all! So he didn't tell you the little queer details? Isn't that right, Raquel? That's why I smashed his face. It was a natural reaction. Any man in my situation would have done the same. Isn't that right? Pirulo didn't tell you that part.

Raquel Of course he told me... And he also told me that he immediately regretted it and apologized to you. "I'm so sorry, Chispas. I swear I didn't mean to upset you. Let's make up, brother. I don't know what came over me, Chispas."

Chispas (Reliving the scene, stroking his mouth) "I know very well what happened to you, Pirulo, you little queer. But tread very gently, this queer crap doesn't work with me, I warn you. The next time you try something like that, I'm not only going to crack open your head, I'm going to rip the damn thing off. Now you've been warned, you little shit."

Raquel "I swear on my mother's grave that it won't ever happen again, Chispas. Let's shake on it. Come on, let's forget what just happened, brother." But you didn't want to shake his hand. You left the Terrazas furious, giving Pirulo the finger, while you spat on him. As if he were beneath contempt, your worst enemy.

Chispas I don't remember those details any more. He also told you all that? If he told you so many specifics he would have also told you that the same afternoon I went to look for him at his house in Ocharán Street. And that I left him a note apologizing for the whole thing: "I've already forgotten about what happened, Pirulo. Let's be friends again, just like before, understanding of course that it won't happen again." But he never wanted to see me again. And he disappeared in that absurd way. How can you be so hyper-sensitive, so bitter, over a simple punch?

Raquel (Touching her face) It was quite a hit, Chispas.

Chispas (With a forced laugh) Well, maybe I got a bit carried away. I was strong, it's true. I used to lift weights. I've never again gotten back into exercise. Now all I do is business. And my poor body's shot. (He pauses, scrutinizing Raquel) So he told you all these intimate details. (Ogling her, almost sniffing her, with real impertinence) You don't look like him at all, Raquelita. Well, how silly. Thirty-five years later we're all ghosts of who we used to be, no? Pirulo must have changed a lot. Has he gone grey? Or maybe bald? Or grown a beard? No doubt I wouldn't recognize him.

Raquel I, on the other hand, recognized you straight away. You haven't changed at all, Chispas, I swear. The same tone of voice, still so confident, the same gestures of someone who's sure of who he is, and what he wants in life. Even though you're a little chubbier, you carry your fifty-one years with dignity. You're still a handsome man, Chispas.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Romy Sutherland.

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